The New Punctuation: A Menace to Our Way of Life – UPDATE!

I am about to start a conspiracy theory.

It has nothing to do with the gold standard. I’m too poor to know or care much about that. The moon landing? Forget it. The last guy who tried that got punched by Buzz Aldrin. I may be a fool, but I’m not that kind of fool.

No, this has to do with something that affects my life very directly and profoundly, something I deal with every day. It has to do with the proper placement of a comma or period vis-a-vis quotation marks.

In Slate, Ben Yagoda warns that the right and proper way — the god-fearing American way — which places the punctuation marks neatly inside the inverted commas, is slowly yielding to the heathen English way, which kicks them outside:

The British style also rules on message boards and bulletin boards. I scanned four random posts in Metafilter.com (about Sony Playstation’s hacking problems, the death of Phoebe Snow, the French police, and cool dads) and counted nine comments with periods and commas outside, seven inside.

I spotlight the Web not because it brings out any special proclivities but because it displays in a clear light the way we write now. The punctuation-outside trend jibes with my experience in the classroom, where, for the past several years, my students have found it irresistible, even after innumerable sardonic remarks from me that we are in Delaware, not Liverpool. As a result, I have recently instituted a one-point penalty on every assignment for infractions. The current semester is nearing its end, but I am still taking points away.

Why has this convention become so popular? I offer two reasons, one small and one big. The small one is a byproduct of working with computers, and writing computer code. In these endeavors, one is often instructed to “input” a string of characters, and sometimes (in the printed instructions) the characters are enclosed in quotation marks. Sticking a period or comma in front of the closing quotation marks could clearly have bad consequences. So, for example, the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), which otherwise endorses the American way— “This is a traditional style, in use well before the first edition of this manual (1906)”—makes an exception in the case of computer instruction, illustrated by:

name your file “appendix A, v. 10″.

But the main reason is that the British way simply makes more sense. Indeed, since at least the 1960s a common designation for that style has been “logical punctuation.” The best way to grasp this is to look at an example, such as what Slate commenter Dean Hamer wrote under a recent article about PBS and NPR:

[I]ronically, given the anecdote about “Tales of the City”, PBS is the ONLY widely available channel that has any serious LGBT content; e.g. documentaries such as “Ask Not” and “Out in the Silence”.

“Tales of the City” and “Out in the Silence” are units—consisting of the words and the quotation marks. Insinuating a period or comma within the unit alters it in a rather underhanded manner. American style is inconsistent, moreover, because when it comes to other punctuation marks—semicolons, colons, exclamation points, question marks, dashes—we follow British/logical protocol. Dean Hamer would pass muster in any U.S. newspaper or magazine, for example, if he were to write: I am a big fan of “Tales of the City”; did anyone else see “Ask Not”?

If it seems hard or even impossible to defend the American way on the merits, that’s probably because it emerged from aesthetic, not logical, considerations. According to Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, 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).” I don’t doubt Feal, but the appearance argument doesn’t carry much heft today; more to the point is that we are simply accustomed to the style.

“Hard to defend on its merits”? Since Yagoda’s obviously an Anglophile, he should understand what I mean when I say that punctuation is like an aristocracy: impossible to defend on its merits, but at its best, a source of good taste, even panache. Let your eye take in the two styles. With the punctuation tucked in discreetly, the American style looks neater. More than that, in its resemblance to a baby chick nestling beneath its mother’s wing, it evokes a feeling of order and security. With the punctuation left to flap in the breeze like a red flag off a flatbed, or the surrender flag at Yorktown, the English style bespeaks uncertainty and chaos.

For another example of illogic in the service of elegance, consider the semicolon; strictly speaking, you almost never have to use one. If you wanted to, you could get by 99% of the time alternating periods and commas. In fact, Kurt Vonnegut once advised readers to do just that, damning semicolons as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.”

For Vonnegut, primitive that he was, that was absolutely true. But for the rest of us, who like to thrill readers with the occasional hairpin, conjunction-less turn from one independent clause into another, they come very much in handy. They’re like em dashes — pieces of flair no writer should overuse, but which he should never be expected to live without.

But — again, in Slate — Paul Collins asks “Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?”

The semicolon has spent the last century as a fussbudget mark. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell disdained it; Kurt Vonnegut once informed a Tufts University crowd that “All [semicolons] do is show that you’ve been to college.” New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s favorite put-down for egghead bureaucrats who got in his way was “semicolon boy.” And though semicolons have occasionally made news—tariff bills have imploded over their misplacement, and a 1927 execution hinged on the interpretation of a semicolon—the last writers to receive much notice for semicolon use have been a New York City Transit employee and the Son of Sam. In 1977 the NYPD speculated that “the killer could be a freelance journalist” because of his “use of a semicolon” in his taunting letters. (Decades later, columnist Jimmy Breslin still marveled that “Berkowitz is the only murderer I ever heard of who knew how to use a semicolon.”)

Do I have to sketch this out on a chalkboard? We’re seeing the migration of the comma outside the quotation marks — supposedly more logical than the alternative — at the same time as the gradual phasing out of the semicolon, which is seen, somehow, as both fussy and frivolous. I ask you, people (rhetorically, of course): Cui bono? Who stands to gain from this?

Actually, I have no idea. I’m a cruddy meme smith, as it turns out. But all of a sudden, I find I’ve gained a new sympathy for all those people who miss the Latin Mass.

UPDATE I: (From Elizabeth) Since we’re talking punctuation, let us once again celebrate the semicolon!

UPDATE II: Max just got his first instalanche!, congrats, Max and thank you, Glenn!

  • prairie wind

    Oh, I do love grammar wars! I can’t wait until we get to the Battle of Pronunciation, in which I savage those who mispronounce “arctic” and “Antarctic”.

    I tend to write with too many dashes…and elipses…so when I am being a careful writer, I take refuge in the semicolon. Bless its little curly tail, it solves many of my problems. I should write carefully all the time; why I do not, I don’t know.

  • comatus

    Thank you for a charming and literate article.

    There must have been some punchline to Vonnegut’s attack on the semicolon: having surrendered to the Wehrmacht, in later life he affected the habit of signing his name with a representation of a human anus. Please don’t think me lurid. He was, in his sad way, known for this. I truly took the man for a full colon.

  • Montjoie

    “Cui bono,” she said. That really made me laugh out loud.

  • Brian

    Back in the day (pre linotype and computer printer, circa 1955)when typesetters set each letter piece of type by hand, I was told that the comma goes inside the quote because as a type piece it was too fragile to stand outside . We knew we were not folowing the correct (outside the quote) punctuation for the pause (comma) as it would be written. It was a concession to the fragile lead type piece. Today it would seem to be an anacronism that could be dispensed with.

  • TD

    I was taught that the American practice of putting periods and commas within quotations marks was actually started by typesetters. Supposedly the periods and commas in the old lead type were smaller and weaker than the other characters and had a habit of breaking off/getting lost. Typesetters learned to nestle them between stronger pieces of type when possible to keep them safe.

    I don’t know if this is true, but it makes a good story.

  • Joe

    Apparently even Berkowitz couldn’t make up his mind about the period/quote – quote/period question. Here’s an excerpt of his writing, from Wikipedia

    I am the “Son of Sam.” I am a little “brat”.

  • Tom Grace

    This has been delightful–from the initial blog to all of the comments. A whimsical highlight of my day.

  • David Gillies

    I was taught, in Britain, at a succession of expensive schools, that commas and full stops go inside the quotes, as do those which perform a similar function such as exclamation marks. Of course, the comma to introduce section of direct speech goes outside. This yields: John said, “lets go to the beach,” in an excited voice. Then there’s the one about leaving the trailing inverted commas off all but the last in a set of direct speech paragraphs.

    Given the almost complete surrender to the grocer’s apostrophe, the distinction between comma-placement styles seems moot.

  • http://www.galtpress.com MarkInFla

    Wasn’t the real reason periods were put inside quotation marks because when using metal type the period would have more chance of getting damaged when it was further out there?

  • prairie wind

    The typesetter explanation could very well explain it, just as monospaced type used on a typewriter explains the outdated ‘two spaces between sentences’ convention. So, if technology can drive changes in grammar rules, what will texting do to us?

    These changes are not due to texting but are another example of changes affected by technology: when email was new, the standard was to spell it “E-mail”. Today, most people spell it “email,” dumping the hyphen. That change came around fairly quickly; style books have yet to catch up.

  • comatus

    American short spellings are also a typsesetter’s trick. Press the issue, though, and things get unpleasant: uniform spelling was no big deal until the mass production of books. Cast about any popular weblog comment thread, and you’ll find it suggested–strenuously–that all attention to spelling and usage is an “anacronism” [sic] with which we might dispense.

    In that attitude, I do sense a menace to a way of life. I may hang for it; my prepositions, however, will not.

  • Crystal

    I’ve always prided myself on my perfect punctuation, grammar, and spelling. I never even knew another way existed other than the “American” way. Now that I’ve read this article and its comments, I have to say that the “English” way is more logical. If it’s an acceptable way to write, I kind of prefer it.

  • http://www.weaponsman.com Kevin R.C. O’Brien

    “When America produces a Shakespeare or Chaucer…” you say. Well, England hasn’t produced one of either since there’s been an America; who’s your champion today, Harold Pinter? Luck with that, cousins.

    I’m trying to find a way to compare Shakespeare and Pinter that does not plumb the depths of cliché. I suppose you could say that both of them were playwrights who were acclaimed in their own times, and into the first few years of the 21st Century.

  • http://datechguyblog.com Datechguy

    I’ve always been a big fan of the semi-colin

  • prairie wind

    Datechguy…but not the period? :-) No worries; just ribbing you.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    I’ve enjoyed these comments immensely. The only thing better than a lively and literate essay on punctuation is a lively and literate combox!

  • JStorm

    I’m with Vampire Weekend on this…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_i1xk07o4g

  • Walt

    The fact of the matter is that a goodly number of both Brits and Yanks don’t actually know the rules, in the first place. You get what they’ve got, which is a lack of a real conception of order, consistency, or style. I say put the damn punctuation mark anywhere you want; you’re going to do so in any event.

  • http://discursivewords.wordpress.com Jess

    I wouldn’t put too much stock in Slate manifestos. I’m an avid reader, but after a while you realize that they exist simply to be cantankerous.

  • Sigivald

    “This is good”.

    “This is bad.”, unless the sentence being quoted is literally “This is bad.”.

    Things in quotation marks should be things being damned well quoted, not random crap someone over a century ago decided would function or look better when typeset.

    At best it’s harmless to slightly misleading; at worst it’s actively misleading – and the other way of doing it is never misleading.

    So which wins? The one you don’t like – thanks to computers!

  • richard40

    I’m with you on liberal use of semicolons. I find them useful in introducing a long list of items, where each item often ends with a periods.

    Such as the following:
    1. xxxxx.
    2. yyyy.

    I’m with the British on quote marks though. I think of anything in quote marks as a discreet addition, that can be added or removed from the sentence without altering it, and thus sentence punctuation should remain outside the quote. It also then allows that quote to be copied and pasted into another passage, without worrying abut altering any punctuation that may be in it that depends on the sentence context. For example, I dont want the actual quote changing depending on whether the sentence it is in ends with a period or question mark. And if you are using quote marks to distinguish actual computer code, then changing it based on punctuation needed for the sentence it is in could cause actual arrors.

    I dont give a hoot for either esthetics, precedent, or convention regarding punctuation. I am for clarity and conveneience. If it reads well, and conveys the point with no possibility of misinterpretation, then it is OK. By that criteria, I think the Britich position on quotes is better.

  • Linny

    I got Cs in all my college English courses until I learned how to use a semicolon. Straight As from then on!

  • Ron

    @62. Crystal.

    “I have to say that the “English” way is more logical”.

    That’s because it’s the right way to do it. ;-)

    @12 Greta.

    Was that a deliberate Faux pas?

  • RodW

    It may be that what the thing that makes “logical” punctuation logical is Alfred Tarski’s (an actual logician’s) formalization of the definition of truth, in the early 1930s, I think. (Don’t go running off to Google Tarski to find the answer to Pilates’ question. Tarski’s definition shows the logical structure of the relationships between the truth of sentences that use the predicate “true” and other sentences. It looks trivial, but it isn’t.)

    In Tarski’s definition, quotation marks are a name-forming operator to which the predicate “true” can be applied, and what goes inside the quotation marks is exactly what is being quoted. There’s no necessity in this: you could name the zsentence “Snow is white” Bob, and say “Bob is true if and only if snow is white”, keeping a list of the names of all the possible sentences, but that’d be sort of clumsy.

    Just to note: When I quote legal decisions in my work, not even ellipses that aren’t in the quoted material will do. Use square brackets to indicate interpolations (e.g., [sic]) or ellipses ([...]).

  • Kathy Kinsley

    I’m really much more interested in punctuation within a sentence than punctuation around quotes. (I’ve written both in the British style when overseas and the American style here – though I do think the British rules are more logical, neither really changes the MEANING of a sentence.

    But consider this example (I’m using the Bible because most folk reading here probably know this quote – with one punctuation or another.)

    Verily I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
    Verily I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.

    And yes, the placement of the comma is controversial among religious scholars. But that’s not the point, exactly. It’s just that the punctuation moving over just one word totally changes the meaning.

    For a more secular example:
    Woman, without her man, is nothing.
    Woman: without her, man is nothing.

  • Bob Stark

    Very nice piece you’ve written and very funny too.

    But far worse things in the future world of grammar await.

    I will never be used, only i

    and Dear will be replaced with Hey.

    Say it isn’t so.

  • MaryfromMarin

    In one day, this jumped from about 6 comments to 75 (and now I’m adding to that).

    So gratified to know that I am not the only one who loves discussions about grammar and punctuation. I could read this kind of stuff all day long; sheer delight.

    As for the correctness or otherwise of putting end punctuation inside or outside quote marks–I might just defer to Humpty Dumpty on that, from his explication, to Alice, of the word “glory”.

  • http://denmotherblog.wordpress.com/ The Den Mother

    As a punctuation Nazi myself, I completely agree with you, Max. One of my pet peeves is incorrect substitution of a comma for a semicolon.

    Some time when you don’t mind driving up your blood pressure a few mm Hg, check out the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks (http://www.unnecessaryquotes.com/) and be amazed at the stupidity of your fellow man/woman.

  • David Gillies

    Kathy Kinsley, there’s a delicious example from Moby Dick: “Call me, Ishmael.” The meta-syntactic qualities of punctuation marks are a fertile source of amusement for fans of Hofstadterian noodling like me.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    “@Manny: “the skilled writer knows when to artfully use it”? Along with the occasional split infinitive, I see.”
    -Lucas, #20

    LOL, yes, but the split infinitive debate has long been settled. It’s become part of natural speech.

  • http://amongmiracles.wordpress.com Erik

    Compare the following:

    1) The so-called “American method”, in my opinion, leads to confusion and disorder.

    2) The so-called “American method,” in my opinion, leads to confusion and disorder.

    The second example above is morally wrong; there is no comma in the phrase “American method”, and thus it should not look as if it is being quoted. Typography should not be allowed to override meaning.

  • Joseph Marshall

    To hell with the tyrannical totalitarian despots who obsess about such things and then want to impose their tyranny on the rest of us.

    I take a position about the same as Bender’s, though with far less fury. Whatever I may or may not have been taught, as a writer, I have always stuck to two premises: first, English does not, strictly speaking, have “grammar”, “diction”, and “rules of punctuation”– it has manners, and the issue for a writer is maintaining his good manners; second, that the basis of good manners is clarity and avoidance of ambiguity. So clarity of sense trumps any arbitrary rule about what a sentence should look like and how it should be structured.

    But the problem is no longer the same in paperless prose. In the paragraph above I have pushed to what I think is the limit of sentence complexity that remains good mannered toward the reader, as well as the limit of paragraph length that also treats a virtual world reader politely.

    The point of a semicolon is to clarify the relationship between the parts [or, in British usage the "periods"] that exist between the capital letter and the full stop. It was highly useful in bookish prose because the printed page allowed for far more complex clausal structure than good mannered virtual world prose truly can sustain.

    Thus the semicolon’s decline is not terminal, but it is functional. All the little marks we make on paper or on screen are only there for clarity of sense. And, as far as I can see, neither the comma inside nor the comma outside the quotation mark is more clarifying.

  • Alana de Kock

    Max, really, obsessing about where to put the punctuation with regard to qutation marks, of course they go on the outside. But then you speak American rather than English, which anyone who speaks English outside the USA will recognise.

    And no, I am not British but South African and have had ongoing duels with American colleagues over spelling, vocabulary and punctuation.

    The reality is that although American and English are similar, they are no longer the same language.

  • http://www.StevenAbell.com Steven T Abell

    … to which I reply: both ways, depending. If I’m quoting someone’s speech or dialog, the punctuation goes inside; in all other situations, it goes outside.

    As a computer programmer by trade, I can tell you that the semicolon is far from dead. Although only the true Algol derivatives use them well, the annoying C-like languages still have no other reasonable choice from the ASCII character set.

    Something I greatly wish for in English is another kind of comma. Then I have one kind for separating clauses, and another kind for separating multiple adjectives. Having to use one mark for both meanings clogs up my mental parsing machinery.


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