Oxford Writing Style

Guide to the Oxford Writing Style

This guide provides recommendations on how to use apostrophes (see the relevant section on apostrophes) and on other citation matters. Writers often feel their work would benefit by having supporting quotations from a recognized and respected authority in a given field. Therefore, what is required is a style manual or guide. These fulfill a useful purpose. There is no specific body that governs or regulates the use of the English language as is the case with certain other languages.

Hence, it can be impossible to definitively resolve issues concerning “right” and “wrong” usage in terms of citation and/or writing styles. The English language is forever changing as is the case with views on what does or does not constitute correct use. While dictionaries generally provide descriptions, their role is to describe what words mean rather than recommend how they should be used. Likewise, while grammar usage guides are usually helpful, they do not normally deal with tricky questions on usage. So, if your aim is to find a guide that is prescriptive i.e. one that suggests what you should or should not do, what you need is a style manual or guide. There are many of these available since most styles issue their own, and none can claim to be more authoritative or correct than another. However, one referencing style that has become standard is the Oxford style. The rules for this are set out in the Oxford Guide to Style (OGS), which has developed over the years (from 1893 in fact and from the initial title of Hart’s Rules) right down through 39 editions to 2002 when the last publication was made available. A lot of the recommendations made here are based on OGS guidelines, and the result is an invaluable quick guide.

Punctuation Use of Apostrophes and Plurals 

Apostrophes should not be used in plural words, including abbreviations, names (with complete points or without), numbers, and in words that are not generally used in the form of nouns. Examples: 

  • Both the Joneses
  • Dos and don’ts
  • Fives and sixes
  • JPs
  • PhDs
  • Several Our Fathers
  • SOSs
  • Three dry Januarys
  • The Eighties
  • The ins and outs
  • The three Rs
  • The tos and fros
  • Three Marys
  • Two Xs
  • Whys and whatnots
  • 1980s
  • 10 yards 

Avoid what is at times called the ‘greengrocer’ apostrophe i.e. using such words as cauli’s (for cauliflowers) and lettuce’s. Some people get confused when letters, words, symbols, and the like are referenced as objects as opposed to what they mean, particularly where pronunciation is unclear. Items like these are usually placed either in quotation marks or italics, with the ‘s’ presented in roman typeface outside the close-out quote. For example: 

  • Cannot distinguish his Ns from Ms
  • Difficulty writing her vowels, e.g., ‘a’s, ‘i’s, ‘e’s, ‘o’s, and ‘u’s
  • Divide all the ys by the xs
  • Excessive whiches in this sentence
  • Six ‘X’s in the box
  • The dos and don’ts of the matter 

Context and common sense usually determine the best style to apply and whether it is needed. Complex texts may need a combination of word/apostrophe choices. 

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Use of Quotation Marks 

Also known as, ‘inverted’ commas, quotation marks come in double and single types. Practice in Britain is usually to place quoted material within quotation marks of the single variety, and to place quotes within quotes within double quotation marks. For example: 

‘Do you know,’ he asked, ‘what “the cloud” is?’ 

This practice is the one preferred by Oxford University Press in the case of academic texts.  It is also usual practice to reverse this order for newspaper writing and in the United States: 

“Do you know,” he asked, ‘what ‘the cloud’ is?” 

Where an additional quote is embedded within a second quote, the recommendation is to revert to the first type of quotation mark, whether this is single or double. If you are reproducing or reusing material that has already been set in one type of marking that differs from a house style, editors or editing companies may quietly implement changes using their own group of typographical rules. These may include exchanging single and double quotation marks, modifying the order of the final punctuation marks, and standardizing antiquated or foreign constructions. However, you should not standardize such elements as spelling and other punctuation types, or impose any quiet changes in academic works where the purpose is to precisely recreate texts, e.g., in the case of bibliographies, facsimiles, or collections of correspondence or written works that have been edited.

Titles and Names 

It is not common practice to place the names of holy or sacred texts (or their sub-sections) in quotation marks. The same applies to houses and public or state buildings or to musical pieces that are identified by descriptions, e.g., Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and so on. 

Quotation marks, as well as roman (rather than italic) typeface should be used for noting the titles of short pieces of poetry and for the titles of radio and television programs. This rule also applies to book chapters and periodical articles. For example:

Dr Jones studied a paper on ‘Poetry Descriptions’. 

Mr Hoffman read an essay on ‘Charles Dicken’s Life’. 

However, quotation marks should be omitted where a paper’s subject is a proper name or paraphrased. For example: 

Dr Jones studied a paper on poetry descriptions.

Mr Hoffman read an essay on Charles Dickens. 

Quotation marks should be used to encase unfamiliar words and/or phrases, or ones that are used in a technical capacity. This practice is the same as using italics to highlight a word or phrase. Example: 

The accept term for this type of interpretation is ‘Hermeneutics’.

 ‘Silver’ is our subject and it concerns age in terms of Latin literature. 

Quotation marks should only be used when the word or phrase first appears in a written work. After that, it can be considered to be accepted or integrated. 

Quotation marks should not be used to highlight slang words and phrases or colloquialisms. This method is known as a ‘scare’ quote and acts purely to replace ‘so-called’ words or phrases. Therefore, it should be sparingly used. Example: 

In the name of ‘improvement,’ they felled the trees. 

It would seem a lot of these email ‘hackers’ are quite clever. 

The quotation marks in the above examples are purely used to draw attention to a word as if to provide a barrier between the word or phrase and the finer feelings of the writer  (“Dear reader, ‘You might want to adjust your gaze while I reveal this uncivil word’.”

See also: “Turabian citation style”

Using Quotes Relative to Other Punctuation Marks 

Unless you are quoting subject matter for bibliographic or semantic reasons, the use of quotation marks in conjunction with other punctuation marks is down to a text making sense (at least in the UK’s use of English). Although punctuation rules are too long to fully describe, the sensible thing is not to do anything that alters a quotation’s meaning or makes it too confusing for readers. 

In the USA, it is common practice to place comma marks and complete points inside the last quotation mark irrespective of whether these belong to the material being quoted. The ambiguity that results can lead to editing problems when citing US source material in a British text or work. Where a punctuation mark does not belong to quoted materials, e.g., as happens with single phrases and/or words, it should be placed outside the last quotation mark. Mostly, just one closing punctuation mark is required. Example: 

The group was known as ‘the Show Girls’, I have been told. 

For what reason does she use the term ‘toxic’?

‘What purpose does a book serve’, thought Jennifer, ‘if it has no dialog or pictures?’ 

Sadly, very few people are able to say, ‘I did my very best’! 

But irrationally he shouted out, ‘A curse upon this place!’ 

When there are differences between what the quotation marks and the primary sentence require, the more emphatic mark should be used. The following examples show how question marks overtake the weakest complete point:   

He was overheard whispering, ‘Are you guilty?’ 

Are you able to confirm that Sadie said, ‘Has this room got a master key’? 

Where the last punctuation mark of a quotation and that of the primary sentence have different purposes that are equally important and valid, both marks can be used. Example: 

He had the cheek to inquire ‘What are you doing here?’!

Did she truly scream ‘Stop the train!’? 

When only some of a phrase or sentence needs to be quoted, the punctuation can only be standardized by completing a grammatically correct sentence with a complete point, with that point coming within the last quote. This alteration is legitimate only when it can be assumed readers have more interest in the meaning of the quotation in the context it is set in rather than in the context of the original punctuation. For example, this might be the original text: 

This must not be undertaken.  We must relinquish this task.

The quotation might then read:

She decided that ‘We must relinquish this task.’

‘The task cannot be undertaken,’ she decided.  ‘We must relinquish it.’ 

In the case of long quotations, or those comprised of more sentences than one, the recommended option is to place the closing-out point at the end of the lengthy sentence. Example: 

He said, ‘Do not believe that I am here to abolish the Prophets and the Law; Rather, I am here to fulfill these.’ 

The Lord said to you: ‘Thou shalt not kill.  Thou shalt not bear false witness.  Thou shalt not become an adulterer.’ 

Where a quotation of one sentence long is needed for illustration or explanatory purposes, the final punctuation mark does not usually fall inside the last quotation mark. Example:   

The Latin term means ‘I, therefore, think I am’. 

It is not necessary to ‘follow the crowd to commit an evil act’. 

Let X mean ‘At least one real tree lives in space’. 

He seemed to believe the old saying ‘Dead people cannot tell tales’. 

In the case of quotations that are whole sentences long or even longer, and have a parenthesized reference after them, the closing point is placed outside the last parenthesis bracket and not inside the final quotation mark. Example: 

‘In the event a writer chances upon anyone who quarrels with his work, it is advised he prepares himself beforehand not to take notice’ (The works of James and Winifred Chaney, ii. 201). 

There are different conventions for displayed or shown quotations (as outlined in another chapter of the style manner).


Citing Dialog or Direct Speech 

When quoting direct speech, it is usual to begin a new paragraph when there is a change in the person who is speaking. It is permissible to interrupt speech at the start, mid-way, or at the end by an interpolation (break) such as ‘she said’. These breaks usually start, although there are exceptions, with a comma to introduce the speech, or by placing commas prior to and following the break. Where the comma is placed tends to indicate the beginning of the speech. An example of three pieces of quoted speech, both with punctuation and without, could be as follows: 

Go back to your parents. 

Go back to your parents, and never return here. 

Yes indeed, we should do that.  It is an excellent idea. 

These phrases could be shown in direct speech as: 

‘Go back’, she said, ‘to your parents’. 

‘Go back to your parents,’ she said, ‘and never return here.’ 

‘Yes indeed,’ they said, ‘we should do that.  It is an excellent idea.’ 

The last piece of speech could also be quoted in these different ways:

They said, ‘Yes indeed, we should do that.  It is an excellent idea.’ 

‘Yes indeed, we should do that,’ they said.  ‘It is an excellent idea.’

‘Yes indeed, we should do that.  It is an excellent idea,’ they said.

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