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Friday, November 5, 2010

Quotation Punctuation: Inside or Outside?

I like to research and follow up when there is a question raised during our writing meetings. Last night, our question centered around whether or not we should always place ending punctuation within the quotation marks. I’ve dug into some reputable sources as well as some general forum discussions on the topic, and my findings are recorded below.

I believe the key word here is "always". This is one of those grammar topics (like the series comma or sentence spacing) that when you get a few writers/editors/professors in a room, you're going to end up with a variety of answers. This is one reason why the misleading word "always" should never be used.

The quick explanation is that the British use a logical approach (this is the actual terminology, not my opinion) to this grammar issue. They place the punctuation mark where it logically and naturally should fall based on the context of the sentence. The American usage, which has been ingrained in many of us since childhood, is a typesetter approach to this issue (read more about this in the Grammar Girl passage below). The typesetter issue is the same reason Americans used double spaces between sentences (also ingrained in us early on). It's taken a while, but most Americans have, logically so, phased out the double spaces and now use single spaces.

There are many American grammar and style books that direct writers to "always" place punctuation inside quotation marks, but as everything changes, so does grammar usage. The same grammar books will make exceptions. Every guide book I researched said question marks and exclamation points, for example, should be placed where they make the most sense. And colons and semicolons "always" (there's that misleading word again) go outside of the quotation marks - as I have researched today, even this I'm finding is not always the case. Many American writers have opted to use the British logical approach to this issue because it is a more natural way of writing and reading.

Are you asking, "What should I do?" (That was a tricky little sentence, by the way. There were a couple of rules I could have used to determine my question mark usage in a sentence that is a question within a question - I went with the most logical approach.) First, choose a usage and be consistent. Usually I recommend going with the American rule over the British rule, but in this case, I feel you are covered either way. If you choose the American typesetter rule, you are covered because... well, you're an American writer. If you choose the British logic rule, you are covered by reason. Personally, in twenty years, I think we'll be comparing some other archaic grammar rule to "remember when we still used the American typesetter rule for quotation punctuation?" It's going to fall just like the double-space rule fell. But for now, choose to be consistent, and you will be okay.

Second, always - and I really mean "always" here - do what your publisher says. In American publishing, my guess is that the majority still follow the typesetter rule, but some have shifted, so always find out how your publisher wants it, and do it like that. In the world of publication, the only rules that matter are your publisher's.

Here are some more references to help you as you research this issue:

From Grammar Girl
( ):

Typesetters Quotations Versus Logical Quotations

There's another difference in how Americans and Britons treat quotation marks. In the U.S. we put periods and commas inside quotation marks, and in Britain they put periods and commas outside quotation marks. My admittedly U.S.-centric memory trick is to remember "Inside the U.S., inside quotation marks. Outside the U.S., outside quotation marks." [I think this is not completely accurate - I believe the Britain rule allows inside or outside placement depending on the context of the sentence which is what makes it a logical usage.]

The reason for this difference begins with the introduction of movable type. Before typesetting, nobody paid too much attention to where they put periods and commas relative to quotation marks, but periods and commas became a problem with the advent of typesetting because they were so tiny. Printers found that the periods and commas were more stable when they were placed inside closing quotation marks, so that's the way they started doing it (7, 8).

Again, our British friend Fowler seems to have made the difference in his book The King's English. (9) Typesetting technology had advanced to the point where it wasn't necessary to shield periods and commas anymore, and he argued for what he considered a more logical system of letting the context of the sentence determine where the period and comma should go. The British seem to have taken his suggestion to heart and Americans seem to have ignored it.

Because of these origins, it is sometimes said the British use logical quotations and Americans use typesetters quotations.

From Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (I’ve bolded the passage numbers that closely relate to this issue):

13.1 Direct quotations: "When I am dead," said one of the keenest minds, "lay a sword on my coffin."

13.2 In long quotations, left-hand marks are placed at the beginning of every paragraph, as well as at the end of the selection.

13.3 Quotation marks are usually not used when the quoted matter is set in smaller type or in paragraphs indented on both sides.

13.4 Single quotation marks enclose a quotation within a quotation. The witness said, "I heard him say, 'Don't be late'; then I heard the door close."

13.5 Quotation marks enclose titles of short poems, paintings, lectures, articles, and parts or chapters of books. (Titles of whole books, periodicals, and newspapers are usually italicized in context.)

13.5.1 In American usage printers usually place a period or comma inside closing quotation marks whether it belongs logically to the quoted matter or to the whole sentence or context.... But when a logical or exact distinction is desired in specialized work in which clarity is more important than usual (as in this dictionary), a period or comma can be placed outside quotation marks when it belongs not in the quoted matter but to a larger unit containing the quoted matter. The package is labeled "Handle with Care".

13.5.2 Only one other mark accompanies closing quotation marks, whether the quotation and the whole sentence or context call for the same mark or for different marks. We shouted, "Where do you think you're going?" Why did you bellow, "Get out of here!"

13.5.3 A colon or semicolon is usually placed outside of quotation marks. "Fame is proof that people are gullible"; with this quotation, he retired in silence.

13.5.4 A colon or semicolon is sometimes placed inside the quotation marks when it belongs inseparably to the quotation. However, a terminal colon or semicolon of quoted matter incorporated in a sentence usually gives place to appropriate end punctuation. "Sirs:" is a salutation....

13.5.5 A question mark or exclamation point is usually placed inside or outside the quotation marks according to whether it belongs to the quoted matter or to the whole sentence or clause that includes the quotation. Can you forget his angry exit after he shouted "Include me out"? "And what do you think of this new novel?" his friend asked.

13.6 Quotation marks, often single quotation marks, sometimes enclose technical terms unfamiliar to the reader; words used in an unusual sense; and coined word, trade or shop jargon, or slang for which the writer implies a slight apology. An "em" is a unit of measure used in printing. He is "goofy" according to their lingo. 'Strangeness' is a property of elementary particles.

More Web sites to review:


A very special thank you to Karen Phillips. She had a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style I requested on e-mail and sent me the passages on the quotation punctuation issue. This reference (5.12 below) states that there are times when the punctuation may or should be placed outside the quotation mark. Our job as writers is to pick up on those rare times and use the punctuation appropriately.

Basically in the writing world, your publisher’s rules come first, and The Chicago Manual of Style rules come second. If it is in this reference, you can be assured of the accuracy.

Here are the passages from The Chicago Manual of Style:

American Style—
5.11 When a declarative or an imperative sentence is enclosed in quotation marks, the period ending the sentence is, in what may be called the American style, placed inside the closing quotation mark. If the quoted sentence is included within another sentence, its terminal period is omitted or replaced by a comma, as required, unless it comes at the end of the including sentence. In the latter case, a single period serves both sentences and is placed inside the closing quotation mark.

“There is no reason to inform the president.”
“It won’t be necessary to inform the president,” said Emerson.
“Emerson replied nervously, The president doesn’t wish to be informed about such things.”

5.12 Quoted words and phrases falling at the end of a sentence can, in the vast majority of cases, take the terminating period within the closing quotation mark without confusion or misunderstanding. In those rare instances when confusion is likely, the period not only may, but perhaps should, be placed after the quotation mark.

Examples (notice the difference between the two sentences) :
From then on, Gloria became increasingly annoyed by what she later referred to as Sidney’s “excessive discretion.”
The first line of Le Beau’s warring to Orlando has long been regarded as reading “good sir, I do in friendship counsel you”.

Post by: LWC Director, Karen Aldridge. Visit her personal blog at My Writing Loft.

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