Lesson #141 (Part 1): American Vs British Punctuation: How To Use American English Quotation Marks

📙 “… my mother has not gone into details. She chiefly communicates with us by means of telegrams, and her telegrams are rather inscrutable. They say women don’t know how to write them, but my mother has thoroughly mastered the art of condensation. ‘Tired America, hot weather awful, return England with niece, first steamer decent cabin.’ That’s the sort of message we get from her—that was the last that came.”

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)

What a pleasure it is to create lessons from so many classics that I love! When I first read Henry James’ novel two years ago, I admired it for its psychological depth and realism. I also liked the heroine, Isabel Archer, whose spirited speeches dramatically changed the course of her destiny in a way even she could never have imagined.

If you have been following my lessons for a while, you will notice how I always make an effort to reference a work of literature in every lesson – sometimes in the form of a character’s own words, sometimes a purely descriptive paragraph in the narrator’s voice. Because I am from Ireland and have referenced mostly British literature, you will notice that I use British English punctuation and quotation marks whenever I quote from some short text (more on that below). 

✏️ My quotations are mostly short, and these types – usually under 50 words in length – are called run-in or run-on quotations.

✏️ Quotations of a whole paragraph or more than 50 words are called block quotations. You can see an example of one in Lesson 125 here.

👉 There are 4 main rules on punctuating quotations. There are also differences in how the Americans and British practice these.

In this two-part lesson I will highlight some of the key principles that distinguish the two cultural standards.

We will start alphabetically, with today’s focus on American English standard practice.


📝 #1 When you are quoting a person’s words regardless of length or generally less than 50 words of a written text (i.e. a run-on passage), you will use double quotation marks in American English. Take as an example this conversation in Henry James’ American classic, The Portrait of a Lady, words spoken between a lady called Mrs Touchett and Isabel Archer: 

📙 “…You’re too fond of your own ways.”

“Yes, I think I’m very fond of them. But I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do.” 

“So as to do them?” asked her aunt. 

“So as to choose,” said Isabel.

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady 

✍️ It is important to emphasise here that regardless of length, a person or fictional character’s speech is always punctuated as if it were a run-on quotation, because readers must be able to distinguish between what a person actually said and the narrator or writer’s own voice.* This can be seen in the following speech from Mrs Touchett, Isabel’s well-meaning, talkative aunt – notice the double quotation marks:

📙 “Now, of course, you’re completely your own mistress and are as free as the bird on the bough. I don’t mean you were not so before, but you’re at present on a different footing––property erects a kind of barrier. You can do a great many things if you’re rich which would be severely criticised if you were poor. You can go and come, you can travel alone, you can have your own establishment: I mean of course if you’ll take a companion––some decayed gentlewoman, with a darned cashmere and dyed hair, who paints on velvet. You don’t think you’d like that? Of course you can do as you please; I only want you to understand how much you’re at liberty. You might take Miss Stackpole as your dame de compagnie; she’d keep people off very well. I think, however, that it’s a great deal better you should remain with me, in spite of there being no obligation. It’s better for several reasons, quite apart from your liking it. I shouldn’t think you’d like it, but I recommend you to make the sacrifice. Of course whatever novelty there may have been at first in my society has quite passed away, and you see me as I am––a dull, obstinate, narrow-minded old woman.”

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady 

📝 #2 When you are citing a quotation within a quotation in American English, you use single quotation marks, as in the passage already quoted at the beginning of this lesson where Ralph Touchett’s mother’s words, a telegraph message, are repeated within his own quoted speech. Notice the single quotation marks offsetting the telegraph message:

📙 “… my mother has thoroughly mastered the art of condensation. ‘Tired America, hot weather awful, return England with niece, first steamer decent cabin.’ That’s the sort of message we get from her …”

📝 #3 When quoted materials are too long to be run-on quotes, they are treated as block or displayed quotations, meaning they are presented in a separate paragraph of their own without quotation marks. As mentioned above, the only exception to this is when we quote someone’s speech however long it is – this is always marked by double quotation marks in American English.

📝 #4 Commas and periods are always placed inside the final quotation mark in American English, whether or not they are a part of the quotation. For illustration purposes, I have quoted the line below without quotation marks at the beginning or end, so that Henry James’ own American-style marks become more obvious. (In the book, this line is not part of a speech but is instead a descriptive line in the narrator’s voice, so that James did not need to offset it with speech quotation marks there).

📙 Isabel started at the words “her daughter,” which her guest threw off so familiarly.

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

I hope this overview of the American quotation rules will help you, especially if you are intending to work or study in either the USA or Canada. If you are based in Europe however, you may want to check out tomorrow’s Part 2 of this lesson, where I outline the different rules that apply to British English writing practice. (And yes, all English-based education in Europe is expected to follow British English rules, as Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and South Africa mostly do). 

* The only exception is found in a literary style of third-person narration called free indirect discourse. This style was championed by Jane Austen, who is also credited with its first usage. In this style, the character’s thoughts are written without the use of quotation marks, so that they blend with the narrator’s voice and offer both first-person (I said, thought, or did) and third-person perspectives (she/he said, thought, or did). I will prepare a future lesson on this notable writing style. 

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2023)