Periods and Commas and Quotation Marks: In or Out?


The rules of punctuation can often be likened to the Pirate’s Code, as described by Captain Barbossa in the movie The Pirates of The Caribbean: “…the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” Nowhere is this clearer than when you start to talk about how to use quotation marks alongside of other punctuation marks.

For example, if you follow the American style, when quotation marks (inverted commas in Britain) come at the end of a sentence, you put the period (full stop in Britain) inside the quotation marks, whether or not it appeared there in the quoted material. But in British style, the full stop (period) appears outside of the inverted commas (quotation marks). Like so:

Putting the period inside of the closing quotation marks is known as “American style.”

Putting the full stop outside of the closing quotation marks is known as “British style”.

The same applies for commas: in American style, you put them inside of the quotation marks, but in British style, they’re outside.

But who in American decided that periods and commas should go inside of the quotation marks?

Typographers. They thought a comma or period outside of the quotation marks looked like it was dangling there all by itself, disconnected from the rest of the sentence.

But is this practice changing? Should it change?

Over at Slate.com, Ben Yagoda offers an argument for “The Rise of ‘Logical Punctuation’.

What do you think, dear readers? Do you prefer American or British style?

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5 Responses to Periods and Commas and Quotation Marks: In or Out?

  1. Saqib Ali says:

    This reminds me of my English professor, who used to be very critical of the misuse of double quotes.

    There are only two uses of quotes – one to quote someone, and the other to enclose a ironic or sarcastic expressions. A lot of people, however, use quotes to add emphasis. Quotes don’t add emphasis. For e.g. use of double quotes in the following statement doesn’t add emphasis, instead it simply confuses the reader who goes seeking the irony/sarcasm in the statement.

    This reminds me of my professor from Cambridge, who used to be very critical of the "misuse" of double quotes. 

    If you want to emphasis something, italicize it.

    Saqib

    • Roy Jacobsen says:

      Saqib,
      Thanks for commenting. You’re correct that quotation marks should not be used for emphasis; have you seen The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks?

      However, I should point out that there are more than two uses for quotation marks:
      1. To indicate direct quotations or for dialog.
      2. To indicate irony or sarcasm.
      3. For titles of articles, songs, TV series episodes, and short works of fiction. (Book, movie, CD, and TV series titles are usually indicated with italic type.)
      4. For nicknames. (For example: Ted Williams, “The Splendid Splinter.”)
      5. To signal unusual usage of a word. (For example: Water “seeks” it’s own level.)
      6. To emphasize that you are referring to a word itself (or words), and not to the concept. (For example: Instead of “quotation marks,” the British refer to them as “inverted commas.”)

      • Saqib Ali says:

        Re: #3.

        I tend to put these in the same category as #1 i.e. quotations. But I agree that it is appropriate use of quotations marks.

  2. Lars Walker says:

    I’m for the English system, which makes better sense. I use the American system under protest.

  3. Susan says:

    The type of editing I do requires compliance with Chicago Manual of Style 16. I spend a lot of time explaining to my (American) clients that punctuation goes inside quotation marks because this is America, and they will see it done differently in documents that originate in Britain.

    I would welcome the acceptance of “logical punctuation” in this country. I’m always uncomfortable with sentences such as: Did you enjoy the movie “Salt?” The name of the movie has no question mark, but I have to put it in the quotation marks with the title because that is the current convention. (BTW, in my case, the answer to the question is “No.”)

    Let the revolution continue!

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