There are a number of differences between British English and American English when it comes to grammar and punctuation, but none is so annoying (to a person on the left side of the ocean) as the rules applying to punctuation adjacent to quotation marks at the end of a sentence.
In this case, the Brits are completely logical. And the Americans are, well, Americans.
I refused to accept this for years, but I’m older and more mellow now, and I try to do what I’m told.
Here are the rules.
If you’re British (and I think but I’m not sure, also Canadian) you do the right thing: Terminal punctuation adjacent to quotation marks goes where it logically makes sense. If it closes whatever’s in the quotation marks, then it goes inside the quotation marks. If it closes the sentence as a whole, then it goes outside the quotation marks. I feel a bit silly including examples since this is so bloody obvious, but, well, maybe not to the Americans. So here you go:
- She let out a scream and cried, “Help!”
- The grammarian sighed. “I can’t help you.”
- “Why on Earth not?”
- What is the definition of the word “abecedarian”?
- [Watch this one carefully] “I don’t know the definition of the word ‘abecedarian’.”
- Here is the definition of “abecedarian”.
Now, for you Americans, the first three of these work the same way. So does the fourth, because the rule is this: regardless of the logic of the sentence, if the terminal punctuation is a question mark or an exclamation point, it goes outside the quotation marks.
But the final two examples are different. If you’re an American, the rule is this: Regardless of the logic of the sentence, if the terminal punctuation is a period or a comma, it goes inside the quotation marks.
- [Watch this one carefully] “I don’t know the definition of the word ‘abecedarian.’”
- Here is the definition of “abecedarian.”
Oh, that last one really hurts.