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.