by Iola Goulton

While most of the rules of punctuation are consistent between US and British English, there are a handful of important differences authors and editors need to be aware of when editing.

US English adds a period to titles: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Dr Jones. British English omits the periods (Mr and Mrs Smith, and Dr Jones).

US English uses a colon between hours and minutes (12:30), while British English uses a period (12.30).

British English uses the day-month-year format for dates, so 12 May 2021 is written 12-5- 2021 (or 12-05-2021). US English uses month-day-year (5-12-2020).

This can get confusing when organizing events for an international audience: does 1/2/2022 refer to January 2, 2022, or February 1, 2022? I suggest spelling the date in full to avoid doubt.

On a related note, British English also follows the day-month-year format with dates written out in full: 2 January 2022 (with no commas) compared to January 2,2022 in US English.

British English also omits commas when adding the day of the week: Sunday 2 January, which would be written Sunday, January 2 in US English.

Quotation Marks
US English always uses double quotation marks for dialogue and quotations. British English may use single or double quotation marks, but single are now more common. (Older books used double quotation marks for dialogue and single quotation marks for character’s thoughts).

US English uses single quotation marks for quotes within quotes, whereas British English uses double quotation marks.

Punctuation of Quotations

US English places the punctuation inside the quotation marks, whether it’s part of the actual quote/dialogue or not. Therefore, if a character is quoting dialogue, both sets of double quotation marks appear after the punctuation:

“Jesus says, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life,’” Jane said.

British English follows the original quotation: if the punctuation is part of the quotation, the punctuation marks go inside the quotation marks. Otherwise, they are outside:

‘Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life”,’ Jane said.

Scare Quotes
US English always uses double quotation marks for scare quotes. British English may use single or double.

Several websites claim the serial comma (or Oxford comma) is not used in British English, but is used in US English. My observation is the Oxford comma is used and misused on both sides of the Atlantic. For those who are interested, my preference is to always use the Oxford comma for consistency and clarity.

As with any editing project, the most important thing is consistency. You (or your client) can choose to use single or double quotation marks but be consistent: if dialogue is in single quotation marks, other quotations should be as well.

About Iola Goulton
Iola Goulton is a New Zealand-based book reviewer and editor specializing in adult and young adult Christian fiction. She won the 2016 ACFW Genesis Award (Novella), and copyedited Then There Was You by Kara Isaac, which won a RITA Award from Romance Writers of America. Iola holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree, majoring in marketing, and has a background in human resource consulting.

When she’s not working, Iola is usually reading or writing her next book review. Iola lives in the beautiful Bay of Plenty in New Zealand (not far from Hobbiton) with her husband and cat.