Grammar query: punctuation and quotation marks

2010-08-19

in Geek stuff, Writing

I remember being taught – ages ago – that the proper way to combine punctuation with quotation marks is to put the former inside the latter, like so:

I remember what he said: “The Trojans cannot be trusted.”

rather than

I remember what he said: “The Trojans cannot be trusted”.

or

“I don’t see why not,” the general mused, “they are fine masons.”

rather than

“I don’t see why not”, the general mused, “they are fine masons”.

Now, I find myself wondering whether this is one of those dated conventions that older people cling to because they were once taught this way, despite how the world has moved on. Putting two spaces after a period is a prime example of this phenomenon.

Does anybody know what the current and correct rule is?

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt August 19, 2010 at 8:02 pm

I was taught as you were, punctuation within the quotes. This has always irritated me, as it’s completely illogical.

alena August 19, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Matt is correct. Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. The two spaces at the end of a sentence are supposed to make it easier for the reader to visually detect the end of a sentence.

neeroc August 19, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Periods and commas go inside the quotes, semicolons and colons outside, and question/exclamation marks are used in or out in context. So if you are quoting a question inside, if you are asking something with a quote in it, outside.
I was actually taught the British way, where all punctuation follows logic, but apparently Canadian writing is now generally lumped in with North American style which is heavily influenced by the US.

robin August 20, 2010 at 9:55 am

Punctuation should go inside the quotes, as you say. But this gets a bit fuzzy in computer documentation, where we write such things as:

To download the files, click “Save to my computer”.

Users expect to see the exact phrase they are supposed to click inside the quotes, without any extra punctuation. The requirement is even more acute if they are supposed to copy what’s inside the quotes and paste it into a command prompt.

This is a special case but it blurs the lines. People read a lot of computer docs nowadays.

. August 20, 2010 at 10:17 am

Punctuation

With regard to quotation marks adjacent to periods and commas, there are two styles of punctuation in widespread use. 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.

In the U.S., 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 U.S., Canada, and in the U.K. in fiction and journalism.

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.

Milan August 20, 2010 at 10:18 am

All this confirms my suspicion. The format with punctuation inside quotation marks is widely taught, but doesn’t make much sense.

I think I will switch to ‘logical punctuation’, though it does look somewhat strange to me.

Milan August 20, 2010 at 10:23 am

The Economist seems to have an even more complicated (and inconsistent) approach to punctuation and quotation marks:

For the relative placing of quotation marks and punctuation, follow Hart’s rules. Thus, if an extract ends with a full stop or question-mark, put the punctuation before the closing inverted commas. His maxim was that “love follows laughter.” In this spirit came his opening gambit: “What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison?”

If a complete sentence in quotes comes at the end of a larger sentence, the final stop should be inside the inverted commas. Thus, The answer was, “You can’t wash your hands in a buffalo.” She replied, “Your jokes are execrable.”

If the quotation does not include any punctuation, the closing inverted commas should precede any punctuation marks that the sentence requires. Thus: She had already noticed that the “young man” looked about as young as the New Testament is new. Although he had been described as “fawnlike in his energy and playfulness”, “a stripling with all the vigour and freshness of youth”, and even as “every woman’s dream toyboy”, he struck his companion-to-be as the kind of old man warned of by her mother as “not safe in taxis”. Where, now that she needed him, was “Mr Right”?

When a quotation is broken off and resumed after such words as he said, ask yourself whether it would naturally have had any punctuation at the point where it is broken off. If the answer is yes, a comma is placed within the quotation marks to represent this. Thus, “If you’ll let me see you home,” he said, “I think I know where we can find a cab.” The comma after home belongs to the quotation and so comes within the inverted commas, as does the final full stop.

But if the words to be quoted are continuous, without punctuation at the point where they are broken, the comma should be outside the inverted commas. Thus, “My bicycle”, she assured him, “awaits me.”

I don’t think I could keep track of all that.

Tristan August 20, 2010 at 5:09 pm

I was always under the impression that punctuation marks were to be placed outside quotation marks for in-text citations For instance, if I were citing the sentence

A perspective is a value.

I would write it like this:

Heidegger claims, “A perspective is a value” (Nietzsche 4, 134).

However, for out of text citations (which don’t require quotation marks) I’d write it like this:

A perspective is a value. (Nietzsche 4, 134)

From a look the above options, the Economist style guide seems most intuitive.

Milan August 20, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Adding in-text citation just makes things even more complicated (Ilnyckyj 2010).

mek August 20, 2010 at 6:08 pm

I basically use both depending on what I am writing. I do think traditional punctuation flows better for the reader and so I appreciate it in leisure writing but in academic or technical formats I stick with logical punctuation because being exact is what matters.

Peter Drake August 23, 2010 at 4:15 am

The thing I’m always confused by is what to do about periods and questions marks contained in a quotation that isn’t at the end of the sentence.

I will provide an example.

After he yelled “Who goes there?” he listened carefully to see if he’d startled the intruder.

That sentence has both a period and a question mark. I always feel uneasy writing sentences like that, and frequently rewrite them to avoid it. And the result is usually cumbersome.

Milan August 26, 2010 at 11:37 am

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: