Thursday, January 27, 2011

Punctuation with Quotations

“Quotes are nothing but inspiration for the uninspired.”
-Richard Kemph
Recently I helped a friend's daughter proofread her English assignment. One mistake she made frequently was the placement (or lack thereof) of commas near quotation marks. Unfortunately the US follows horrible rules for punctuating quotations: all trailing marks go INSIDE the quote. Personally I think this corrupts the quote and the British agree. In England the final period goes outside the quote. But since I'm an American I should know and follow the American rules.

Aside: my wife enrolled in a British gemology course by correspondance. When she mailed in her assignments, they came back marked-up and graded down for not following the British rules of grammar and spelling (like colour). She quit the course.

Now back to the American rules. A great site is The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. The author lists many rules with great examples. I'll summarize these and rules I've found elsewhere.

1. Periods and trailing commas always go inside quotation marks and single quotes
I added the word "trailing" to commas because we write:  He said, "Don't touch that!" instead of: He said ", Don't touch that!"  This rule puts the exclamation mark inside the quote above and the comma inside this quote: "I hate it when they grade me using British rules," she said.

There are some exceptions (see rule 2 for '?'.)
If the quoted item is a single letter or number, the period and commas go outside.

Look for the buried treasure where the map is marked with a large "X".

Her grade was an "F".

On this test, the highest score is a "1", not a "10".

2. Be logical with question marks and quotes.
This is the only time the US rules can be said to follow a "logic." If the quote is a question the '?' goes inside. He said, "Where am I?"
But if the quote is a statement and the sentence containing it is a question, then the '?' goes outside.
Did he actually say, "I am the walrus"?
If the quote AND the sentence are both questions, use only one '?' and put it inside the quote mark.
Are you sure he said, "Where am I?"

3. Capitalize the start of a direct quote, even in the middle of a sentence.
They said, "She said, 'He had to go.'" See how She and He are capitalized. Only the start of a quote is capitalized; for example "as" is lower cased in "I will in a minute," he replied, "as soon as I finish this chapter."

4. [Wikipedia Style Manual] If an entire sentence is quoted in such a way that it becomes a grammatical part of the larger sentence, the first letter loses its capitalization
It turned out to be true that "a penny saved is a penny earned."

5. Use single quotes when quoting a quote.
See the example in #3 above.

6. Offset direct quotes with commas
No one mentions this rule explicitly. Notice the commas in Gary says, "Pay attention." and "Grrr," said the monster.

There are special cases:

First, when the quote is not a direct quote we drop the quote marks and the comma. She said that she hates men.

Second, when a quote is introduced with 'that' the comma is omitted,  She said that "All men are pigs."

Third, consider this example from
"Diane, put the book down and go outside" was what her mother said, but what Diane heard was "Blah blah blah" or something even less meaningful.
I'd put a comma after "outside." The "blah blah" is not a direct quote, instead it's quoted for emphasis and not set off by commas.

Bottom Line

I tried to keep the rules few and simple but the English language is anything but simple. If you just remember that trailing punctuation goes INSIDE the quotes you'll be miles ahead of most people.  (And please don't pick on me when I don't follow this awful rule.)

According to cited above,
When type was handset, a period or comma outside of quotation marks at the end of a sentence tended to get knocked out of position, so the printers tucked the little devils inside the quotation marks to keep them safe and out of trouble.  But apparently only American printers were more attached to convenience than logic, since British printers continued to risk the misalignment of their periods and commas.



Anonymous Jason R. Finley said...

I absolutely agree with you about how ridiculous it is to put all trailing punctuation within quotation marks. It's silly at best and misleading at worst. In fact, I'm refusing to follow this custom in my dissertation! Instead, I only put punctuation inside of the quotation marks if that punctuation is in fact part of what's being quoted. Furthermore, I always put any necessary trailing punctuation outside of the quotation marks (just as we all do in the case of parentheses). I'm also refusing to alter capitalization in quoted material; instead, I give the exact quote. Below is a fabricated example.

One participant's response was, "when can i leave?". Another participant said, "I want to leave.". These responses illustrate the well-established principle of "not wanting to be there".

I don't care if it looks unusual! It improves clarity.
Anyway, I'm happy to find a like mind with which to share ranting.

March 20, 2012 at 3:27 PM  

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