Or speech marks. Or quotation marks. These commas go by many names. Perhaps these should be called “inverted apostrophes”, as they hang way up from the baseline of the text rather than crouching snugly on it.
Many languages have different ways of reporting direct speech in texts, and as you might expect Britons and Americans also manage to use them slightly differently.
In the UK, and some other countries, the single inverted comma is used (‘) to surround pieces of reported speech; in the US, and other places too, they double it up for extra security (“).
Examples of reported speech and inverted commas
‘I say, old man’, he asked. ‘Could you possibly pass me that copy of the Financial Times?’
definitely has more of an old-school-tie feel than
“Sure, buddy,” he replied amiably. “I couldn’t find the funny pages anyhow.”
Either way, it gets slightly more complicated if the reported speech itself contains some quotations of its own. In this situation, writers are expected to switch codes and use the other version of the inverted comma to surround the text quoted within the quote.
Examples of direct speech containing a quote
‘So he said, “Sure, buddy”, and practically threw the blasted thing at me’, Colonel Tweedshank complained.
“The guy was so uptight and British,” laughed the Texan, “that he could hardly spit out a ‘thank you’ when I passed him the paper.”
It sometimes looks a little crowded when the quotation marks sit beside one another, but it is important to be clear to demonstrate who said what, so an eye must be kept alert.
Positioning the comma around inverted commas
And what role does the comma play to support its more flamboyant quotation-marking cousin? As usual, it is used to mark a change in the clause, so it will appear (as you can see above) in between the end of the quote and the clause that describes who spoke; for example, he asked or he replied.
However, once again US and UK writers, broadly speaking, have different conventions about where the commas are placed. In American English, the commas (and full stops for that matter) appear inside the quotation marks; for example, “Sure, buddy,” he replied. In British English the punctuation (including commas) appears outside the inverted commas; for example, ‘I say, old man’, he asked.
Every writer has their own personal preferences, of course, but I’ll just point out that the British system is known as ‘logical punctuation’ and leave it there.