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Punctuation styles on different sides of the border

By Samita Sarkar

Some time ago, a client contacted me when her manuscript was sent back for revisions because she didn’t use “American punctuation.” So what does that even mean?

It may seem odd, but depending on the part of the world you reside in, you will not only face pronunciation and spelling differences, but even differences in where you place your commas and periods. According to British conventions, periods should be placed outside of quotation marks. For example:

He told me, “Remember where to place your periods”.

This is different from American punctuation standards, where the conversation might go as follows:

She said, “Remember, you’re in the United States now.”

However, the rules change when exclamation points and question marks are part of the quoted material, in which case the British switch to the American way.

Moreover, the British aren’t fans of serial commas, although Americans prefer it. For instance:

“Angels, demons, and spirits.” (American)

“Ghosts, goblins or gargoyles.” (British)

Although there are a few notable differences in punctuation, when it comes to parentheses, the British and Americans share some common ground. Regardless of which side of the Atlantic you’re on, periods go inside brackets for complete sentences, and outside if the brackets are adding an afterthought to the sentence, as in the following sentences:

The doctor asked me if I’m getting enough vegetables. I mentioned that I love eating carrots (in carrot cake).

I confirmed with her that I enjoy healthy food. (I love eating carrots in carrot cake.)

While it’s nice to think that perhaps us English speakers aren’t so different after all, there are some differences, and the lines can get blurred when you live in Canada. So what are our conventions?

We use British spelling conventions, but when it comes to punctuation it has been instilled in many of us since high school to use the American style. The government of Canada confirms this as standard practice. Even so, not all Canadian publications use American punctuation. For example, the Canadian Press Stylebook, used by many major newspapers and magazines, does not use serial commas.

As an editor, it’s best to check your client’s style guide or ask about their individual preferences. It’s always better to double check than to assume, particularly when taking clients from abroad. Grammar-Monster.com provides a really good quick guide to refresh your memory about the differences between American and British punctuation styles.

Samita Sarkar is the owner of Blossoms Editing Services. She specializes in editing scientific texts and documents.

This article was copy edited by Heather Kohlmann.


1 Comment

  1. […] but “American punctuation”? What does that even mean?!  Check out my latest post for BoldFace to find […]

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