Friday, June 24, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Quote Unquote Punctuation

by Peggy Robin

What follows may be the most radical column I have written to date. Before I reveal what long-established and widely observed rule I propose to overthrow, let me note that my only previous column that has similarly bucked tradition was the one that also generated the most comment and, in some cases, outrage: My January 21, 2011 column in which I urged an end to the custom of typing two spaces after the period that ends a sentence.

Well, in that opinion piece at least I had the backing of two of the most venerable authorities on language usage, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the Modern Language Association (MLA) Style Guide. In the editorial that follows I must admit that this time around the style guides are not on my side. I suppose they're just not ready for the sweeping reform I would like to see in print: Let's all stop putting the punctuation inside the quotation marks, unless that punctuation is integral to the quotation itself.  For example:
Jane can recite all of "The Raven", but she can only recite the first few lines of "The Bells".
This rule change makes sense because it clears up the confusion that results when the quoted material itself contains punctuation. That means I prefer Version #1 over Version #2:
#1: The movie list includes "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", "Reuben, Reuben", "Bell, Book and Candle", and "Oliver!".
#2: The movie list includes "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "Reuben, Reuben," "Bell, Book and Candle," and "Oliver!"
(As an aside on a different grammatical point, note that I used the optional serial comma before the "and" in the above sentence, but in the third movie title, the optional series comma is not used.)

How did the punctuation ever end up inside the quotation marks in the first place? I did a quick bit of research into this question but did not find a sure answer. The best I can do is to suggest that typesetters and printers found it aesthetically displeasing to see the commas and periods standing naked outside the quotation marks, and so they just started putting them inside -- though it's not the logical place to put them.

Across the Atlantic, in Britain, they do the logical thing and put the punctuation outside the quotation marks. So you could say the change I want to see is un-American -- but right. And I believe, as in most cases where there's a right and a wrong way, the right way will eventually prevail. There are already some limited instances in which it's acceptable to put the punctuation on the outside.  Wikipedia's style guide for its writers and editors gives this example:
Arthur said the situation was "deplorable". 
As Wikipedia explains, "The period is either known not to be in the source, its presence in the source is uncertain, or its coverage within the quotation is considered unnecessary."    (Note that I put the period inside the quotation marks in this case, because the quoted sentence ends with a period, and it would be redundant to add another one to the entire sentence.)

For an interesting look at the variations in British and American punctuation in and around quotation marks, I recommend this short article by British grammar blogger Michael Quinlan, who quotes from the Chicago Manual of Style in defense of the American way:
The Chicago Manual of Style remarks that “The British style is strongly advocated by some American language experts.” But it goes on: “In defense of nearly a century and a half of the American style, however, it may be said that it seems to have been working fairly well and has not resulted in serious miscommunication.”
Quinlan calls the CMOS argument "a bit of a muddle", while I would sum up the CMOS position as, in essence, a "we've-always-done-it-this-way-and-we're-not-going-to-change" argument. That is to say, they're not interested in the logic of the question.

My attitude is just the opposite: If a change leads to clearer communication and there's no strong argument against it, why not adopt it? You'll quickly get used to the look of the period or the comma outside the quotation marks, I promise! You can quote me on that. But if you do, be sure to keep my original exclamation point inside the quotation marks, and if you need to end your sentence with a period or a question mark, be sure to put it on the outside. 

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