How To Write Perfect English But Still Annoy Americans (and vice versa)

13th May 2003

Filed by: Officers Taylor and MacDonald

1. Introduction (Officer Taylor)
2. Punctuation around quotes
        2.1. Officer MacDonald writes
        2.2. Officer Taylor Comments

1. Introduction (Officer Taylor)

We of the SAGP recently got an interesting email:

Date: Mon, 12 May 2003 19:52:57 -0700
From: LauraMaery (Gold) Post <>
Subject: SAGP confuses one with two

The English are guilty of a beastly crime against hu-grammaty - the crime of pluralizing the singular. And as the self-appointed head of the newly formed police of the grammar police, I hereby place you under arrest for aiding and abetting. To wit:

``In their match report the next morning, the Telegraph - one of the UK's most respected newspapers - wrote: ...'' (

The Telegraph - which, by your own admission, is one and not two of the UK's most respected newspapers - wrote in it's, not their, match report.

It's tough when you confess your own crime. <wink>

Let us leave aside for the moment the grave matter of Honorary Officer LauraMaery's own offence - the use of ``it's'' as a possessive rather than as a contraction of ``it is'' - and consider what's going on here.

The true problem is nailed at the very start of this message, where it says ``The English are guilty''. What we have here is not a mistake on anyone's part, but one of those cases where our two closely-related languages are not as close as we assume. It was George Bernard Shaw who observed that ``England and America are two countries divided by a common language''.

In what we of the UK precinct like to think of as Proper English, plural entities such as newspapers and football teams are usually described as doing things in the plural: Liverpool left themselves too much to do, Sunderland lost their last fifteen games, and - of course - the Telegraph wrote their report. It always comes as a shock to us to read American football reports in which, say, Birmingham football team won its finest victory.

We of the SAGP are particularly aware of UK/US differences because Officers Taylor and MacDonald are from opposite sides of the pond.

2. Punctuation around quotes

2.1. Officer MacDonald writes

Quotation marks, often called in the UK ``inverted commas,'' sometimes cause international wars. US writers insist that commas and periods always go inside the marks, whether they are part of the quoted material or not. UK writers insist on the logical proposition that the only thing that goes inside the quotes is whatever is being quoted. Here are examples of the two styles:

Another problem arises when people fail to note that in the UK many publishers use single quotation marks to indicate speech or quoted matter, with double ones for quotations inside quotations: `I am going to see ``Chicago'' as soon as it opens,' he said.

The best thing for either party to do when what seem to be errors in the use of quotation marks appear is shut up.

2.2. Officer Taylor Comments

As I formatted Officer MacDonald's comments into HTML for this site, I had to physically restrain myself from correcting her opening statement,

Quotation marks, often called in the UK ``inverted commas,'' sometimes cause international wars. US writers insist that commas
Quotation marks, often called in the UK ``inverted commas'', sometimes cause international wars. US writers insist that commas

(You see, the comma has moved outside the quotation marks, where logic dictates that it belongs). Much as I long to defend the immeasurably superior UK practice of putting the punctuation where it damned well belongs, I will for now abide by Office MacDonald's excellent advice to shut up.

I will add this, though: had I written that introductory sentence it would have read:

Quotation marks, often called ``inverted commas'' in the UK, sometimes cause international wars. US writers insist that commas

There is no hard and fast rule here, but it appears that the British ear is more offended than the American by the appearance of phrases like ``in the UK'' between the verb and its object.

Feedback to <> is welcome!