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.
The debate brought, as usual, a lot of mail. 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.
The book’s title, by the way, refers to a joke that was popular online for a time. It’s posted on Jumbo Joke.
Just a Few of the Letters
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. –Matt, Queensland, Australia
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. –Beverly, Georgia
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. –Mike, Texas
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.” –Andrew, Texas
I like that — “illogical and counterintuitive”; I’m going to use it to replace “idiotic”. But “lazy” stays!