The Oxford Guide to Style


The Times




Style Issues



On my pages on apostrophes and other style issues I make some recommendations on the use of apostrophes and other matters; people sometimes feel they would like a recognised authority to quote in support of their use.  What they want is a style guide.  These fill a useful niche: there is no regulatory body governing the the use of English (unlike some other languages), so matters of "right" or "wrong" are impossible to resolve definitively – the language is constantly changing, as are people's views on what is correct usage and what isn't.  So dictionaries are mostly descriptive – they describe use rather than make recommendations.  Equally, grammar guides can be helpful, but often don't cover the trickier issues of usage.  So if you want something prescriptive – something which tells you what to do and what to avoid – you need a style guide. Many are available (many publications create their own), and none has any claim to be more right than any other, but the work which became the standard reference in this field was Hart's Rules, published in thirty-nine editions since 1893.  This has now become The Oxford Guide to Style, the OGS, newly published in 2002.

Many of the recommendations I make on my pages derive from advice given in the OGS, and I have copied a few snippets here.  But it's an invaluable work, and I'd advise any serious writer to buy his or her own copy.  Details are here.

5. Punctuation
5.2 Apostrophe
5.2.2 Plurals

  • Do not use the apostrophe when creating plurals.  This includes names, abbreviations (with or without full points), numbers, and words not usually used as nouns:


    the Joneses

    several Hail Marys

    three Johns

    two wet Februarys both the Cambridges B.Litt.s
    QCs SOSs the three Rs
    both Xs 9 yards sixes and sevens
    the Nineties the 1990s whys and wherefores
    ins and outs dos and don'ts tos and fros

    Do not employ what is sometimes known as the 'greengrocer's apostrophe', such as lettuce's for 'lettuces' and cauli's for 'cauliflowers'.

  • Confusion can result when words, letters, or symbols are referred to as objects rather than their meaning, especially when pronunciation may not be immediately clear.  Such items are normally either italicized or set in quotes, with the s set in roman outside any closing quote:


    too many whiches in that sentence

    can't pronounce his ths

    can't tell her Ms from her Ns

    subtract all the xs from the ys

    dos and don'ts

    four 'X's on the label

    as, es, is, os, and us

    'a's, 'e's, 'i's, 'o's, and 'u's

    the 'dt's


    Common sense and context should determine which style to use and whether it is necessary; complicated text may demand a combination of these solutions.


5.13 Quotation marks

Quotation marks, also called 'inverted commas', are of two types: single and double.  British practice is normally to enclose quoted matter between single quotation marks, and to use double quotation marks for a quotation within a quotation:

   'Have you any idea', he said, 'what "dillygrout" is?'

This is the preferred OUP practice for academic books.  The order is often reversed in newspapers, and uniformly in US practice:

    "Have you any idea," he said, "what 'dillygrout' is?"

If another quotation is nested within the second quotation, revert to the original mark, either single-double-single or double-single-double.  When reproducing matter that has been previously set using forms of punctuation differing from house style, editors may in normal writing silently impose changes drawn from a small class of typographical conventions, such as replacing double quotation marks with single ones, standardizing foreign or antiquated constructions, and adjusting final punctuation order.  Do not, however, standardize spelling or other forms of punctuation, nor impose any silent changes in scholarly works concerned with recreating text precisely, such as facsimiles, bibliographic studies, or edited collections of writing or correspondence.

5.13.1 Names and titles

Quotation marks are not used around the names of sacred texts or their subdivisions, musical works identified by description, or houses or public buildings: Chequers, Cosicot, the Barley Mow.

  • Use quotation marks and roman (not italic) type for titles of short poems and of TV and radio programmes, and for titles of chapters in books and articles in periodicals:

        Mr Brock read a paper on 'Description in Poetry'.

        Professor Bradley read a paper on 'Jane Austen's Juvenilia'.

    But omit quotation marks when the subject of the paper is paraphrased or a proper name:

        Mr Brock read a paper on description in poetry.

        Professor Bradley read a paper on Jane Austen.
  • Use quotation marks to enclose an unfamiliar word or phrase, or one to be used in a technical sense.  The effect is similar to that of highlighting the term through italics:

        'Hermeneutics' is the usual term for such interpretation.

        Our subject is the age of Latin literature known as 'Silver'.

    Most often quotation marks should be used only at the first occurrence of the word or phrase in a work; thereafter it may be considered to be fully assimilated.
  • Do not use quotation marks around colloquial or slang words or phrases.  This device, called 'scare quotes', functions simply as a replacement for a sniffy 'so-called', and should be used as rarely:

        They have cut down the trees in the interest of 'progess'.

        Many of these 'hackers' seem rather clever.

    In these examples the quotation marks are used merely to hold up a word for inspection, as if by tongs, providing a cordon sanitaire between the word and the writer's finer sensibilities.  ('You may wish to avert your eyes, gentle reader, whilst I unveil the word "boogie-woogie".')

5.13.2 Relative placing with other punctuation

Except where the matter is quoted for semantic or bibliographic scrutiny, the relationship in British practice between quotation marks and other marks of punctuation is according to the sense.  While the rules are somewhat lengthy to state in full, the common-sense approach is to do nothing that changes the meaning of the quotation or renders it confusing to read.

In US practice, commas and full points are set inside the closing quoation mark regardless of whether they are part of the quoted material.  The resulting ambiguity can cause editorial problems when using material from US sources in British works.

  • When the punctuation mark is not part of the quoted material, as in the case of single words and phrases, place it outside the closing quotation mark.  Usually, only one mark of terminal punctuation is needed.

        They were called 'the Boys from Dover', I am told.

        Why does he use the word 'poison'?

        'What is the use of a book', thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations?'

        Alas, how few of them can say, 'I have striven to the very utmost'!

        But boldly I cried out, 'Woe unto this city!'

  • When the requirements of the quotation marks and the main sentence differ, use the stronger mark.  In the examples below, the question mark supersedes the weaker full point:

        She was heard to mutter, 'Did you do it?'

        Can you verify that John said, 'There is only one key to the room'?
  • When the terminal punctuation of the quoted material and that of the main sentence serve different functions of equal stength or importance, use both:

         She had the nerve to ask 'Why are you here?'!

        Did he really shout 'Stop thief!'?

  • When quoting only part of a sentence or phrase, one can standardize punctuation only by ending a grammatically complete sentence with a full point, the full point then falling within the closing quote.  This is a legitimate change based on the assumption that the reader is more interested in a quotation's meaning in the context into which it is set than in the quotation's original punctuation in the context from which it was taken.  The original passage might read:

        It cannot be done.  We must give up the task.

    One might then quote it as

        He concluded that 'We must give up the task.'

        'It cannot be done,' he concluded.  'We must give up.'

  • When the quotation is long, or made up of more than one sentence, it is better to attach the closing point to the long sentence:

        Jesus said, 'Do not think that I have come to annul the Law and the Prophets; I have come to fulfil them.'

        Moses told you: 'Do not kill.  Do not steal.  Do not commit adultery.'

  • When a sentence-long quotation is used as an explanation or specimen, the full point usually does not fall within the closing quotation mark:

        Cogito, ergo sum means 'I think, therefore I am'.

        We need not 'follow a multitude to do evil'.

        Let A stand for 'There exists at least one tree in real space'.

        He believed in the proverb 'Dead men tell no tales'.

  • When a quotation of a full sentence or longer is followed in text by a reference giving its source in parentheses, the full point falls outside the closing parenthesis, rather than inside the closing quote:

        'If the writer of these pages shall chance to meet with any that shall only study to cavil and pick a quarrel with him, he is prepared beforehand to take no notice of it' (Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, i. 193).

    Different rules apply for displayed quotations; see chapter 8.

5.13.3 Direct speech

In direct speech every change in speaker normally requires a new parapgraph.  A quoted speech may be interrupted at the beginning, middle, or end, by some such interpolation as he said.  The interpolation is usually -- but not always -- set off by a comma introducing the speech, or by commas before and after the interpolation:

  • The placement of a comma should reflect the original speech.  Three quoted extracts -- with and without internal punctuation -- might be:

        Go home to your father.

        Go home, and never come back.

        Yes, we will.  It's a good idea.

    These may be presented:

        'Go home', he said, 'to your father'.

        'Go home,' he said, 'and never come back.'

        'Yes,' he said, 'we will.  It's a good idea.'

    This last may equally be quoted in the following ways:

        He said, 'Yes, we will.  It's a good idea.'

        'Yes, we will,' he said.  'It's a good idea.'

        'Yes, we will.  It's a good idea,' he said.

[Rest of section omitted.]




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