Friday, 19 August 2011

Commas and Periods inside or outside Quotation Marks? A Plea for Common Sense

Here’s an extract from today's edition of the London newspaper The Telegraph:

The Spanish government is to request help from the Vatican to transform the polemic site of  the tomb of fascist dictator Gen Francisco Franko into "a place of reconciliation".

And here’s one from this morning’s Globe and Mail:

In Russia, it’s “unpredictable kisses,” “a meeting at sunrise,” or "walking along uninhabited streets.”

What do you notice about the punctuation of the quotations?

The first extract follows the British practice of putting the quotation marks around the quoted words, of including the comma or period only if it is part of the quotation.

The second follows the American practice of always putting the comma or period inside the quotation marks, whether it belongs to the quotation or not.

The first is a matter of common sense; the second is illogical and results from an early American typesetting practice of always including the periods and commas simply because it looked neater that way. All English-speaking countries outside North America follow the British system.

In Canada, all newspapers follow the American practice, as specified in the Canadian Press Stylebook. In official documents, the practice varies. Many Canadians punctuate the British way simply because it is logical. In this, they are supported by the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and the corresponding Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage.

At writing workshops, I always ask participants how they would punctuate such sentences. While university graduates usually follow the American practice according to the style guides they have used, a majority of participants punctuate them the British way. People who don’t know, opt for this because it seems the obvious way to do it.

So here’s my plea for common sense. Let logic prevail! Abandon the American practice. Follow your instinct, knowing that you have the venerable Canadian Oxford Dictionary on your side. Write to your local newspapers and urge them to punctuate their stories like this:

In Russia, it’s “unpredictable kisses”, “a meeting at sunrise”, or "walking along uninhabited streets”. In Lithuania, it’s “wading in the marshes during a warm rain”, “the tranquility of a cigarette”, or “wet stars”, whatever those are. And in the United States, it’s "a warm fuzzy feeling".

In case you are more interested in the substance than the style of this extract, these are all expressions about love. And not only is love blind, so is the American practice of putting a comma or period inside quotation marks when it belongs not to the quotation, but the sentence. 

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