Miscellaneous Ramblings

'Logical Punctuation' vs. Traditional Rules of Style

Charles Moore - 2011.06.02 - Tip Jar

Being something of a grammar geek, I couldn't resist checking out a column posted this week by Slate's Ben Yagoda entitled "The Rise of 'Logical Punctuation". Hmmmm. Sounds like a bit of an oxymoron to me!

Yagoda notes that for at least two centuries, it's been standard practice in the United States to place commas and periods inside quotation marks, as a style rule employed by, for example Slate itself, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and most any publication that adheres to Modern Language Association (MLA) or AP style guidelines.

For example,GrammarBook.com says unequivocally: "Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks, even inside single quotes."

Strunk and White, whose Elements of Style is regarded by many as the authoritative word on such matters, declares (PDF): "Formal quotations, cited as documentary evidence, are introduced by a colon and enclosed in quotation marks." An example given:

The provision of the Constitution is: "No tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any state."

On the other hand, Yagoda observes that with increasing frequency in "copy-editor-free zones" like the Web, emails, student papers, and business memos, commas and periods find themselves outside of quotation marks, looking in. Yagoda contends that a punctuation paradigm is shifting, with copious examples of the "outside" quotation marks technique referred to as the "British style" cropping up here, there, and everywhere. He says the punctuation-outside trend also jibes with his experience in the classroom, where, for the past several years, his students have found it irresistible, and he's recently instituted a one-point penalty on every assignment for infractions.

There are other examples of popular usage kicking back against formal convention. GrammarTips.com's Tina Blue observes that when it comes to commas and periods, in her estimation logic doesn't enter into the equation, at least not in the United States where Universal American Usage indeed does place commas and periods inside quotation marks, regardless of what she would regard as logical.

Blue advocates that whenever we have to use a question mark or an exclamation point with a sentence that ends in a quotation, we should follow the dictates of logic in determining where the question mark or exclamation point goes. If it is part of the quotation itself, put it inside the quotation marks, and if it governs the sentence as a whole but not the material being quoted, put it outside the quotation marks. That sounds reasonable, at least from the standpoint of logic.

Wikipedia, whose Style Guide endorses "logical punctuation" (which we try to adhere to at Low End Mac, since we serve a worldwide audience - more on that in the publisher's note at the end of this article), affirms: "Whenever we have to use a question mark or an exclamation point with a sentence that ends in a quotation, we follow the dictates of logic in determining where the question mark or exclamation point goes. If it is part of the quotation itself, we put it inside the quotation marks, and if it governs the sentence as a whole but not the material being quoted, we put it outside the quotation marks, and with its entry on quotation mark punctuation observing that "while these two styles are most commonly referred to as American and British (and some style sheets provide no other name), some American writers and organizations use the British style and vice versa. Both systems have the same rules regarding question marks, exclamation points, colons and semicolons. They differ on the treatment of periods and commas."

The article continues: "In the US, the standard style is called American style, typesetters' rules, printers' rules, typographical usage, or traditional punctuation, whereby commas and periods are almost always placed inside closing quotation marks.] This style of punctuation is common in the US and Canada, and is mandated by the Chicago Manual of Style and other American style guides. The other standard style - called British style or logical punctuation - is to include within quotation marks only those punctuation marks that appeared in the quoted material, but otherwise to place punctuation outside the closing quotation marks. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage provides a good example of the British-style rule: "All signs of punctuation used with words in quotation marks must be placed according to the sense." (Several of these points are footnoted in the article.)

Yagoda suggests that push-back against the standard American usage is gaining popularity for two reasons. First as a consequence of working with computers and writing computer code, both endeavors in which one is often instructed to "input" a string of characters, and sometimes (in the printed instructions) the characters that are in computer code syntax are enclosed in quotation marks. However, he suggests that the main reason is that the British way simply makes more sense, noting that since at least the 1960s a common designation for that popular style has been "logical punctuation" and arguing that the American style is inconsistent, moreover, because when it comes to other punctuation marks - semicolons, colons, exclamation points, question marks, and dashes - in which US style manuals follow British/logical protocol.

Consequently, he contends that it's hard or even impossible to defend the American way on the merits, that's probably because it emerged from aesthetic, not logical, considerations, citing expert Rosemary Feal saying that it was instituted in the early days of the Republic in order

"to improve the appearance of the text. A comma or period that follows a closing quotation mark appears to hang off by itself and creates a gap in the line (since the space over the mark combines with the following word space)."

Yagoda somewhat ruefully concedes that despite the love it's getting from the masses, logical punctuation isn't likely to break through to rule-keepers any time soon, noting that when he asked Feal and Carol Saller, who oversees the Chicago Manual of Style, if there was a chance their organizations would switch to so-called "logical" punctuation, they both replied, in essence: "How about never? Is never good for you?"

Personally, my inclination is to go with Feal and Saller, not because I don't find the logical argument somewhat compelling, and since being Canadian I'm as usual somewhat suspended between American and British language and grammar conventions anyway, so I could fall either way. However, being a thoroughgoing and convinced traditionalist, with time-honored conventions falling like dominos these days, I have to favor holding the line on any time-honored and proven conventions we can, and I also find the aesthetics of quotation marks inside more agreeable than more raggedy and ad hoc renditions of "logical punctuation" in this context.

Publisher's note: As someone educated in both the States and Canada, I try to find a sensible mean between strict adherence to either American or British usage. We follow American conventions when using single- and double-quotation marks, but we tend to follow "logical punctuation" when it comes to actually using quotation marks. I edit every article posted according to these conventions.

Also, we retain British spellings for our writers in Canada, the UK, and other English-speaking nations outside the US. The rest of us use American spellings. I do this as a reminder that we de serve an international audience and several of our writers don't live in the US. dk

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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