...our little tiff in the late 18th century... / NYC - Metropolitan Museum of Art: Washington Crossing the Delaware / image by flickr user wallyg / used by permission
…our little tiff in the late 18th century…NYC – Metropolitan Museum of Art: Washington Crossing the Delaware” image by flickr user wallyg. Used by permission.

I’m shortly off to give a talk at the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America (on why open access is better for scholarly societies, which I’ll be blogging about soon), but in the meantime, a linguistically related post about punctuation.

Careful readers of this blog (are there any careful readers of this blog? are there any readers at all?) will note that I generally eschew the peculiarly American convention of moving punctuation within a closing quotation mark. Examples from The Occasional Pamphlet abound: hereherehereherehereherehere, and here. And that’s just from 2012. It’s surprising how often this punctuation convention comes into play.

Instead, I use the convention that only the stuff being quoted is put within the quotation marks. This is sometimes called the “British” convention, despite the fact that other nationalities use it as well, presumably to emphasize the American/British dualism extant from our little tiff in the late 18th century. I use the “British” convention because the “American” convention is, in technical terms, stupid.

The story goes that punctuation appearing within the quotation mark is more aesthetically pleasing than punctuation outside the quotation mark. But even if that were true, clarity trumps beauty. Moving the punctuation means that when you see a quoted string with some final punctuation, you don’t know if that punctuation is or is not intended to be part of the thing being quoted; it is systematically ambiguous.

Apparently, my view is highly controversial. For example, when working with MIT Press on my book on the Turing test, my copy editor (who, by the way, was wonderful, and amazingly patient) moved all my punctuation around to satisfy the American convention. I moved them all back. She moved them again. We got into a long discussion of the matter; it seems she had never confronted an author who felt strongly about punctuation before. (I presume she had never copy-edited Geoff Pullum, from whom more later.) As a compromise, we left the punctuation the way I liked it—mostly—but she made me add the following prefatory editorial note:

Throughout the text, the American convention of moving punctuation within closing quotation marks (whether or not the punctuation is part of what is being referred to) is dropped in favor of the more logical and consistent convention of placing only the quoted material within the marks.

I would now go on to explain why the “British” convention is better than the “stupid” convention, except that Geoff Pullum has done so much better a job, far better than I ever could. Here is an excerpt from his essay “Punctuation and human freedom” published in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory and reproduced in his book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. I recommend the entire essay to you.

I want you to first consider the string ‘the string’ and the string ‘the string.’, noting that it takes ten keystrokes to type the string in the first set of quotes, and eleven to type the string in the second pair. Imagine you wanted to quote me on the latter point. You might want to say (1).

(1) Pullum notes that it takes eleven keystrokes to type the string ‘the string.’

No problem there; (1) is true (and grammatical if we add a final period). But now suppose you want to say this:

(2) Pullum notes that it takes ten keystrokes to type the string ‘the string’.

You won’t be able to publish it. Your copy-editor will change it before the first proof stage to (3), which is false (though regarded by copy-editors as grammatical):

(3) Pullum notes that it takes ten keystrokes to type the string ‘the string.’

Why? Because the copy-editor will insist that when a sentence ends with a quotation, the closing quotation mark must follow the punctuation mark.

I say this must stop. Linguists have a duty to the public to use their expertise in arguing for changes to the fabric of society when its interests are threatened. And we have such a situation here.

What say we all switch over to the logical quotation punctuation approach and save the fabric of society, shall we?

2 Responses to “When practice and logic conflict, change the practice”

  1. Schenck Says:

    Excellent point, the ‘punctuation in’ always seemed strange to me. Also, IIRC, doesn’t the usage you recommend make the quotation marks a bit more like the French guillemets?
    Regardless, perhaps this blog can be used to raise funds for the Campaign for Typographical Freedom.

  2. Trudy Says:

    You have readers. I read you! I have you listed among my favorite blogs. This is the first time I comment, however.
    I learned punctuation the British way, that is, outside the quotation marks. Upon reaching university in the US, they made me change my whole schema around, so that now I automatically do it within the marks. However, I think there are exceptions and sometimes it does go outside, though I am not sure about that obscure rule. In Spanish, however, a language I write and publish frequently in, the punctuation goes outside. I agree with you on principle, but I am more easygoing about it. If an editor wants it inside, inside it goes. If he or she wants it outside, outside it goes. I make my life easy!