Thursday, June 7, 2012

Please Don't Quote This 'Stuff'

We may have a lot of ideas of our own to write about. These could be interesting to other people too. But it's a rare man (or woman) who doesn't ever need to quote something someone else has said; and sometimes it has to be quoted in their own words too. Enter quotation marks.

My brother said, “I want something to eat.”

She asked, “Where's the bus stop?”

Some people prefer to use double quotation marks first ("---"), and take single quotation marks ('---') for quotations within quotations. Others, especially those following the British convention, do it the other way round.

My colleague said, "The GM wants to have 'fantastic' sales this year."

My colleague said, 'The GM wants to have "fantastic" sales this year.'

Very often other punctuation marks - full stops (periods), question marks, exclamation marks etc - also have to be included in such sentences. With most of these other marks, whether they come inside or outside the quotes depends on pure logic; that is, whether the punctuation mark applies just to the quotation or to the whole sentence.

She asked, “What's the time?”

Did he say, “Go away”?

However, full stops (or periods, as Americans call them) and commas don't follow this logic in American usage; Americans always put them inside the quotation marks. In British English, they also act just like the others and are put where they belong.

My friend says that his new car is ‘really fast’. (BrE)

My friend says that his new car is "really fast." (AmE)

They don't want anybody to ‘act funny’, you see. (BrE)

They don't want anybody to "act funny," you see. (AmE)

The reason why the American tradition places periods and commas this way happens to be the fault of old printing machines. They tended to push periods and commas out of position if placed outside quotes, so the pragmatic Americans just decided to keep these two locked inside.

Despite this trend, even Americans seem to kick them outside if the quotation is just a letter or a number.

The only grade most of them want is an "A".

On a scale of 1 to 10, his presentation has been given a "10".

(Image credit:
Gene Hunt)


  1. This was a problem bothered me sometime ago. Then without knowing, I made a standard of my own to place the periods out of the quotation marks. Seems I'm right regarding the British! :-)

    1. The period doesn't always come outside the quotation marks in BrE. It's placed inside if the quotation itself is a full statement; and outside if the quotation is just a part of a statement.

      Compare the following two sentences:

      My brother said, "I want something to eat."

      My friend says that his new car is "really fast".

  2. I thought the Americans used it like "this", but checked some blogs after reading this post and they actually do it the other way! It doesn't seem natural though.

    1. The old printing machines are to blame.


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