Logical Punctuation Isn’t the Logical Choice

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An American university professor recently wrote a piece for the online publication Slate about the illogic of the American system of punctuating in conjunction with quotation marks. His argument: Although traditional print publications and many corporate and organizational Web sites largely observe this system, the explosion of informal writing (email, chat, blogs, and personal or “amateur” Web sites) is changing the game, and perhaps it’s time to concede victory to the masses.

The status quo in professional publishing is to employ, when using quotation marks, commas and periods as follows: “In American English,” he said, “commas and periods almost never follow quotation marks.” Certain exceptions, such as precisely framing philosophical or etymological terms by excluding punctuation that is part of the general narrative, have been tolerated because they do not affect mainstream usage.

However, computer programming also requires excluding punctuation from within quotation marks unless it is part of a code or a command (whether as a punctuation mark or for another function, as when a semicolon is used as part of ASCII code). Some print and online publications adopt this style in references to search terms (as in “Search for ‘logical punctuation’.”) because they believe it necessary to emphasize that the period isn’t part of the search term. (Sigh.)

But the greatest sea change in punctuation vis-a-vis quotation marks is a populist uprising: The hoi polloi, it seems, can’t seem to get this convention straight, or can’t be bothered about it. (I’m not being snobbish; I make mistakes, too, and I have to look a lot of things up. But by the same token, capitalization rules seem to flummox many lay writers, so perhaps we should abolish the uppercase alphabet as well.)

Thus, in a variety of self-publishing platforms — online, in self-produced e-books and print publications, in online communication modes — as well as in marketing materials and business correspondence, many writers place commas and periods outside quotation marks.

This system is quite common, of course, even in formal publications: It’s a convention in the British-English world, though it’s less prevalent and more subtle than you might think. (I didn’t know the particulars until I read the essay in question and did some research.)

The nuance is that the rules of British English don’t always call for placing commas and periods outside quotation marks: If the quoted material is in itself a complete thought, the punctuation goes inside. But beyond the fact that this complicates things, because it’s not always apparent whether a quotation is complete or incomplete, many British publications adhere to the same style that predominates in American publications.

So, it’s not so simple to blithely convert to so-called logical punctuation, which isn’t quite logical — or, at least, isn’t any more intuitive than the traditional American system. And that system is inconsistent: Place commas and periods inside quotation marks, but semicolons and colons go outside. Em dashes, question marks, and exclamation points go inside or outside depending on whether they’re part of the context of the quoted material (shades of logical punctuation).

What, then, do we do? How about business as usual? American writers, consult an American style guide. British writers (and others who adhere to British English), consult a British style guide.

And for those who advocate following popular as opposed to professional usage: Do whatever you please, but don’t expect the overwhelming majority of American book, magazine, and newspaper publishers, as well as the producers of professionally edited (and US-based) Web sites, to abandon a system that, while imperfect, works perfectly well if you follow a few simple rules. (This site discusses those rules in various posts; search for “quotation marks.” But leave out the period, right?)

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18 thoughts on “Logical Punctuation Isn’t the Logical Choice”

  1. The author of the Slate article clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He claims the “American” style “was instituted in the early days of the Republic …”, but it had been the standard in English-language printing since before America was (re)discovered. The use of so-called “British” style in Britain is quite recent.

    What, then, do we do? How about business as usual? American writers, consult an American style guide

    It probably wouldn’t hurt for Americans to catch up with the modern world, for a change, though. Still measuring things in inches and pints…it’s like something from the 19th century… 🙂

  2. I think it’s generally a mistake to abandon the “right way” of doing things simply because a majority of people—who don’t particularly *care* if they’re doing it right or not—aren’t doing it the “right way.”

    I think professional writers should hold themselves to a higher standard, generally, and “set a good example” for the general public. This is what we do for a living, so we should do it properly; unless, of course, we’re breaking “the rules” to serve a particular purpose.

  3. Criticsise and avoid the BrE style as much as you like, but I fail to see why “logical” is not an appropriate label for it.

    Perhaps it is because I am a Brit, who only became aware of US punctuation differences as an adult, but BrE style seems far more logical to me. It is also more consistent with where question and exclamation marks are placed in relation to quotation marks, and the way you punctuate parentheses.

    I find the occasions where “it’s not always apparent whether a quotation is complete or incomplete” are too rare to worry about and I’d be interested to know which British publications use the AmE style (evidently I haven’t been paying attention).

    I don’t think the issue of whether US writers and publishers should bow to the masses and follow BrE style is analogous to abandoning capitalisation. You give examples of cases where the US style doesn’t work, which leaves you with an odd mix of both styles; no wonder people are confused. Surely consistency, without loss of clarity, is a worthy aim?

    Meanwhile, “American writers, consult an American style guide. British writers (and others who adhere to British English), consult a British style guide.”

  4. I concur with coffeemonk. Professional writers need not worry about what the amateurs are doing — especially those who confuse aisle and isle!!! (see my comment to yesterday’s post)

    Further, the professional writer will deliver a text that meets the customer’ standards. If it’s for a British publication, deliver the text in the British style. If it’s an American publication, follow the American rules.

    Is this a problem?

  5. I think it’s generally a mistake to abandon the “right way” of doing things simply because a majority of people—who don’t particularly *care* if they’re doing it right or not—aren’t doing it the “right way.”

    What’s “the right way”? Presumably the traditional (“American”) way? That came out of typographical considerations; everybody who’s ever bothered to put down their thoughts on the subject has always considered it weird and inconsistent; it just looked better in print. But (a) nobody is really concerned with beautiful typesetting any more (see the almost-universality of French spacing in modern books, for example), and (b) it may no longer be the case anyway, with modern typefaces and placement technology. So what’s “right” about it?

    I find the occasions where “it’s not always apparent whether a quotation is complete or incomplete” are too rare to worry about

    And it’s an utterly specious argument, anyway; it’s obvious by the placement of punctuation whether the quotation is complete or not…the only problem is when converting from traditional style, which throws away the information. If you don’t throw it away in the first place, there’s no loss!

  6. >>What’s “the right way”? […] it may no longer be the case anyway […]. So what’s “right” about it?<<
    This is one of those big questions I struggle with daily, along with "why are we here?" and "is there a God?" and "What's up with all this 'reality' television?"

    Why do the standards of English matter at all, and who decides if they should change? Why is it not enough to simply be understood? Why SHOULD it "her and me" and not "me and her"? When is following a rule a worthy tradition, and when is it merely the hobgoblin of little minds?

  7. The silliness of abandoning conventional English usage will ultimately lead to chaos–and it is that kind of chaos that eventually hinders communication. Giving over to the hoi polloi who can’t be bothered to follow a few simple rules clearly demonstrates the instability of a culture, and not the maturity of a culture.

    One obvious sign of the creeping up of this instability, for example, is the apparent abandoning of the simple American past tense for see, “I saw.” Daily, I watch television and participate in the American big city street seen, and I hear constantly “I seen” as the first person past tense stated by so many. From traffic crash witnesses to newscasters–not reading copy–to members of Congress and the cabinet and even the president himself, and professional and college athletes and housewives and UFO witnesses, we hear the new constant, “I seen the guy when . . . ”

    How can we teach the upcoming generations the proper forms of communications when the American street is working so hard to destabilize the language? One of the things that Gibbon noted as the Roman Empire began to collapse, was the disintegration of religious belief and practice. Eventually, Roman could not speak to Roman about religious faith because there were just too many hindrances. Relativism begat relativism. I think that is beginning to happen to our language.

  8. When it comes to logic, to this Brit the British English system wins hands down every time. There is not only one ‘right’ or logical way of doing it: there are transatlantic differences.

    British English ONLY calls for punctuation outside the quotation marks if what is quoted is fragmentary. At all other times, the punctuation remains inside.

    “What tosh!” said Anna. “There are transatlantic traditions in punctuation and no one way is better than the other.”

    On commenting that neither of of the different transatlantic traditions in punctuation was inherently superior, Anna described certain views as “tosh”.

  9. I’m not driving on the other side of the road, no matter what. Wait, wait. What were you talking about?

    Like fences, quotation marks make good neighbors, and hold the total quoted material together.

  10. I missed the point of this article. Two issues I’m wrestling with now, is when the title of my book, Am I the Only One That Signals?, is used in a sentence the question mark confuses spell check. Also my editor sugessed using single quotes to accenuate a word rather than double quotes. I can find no support for this. My writing is not philosophical, which is the exception.

  11. >> What’s “the right way”?

    Well, that’s why I put it in quotes the way I did… as the supposed right way isn’t necessarily a single or well defined way, but as the post itself pointed out, there are generally accepted rules, regional differences notwithstanding. My point was merely that there is a way that we’re *taught* to do it—Americans, Brits, whomever—and if we care about our craft and our language, that’s the way we should be doing it. Frank got my meaning pretty well, I think.

    On the other hand, the point that jep and ApK were circling around is that any living language by necessity evolves and changes over time. At one point should we writers, as arbiters of “proper” language, bend and adapt to the modern ways of speaking and writing? How long do we hold out against the destabilizing influence of those who don’t know or care about the rules?

  12. But what’s being talked about here is not a matter of “proper language” in any sense. In fact, it’s always been recognized as “improper”, even by the people who thought it up. It was done purely for aesthetic reasons (in typeset material, not in manuscript form!) Doing things in a particular way just because you were *taught* to do them that way is silly; if everyone thought like that, we’d never have come down from the trees 🙂 On the other hand, doing things differently just because you can is even sillier. You have to ask two questions: (a) is there a reason for the way it’s done (other than just “that’s the way it was done before”), and (b) does that reason dictate the way you’re actually doing it. The original reason for this particular choice was aesthetic: is it still the aesthetically superior choice? (I don’t know the answer)

  13. >>if everyone thought like that, we’d never have come down from the trees :)<<

    "And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans."

    –Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

    Any the hoo,
    I think if living language changes because a new idea makes something clearer, or a new way of expressing something makes the language richer, or new realities are brought in to the language, then those are good changes.

    I think when a change is due only to ignorance or laziness, and serves only increase confusion or ambiguity, or to homogenize something to the point of loss of subtle distinctions, then it's a bad change and should be resisted.

    However, what if something is merely 'easier?' What if one camp has legitimate argument for simplification and another camp calls the same thing a step toward Orwellian Newspeak?

  14. While we’re on the subject of quotation marks, I noticed that single and double quotes displayed on this site look more like single and double prime marks or even the inch and feet marks. They are angled, but straight instead of curly. The source code reveals that the proper curly quotation marks are being used, but they are not being displayed properly. This is a typographical deficiency of Verdana, the font being used for body text on this page. If punctuation is truly a concern of this site, I would advise using a different font with better support for punctuation.

  15. The author is clearly emotionally attached to the awkward looking and illogical American system. But really, its time to drop it.

  16. The author’s argument basically comes down to, “The traditional American system is the the correct method because it is the traditional system prescribed for American usage.” Why should commas and periods be subject to this mandatory treatment that isn’t binding on any other punctuation mark? The author doesn’t really explain this.

    My rules are simple:
    1. Communicate with clarity. All other rules are subservient to this one.
    2. Sentences begin with capitol letters and end with periods.
    3. The contents of quotation marks are either direct quotations or convey the quoted person’s intended meaning to the reader.

    Punctuation was made serve writers and readers, not the other way around.

  17. I would love for Americans to switch to British style for this. I am well aware of the difference, and I’m not advocating switching because of a mass of uneducated writers. I advocate abandoning what to me is a much less logical way of handling the punctuation within quotation marks. This author sees the British style as confusing and inconsistent because it isn’t a rule that “all punctuation goes inside” or “all punctuation goes outside”, but it DOES use a consistent rule, which is “only punctuation that is part of the quote goes inside”. It doesn’t mean I should start punctuating times as 08.30 vs. 08:30 or use British spelling for “colour”, etc. I’m still willing to consider conventions like that of equal merit on both sides of the pond. But we should abolish the American style of punctuating within quotation marks in favor of the British style. I’m American, and yes, I realize I used British style a few times in my quotation marks above. I have for as long as I can remember, but I’ve done it knowingly.

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