3 Differences Between American and British Punctuation
  • 4-minute read
  • 1st April 2020

3 Differences Between American and British Punctuation

Most people are aware of the spelling and grammar differences between American and British English. But did you know that there are punctuation differences, too? For example, three differences between American and British punctuation that you may want to keep in mind include:

  1. How we use quote marks and punctuation surrounding quote marks.
  2. Use of the serial comma (or Oxford comma, as it is known in the UK).
  3. How we punctuate abbreviated titles like “Mr.” and “Mrs.”

We’ll now look at how these work on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

1. Quote Marks

The biggest difference between American and British punctuation is related to quotations. This covers two distinct issues:

  • Whether to favor “double” or ‘single’ quotation marks.
  • Whether to place punctuation inside or outside of quotation marks.

In American English, we typically use double quote marks for the main quote. We would then use single quote marks for a quote within a quote. But this is the other way around in British English:

American English: Smith (2001, p. 34) writes that that witnesses heard someone shout Duck! loudly before the explosion.

British English: Smith (2001, p. 34) writes that witnesses heard someone shout Duck! loudly before the explosion.

In addition, American punctuation rules require all commas and periods to be given within quote marks. British English, meanwhile, only places punctuation within quote marks if it is part of the original text:

American English: Smith (2001, p.35) also reports that witnesses “suffered headaches,” as well as experiencing “feelings of nausea.

British English: Smith (2001, p.35) also reports that witnesses ‘suffered headaches’, as well as experiencing ‘feelings of nausea’.

Here, for instance, we see that the British English version places the comma and period outside of the quote marks, which tells they were not originally part of the text being quoted.

2. The Serial/Oxford Comma

The serial comma (also known as the “Oxford comma” in the UK) is a comma placed before the last item in a list of three or more things. Most American English style guies recommend using this comma as standard:

I believe in good spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Many British style guides, however, recommend omitting the final comma:

I believe in good spelling, grammar and punctuation.

The exception is that both American and British English use a serial comma to ensure clarity. For example, the following sentence is ambiguous:

I’m going out with my brothers, Tim and Dave.

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Is it a list of three items? Or are my brothers named Tim and Dave? We can clarify this instantly by adding a serial comma before “Dave,” as shown below:

I’m going out with my brothers, Tim, and Dave.

Here, we can easily see that “my brothers,” “Tim,” and “Dave” are all separate people. As a rule, then, we can summarize serial comma usage as follows:

  • In American English, the serial comma is often used in lists as standard.
  • In British English, a serial comma is only required when a list would be unclear without one, such as in the example above.

You will find exceptions to this rule, as some people have strong feelings about the serial comma. However, it remains a good general guideline to follow if you’re unsure when to use one in your own writing.

3. Periods After Titles

Finally, we have the use of periods (or “full stops”) after abbreviated titles.

The difference here is that American English places a period after all titles (e.g., “Dr.” or “Mrs.”), whereas British English does not do this when the full term ends with the same letter as the shortened version (e.g., “Dr” or “Mrs”):

American English: Mr. and Mrs. Douglas walked home.

British English: Mr and Mrs Douglas walked home.

In British English, you only need a period when a shortened title does not end with the last letter of the full term (e.g., when “Professor” becomes “Prof.”):

American English: Dr. Douglas wrote a letter to Prof. Edwards.

British English: Dr Douglas wrote a letter to Prof. Edwards.

Consistency Is King!

The rules above cover punctuation conventions in American and British English. These are, however, quite flexible. If you don’t want to use a serial comma in all your lists, that’s your choice! You might upset a few patriotic pedants, but it is not strictly wrong to do this in American English.

You do, however, need to be consistent. For example, if you use double quote marks for the first quote in an essay, make sure to use the same style throughout. This will help to ensure two things:

  • Your writing looks professional and demonstrates attention to detail.
  • Your reader will know exactly how punctuation is being used.

This applies to both American and British punctuation. And if you’d like help checking the punctuation in your written work, just let us know.

Comments (10)
Mark O'Connor
26th July 2020 at 20:06
As a British ex-pat and American English teacher, this is very helpful and succinct. My students often ask me about the differences between Brit and Am. punctuation.
    Proofed
    27th July 2020 at 11:39
    Thanks, Mark! Let us know if there are any other differences between US and UK English you'd like to see covered on the blog.
Arthur Henrique Duarte Antunes Ribeiro
26th October 2020 at 15:29
Does the shortened professional title rule also apply to a middle initial (e.g. Scott M Kunen instead of Scott M. Kunen)?
    Proofed
    27th October 2020 at 15:14
    Hi, Arthur. The rule about punctuating abbreviated titles in British English doesn't apply to names (and it only applies when the abbreviation ends in the same letter as the full word). Some style guides (US and UK) suggest omitting periods after initials in names, but this is fairly rare, especially in the US.
Janne Elisabeth McOwan
7th November 2020 at 14:56
Formely, until somewhere around 1960 British English did have commas in abbreviated titles. We wrote Mr. Mrs. Dr. Why this was changed nobody seems to know. We were told in school that it was no longer correct at about the same time we dropped hyphens in many words and started writing today and tomorrow instead of to-day, or to day and to-morrow or to morrow.
    Proofed
    9th November 2020 at 11:45
    Hi, Janne. That's interesting! We don't know the exact history of this punctuation convention, but it goes back a long way (it's associated with style guides established in the late nineteenth century, for instance, like Hart's Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford). We wonder if it was a change in the curriculum or how your school was teaching that marked the change in the 1960s? Likewise, single-word versions of terms like "today" started to catch on in the early twentieth century according to most sources, but before the internet it presumably took a while for it to spread everywhere!
      John G Thomson
      18th October 2021 at 04:20
      Acronyms. When I read the Guardian it’s, for example, Nato. In North America I have only ever seen, for example , NATO. By the way, in Canada we follow the Brits for quotation marks and periods and commas. We would tend to use single quotation marks inside double quotation marks. Thanks. I love this stuff.
      Proofed
      18th October 2021 at 11:13
      Hi, John! Thanks for your comment. We do have a separate post on using acronyms, where we briefly mention the capitalization issue (we didn't include it here as it didn't feel entirely relevant to punctuation). But it's a good observation, as many people miss that distinction between dialects! We've also got a post on Canadian English where we mention that it broadly follows British English conventions (as do most Commonwealth dialects of English). Although if you spot any important omissions there or things that you don't think hold true (we're aware that Canadian English can vary quite a bit depending on where you are in Canada, but we tried to offer a broad overview of the dialect), we'd be interested to hear about them!
Ben
25th October 2021 at 19:02
What's strange is that in my part of the United States, I've only ever heard "Oxford comma" and most teachers deemed it unnecessary. I've never had a teacher that preferred the use of the Oxford comma.
    Proofed
    26th October 2021 at 09:09
    Hi, Ben. Most US-English style guides recommend using a serial comma as standard, including APA style, Chicago style, MLA style, Garner's Modern American Usage, and Strunk and White's Elements of Style. As such, as a general rule, it is often considered standard in US English, although some style guides, including AP style, do not require use of the serial comma. Ultimately, though, as long as you use it when it's necessary for clarity (e.g., as in the example given in this post) and you follow the recommendations of whichever style guide you're using (if you're using one), it is a matter of personal preference.

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