The American inverted comma and me

I once had a paper trashed, not because it was rubbish (it was OK), but because I got the punctuation wrong. Being a new Brit at an American university, I thought that as long as I dropped my u’s and added some z’s to words, I’d be ok. I thought American English only fouled-up a few spellings.[1] But no, it turns out even colonial punctuation is different.

Case in point, the humble inverted comma. Here’s the British and American style guide courtesy of the Cambridge University Press.

British style uses single inverted commas, except for quotations within quotations (which have double inverted commas). Punctuation should follow closing inverted commas except for grammatically complete sentences beginning with a capital. [‘Ronan’, he said, ‘can you please stop calling everyone “mate” and learn to say “dude” instead?’]

American style uses double inverted commas, except for quotations within quotations (which have single inverted commas). Punctuation should precede closing quotation marks (except for dashes, colons and semicolons, unless these are part of the quoted matter). [“Ronan,” he said, “can you please stop calling everyone ‘mate’ and learn to say ‘dude’ instead?”]

Here’s the question that needs to be answered, for it has all kinds of cosmic consequences: how should I punctuate here at BCC? I tend towards British spelling, but what about those inverted commas (etc.)?

Is American English the sacred tongue of Mormonism?

Should I embrace American style?

When do international flavours (sic) require harmonising (sic) with the mother culture?

Should I no longer fret over The Friend‘s indoctrination of my son into a world of Columbus-worship, US Army GA stories, American football, pumpkin carving instructions, and weird, grammatically bizarre expressions like “a long way’s away” (?) and “I could care less.”

And here’s one final question: is BCC an American blog?

There’s a lot of my British soul hanging on this inverted comma…


[1] I mean, why change colour to color but leave rough and although?


  1. BCC is decidedly not an American blog*. We have many non-American permabloggers. The implication is insulting.

    *to the extent that Mormonism is not an American religion.

  2. Going down the “authors” list:

    Cuban, Communist, Yank, Yank, Floridian, Venezuelan, Mormon, Arab, Canuck, Yank, Finn, Spaniard, Welshman, Communist, Yank, Yank.

    That’s pretty good, actually.

  3. Ugly Mahana says:

    Not an American blog?! I guess I’m OK with that, as long as we can still insult Canadians.

  4. Steve – Canadians are like the 52nd state to us anyway. (Sorry! You’re just behind the Puerto Ricans!)

    I’m reminded of something one of the bretheren said in General Conference a little while ago:

    English is the language of the Restoration. English with a accent shows the growth of the church.

    I didn’t use either, mostly because I don’t remember the exact quote, but I didn’t want to offend any particular side in this question (except Canadians, cuz they deserve it!)

  5. To the more serious point: Mormonism, and your adoption of it, cannot and should not be Americanized. I believe that the vitality of Mormonism depends on it.

  6. Thank-you, Sir Stephen of Alberta. There is a serious point in there somewhere.

  7. Canadians and their pencil-crayons. I guess I didn’t realize that Brits got the same Friend as Americans. Despite the economy of it, I find that a bit sad.

  8. RonanJH, dude/mate/whatever:

    In comment # 2 you call Steve a Yank, in # 6 it is Sir Stephen of Alberta. Do those Welsh maps show that Alberta is part of the USA?

    But Steve is right, we’re all counting on you to not assimilate.

  9. For the record, I think it would rock if we got a “British” Ensign on occasion.

  10. ahhhhhhh pencil-crayons. Thanks for the memory J.

    In many ways Ronan’s question gets at the heart of things in our faith: where does culture/folklore end and where does doctrine and real worship begin? I’m of the camp that draws the line more strictly – I do not like to commingle things, and I like a Church with a short and sweet core series of Gospel principles that don’t involve Divine Constitutions or Ward Basketball. That’s not so say that I don’t enjoy those cultural trappings, but I do want to keep them away from my Mormonism.

    The ‘sacred tongue’ issue is more complex. Clearly the D&C teaches that God speaks to all in the language they understand, but the lesson is more complicated than this. We rely on the KJV translation; we require specific language forms in prayer; etc., etc. So language clearly does matter. Not sure how this resolves itself.

  11. J.

    We get all the same material as you but with a small British Isles insert in the Ensign. Over at the Gadfield Elm chapel there’s a stack of old Millennial Stars which, although they duplicated a lot of central content, were very much a local enterprise.

    There’s an interesting interview with the head of church magazines in the latest British insert. He admits that economies of scale mean that the church prefers to have one English language stream, and that it will retain Americanisations, but said that they are anxious to receive content from ‘the field’. / (“the field.”) In fact, he suggested a policy of affirmative action: non-American Anglophone material will go to the top of the slush pile.

  12. Mark,
    Funnily enough, a great-great grandfather of mine was from Alberta and married a Welshwoman before settling in Wales. As for Stephen, I just like giving him a hard time for having betrayed the Queen by choosing Wa. over BC.

  13. Ronan, it’s simple economics my man. I remain a comfortable drive from the border.

  14. Americans don’t have pencil crayons?

  15. Ronan,

    But we can’t hear how you mispronounce garage when you blog, so you better keep your silly inverted commas, so we all ‘realise’ you’re still a Brit. Too many Monty Python clips come to mind, or should we just start calling you Basil Fawlty?

  16. I would be honoured to be called Basil Fawlty. As for garage, how do you pronounce /cabbage/, mate?

  17. Ronan, “Stinky green vegetable”.

  18. In my entire life I have never heard of pencil crayons. Are they anything like colored (or coloured) pencils?

  19. Also, Ronan, I had to read the entire post to even understand what you meant when you said ‘single inverted comma’. If I were to drop by your hometown and say ‘single quotes’ or ‘double quotes’, would people think I came from Mars?

  20. Yes, Mark, these are found in the pencil cases of all Canadian children

  21. Laurentiens! Wow, Kris, the memories.

    Yes, coloured pencils are pencil crayons.

  22. I love the idiosynchracies we all bring. I would miss it if RJH replaced his s’s with z’s, and stopped adding the extraneous _u_ here and there.

  23. So what do I make of my co-mingled usage? Whenever I’m not getting graded, I like to use the American quotation marks (inverted comma?) with the British punctuation model. (“Ronan”, he said, “can you please stop calling everyone ‘mate’ and learn to say ‘dude’ instead?” I replied, “No, I just want to use ‘mate’ instead of ‘dude’.”)

    My mother is a Westover whose mother was a Hudson. I guess that explains it.

  24. English is the language of the Restoration; English is the language of the Church hierarchy and foundation language of the Church publications; the language of the Gospel is whatever you speak and hear and feel, imo.

  25. I agree with Ray on the Church versus gospel thing. Since the church is based in America, it would logically flow that publications are in American English.

    I’m always interested in which Bible other cultures use. The church uses the KJV for English speakers but that doesn’t work when your Bible is in French or Swedish.

    I’m fine with either usage of inverted commas. However, don’t start writing “it’s” when you mean “its” as in the possessive pronoun. It just kills me to see it in writing down here in Sydney. It’s assumed that if it’s a possessive, you need an apostrophe but we don’t write “her’s” or “their’s.” Right?

  26. Misty, you are lost down under. Just be grateful they use written language at all! Return to the refuge of the States as soon as you can.

  27. p.s. tell Rick to shave — he looks like he is putting the musk in Musketeer.

  28. I don’t much care what is the language of the Church, so long as we’re all in agreement that English is the language of air traffic control.

  29. Does it matter much on a blog called, By Comma Consent?

  30. I’m in my 30s and now my son is using my beloved Laurentiens. I suspect the pinkish color “Natural Flesh” has been replaced with something more friendly to all skin pigmentations.

    I guess magazines need to follow a style guide, but in general, let’s not over-homogenize. I do like how the church magazines provide measurements in both metric and imperial units.

    As for church magazines and Deseret Book etc., one thing we need is more uncorrelated international voices that are not portrayed as exotic. Right now, I think each issue of the Ensign showcases an area outside the U.S., written by a church magazines staff member. I was excited to see an article in the 2006 Ensign about Denmark, and thought I might send it to my relatives there. But although the article included many short quotations from LDS members in Denmark, it seemed to frame societal issues with an American audience in mind. The article quickly passed judgment on Denmark’s legal drinking age (16). The article explored how hard it is to live the law of chastity in such a permissive society. It frowned on the Danes’ tendency to keep “religion a private matter:” such privacy is incompatible with agressive missionary work. To be clear, I’m not advocating a lower drinking age or a more lax sexual ethic, nor am I proscribing the proper place for religion in a person’s life, but it was clear that the standard for comparison in many of these articles, the unmarked case, is the American one. I know it’s hard to please everybody, but I never did send the article to my cousins. :(

  31. What do you do if you’re happily American but such a literalist that you’re offended by the idea of putting punctuation inside of a quotation even though it wasn’t in the original just because some prescriptive grammarian thought it was better? (Actually, wikipedia claims it was for typographical reasons but I’ll stick with my righteous indignation against grammarians.)

    Then again, I believe I’ve heard the British style referred to as the “logical” style (although that was probably by a British publication).

    I personally wouldn’t even notice if you used British punctuation styles and I’ve gotten pretty accustomed to British spellings such that I rarely notice them. So I would recommend you do what is most comfortable to you and hope that this blog doesn’t attract the sort who get too pedantic about these kinds of things.

  32. Are they really called “inverted commas” and not “quotation marks”?

  33. I have a testimony that the punctuation in the Book of Mormon is true.

  34. It is mightily funny, and not a little ironic, that I had no idea that “inverted comma” is British.

    Joanne, your comment is true.

  35. At the international school, we teach students to choose one style or the other and to be consistent. I tend to use the British inverted commas because of the location of the quotation marks on the Finnish QWERTY.

    Should I embrace American style?

    No, but you should embrace Love American Style.

  36. My boy is a missionary in England. I see odd words creeping in, such as asking if I could get him a shirt for less than 16 quid, or should he buy one there? If I knew what the heck a quid was, I might answer him. He’s always been a little liberal in his spelling, often quoting Benjamin Franklin, who said something like “Dull is the man who can only find one way to spell a word.” Will he come home spouting extra “u”s and oddly placed “z”s? I forgot about punctuation—thanks for one more thing to fret about….

    A current worry is the baptisms he has scheduled for Friday, in the OCEAN. If you have to move ice away, is this really a smart idea? Does the Lord care if they wait until spring thaw?!

  37. Deb,
    Where’s your boy serving?

  38. how about it doesn’t mather as long as you’re consistent

  39. Actually, Spanish is set to become the ‘majority language’ of the Church sometime in the next several years, so we should all adopt Spanish. Hey, wait, I already know Spanish! Cool! :-) Next question? ..bruce..

  40. Ronan,

    You’re not alone in this. There are plenty of Utah/southern Idaho-centric stories in the Friend to make the rest of us here in the USA sigh each month. One request, however, please have your military start pronouncing “lieutenant” properly. You don’t have people offering replacements “in leff of” other things over there do you?

  41. Ronan, son’s in Birmingham mission, currently in Wales, somewhere. I tried to read a local news site online, but the language made it tough for me to get through a sentence, much less make sense of the article. Maybe spelling is not the main issue…?

  42. Norbert! I had completely forgotten Love American Style. What a blast from the past. I used to sneak out of bed to watch that stupid show as a kid. Yes, Ronan, you definitely must embrace that.

  43. Deb – Ronan and I are in the Birmingham mission. Be sure to tell him if he ever comes to Worcester Ward, to make himself known to us!

  44. Thanks! Son loves his current tiny branch, so I hope he’ll be there a while, but your offer is noted happily!

  45. De repente, todos hablaremos en el lenguaje de Dios (come ya dijo Bruce).

  46. English is the language of the Restoration.

    Which English-only speaking General Authority said this, Ray? Perhaps the Lord is waiting our linguistic awakening before unveiling the additional precepts.

  47. Nice, queuno.

  48. I guess one could make the argument that since the Gold Plates were translated into English, English the source language for all future translations of the Book of Mormon (we would use it to translate the BoM into Klingon, for example).

    And someone has made the comment before (can’t remember which blog) that GC translation is easier if we assume all speakers speak English (although, I think that’s a weak excuse, especially since texts can be submitted in advance).

    And I know that we routinely encourage foreign missionaries to learn English, but I have always felt that was more to aid their economic development than to prepare them for higher Church callings.

    To me, it’s just too Anglo-centric to assume that since Joseph Smith was a native English speaker, we will always be a primarily English church.

    I still find the Book of Mormon to be much prettier in Spanish. I find the evangelist preacher’s exhortations to have a different emotional weight in Spanish. In fact, I find the Book of Mormon generally without a certain emotion, unless I read it in Spanish. (And it’s not just because of my mission. I was fluent in Spanish long before my mission.) There are certain turns of phrase that sound forced in English but flow like water in Spanish.

    What if Joseph Smith had been a québécois relocated to Upstate New York? Would the language of the restoration be a pidgin French-English hybrid?