British vs. American Grammar
Updated: Sep 4, 2021
Blame Downton Abbey, Kate Middleton’s beautiful wedding, or the fact that we owe over 1,700 English words to Shakespeare. Anglophilia (or love of all things English) is alive and well in much of the United States. And I understand. After all, I always loved Jane Austen more than Mark Twain.
But an affinity for the British isn’t so great when it comes to American writing.
The British Problem
One of the most common mistakes I find when editing is the accidental use of British spelling or grammar. Many know that the British tend to use more vowels in their words (color vs. colour), but they might not recognize that the British also have different ways of using punctuation. And if you’re in the United States, using British grammar can make your writing look unprofessional.
Let’s take a look at some of the differences between American and British grammar, as explained by The Chicago Manual of Style.
Americans use double quotation marks when quoting someone or naming a short work of art. When quotation marks are needed within a quote or title, single quotation marks are used. For instance, we might write the following:
I said, “Uncle Samuel quoted FDR as saying, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’”
Across the pond, though, single quotation marks are used on the outside and double quotation marks on the inside. Take the following example:
She said, ‘Shakespeare penned the line, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”’
As if that’s not enough to differentiate us, we address punctuation inside or outside of quotation marks differently. Following The Chicago Manual of Style 6.9–6.10, commas and periods go before the ending quotation marks, as seen in the example above. Colons and semicolons follow closing quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points go inside only if they are part of the quoted material. Yes, it’s a bit confusing, so let’s look at a few examples:
Did you hear her sing “The Star-Spangled Banner”?
He exclaimed, “I’m as American as apple pie!”
The following line begins Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”: “Something there is that does not love a wall.”
Tonight he read “The Tell-Tale Heart”; he will discuss it tomorrow in class.
I’m shocked that he doesn’t know the words to “God Bless America”!
So, how do the British do it? If a punctuation mark is from the quoted material, it remains inside the quotation marks (as in the British example above). If it’s not from the quotation, it goes outside. Let’s look at some samples.
The British national anthem is ‘God Save the Queen’.
Did Shakespeare say, ‘All the world’s a stage’?
Elton John sang ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight?’ at the concert.
The child screamed, ‘I want my mum!’
It takes some practice to get these rules straight, so until you’ve got it down, consider bookmarking your digital or print copies of CMOS. If you want to quiz yourself, check out this workout.
When you want to interrupt your flow of thought in running text, CMOS calls for an em dash with no space on either side (6.85). This is used to bring up a thought that may clarify what’s being said, or you may use it to simply interrupt the message with an aside.
The British, on the other hand, prefer an en dash with a space on either side. (In case you’re wondering, the en dash is slightly longer than the hyphen but shorter than the em dash.)
Compare the sentences below:
Our class spent quite some time—two weeks, in fact—discussing George Washington. (American)
I memorized the list of English monarchs – Alfred the Great to Elizabeth II – last year. (British)
When you have a side comment to add to your running text but you don’t want to draw attention to it with em dashes, you might choose to use parentheses (see CMOS 6.95). When your parenthetical note needs its own parenthetical note, Chicago prefers the internal parentheses be replaced with brackets. The British simply use more parentheses. In other words, Americans employ parentheses followed by brackets, while the British just use parentheses. See the following illustrations.
She was born the year Bill Clinton was sworn in as president (i.e., 1993 [the same year her husband was born]).
We spent the evening watching Doctor Who (but only episodes with our favorite Doctor (the Eleventh Doctor)).
Miscellaneous Rules and Facts
The following rules and facts don’t come up in my editing very often. Nevertheless, it’s worth watching out for any slip-ups in your own work.
When writing out dates, Americans usually employ month-date-year style with a comma (April 20, 2020). The British use date-month-year style without a comma (20 April 2020). (CMOS 6.38)
In the United States, we end a declarative sentence with a period. The British would say they end it with a full stop. (CMOS 6.12)
The British omit periods from contractions. In other words, Dr. Allen in New York City would be Dr Allen in London. (CMOS 10.4)
In American English, which is generally used for restrictive clauses, or a part of a sentence that is essential to its meaning. That is used for nonrestrictive clauses, or a section of the sentence that could be cut with no great detriment. (Grammar Girl offers a more thorough explanation here.) British English does not make such a distinction. (CMOS 6.27)
Writing as an American
When you live in a country, it’s a good idea to be aware of the laws of that land. Similarly, if you want your writing to be free from typos that distract your reader and threaten your credibility, you should follow the grammar laws for the country where you live.
To put it simply, enjoy Downton Abbey, but don’t let it infiltrate your grammar.