Language Is Subjective

It may be a shock to people who aren't authors or editors, but grammar isn’t a set of god-given rules. There is some subjectivity, because rules and conventions vary between different between places, and times, and styles. Language is also always in transition. Full stops are fading from abbreviations, hyphens come and go, even words like Internet versus internet morph. All we can do is pick a style that is modern and also clear, and then be consistent. This is the nature of language.

I own many style guides, and no single one is perfect: all of them have some rules I disagree with, or that are inelegant, or inconsistent. Thus, one guide might be great for the rules on when to use numbers versus words, but it might have a silly set of rules for punctuation, or might use conventions from another hemisphere, and vice versa. The other issue is that guides often don't cover every case (so don’t provide advice on complex and unexpected situations that turn up later), or they have fixed rules which lead to bizarre outcomes (a good example is one style guide that said to spell out numbers as words in dialogue, but didn't include exceptions for phone numbers, which just looks weird!). So there is no such thing as a perfect style guide. The nearest thing for me is New Hart's Rules, but even then it gives options, because it covers the mainly-used styles, and you have to pick between them.

I have a personal style guide, which includes my decisions on issues of punctuation (ellipses, hyphens/dashes), spelling (no one versus no-one), numbering (twenty-three or 23), use of serial commas etc. Each decision is the result of a lot of deliberation and reading. This style guide can then be passed on to my editors and proofreaders, so they don't need to waste time correcting things that are editorial choices.

General Quotation Rules

I'll list some basic quotation rules and options below.

Single or double quotation marks?

Generally in the US, double quotes are used for speech in fiction. In the UK, some publishers use double quotes, some use single.

My choice is double quotation marks. I think single quotation marks are more ambiguous, since they can be confused with apostrophes.

If you use double quotes, then a quote within a quote is marked with singles (and vice versa for people who use single quotation marks).

Treat all quoted material the same

Some people use double quotes for speech, and single quotes for "other purposes". To me, that's a weird choice. I use doubles for everything quoted, whether speech or writing.

The sign read “Space Emergency Exit”.

Averill Buchanan stated it well: “no distinction is made between dialogue and other kinds of text that might appear in [quotation marks]. The same kind of inverted commas should be used consistently throughout (except when it's inverted commas within inverted commas). If your dialogue is in double quotation marks, then so should everything else.”

Long quotations

A colon can introduce speech in some circumstances, e.g. longer or formal passages.

If including a much longer quote (e.g. over 50 words) then it can be "broken off" - indented in a quotation style.

You don’t need punctuation before a quotation in these cases

- With very short speeches: He called “Good morning!”
- If fitted into the surrounding sentence: He is alleged to have said that “our college is no more” on numerous occasions.
- With cited words and phrases. What does “integrated circuit” mean?
- If beginning a quote with a sentence fragment followed by a full sentence: The man called the battle “a waste. But a necessary one.”

A full stop becomes a comma if you carry on after the quote

Suppose we want to quote the original text which was “I will die.” We end up with:

“I will die,” he said.

Note that the quoted full stop is changed to a comma. This is standard in the UK and US, even though it goes against another UK rule that things within quotation marks should be exact quotes. It just shows that none of the styles are internally consistent.

Another example:

She said, “You must update the book,” and I said, “I agree.”

[The original sentences: “You must update the book.” and “I agree.”]

This is because of the rule to use commas to set off dialogue tags such as she said or he explained - even when the original text would have been a full stop.

Only one terminal punctuation mark with quotations

If the quote ends in a full stop, exclamation mark or question mark, then there’s no need to have an extra full stop after the quotation marks.

She said “Die!” [Not She said “Die!”.]

Some guides (such as my old dictionary) happily use two terminal punctuation marks together, but I think that can look a bit old fashioned nowadays.

UK Versus US Quotation Styles When Combined With Other Punctuation Marks

Quotation marks are often combined with other punctuation marks. That's the thorny issue I will look at next. At first glance, people might think the rules for whether punctuation goes inside or outside the quotation marks are simple. If so, read this, and I almost guarantee you will come away confused.

Note that, for convenience, I refer to these as "US style" and "UK style", but it isn't so simple. They are styles anyone can follow. Some people in the US might us traditional UK style, and vice versa. In fact, some modern British fiction does use the US style; whereas some US authors point out advantages of the UK style. It's the same as how some publishers in the UK use double quotation marks, some use single. It's not a law. You pick your preferred style, know its strengths and weaknesses and why you picked it, then be consistent.

There's a good summary of some basics here. It is US-based, but covers the basics of the difference between "US style" and "UK style". I used to unconsciously use UK rules, but then encountered tricky examples of quotation in fiction that caused confusion - hence looking more deeply into this.

(To keep this simple I will skip the use of quotation marks with rarer elements of punctuation such as colons, dashes, and semicolons.)

Quotation marks with ... exclamation marks and question marks

US and UK styles agree on this. If an exclamation mark or question mark is part of the original text you quote, then it goes inside the closing quotation marks; if not, it goes outside.

Examples where it is part of the original text, so goes inside the quotation marks:

Karl asked, "Do you like grammar?"
His readers replied "Hell no!"

Examples where the marks aren't part of the quoted text, so go outside the quotation marks:

Did you say “Go away”?
I hate your "ultimate sexy dance"!

Quotation marks with  ... commas and full stops ("periods" in the US)

This is where the US and UK styles can differ, yet every author and publisher has to pick one of the styles.

In the UK, the same rules as the one for exclamation/questions marks above is followed. If it is part of the quoted material, it goes inside the quotation marks; if not, outside (which is illustrated below, where the full stop and comma go outside the quotation marks because they aren't part of the quoted material).

Sci-fi authors were described as “a terrible group”.

In the US, the comma and full stop always go inside the quotation mark. So the same sentences in US style would be:

Sci-fi authors were described as “a terrible group.”

A subtle difference of one small character appearing slightly to the left or right, but it is a difference.

Two other examples:

US = The loony said we must not “follow evil horror writers,” yet Opal disagreed.
UK = The loony said we must not “follow evil horror writers”, yet Opal disagreed.

US = “May I suggest,” she said, “that Karl has a hot bath?”
UK = “May I suggest”, she said, “that Karl has a hot bath?”
[In the UK example the comma comes after, because there is no punctuation there in the original ("May I suggest that Karl has a hot bath?"), so it goes outside the quotes.]

One side issue worth mentioning with regards to the UK style: there is some disagreement as to how to decide whether punctuation is included as part of the quote or not. For example, some rules say it is only included if it is a full sentence - Guardian Style adopts this approach: "Place full points and commas inside the quotes for a complete quoted sentence; otherwise the point comes outside". Others say that rule is irrelevant, all that counts is whether the punctuation is part of the cited material or not, e.g. my Concise Oxford English Dictionary [COED]: "The closing quotation mark should come after any punctuation mark which is part of the quoted matter, but before any mark which is not". Different rules, which lead to different outcomes in many cases. Here's a real-life example illustrating this, from one of my books. This is the sentence in my book:

After all, their small team was just “monkey workers, mooking our way round the Green jungle”, as Dave would have it.

US style is straightforward - the comma will go inside the closing quotation mark:

After all, their small team was just “monkey workers, mooking our way round the Green jungle,” as Dave would have it.

But for UK style, it depends. What is actually being quoted? It's a fiction novel, so there isn't a real source, requiring us to construct one. So Dave may have said something along these lines:

"Sorry, lads, but we're just monkey workers, mooking our way round the Green jungle."

According to the Guardian, I haven't quoted the whole sentence, since I missed out the first five words - so, according to their interpretation, the comma would have to come outside the quotation marks:

After all, their small team was just “monkey workers, mooking our way round the Green jungle”, as Dave would have it.

But, according to the COED, I quoted words that end in a full stop, so the punctuation mark is part of the quoted matter, so would go within the punctuation marks (even though it is alchemically changed from a full stop to a comma, as discussed above), leading to:

After all, their small team was just “monkey workers, mooking our way round the Green jungle,” as Dave would have it.

Which is exactly the same as the US style.

Also note that with the Guardian rule about "complete quoted sentences", it's not always obvious if something is a complete quoted sentence or not. See me "Do not disturb" quotes later on for an example of that issue.

Overall, this shows that it's not fully clear what the UK style is, and different proponents apply slightly different rules, leading to different outcomes, and requiring extra mental work to unravel what is being quoted.

Pros And Cons Of Each System

Neither system is ideal. Here are a few of my thoughts as to why.

The US system involves changing the rules for each punctuation mark - some go inside or outside quotation marks based on context (e.g. exclamation and question marks), some don't (commas and full stops), so it doesn't feel like a consistent underlying rule. It's the worst of both worlds, since you have UK-type rules of assessing if it is part of quoted text or not, but only for some pieces of punctuation. At least the UK system applies the same rules for all the quotation marks - exclamation marks, full stops etc. So the UK system seems more consistent. A win for the UK system. (Though - as mentioned earlier - it still allows full stops to become commas, which is a problem with both systems. “I can’t,” he said. - the original was "I can't.")

With the US system it is impossible to tell whether or not the comma or full stop was actually part of the quoted material or not, because it goes within the quotation mark in both cases. This can be misleading with partial quotes, e.g. as an extreme example the original could be “I would never insult another person if I lived in a nicer world.”

A partial quote in US style could be: He said, “I would never insult another person.”
A partial quote in UK style could be: He said, “I would never insult another person”.

The first looks like a complete sentence quote (because the full stop is within the quotation marks), and is grammatically correct, yet is strongly misleading. The UK style at least shows that something else followed that partial quote. It if had been a complete sentence quote, the full stop would have gone within the quotation marks. It’s a potentially useful distinction. So the UK style wins out here, since you always know if a punctuation mark is part of the quoted material or not. In these days of soundbites and misinterpreted extracts from interviews, accurate quotation may be more important than ever.

So far, the UK system looks to be coming out on top. Let's even up the score.

In the US style, you don’t have to spend as much thought on most cases, since the most common elements of commas and full stops just always go within the quotation marks. Whereas, in UK style, you always have to assess what's part of the quote and what isn't, which may not be clear in some cases (e.g. see my example at the end of the previous section, about monkey workers). I think that's a small win for US style.

Because, in the US style, full stops and commas always go within the quotation marks, it looks more consistent. Whereas, in the UK style, sometimes commas and full stops go inside quotation marks, sometimes outside, which looks inconsistent. In worst case scenarios, both can occur in the same sentence, which looks messy:

The first man’s speech said we must not “follow evil”, yet the second man said “You must do this,” leaving us confused.

It's also worth noting that the way punctuation can go before or after the quotation mark in the UK style may look like errors to US readers. So I think the US style wins here, too.

Overall, it seems fairly balanced. Both styles have advantages and disadvantages.

Real-life Examples

I already gave one example from my books earlier, where there were different outcomes, showing the possible complications for authors and editors (After all, their small team was just “monkey workers, mooking our way round the Green jungle,” as Dave would have it.) Here are a few other examples from one of my books, showing what happens when we try to apply rules to real sentences from fiction.

“I’m ‘dead chuffed,’ as you Mancs would say."

The text in bold is US style. The UK style would be:

“I’m ‘dead chuffed’, as you Mancs would say."

Straightforward enough - it just depends on which system you use, leading to different outcomes. Though, even under UK style, the comma could go within the quotation marks if it was part of the original cited material - i.e. she is quoting part of "I'm dead chuffed." So the UK style could lead to an identical layout to the US style, with the comma inside the quotation marks. This illustrates that the UK style isn't so simple when you look at real examples, where the source of the thing quoted, and the extent of the quote, is impossible to ascertain.

Mam glared at him when he proclaimed at their wedding anniversary party, “You normally only get thirty years for murder,” and when he rolled in at all hours singing Hob Y Deri Dando.

US style: as in bold.

UK style: probably the same, because it is a complete quote and probably ended in a full stop. It requires a bit of thought to reach this conclusion, unlike with the US style. Not a problem, though.

He’d reached the far end which housed actual enclosed offices for senior staff, giving them privacy, yet also internal glass windows where they could look out on the open-plan floor area and control with gestures – a glare of “Be quiet,” an upheld hand of “Do not disturb,” a beckon of “Come and see me.”

US style: as in bold, above.

UK style: impossible to say. Is there an implicit full stop in "Do not disturb"? Is "Do not disturb" the equivalent of a sign, which (probably) wouldn't have a full stop? Or is it the equivalent of a quoted sentence, which would? Or is it a fragment of a sentence, in which case it might or might not?

Basing the rule on "If it is part of the quoted material, it goes inside the quotation marks" doesn't help much with fiction, when we're often quoting things that don't exist. Sure, in that case the author can just make up the thing being quoted, leading to a decision, and no one can say they are wrong - but it does mean the results will vary widely and be practically random as to whether the comma/full stop goes inside the quotation marks, or outside them. Which, to me, looks like a pretty arbitrary and clunky rule to follow. Yet this is the kind of real example we authors and editors have to make decisions on every day. The real world, and the words written in it, rarely match the tidy simplicity of the examples used in most guides to punctuation.

My Conclusion

I always favour using the simplest, most widespread, most modern, and consistent style. As this investigation shows, it's not always easy to identify what that is! The UK system can lead to complicated cases that are completely sidestepped by the US system's simplifications. Then again, the US system has its own issues. Hmmm. I'm still unsure where I stand. Welcome to the world of writing.

I even tried the method of just choosing which of my example structures I do and don't like, in case that aided me in choosing a style. The following was what I ended up with ...

I slightly prefer UK style here, perhaps because the quotation marks seem to indicate either a full quoted thing with no full stop, or a partial quote without one (both of which are correct indications):
The sign read “Space Emergency Exit”.
Sci-fi authors were described as “a terrible group”.


Whereas I dislike the US style versions, possibly because it looks like I've quoted something that ends in a full stop, when it probably didn't really:
The sign read “Space Emergency Exit.”
Sci-fi authors were described as “a terrible group.”

Yet here, I prefer the US style:
US = "May I suggest," she said, "that Karl has a hot bath?"
UK = "May I suggest", she said, "that Karl has a hot bath?"

I think the UK style version looks wrong to me because, normally in UK sentences including "she said ...", the comma would go inside the quotes: 

"No," she said. 
She said, "We must not follow evil horror writers."

So putting the commas outside in the UK style, even for valid reasons, just looks wrong.

It can even lead to both positions in the same sentence, which I loathe:

The first man’s speech said we must not “follow evil”, yet the second man said “You must do this,” leaving us confused.

It would be possible for me to use UK style but avoid clunkiness such as this:

"May I suggest", she said, "that Karl has a hot bath?"

I would just have to make sure that I only use "he/she said" at points where there was a comma or full stop in the original. So I'd avoid the construction above and instead go for one of these:

She said, "May I suggest that Karl has a hot bath?"
"May I suggest that Karl has a hot bath?" she said.

[Of course, sentences with a pause in the middle such as “I hate you, but we are married.” can have the "she said" at the start, end, or in the middle: “I hate you,” she said, “but we are married.”]

But how would I fix this one?

The first man’s speech said we must not “follow evil”, yet the second man said “You must do this,” leaving us confused.

I could argue that the "follow evil" words were from an imaginary sentence "You must not follow evil." In that case it is fine to include the comma inside the quotation marks to end up with a sentence that looks less random:

The first man’s speech said we must not “follow evil,” yet the second man said “You must do this,” leaving us confused.

So UK style can fix these clunky punctuations, but it involves having to restructure some sentences so they don't look weird, even though they were grammatically correct, or to make arbitrary decisions as to whether or not the quote ended in punctuation.

Here is another example where I prefer US style:

US style: "I’m ‘dead chuffed,’ as you Mancs would say."
UK style: "I’m ‘dead chuffed’, as you Mancs would say."

And yet it shows my natural inclinations are totally inconsistent, because the UK style is more similar to this, which I liked at the start (punctuation outside the quotation marks):

Sci-fi authors were described as “a terrible group”.

Again, with UK style I can switch the comma in the "dead chuffed" quote if I want, because it's a made-up quote that may or may not include a full stop at the end - but that shows the peculiar weakness of UK style in terms of fiction, since the rule of "include punctuation if it is in the original quote" doesn't help at all in determining placement of the full stops and commas in many fictional cases! It's often possible for an author to decide if their quote ended in punctuation or not, with no rule to govern which decision is made, leading to a kind of usage randomness. Which pushes me back towards US style ...

And because I have been staring at these for so long, I now have no idea which I prefer out of these:

US = The loony said we must not "follow evil horror writers," yet Opal disagreed.
UK = The loony said we must not "follow evil horror writers", yet Opal disagreed.

And thus, for once, I am none the wiser. Send help. And comments. What do you do?

Addendum, And A Proper Conclusion: The Next Day

Fresh day, fresh eyes.

One of my friends said: "Karl you're overthinking this and you WILL go stark raving bonkers if you continue down this path! Most readers don't even notice punctuation so don't stress so much about it. As long as the text is not littered with unnecessary punctuation, and what there is makes the text clear and easy to read, they won't care what's where!"

Wise words. Of course, I was already bonkers, but still, I have to dig out of this punctuation hole.

Part of the reason that the current systems are all partial and inconsistent is because most changes in language aren't led by rationality, they're led by trends, and trends don't involve considering every case. A good example is abbreviations and full stops. It used to be that whenever you abbreviated words to letters, you indicated it with a full stop. We watched the B.B.C. and my name was K. Drinkwater. Over the years the full stops started to disappear from acronyms (partly for marketing purposes - it was somehow felt that full stops were old fashioned), so we ended up with the BBC etc. But, because this was a trend, not a change in fundamental rules, we then had a mishmash of systems, since names still tended to include full stops - J.K. Rowling etc. So what used to be a clear rule has ended up with a partial rule with even more exceptions. Such are the joys of living language. It's why, even within punctuation, there are different systems that don't agree.

That's why there is often some agreement on broad topics in language, but it breaks down into disagreement and subjectivity as soon as you try to apply it. For example, it's seen as "standard" to use italics for titles of longer things (albums, books, films) and double quotes for shorter (songs, short stories, episodes). But some style systems (e.g. Guardian Style) don't bother with that, probably because it looks a bit old-fashioned and requires lots of subjective sub-rules. Why italicise names of books, but not names of bars? Why say song titles aren’t italicised because they are part of a whole – but then you get songs that didn’t appear on an album, so as standalones should be italicised? Some poems are also famous enough to be standalone. It gets overly complicated – e.g. see this article for the disagreements between different systems, and the long list of exceptions.

Back to quotation marks. I already mentioned that the UK system includes more than one option for determining whether punctuation goes inside or outside quotation marks. Yesterday I re-read the relevant sections in a number of books, including New Hart's Rules, Guardian Style, Butcher's Copy-Editing etc.

I managed to identify three different criteria that determine, in UK style, whether punctuation goes within or outside of quotation marks. I tried to interpret them in ways that would be easy to apply without too much research and thought, even if you don't have the original source.

1 Complete sentences

This system says that if you quote a grammatically complete sentence then the full stop/comma goes within the closing quotation mark.

If you quote only part of a longer sentence (so that includes single words/phrases), the full stop/comma goes outside the closing quotation mark.

Butcher's expands on this a bit, pointing out that this can be tricky to ascertain sometimes (e.g. to find the original, or if it doesn't exist at all such as when quoting fictional words), so a rule of thumb for many publishers is that the full stop precedes the closing quote if the quote is a grammatically complete sentence starting with a capital letter. The capital letter addition acts as a shorthand identifier.

2 Part of quotation or not

This system says we place the full stop according to whether it is part of the quotation or not. If it is, then it goes inside the quotation marks; if not, it goes outside. (As mentioned earlier, this is not always easy to ascertain.)

3 Introductory punctuation or not

The third system suggests that if the quoted sentence is a short one with no introductory punctuation, the full stop generally goes outside the quotation mark:

He believed in the proverb "Dead men tell no tales".

As opposed to:

He said, "Dead men tell no tales when you ask them for the truth."

It seems easy to apply at first, but since the requirement for introductory punctuation is often optional and ill-defined (at the start I gave examples of cases where you don’t need punctuation before a quotation), that can lead to inconsistency.

So, we have three possibilities. I then picked a variety of sentences, some problematic, and applied each of these three options to them, to see what they led to. My idea was that, if one of the systems always led to easy-to-determine outcomes where the final text was acceptable to me, I would adopt that system. Any that led to inconsistent or clunky outcomes, I could reject. Then I would - hopefully! - have a winner.

These are the seven sentences, and the results:

A. “I’m ‘dead chuffed,’ as you Mancs would say."

All three systems gave the same result for this one, which differs from how the US style would word it:

“I’m ‘dead chuffed’, as you Mancs would say."

Since I mostly grew up with the UK system, that's acceptable to me.

B. After all, their small team was just “monkey workers, mooking our way round the Green jungle,” as Dave would have it.

System 2 would potentially lead to the version in bold above (which also matches US style), because the fictional sentence quoted may well be missing the first words, but it probably ended up with a full stop. Whereas systems 1 and 3 would move the comma after "jungle" to the outside of the quotation marks, because (respectively) it isn't a complete quoted sentence beginning with a capital letter, and there is no introductory punctuation:

After all, their small team was just “monkey workers, mooking our way round the Green jungle”, as Dave would have it.

So this shows that how the UK system is defined can lead to different outcomes.

C. Mam glared at him when he proclaimed at their wedding anniversary party, “You normally only get thirty years for murder,” and when he rolled in at all hours singing Hob Y Deri Dando.

All three UK systems lead to the same bold version above, which also matches US style. It's clearly a complete quoted sentence, with the quote ending in a full stop, and beginning with a capital letter, and introduced by punctuation.

D. He’d reached the far end which housed actual enclosed offices for senior staff, giving them privacy, yet also internal glass windows where they could look out on the open-plan floor area and control with gestures – a glare of “Be quiet,” an upheld hand of “Do not disturb,” a beckon of “Come and see me.”

UK systems 1 and 2 lead to the same bold version as above, which also matches US style. That's because they are potentially complete statements from someone, starting with a capital letter and ending with a full stop. However, system 3 would say that, because there is no introductory punctuation to them, we would end up with the commas going outside the quotation marks:

He’d reached the far end which housed actual enclosed offices for senior staff, giving them privacy, yet also internal glass windows where they could look out on the open-plan floor area and control with gestures – a glare of “Be quiet”, an upheld hand of “Do not disturb”, a beckon of “Come and see me”.

E. Sci-fi authors were described as “a terrible group”.

All three UK systems lead to the same result as is in bold above (which differs from how US style would punctuate it).

F. The first man’s speech said we must not “follow evil”, yet the second man said “You must do this,” leaving us confused.

This sentence includes two quotes. UK systems 1 and 2 lead to the same bold version as above.

System 3 would move the comma for the second quote outside the quotation marks, because of the lack of preceding punctuation:

The first man’s speech said we must not “follow evil”, yet the second man said “You must do this”, leaving us confused.

None of the UK results match US style for the first quoted part.

G. The loony said we must not "follow evil horror writers," yet Opal disagreed.

All three UK systems lead to this:

The loony said we must not "follow evil horror writers", yet Opal disagreed.

which is different from how US style would punctuate it.

Time to summarise these results.

A, C, E and G gave the same results, whichever of the three UK systems I used. C & G gave results that matched US style too, but A & E differed from US style. This doesn't help towards me a decision, but just shows that UK style sometimes leads to the same results as US style, sometimes not.

B is tricky - system 2 matched US style, and differed from systems 1 and 3. I'm happy with either outcome.

D led to systems 1 and 2 agreeing with each other and US style, whereas system 3 led to a different outcome from everyone else, and one that I didn't like. I already suspected that system 3 - although it is very easy to apply - was weakest in some ways.

F Systems 1 and 2 agree, system 3 is different. (None of them match US style.)

So, systems 1 and 2 generally led to the same results, more often than I expected. No doubt that's why they are the mostly widely used two criteria of UK style. So it is down to a choice our of these two systems for me.

System 2 requires more knowledge of the original source, and more thought when used in fiction where the quoted words don't have a fully written-out original source. System 2 provides flexibility (since a quote of something like "Be quiet." could be cut off before or after the full stop, which changes whether the full stop/comma goes inside or outside the quotation marks), but that flexibility can be a weakness since it leads to inconsistency.

System 1 is simple to use, especially if you go for the shorthand publisher version: if the quoted material begins with a capital letter AND is a grammatically complete sentence then the full stop/comma goes within the closing quotation mark - if not, it goes outside. In most cases, I imagine the capital letter alone will be enough of an indicator to put the punctuation within the quotation marks. So it is a simple-to-apply rule that avoids most of the ambiguities and inconsistencies of the other UK style rules.

My job here is done!

--

If you're interested in this kind of thing I have many blog posts about aspects of writing. Some punctuation ones include ellipses, dashes, apostrophes, name initial capitalisation, serial commas,
capitalizing hyphenated compounds,

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!