Comma Chameleon

King and/or possibly Queen George

A little while back, a melee broke out in the Indies Unlimited commissary about the differences between British and American styles of punctuation. Commas were being flung about like shoddy garments on a ladies sales rack. Someone almost lost an eye.

This conflict is nothing new. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the American colonists sent a letter to the British government. The King “corrected” the placement of commas in the document and returned the marked-up version to the colonies. Later that night, a group of patriots dressed as librarians dumped a shipment of commas into the Boston Harbor.

This action touched off what was known as the Revolutionary War. But must we dwell on the past? Besides, the difference between British and American styles of punctuation is really quite minimal. It’s not as if one of us is using that upside-down question mark, or that thing that looks like the chemical symbol for Adamantium.

The difficulties predominately lie in the treatment of punctuation in company with quotation marks. The British and American styles of punctuation differ in the treatment of periods and commas. Both have the same rules regarding question marks, exclamation points, colons and semicolons.

In the British style, the writer is to include within quotation marks only those punctuation marks that appeared in the quoted material. Otherwise,ย  punctuation is properly placed outside the closing quotation marks. This is referred to by its proponents as Logical Placement.

The Chicago Manual of Style and most other American style guides indicate commas and periods are (almost) always placed within closing quotation marks. It is said this is done for typographical and aesthetic reasons. This is referred to by its proponents as The Right Way.

The American and the British styles also differ in the application of quotation marks. In the American style, double quotation marks enclose quotations, and single quotation marks enclose quotations within quotations. The British style is reversedโ€”single quotation marks to enclose quotations, and double quotation marks to enclose a quotation within another quotation.

It doesn’t get any clearer than that (apparently).

It is perfectly acceptable to use either the British or American styles of punctuation. The key is to be consistent throughout the manuscript with whichever you choose. On Indies Unlimited, you will see both styles applied as we have staff writers and guest posters from all over the world. It is not about which is correct. Both are correct.

Frankly, I’d be happy to be proficient in either style. I tend to take a fistful of commas and just throw them at the page. What’s your style?

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

45 thoughts on “Comma Chameleon”

  1. When I throw those pesky little devils at the screen, they simply refuse to STICK!

    Here's an issue I get dings for–using the close quote at the end of the paragraph when the same speaker is in the next paragraph. Let's just pretend these are too paragraphs that require the break between (where are examples of these issues when you need them?).

    "John said he love that darned dog!" Sally told the group.

    "Do you think he'll ever admit to his feelings about cats?"

    I was taught that you closed the quote UNLESS you are quoting a written work, in which case you don't close the quotation mark until the last word of the quote even if it's 10 paragraphs later.

    This did not apply to dialog.

    What do the rest of you think?

    1. I speak in commas.

      I personally like the quotation marks at the end of each paragraph. Should dialogue go on and on? I want it to be snappy, interesting, and hopefully, get to the point quickly.

      Great post, Sir Hise.

    2. Linda, your example isn't getting at what you think you're getting at, lol.

      A better example would be:

      Then Sally told the group, "John said he loved that darn dog!

      "Do you think he'll ever admit to his feelings about cats?"

      The difference being that if the quote (without intervening unquoted words) continues from one paragraph to the next, you do *not* use quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph. Your example put "Sally told the group" between the quotes in each paragraph, so actually you punctuated it correctly.

      Hope that helps. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Well, I don't find that method used in the books I buy (Roberts/Robb, Jackson, Cornwell, Hoag, Brown, etc.). Is this perhaps a Canadian or British usage? Or, perhaps, used in non-fiction vs. fiction? Anyway, I SHALL continue using a close " at the end of my paragraphs unless I am quoting another written work. Excuse me if I'm just dumber than dirt, but them what don'ts like it, can read elsewhere! LOL

        Great article Grand Poobah!

  2. Oh dear. All this time I thought I was punctuating to British rules and it turns out they're US rules…

    *sobs quietly before sticking head back in sand*

  3. I'm going to start typing all my scripts in French. This is getting too complicated. Next, I'll be expected to drop my 'u's.

    A jolly good post EM.

  4. I didn't see the original debate on this, but I followed the Wiki link above, and I have to say I disagree with it.

    I'm British. I was educated in Great Britain in the 50s and early 60s, and I was taught that full stops and commas, remain INSIDE the quotation marks. I have NEVER seen an example like the one used on the Wikipedia page in any British newspaper, magazine or book.

    The only exception to that rule is where you quote within dialogue and then they are outside the inner quotation marks: e.g "He said, 'you're wrong'."

  5. I think my noggin' just spun right around period

    I'll have to read again later comma but for now comma I thought it was a very helpful post period

    Thanks exclamation mark Mr period Hise smiley emoticon

    1. Oh, no! You're not allowed to spin your head around–that's reserved for the Linda Blairs of the world. Please try to control yourself.

      (tee hee)

      Anybody for some pea soup?

  6. sheesh! I've been using the British style for commas and the American style for quotation marks, and I'm too old and set in my ways to change it now. Besides, that's how I was taught, using the MLA style book and White's "Elements of Style".

    At least you will never hear me say, "quote, unquote". There is no such thing as an "unquote". It's a lazy pronunciation of "end quote", which comes after the "end" of the "quote".


    1. That's the way I do it, too, Tessa. So it was either Elements of Style that taught me that, or my Canadian-ness. Also, I'm not even consistent in it, I've realised (realized?) lately.

  7. I too have been using British-style commas and the American-style quotes for as long as I can remember. And I'm an American. So *some* textbook *some*where must have pounded it into my head when I was very young. Somebody's going to pay….

    I had noticed that the Brits reverse their quotes. But I'd never been taken to task for the comma thing until just a few months ago, when someone I've known for a couple of decades blew up on Facebook about Americans who don't do it The Right Way.

  8. To me it is each to their own, If you are American then really if you use American styled commas and whatnot then I will not hold it against anyone. Should be no Right and Wrong as long as the sentence is structured well.

  9. This whole problem may well be what brought traditional publishing to its knees. Just imagine the interminable staff meetings… "So guys, on the agenda again this month is punctuation inside the quotes or out?" Think of the dramatic staff turnover… "Outside the quotes? Are you losin' your freakin' mind? I'm outta here!" So much lost productivity as they find their house style and then adapt every single manuscript to follow it. Man, there has to be a better way.

    Oh wait! There is! And UI is leading the way!

  10. I'm with David Robinson on this; I too was educated in the UK around the same time, and like David, Yvonne and David Antrobus it would seem I have a mixture of British and American punctuation; however, I definitely use UK spelling. Like measurements and weights, and Blackpool Rock, it’s difficult to change what’s been indoctrinated.

    There appears to be a mixture in Australia of both the American and British punctuation and spelling styles, but leaning towards the American way. New Zealand is the same but leans the other way.

    This seems to beg the question: in this, so called, ‘Global Village’ should we have a world standard writing style and rules guide? If the answer to that is yes, then who should established it?

    1. And there lies the rub – who indeed? Logic would say simple is best – which leans toward American, but my curmudgeonly heart wants to remain a purist and go with British.

      English is not the only language undergoing this kind of reformation. The dutch, too, are going with more phonetic spelling. And I believe the French are simplifying things as well.

      1. The French are changing their language???? Mon Dieu, 'ave ze elderly statesmen in ze Academie Francaise finally popped zeir clogs and let some young blood take over? Magnifique!

  11. Writing n/f, I thought I was safe from direct quote etiquette.

    Plus, I developed a fondness for single quotation marks

    Stephen, you got me rethinking my approach.

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