Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Most Common Mistake in My In-box

E-mails I get about my columns and books are frequently laden with apologies, disclaimers, and self-deprecating remarks about the sender's grammar. Stuff like: "I'm sure I'm making a ton of grammar mistakes in this message." That's a shame, because the grammar in those e-mails is usually fine.

But there is one mistake that crops up in them a lot. These people often put periods and commas outside of quotation marks.
When he said, "Make my day", Eastwood became legend.
This is how they do it in Great Britain. But it's an error here in the U.S.

The rule here is that commas and periods always go inside quotation marks. Colons and semicolons always go outside. Question marks and exclamation points can go either way, depending on whether they pertain to the quoted matter or to the whole sentence. So it's:
Did you hear the policeman yell "Stop"? (Whole sentence is a question, quoted matter is not.)


I heard Jane ask, "Why won't you stop?"
(Question falls within the sentence.)
Strangely, e-mails from people other than readers -- ones from friends and even forwarded messages originated by complete strangers -- do not seem as prone to this mistake. Perhaps it's because people writing to me about grammar and usage are more likely to include quotations. But it's also possible that it's a product of self-consciousness -- at least partly.

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Joel said...

I think you're right about the self-consciousness. And I think I used to do better with it. And since you brought it up, I have a question or two. I'm going to blame it on technology--email, the internet, data storage, etc.

When we're talking about something that someone said, the period and comma rule makes perfect sense to me, but when the quotation marks serve more as a container to enclose specific characters, I feel the need to keep terminating commas and periods out. The compulsion is especially strong when the enclosed text is an email address, url (btw, I don't like to capitalize "url" or unc" or "btw" or "fyi", but it seems that capitalization is preferred every time I've seen guidance on it; how aberrant am I?), or other electronic file name or location. But then it backwashes into other non-electronic and non-address quotations, such as the "fyi" in the preceding parenthetical. Hmmm, and maybe I'm misusing the quotation marks in the first place.

Part of it comes from the fact that periods and commas might be part of the character set of those electronic addresses (though, granted, rarely in a terminal position). Part of it is the fact that certain interfaces will automatically generate links based on entered text and the period or comma will interfere (of course, this can lead to other gymnastics, such as inserting extra spaces to separate from parentheses and other proximal punctuation; but even if it doesn't have those practical implications, the possibility is like a mindworm). Another thing is that it feels like the quotation marks suggest a kind of precision and while a period or comma might essentially be white space in the spoken word, it's not white space visually or in many electronic contexts. Some of the problematic instances could probably be corrected by using a different means to demarcate the text, such as is often done in technical documentation, but such documentation notably employs legends to indicate that usage and it feels awkward and uncertain in less formal writing, not to mention the fact that one can't always count on the final product being delivered with fonts or formatting (e.g., some people receive their email--whether by choice or system limitation--in plain text) or if it is, that that formatting or font selection hasn't been unfortunately altered (and, oh yes, that sentence was probably too long and otherwise wrong, and this side comment only makes it worse).

Here are some examples. These aren't the most creative sentences and they're maybe a little forced,
but I think they're illustrative:

The picture can be found at "K:\Work Stuff\Super-Duper High Priority\My(Special)Pictures\MargeSimpson,nekid.jpg".

Place all of your important project documents in "L:\Department Projects\Super.Important\Not_Really\ok, if you must\86".

The url at which I'm entering this comment is "".

If you want to send me email, write to "", but don't send me any of your right-wing hysteria spam.

If you prefer the menu bar, you can find the "New Document" command under "File".

The name of the group is "Insane!Punctuation,". Yes, the comma is part of their name. Please don't confuse them with the "People's Front of Judea Punctuation Consortium.".

--end examples--

So, what's your guidance--on any of this? I'm feeling, now that I've written all of this, that the answer must be obvious and I'm embarrassed to be so lazy that I won't look it up. My not researching it is especially ironic in light of my spending all of this time typing up this comment. Oh well.

June Casagrande said...

Wow. You asked a mouthful. And I saw it just as I was heading out the door. I'm a-gonna think on it for a spell ...

CathLab1981 said...

Jesus Joel, you should buy someone a drink before you ask a question like that.

June Casagrande said...

Okay, now that I've had time to actualy read, I've thought about some of your great points. In my simplify-everything mind, they boil down to: As communication begins to involve more new symbols and punctuation-laden terms, the terminal period's relationship to quotation marks may be facing new challenges.

I agree.

Forgive me if I'm repeating myself, but a newspaper I worked at used to make us put a space between an URL and a terminal period. Visit . Kooky. They changed their policy after a while.

I think that, right now, there are already some "accidents" of this nature in the language. Stuff like ending a sentence with an intialism: "I love L.A." That last period does two jobs. This is just how we do it and people seem comfortable with it.

But getting comfortable takes time. And that's where technology gets tricky.

I've found great comfort in not taking positions on what's right, wrong, best or worst. I'm just not that good at it. So I've sort of made it my thing to just help people comply with the rules set down by better-qualified authorities.

When it comes to the issues you brought up, not taking a position may be the best course. Either people will get accustomed to seeing "url." or they'll start writing differently and/or organizations with names like Insane!Punctuation, will realize it's not worth all the hassle to be cute. (k.d. lang is probably reminded of that every time she sees her name in a newspaper that refuses to let her defy their capitalization rules.)

So, my guess is: This stuff will all work itself out.

And regarding "url" instead of "URL," I'm reminded of the early tendency to capitalize E-mail. Thank heavens that's over.

- J

June Casagrande said...


: )

He's earned the privilege. Also, lazy though I am, tricky questions help me. They force me to think about stuff for a few minutes, thereby delaying, a least for a while, my popping in a "Simpsons" DVD.

: )

Joel said...

You're probably right, Cathleen. I'm prone to exuberant verbosity, especially when it comes to words and grammar and stuff. But I mean well. :-)

I try to make up for it by pushing the Casagrande brand in whatever ways I can; indeed, even my silly and/or arcane questions are partly meant that way (even though I am sincerely interested, eager and hopeful about honing my grammatical knowledge). Ha. I vote with my words and you know the old organizer adage, "vote early and often."

And I think June understands that I'm kind of a grammar fanboy. Eek. Yeah, you think that's weird; imagine how it feels to be that. :-)

June, thank you for your kind words and--while I'm expressing gratitude--indeed, for patiently and attentively dealing with all of our questions, weird little anxieties, soap boxes, confusion, etc. Most especially, thanks for reminding us that it's supposed to be fun (well, I've always felt that way, but I realize that I'm a freak; it's nice to get a little affirmation). Heh, and for bringing the sexy back to grammar. I hope that's not an inappropriate thing to say; if it helps, take it broadly and metaphorically. I've gotta think one of your reviewers has already used it, but if not, I think you oughta make it part of your publicity and you can reference me however you want: maybe "Grammar Fanboy says . . ." ;-D Honestly, as much as I love the language, I find it painful sometimes to read most of the other "experts." As a rule, they're definitely unsexy. And whatever they think, it's supposed to be sexy, what with all of the conjugating and verbulating and such.

June Casagrande said...

I'm very grateful for comments on my blog -- especially interesting ones.


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