There are certain punctuation standards in British English that are important for a writer to understand. Even the most insightful article might be dismissed by readers because of punctuation errors, even if they have nothing to do with the merit of the content. Some mistakes crop up time and time again, making them understandable, but all the harder to excuse. Consider these punctuation pitfalls in British English that often trap the unwary.
The misaligned quotation mark.
This problem arises from a difference between American and British English. Writers mistakenly put full stops and commas inside quotation marks (the American way) when they should be outside (the British way). Further confusion arises from the fact that British English does follow the American format in fiction, when characters are speaking. For example:
Correct in British non-fiction: The gentleman said “good morning”, which was pleasant.
Correct in American non-fiction: The gentleman said “good morning,” which was pleasant.
Correct in British fiction: “Good morning,” said the gentleman.
Note that question marks and exclamation marks are placed inside the quotation marks if they are part of the text being quoted. They go outside if they are part of the entire sentence.
The errant apostrophe.
This tiny symbol can make or break a piece of writing, simply by being one space to the left or right. To academics and many employers, a misplaced apostrophe sticks out like a sore thumb. The confusion arises with the difference between the plural and possessive. For example:
A word can be made plural by adding an s, as in Davids, meaning more than one David.
A word is made possessive by adding an apostrophe before an s, as in David’s, meaning belonging to David.
A plural noun is made possessive by adding an apostrophe after the s, as in Davids’.
The treacherous its vs. it’s.
This problem catches many writers, because it doesn’t quite follow the usual rules of apostrophes. The confusion comes from the fact that it’s is not possessive but rather a contraction. The apostrophe and s replace is or has. Meanwhile, its is not plural; it is the possessive form of it. For example:
Make it possessive with an extra s, as in ‘This building had its opening last year’.
Use it’s to indicate a contraction of it is or it has, as in ‘It’s not your fault’ or ‘It’s been cold this winter’.
When in doubt, try inserting is or has into your sentence after it and seeing whether the sentence still makes sense.
The confusing comma.
Many writers misplace commas, largely because they think of comma placement asa stylistic choice, not subject to any hard rules. This is not quite true, because misused commas can make text very difficult to read. For example:
Too few commas result in an unwieldy block of text: To place your commas consider the points in a sentence where you would naturally stop for breath or pause for effect when the sentence is read aloud that way the sentence will read much better.
The example above is missing a crucial comma. It also runs two sentences into one.
The suspect semicolon.
The problem with the semicolon is that it often gets used where a colon or dash would be better. People can generally spot a place where one of these punctuation marks is needed, but they may not know which one to select. A semicolon does not perform the same function as a colon, and the two are not interchangeable. For example:
To merge two clauses or sentences into one sentence, use a semicolon: Brian chose to buy a blue sweater; it matched his new trainers.
To begin a list, use a colon: Brian bought several items: a blue sweater, blue trainers, and a top hat.
The dash and colon are broadly interchangeable, but the colon is more formal and the dash is more like a dramatic pause, used more aptly in fiction.
The frustrating full stop.
Known in American punctuation as the ‘period’, the full stop is fairly straightforward. Nevertheless, there is one circumstance when it’s very easily misplaced, which again refers to a distinction between the rules of American English and British English.
The circumstance in question is the placement of a full stop after an abbreviated title, such as ‘Mr’, as an abbreviation of ‘Mister’. British English punctuation does not require a full stop after an abbreviated title, so long as the last letter of the abbreviation matches that of the full word. When this is not the case, a full stop is added. For example, ‘Dr’ ends in an ‘r’, which is the same as the last letter of ‘Doctor’, so no full stop is needed. American English requires a full stop, or period, after all abbreviated titles. For example:
Correct in British English: ‘Mister’ is abbreviated to ‘Mr’ without the addition of a full stop.
Correct in American English: ‘Mister’ is abbreviated to ‘Mr.’ with the addition of a full stop.
Correct in British English: ‘Professor’ is abbreviated to ‘Prof.’ with the addition of a full stop.