A “Letter”? From an “Editor”!

Do the ! and ? in the title above, in relation to the quotation marks, bother you? Vindicate you? Make you wonder? Maybe you’ll enjoy this little debate, which opened in the 22 January 2006 issue.

Julia in Virginia wrote: “I’m a professional copyeditor. Commas always go inside quotation marks.” (Apparently professional copyeditors like to be terse.)

I responded with a link to the relevant portion of True‘s Frequently Asked Questions list, which I’ll reproduce here so you don’t have to go look:

Q: Why does True use non-standard punctuation marks around quotation marks?

A: “Standard” depends on your point of view. An average American would write

I like “This is True,” which I get every week.

while a typical Brit would write

I like “This is True”, which I get every week.

See the difference in the placement of the comma? The American system is idiotic: the name of the publication is, in fact, “This is True”. Its name certainly does not include a comma, as implied by the quotation marks. “British punctuation style” is much more logical and correct. American schools teach the former because it means the writer doesn’t have to think — they can just follow a simplistic rule. Accuracy? Forget it — it’s not even considered. True is about thinking, about accuracy, about education. It follows logic when punctuating, not lazy school rules.

Julia replied, “As a professional editor, I respectfully disagree with your assertion that the American system of punctuation is ‘idiotic,’ and I do not follow this style because I was taught to be lazy in school or because I’d rather follow a simple rule than think. Your suggestion of such is insulting.”

I replied that being personally insulted by my opinion, which is not specifically aimed at her, can hardly be considered “respectful.” And she quickly retorted, “Of course it’s specifically aimed at me, Randy — me and anyone else who disagrees with you.”

Nope, I don’t buy that, Julia, and it continuously astounds me how people choose to be insulted. It’s simply a statement of my opinion. If I had added “And anyone who disagrees is a moron!”, then it might be reasonable to feel insulted if you disagreed.

Life is just way too short to go around looking for insults in written material that was not written with you in mind, and it takes a mighty big ego to think I’m trying to insult you on my web site with something I wrote years ago.

Other Readers Weigh In

The debate brought, as usual, a lot of mail: see the Comments below for a sampling.

Quite a few wrote to ask if I had heard of the Lynne Truss book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves (with the ironic — for me — subtitle, The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation). I’ve not only heard of it, I have it and enjoyed it very much.

In the preface to the U.S. edition of the book (Truss is British), she even goes into the differences between British and American styles about quotes. But the book is well worth reading for her rant on apostrophes alone.

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14 Comments on “A “Letter”? From an “Editor”!

  1. You were right when you stated it is idiotic to place the comma inside the quotation marks, thus changing the contents of what is located inside said quotation marks. Your example was perfect, yet Julie either can’t see the logic or won’t admit that one is more logical than the other. She should be insulted by her school system, not you.

  2. After reading your last newsletter and the issue with the copyeditor that was insulted, I was reminded of a quote: “A wise man cannot be insulted. If the insult has no meaning, he ignores it. If the insult does have meaning, he deserves it.”

    Sometimes people need to be reminded.

  3. Eleanor Roosevelt said that “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” So the professional editor who chose to be insulted was successful by her choice, not by your statement.

  4. I’m a professional editor, too, and Julia in Virginia needs to lighten up. Yes, in American English, your style of punctuation is wrong, and when I am working for my bosses, I follow the rules.

    But Randy, you’re also right that the American style is illogical and counterintuitive. It’s even worse because the rule isn’t consistent: periods and commas ALWAYS go inside, but question marks and exclamation points follow the logical ‘What’s actually being quoted?’ rule.

    I think Julia has lost the distinction between following a rule because she has to follow it and following a rule because it makes sense.

    I like that — “illogical and counterintuitive”; I’m going to use it to replace “idiotic”. But “lazy” stays! -rc

  5. I agree with your take on the problem of punctuation, Randy. I was born and raised in the United States and am quite effective at utilizing proper American grammar in writing. But, while I understand it and can make it work for me, I still think it’s illogical. There resulting commas at the end of book titles are what annoy me the most. Why do we Americans feel the need to change things that don’t need to change, and to not change things that should change? It’s like the English (now purely American) system versus metric. I fail to understand, though, how our system of punctuating is any LAZIER than the British way.

    As for people taking comments personally… I’m sure you realize that people are going to do that. It’s stupid and immature (yes, if you take impersonal comments personally, I’m specifically targeting you and calling YOUR actions stupid and immature, so feel free to be a little offended), but it’s part of living in the world we live in. What would we be without our little quirks?

    It’s “lazier” because the better way takes thought, instead of just blindly following a rule. I’d rather have citizens who want to think, rather than do what they’re told even though it doesn’t make sense. -rc

  6. Thank you! Apparently, American public schools have all fallen asleep. I learned punctuation the British way, so when I turn in a paper, (I’m a college student) I use the British style. I had to go to the dean of students to force my professor to change my grade.

  7. I don’t understand why if you are quoting something why you would include something which is not part of the quote in the quote. The comma is a clear example and I would like to know how you take the sentence apart with a split like that. One quote goes with one part and the other goes with another. I also learned that a period is used to end a sentence, not a quote, so it makes no sense to put the period inside the quote.

    I do not agree that it is lazy way. To me, it takes more thought to do it strangely. It is normal to say: Tom said “stop”, but Mary said “go”. It is harder to remember to do it as: Tom said “stop,” but Mary said “go.”

    Having to modify the quoted sections based on what is coming next is harder, not easier!!

    I’m unclear if you are arguing for my side, or against it. Yes, it takes thought to do it correctly. That’s the point. I’m not going to go by rote, an “easy” way out, if it’s going to produce inaccurate quotes. I’d rather put in the time and thought and be accurate. -rc

  8. I am agreeing with the way that you do things, but I disagree when you say that the American way is due to laziness as it is harder and you have to think about it much more, in part because you have to think about what is coming next, before the end quote.. I think it is just due to stupidity. There is much less thought to do it the British and your way.

  9. I am in America, and I have always been frustrated by our illogical convention. I wonder how many American products were accidentally created with a question mark or exclamation point in their name because of this rule (e.g. ACT! contact manager software, Baked! Lay’s potato crisps, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, Oh Henry! candy bar, Guess? jeans, scene it? DVD game, etc.).

    I wanted to point out this footnote of a link for a possible explanation, but by no means is this an excuse!


    In the days when printing used raised bits of metal, “.” and “,” were the most delicate, and were in danger of damage (the face of the piece of type might break off from the body, or be bent or dented from above) if they had a ‘”‘ on one side and a blank space on the other. Hence the convention arose of always using ‘.”‘ and ‘,”‘ rather than ‘”.’ and ‘”,’, regardless of logic.

    I thought you and your readers might find that interesting!

  10. The American vs Rational punctuation positioning debate goes back to late-80s Usenet, and when I first encountered it, I was told — and contemporaneous research confirmed — that the original justification for it was optical:

    punctuation inside the quotes set cleaner and tighter.

    Not seeing this reason mentioned here, I thought I would pass it along.

    That said, your stock explanation /is/ a touch provocative, Randy… 🙂

    I think it goes back to well before Usenet. -rc

  11. Why do you say it take more thought to put the punctuation outside the quotation marks, except for in specific cases (the British way), then it does to put the punctuation inside the quotation marks except for specific cases (the American way).

    Because it’s not as simple as that. The American way is to put the punctuation inside the quotation marks, end of rule. But the British way — or at the very least, my interpretation of it — is to put them inside or outside as is logical. That obviously takes thought to figure out. -rc

  12. I was taught to use a style book when I began writing for publication. This is a question of style, in my opinion. Style is not correct or incorrect, it’s a matter of what’s done where you live or work. Each of us learns and becomes comfortable with whatever style we’re taught to use.

    This is a tempest in a teapot, in my opinion.

    Or maybe it’s a lot of temper in a teapot.

  13. This conversation reminds me of Emerson’s quotation from ENGLISH TRAITS: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” Funny that he includes that quotation in a book by that title.

    That said, I am much more troubled by the waste of space taken up by the added “u” in words such as colour and neighbour than I am in what side of a quotation mark a comma or period goes. I am also impatient with the incessant use of plural verbs with singular collective nouns that the English continue to put out there without a blush.

    There are a lot of extra S’s there. I read a news item just recently about a little girl on her way to “schools”. Really? Is one of her subjects maths? -rc


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