• 4-minute read
  • 1st April 2020

3 Differences Between Australian and American Punctuation

Most people are aware of the spelling and grammar differences between Australian and American English. But did you know that there are punctuation differences, too? For example, three differences between Australian and American punctuation that you may want to keep in mind include:

  1. How we use quote marks and punctuation surrounding quote marks.
  2. Use of the Oxford comma (or serial comma, as it is known in the US).
  3. How we punctuate abbreviated titles like ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’.

We’ll now look at how these work on different continents!

1. Quote Marks

The biggest difference between Australian and American punctuation is related to quotations. This covers two distinct issues:

  • Whether to favour ‘single’ or “double” quotation marks.
  • Whether to place punctuation inside or outside of quotation marks.

In Australian English, we typically use single quote marks for the main quote. We would then use double quote marks for a quote within a quote. But this is the other way around in American English:

Australian English: Smith (2001, p. 34) writes that witnesses heard someone shout Duck! loudly before the explosion.

American English: Smith (2001, p. 34) writes that that witnesses heard someone shout Duck! loudly before the explosion.

In addition, Australian English only places punctuation within quote marks if it is part of the original text. American punctuation rules, meanwhile, require all commas and full stops to be given within quote marks:

Australian English: Smith (2001, p.35) also reports that witnesses ‘suffered headaches’, as well as experiencing ‘feelings of nausea’.

American English: Smith (2001, p.35) also reports that witnesses “suffered headaches,” as well as experiencing “feelings of nausea.

Here, for instance, we see that the Australian English version places the comma and full stop outside of the quote marks, which tells they were not originally part of the text being quoted.

2. The Oxford/Serial Comma

The Oxford comma (also known as the ‘serial comma’ in the US) is a comma placed before the last item in a list of three or more things. Sometimes, this can help ensure clarity. For instance:

I’m going out with my brothers, Tim and Dave.

This sentence is ambiguous. Is it a list of three items? Or are my brothers named Tim and Dave? We can clarify this instantly by adding an Oxford comma before ‘Dave’, as shown below:

I’m going out with my brothers, Tim, and Dave.

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Here, we can easily see that ‘my brothers’, ‘Tim’ and ‘Dave’ are all separate people. Australian and American English both use the Oxford comma like this, but they differ on when it is used:

  • Typically, in Australian English, we only use an Oxford comma when a list would be unclear without one, such as in the example sentence above.
  • In American English, it is often standard to use an Oxford comma in lists.

You will find exceptions to this rule, as some people have strong feelings about the Oxford comma. However, it remains a good general guideline to follow if you’re unsure when to use one in your own writing.

3. Full Stops After Titles

Finally, we have the use of full stops (or ‘periods’) after abbreviated titles.

The difference here is that Australian English does not place a full stop after a title when it ends with the same letter as the full version (e.g. ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Dr’), whereas American English does:

Australian English: Mr and Mrs Douglas walked home.

American English: Mr. and Mrs. Douglas walked home.

In Australian English, we only use a full stop when a shortened title does not end with the last letter of the full term (e.g. when we shorten ‘Professor’ to ‘Prof.’). American English, meanwhile, requires a full stop for all abbreviations:

Australian English: Dr Douglas wrote a letter to Prof. Edwards.

American English: Dr. Douglas wrote a letter to Prof. Edwards.

Consistency Is King!

The rules above cover punctuation conventions in Australian and American English. These are, however, quite flexible. As such, if you want to use an Oxford comma in all your lists, feel free. You might upset a few patriotic pedants, but it is not wrong to use the Oxford comma in Australian English.

You do, however, need to be consistent. For example, if you use single quote marks for the first quote in an essay, make sure to use the same style throughout. This will help to ensure two things:

  • Your writing looks professional and demonstrates attention to detail.
  • Your reader will know exactly how punctuation is being used.

This applies to both Australian and American punctuation. And if you’d like help checking the punctuation in your written work, just let us know.

Comments (3)
21st January 2022 at 11:19
I didn't think in Australian English, we were supposed to use a comma before 'and'. Now I'm really confused! You would just write/list the last thing without it because I genuinely thought that was the proper rule. 🤔 Could it have been at one time and it has changed to become acceptable?
    21st January 2022 at 11:29
    So just to clarify, if the writer was ONLY going out with his brothers whose names were that mentioned above, would another acceptable way to write that sentence to relay that meaning be the following? I’m going out with my brothers Tim and Dave. i e. Without the comma after 'brothers'.
      21st January 2022 at 17:36
      Hi, AJ. As we discuss in the post, the Oxford/serial comma is not typically standard in Australian English unless it is necessary for clarity. But it has been fairly common in all English dialects since the 1890s, when the Oxford University Press started using it. In relation to your example, the answer is that you would still need a comma before 'Tim and Dave' if they were your only brothers: i.e. 'I’m going out with my brothers, Tim and Dave.' But this comma isn't a serial comma, since you're not dealing with a list there. Rather, another common use of a comma is to introduce additional information that isn't essential to the sentence (i.e. adding 'Tim and Dave' to the sentence doesn't change its basic meaning, but it gives us some extra detail by telling us the brothers' names). The point of the serial comma is that you can clearly show the difference between 'my brothers, Tim and Dave' (where 'Tim and Dave' names the brothers) and 'my brothers, Tim, and Dave' (where Tim, Dave, and the brothers are all separate items in a list, as indicated by the extra comma). The only time you would write the sentence without a comma is if you were referring to two out of a larger numbers of brothers, as then the names would be essential to understanding the meaning of the sentence (i.e. it would effectively mean 'I’m going out with my brothers Tim and Dave, but not my other brothers', with the 'Tim and Dave' detail serving to specify which brothers you have in mind). This is known as the difference between a restrictive modifier (one that is essential to identifying something or someone mentioned in a sentence) and a non-restrictive modifier (one that simply adds extra information, meaning it should be set off with commas). You can find a summary of how these differ here: https://style.mla.org/restrictive-nonrestrictive/ I hope that helps slightly!

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