“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.


About these ads

8 responses to ““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?

  2. You’re absolutely right. In that final quote, I used “poetic licence”.

  3. 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.”

  4. 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!

  5. 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.” :-)

  6. Morris Coleman

    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.”

  7. Pingback: “Range” | Not One-Off Britishisms

  8. Julian Pardoe

    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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s