“Logical punctuation”.

Cool graphic from blog.Tuesday.com

Up to this point, Not One-Off Britishisms has concentrated exclusively on words and phrases. But there are other sorts of Britishisms. One them is punctuation, and the one British custom that has been widely adopted here has to do with the placement of periods and commas vis a vis quotation marks.

The day before yesterday, I published an essay about this in the online magazine Slate.com. As of today, it is the most e-mailed and most read article on the whole site, with more than 11,000 “like”s and some 35o comments (many of them heated). Who knew that punctuation could inspire such passion?

Anyway, here’s how it starts:

For at least two centuries, it has been standard practice in the United States to place commas and periods inside of quotation marks. This rule still holds for professionally edited prose: what you’ll find in Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post—almost any place adhering to Modern Language Association (MLA) or AP guidelines. But in copy-editor-free zones—the Web and emails, student papers, business memos—with increasing frequency, commas and periods find themselves on the outside of quotation marks, looking in. A punctuation paradigm is shifting.

Indeed, unless you associate exclusively with editors and prescriptivists, you can find copious examples of the “outside” technique—which readers of Virginia Woolf and The Guardian will recognize as the British style—no further away than your Twitter or Facebook feed. I certainly can. Conan O’Brien, for example, recently posted:

Conan’s staffers’ kids say the darndest things. Unfor- tunately, in this case  “darndest” means “incriminating”.

The British style also rules on message boards and bulletin boards. I scanned four random posts in Metafilter.com (about Sony Playstation’s hacking problems, the death of Phoebe Snow, the French police, and cool dads) and counted nine comments with periods and commas outside, seven inside.

I spotlight the Web not because it brings out any special proclivities but because it displays in a clear light the way we write now. The punctuation-outside trend jibes with my experience in the classroom, where, for the past several years, my students have found it irresistible, even after innumerable sardonic remarks from me that we are in Delaware, not Liverpool. As a result, I have recently instituted a one-point penalty on every assignment for infractions. The current semester is nearing its end, but I am still taking points away.

You can read the rest of the article here.

14 thoughts on ““Logical punctuation”.

  1. My understanding of British usage of quotation marks is this:
    “Do a full sentence outside.” But do a short quote “first”.

    The last sentence in “Logical Punctuation” [Slate, May 12, 2011] appears to me to be a full sentence.
    As a wise man once said, “You pays your money, and you takes your choice”.

    Why is it not punctuated in the British style for full sentences with the quotation mark outside? Why is inconsistent with the Jane Austin quote earlier in the same paragraph?

    1. That IS the British style. Although the quote appears to have been a complete sentence originally, and is still capable of being one, in the article it is part of a longer sentence beginning with ‘As’. You will only find a full stop inside quotation marks if the beginning of the sentence (ie the point after the previous full stop or at the beginning of the paragraph) is within the corresponding quotation mark. So: He said “OK”.

      However, if the quote ends with a ? or ! there is no full stop after the quotation mark. So: He said: “Yes!” This is done not because it’s logical but because it looks neater than having two end-of-sentence marks close together.

      I think the Jane Austen quote is probably inconsistent because Ben at that point was writing as an American (although maybe he forgot, or remembered but a sub-editor (copy editor) got hold of it). In any case, it is, as you noticed, not British punctuation.

  2. As a wise man once said, “You pays your money, and you takes your choice”.
    That is surely punctuated logically; the whole sentence is not speech, only part of it. Whereas:
    “You pays your money,” a wise man once said, “and you takes your choice.”

  3. Is there a reason why you didn’t put a poll on this article, as you did for the other words? I’m assuming it’s because you know full well that people would vote that it was “Perfectly fine”. You don’t want that, because you yourself don’t like it!

  4. This has confused me for years – ever since I lived in Canada for four years. They spell and punctuate mostly in the British fashion. I can recall being taken to task over where to place the period when doing a document review in Canada with one of my technical writing teams. I have found myself doing it both ways and probably incorrectly ever since. I think I will stick with the British method since it seems more “posh”. Or, is it, “posh.” 🙂

  5. It looks ridiculous to my eye to have punctuation inside the quote if the whole sentence is not a quote. I was taught that the punctuation belongs to the whole sentence and should not go inside the quotes unless it is actually part of the quote itself. Hence “it would do”, she said. “I think it would do.”

  6. I wonder how much it’s people’s experience of programming that has led this change. Once you get used to putting the semicolon after the closing double quote it becomes natural to put the full stop after the closing quotation mark. The fact that the web is leading the change is suggestive.

  7. When we’re quoting a complete sentence, we’re essentially nesting one sentence in another. E.g.,
    He said X.
    where X stands for a quoted sentence.
    Wouldn’t it be logical (albeit not correct according to existing rules) for each sentence to always have its own end mark (?, !, or .)? E.g.,

    She was stunned when he asked, “May I have this dance?”!
    Will he regret saying, “I hate you!”?
    Was she just being polite when she asked, “How are you?”?
    He said, “I’m tired.”.
    “That’s right.”, she said.

    Another way of thinking about this is by analogy with the use of parentheses. We can think of the capitalized first letter of a sentence as analogous to the opening parenthesis, and the end mark as analogous to the closing parenthesis. For each opening parenthesis, there must be a corresponding closing parenthesis (which must come immediately–whitespace aside–after what it is enclosing).

  8. If I am quoting within my own sentence it makes sense to have the full stop outside of the quote. That’s because the sentence belongs to me, not to the person(s) I’m quoting. For example:

    The Hollywood film actor Tom Cruise says, “I’m passionate about learning. I’m passionate about life”.

  9. Speaking as somebody who spent almost his entire working life in the computing industry, and used many computer languages where syntax rules, then the British method is surely the logical one. Quotation marks ought to uniquely define the content of something, and if there is punctuation within those quotation marks, then they ought only to be there if they belong to that content. With the US usage, the punctuation marks inserted into between the quotation marks don’t belong there. They are part of the wider sentence structure.

    It’s rather like the use of parenthesis in mathematical formula (betraying more of my background).

    Of course, I might be rather biased as I am British. However, if it helps I will publicly state that the US sidewalk is more logical than is the British pavement. What’s more, the British have got lazy and dropped the “under” from underpants, so the US usage is surely the correct one. However, when it comes to those full-stops/periods and commas that stray between the quotation marks, then I say send them back to where they belong.

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