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?)