Logical Punctuation: Quotation Marks

Ben Yagoda has a piece in Slate on the different styles for the use of quotation marks. The American, or “illogical,” style is to place the punctuation within the quotation marks (as I did here). This style is complicated because it is not consistent. Periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks; question marks and exclamation points only go inside if they are part of the quotation, otherwise they go outside. The British, or “logical”, style is to place all punctuation marks inside the quotation marks if they are part of the quotation, and outside if they are not (as I have done in this sentence). And if my Canadian style guide is accurate, true to form both styles are in use here in Canada, although the American style is used by more publishing houses. (British and American styles also reverse the priority of single and double quotation marks, but that’s a different matter.)

This difference is an excellent example of a purely arbitrary style. There is no “correct” way to punctuate a quotation. Both systems are valid. Granted, the British system is simpler and more logical, but that is rarely much of a consideration when it comes to usage. Personally, I prefer the American system. It is more visually elegant, with the quotation marks neatly enclosing the other marks, with nothing left hanging off the end of the sentence. But I recognize that this is just a personal preference that comes from having learned to write and edit using that system. I could quickly come to accept and appreciate the British system if it were foisted upon me.

Like Yagoda, I have noticed a shift toward the British system in non-professionally-edited prose. But I’m not sure if this represents an actual shift in usage or just an artifact of how I perceive it. My experience as a copy editor has grown along with the internet and access to its large corpus of non-edited prose. In years past, while aware of the difference in the style from reading British books, I probably wouldn’t have noticed differences due to lack of copy editing experience. Perhaps non-professional prose has always tended toward the logical, British style, and I have just not noticed because I wasn’t attuned to looking for such stylistic intricacies. I’d like to see some actual data on usage over the years; it would make a neat corpus linguistics project.

I agree with Yagoda’s conclusion that it seems unlikely that American publishing houses will change this style rule anytime soon. One unstated, and probably uncontemplated, reason is that the American style creates a shibboleth. It marks the professional writers and editors from the non-professionals. It’s a way for style to mark a social distinction.

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