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Ease up on the quotation marks

Deep cleansing breath? Time to switch to decaf? Need to take your hands off the keyboard?

The other day Ben Yagoda suggested on Slate.com that it’s time in American English to put the quotation marks inside the punctuation. He has two reasons, the first having to do with computer coding in text, the second, and greater, that putting the quotations marks inside the periods and commas is more logical. (For our purposes, we’ll call it an aesthetic preference, given that small part that logic ever has to do with language.)

Poynter.org decided to put this up for discussion and polled people’s preferences. “How outraged are you?” suggests the responses for which Poynter was trolling, and it got them. On Twitter: “141 ppl responded to our punctuation poll; 40% are crazed by commas/periods outside quotation marks http://ow.ly/4UACyCRAZED! 33 left notes”

So, whaddya think? That forty percent have never read a British book? They wig out at the spelling colour? They break out in hives if they switch from a newspaper that uses AP style and pick up a book that uses Chicago? (He just wrote out forty instead of using the numeral! What is he on?) If their wits are at such a precarious equipoise, they might be better off avoiding text altogether.

Where you put the quotation marks is a purely mechanical and arbitrary matter. While switching between American and British practice within a single text might be mildly distracting, most readers of experience and sound mind move back and forth between the two without much noticing the difference.

But the vehemence, the vehemence. From Poynter’s Facebook page: “WHAT????? How can something so wrong, now be OK? I thought grammar was the last bastion of hard and fast rules that cannot be broken, as well they should be. Don't we stand for anything anymore?” and this: “Nooooo. Make it stop.” And this: “We should abandon proper punctuation because some students can't figure it out?”

You begin to wonder whether these people have started to stockpile canned goods in the basement against the impending Breakdown of Civilization.

My recommendation to them: Pour yourself a generous tot of the good bourbon (if you’re teetotal, brew a pot of tea, quite restorative) and sit down in a comfortable chair with a good light to read a book. Robert Lane Greene’s You Are What You Speak would be both salutary and entertaining.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:07 PM | | Comments (13)
        

Comments

Computers aren't the only folks who care exactly what is quoted and what is not, though that is the standard example.

It's a crazy notion, but one might also let semantics decide where the punctuation should lie.

E.g.:

(1) John asked "Who is there?"

vs.

(2) Why did John say "Sam am I"?


Prof. McI.,

What total serendipity.

On the very heels of that recent Ben Yagoda* 'decree' on Slate. .com re/ putting quotation marks inside the punctuation, and further, his claim that logic plays a role in his 'ruling', I just happened to have caught a quote on Yahoo's celebrity gossip site, OMG!, from actor and closet lexicographer (Who knew?), the venerable Abe Vagoda, (Oops, almost typed "Yagoda), who opined that the placement of quotation marks is, as you put it Prof. McI., " a purely mechanical and arbitrary matter."

Now that's a wise guy. Oh, I forgot old Abe WAS a 'wiseguy' (of the Mafia persuasion), in one of "The Godfather" flicks.

The craggy-faced, sad-sack Vigoda attempted to draw an analogy to the acting questionable prowess of budding thespian/ hotel heiress, Paris "That's So Hot" Hilton, who he claimed performs in both "a purely mechanical and arbitrary fashion". (Must of been alluding to her infamous, gone-viral-on-the-net sex-tape. HA! (Had to get the celebrity reference in there, somewhere. OMG!)

But seriously, folks. I believe this entire punctuation kerfuffle over the correct placement of quotation marks is frankly misdirected, and a lot of wasted intellectual energy. IMHO, it all boils down to personal preference, w/ the caveat being that the writer should remain consistent in his, or her (quotation marks) placement throughout the entire written piece, as you, Prof. McI. suggested in your article. I see no great need for folks to get all hot-and-bothered about this non-issue. Just lighten up, for cripes sake.

The sage Patricia the Terse suggested in another post that I might try a glass of a "warm milky drink", as a calming libation to perhaps ease my online blogging "perorations"............. basically she's intimating I ramble on too much on this blog. So perchance warm milk would be another possible relaxing alternative to either bourbon, or tea for those hot-head purists out there, just need to chill a little.

For you uptight prescriptivists in the audience, might I recommend, as well, Mark Twain's recently released (well it's been out almost a year now), autobiographical compilation (Vol.1), as a wonderful destresser to just settle into, and get lost in its unmatched erudition, and levity.

But a fair WARNING!

There are copious footnotes, and a sea of "explanatory notes" throughout. Oh, and be sure to rest this hefty 736-plus-page tome on a solid piece of furniture, and not your lap. Could easily cut off the circulation to your lower extremities, and you just might fall flat on your mug when you get up for that second glass of warm milk, or have to suddenly answer Nature's call. Just sayin'.

*Ben Yagoda, I've never met you, but if you happen to read this commentary, I hope you
you'll take my little spoofing play on your last name in the spirit that it was intended, which was an attempt at a little humor. (Some might argue very lame humor.) No offense intended, and i hope you can see at least a kernel of wit, therein.

ALEX


Oops!............. Faux pas alert!

Frankly, I think all this heated prescriptive-versus-descriptive grammatical debate, of late, is starting to negatively rub off on me. I'm starting to assume the mantle of a fault-finding stickler, and i don't like it one bit. HA!

Case in point, I discovered a couple of boo-boos in my last post in the Paris Hilton-related paragraph, which I might normally overlook. For one thing, I unwittingly typed the word "questionable" after the word "acting", rather than before......which then makes sense.

Secondly, I wrote "(Must of been alluding to.......)", which clearly should have read, "(Must HAVE been alluding to.......)". Yikes!

I'm sure there are at least a few additional innocent goof-ups, as well, but I refuse to go down that Road to Prescription. Actually, the road to perdition might be less trying. HA!

Well, I guess it serves me right for trying to be a smart-aleck. HA!

ALEX

P.S.: ---- Picky, old lad, do the Pakistani authorities at least know where YOU are?

We Brit journalists do both. When quoting a full sentence, the quotes go outside the punctuation, as in, he said: "What a fuss about nothing." With a partial quote, inside, as in: he said that "it was a fuss about nothing", and was "really very silly".

PS: On the subject of quotes, and whether they should be single or double, the clue is in the word 'quote' – what someone actually said – and are double (but single for a quote within a quote). Single 'quotes' are inverted commas, and indicate that the word has a particular reference.

I've always heard that putting the comma inside the quote marks started with handset type to prevent the comma from getting knocked off. So it's probably OK now to switch to something logical if you want.

The Times [of London] Literary Supplement uses the weirdest system I know. In last week's issue we have:

Patrick’s son Thomas pipes up: “Okay, then, who created infinite regress?”.

“Try not to be bitter about the money”, says Pratt.

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article7174517.ece

In the second example there might be the supposed justification that the quote isn't the full quote, so that (by British standards) the comma goes outside the quote marks -- but I suspect they're just being TLSy again.

The brou-ha-ha over quotation marks inside or outside periods is a perfect example of a slow news day at Slate.com. Like the recurrent campaign to reform English spelling, I put it down to a tempest in a pot of tea. Despite the Lynn Trusses of the world and her dotty ilk, we have a perfectly workable punctuation convention. I am quite aware of, and understand the British variant. Good. It works well. My eyes do not widen in outrage when I read an issue of the Guardian or a book printed in England. As far as this nonsensical non-controversy is concerned, enough. Move on. Monday is the start of a new week for everyone. Including Slate.

"As far as this nonsensical non-controversy is concerned, enough."

Er, doesn't that mean you're in the wrong type of blog, Marc?

PS: Phew, your commenting system is a pain, John. It never remembers my 'personal info', and the garble at the bottom needs maybe a dozen refreshes to get something legible.

PPS: And (sorry, everyone) I sound horribly bad tempered today!

The quotation marks question interests me as a practical copy editor in the newspaper industry.

I do try to stay inside "rules" as I understand them for tradition and readability. I do not fear to break "rules" when they interfere with the understanding of the reader -- the consumer of my product.

I am curious about topics such as this. I was challenged by a young lady last fall at my newspaper about just this topic. They were not illogical complaints.

"Because we always did it that way" is not an argument I use regularly. When I heard it as a reporter covering public affairs I used to bet myself that something was fouled up.One side of my brain owes the other side of my brain a lot of synapses.

I enjoy hearing subjects discussed here for my edification and enjoyment.

Sometimes you guys can be funny as hell too.

BeSlayed, letting the semantics control is precisely what they do do outside North America. As far as I know, everyone puts quesses and bangs inside or outside the quotes based on semantics: the non-North American rule is to extend that to commas and periods too.

Let's bot forget that wonderful site dedicated to the quotation mark: http://www.unnecessaryquotes.com/.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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