Only the chemists get it right

13031079633_212cc93b91_grammarIn a management discussion for OT, the subject of period-quotation syntax came up. Which is to say, the question of whether periods go in or outside of quotation marks, and when. The traditional American stance is that they always, always, always go inside the quotation mark. This was what I was taught when I was growing up.

I was taught wrong. I mean, I was taught correctly in how the accepted syntax goes. But the accepted syntax is wrong, wrong, wrong.

This is one of those areas where British English and American English apparently diverge. In American English, we put the period inside the quotation mark in just about every instance.

He wrote that it was “weird.”

He wrote “That’s weird, man.”

No!

In Britain, apparently (?!) they put it outside the quotes.

He wrote that it was “weird”.

He wrote “That’s weird, man”.

The question of where the period appears should be entirely a matter of context. Is the period a part of the quote or not? He didn’t call it weird-period. He said it was “weird, man”! The thing that came after the “weird” was a comma. So it should be…

He wrote that it was “weird”.

He wrote “That’s weird, man.”

Does this seem crazy to you? Then consider that this is correct:

He wrote that it was “weird”!

He wrote “That’s weird, man!”

Given that periods and exclaimation points serve the same purpose as periods and commas, there is no reason to treat them differently in sentence placement. It’s also what we do with quotation marks.

Which brings me to the one organization that does it right: The American Chemical Society:

ACS Style — “Location of quotation marks is a style point in which ACS differs from other authorities. In 1978, ACS questioned the practice and recommended a deviation from it: logical placement. Thus, if the punctuation is part of the quotation, then it should be within the quotation marks; if the punctuation is not part of the quotation, the writer should not mislead the reader by inferring that it is. Place quotation marks before all punctuation that is not part of the original quotation. Place them after all punctuation that is part of the quotation.”

And hey, chemists know that the proper order of placement of things is extremely important.

Photo by Gwydion M. Williams


Category: Coffeehouse

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

12 Responses to The Failures of the English Language

  1. I had thought the accepted (American) punctuation for exclamation points and question marks allowed for placement outside the quotes, so that

    He wrote that it was “weird”!

    would be acceptable and that either of the following could be acceptable, depending on the context:

    Did he write, “Man that was weird”?

    He wrote, “was that weird?”

    (I have absolutely no authorities I can cite for this. That’s just my understanding.)

    I do think the Britons’ (and the chemists’) preferred way is more precise. I find this while working on a metadata project for my job, where I have to record what’s written on certain items that we’re trying to make available to patrons. If I followed the British convention, I could more accurately place the period so that patrons will know whether it was part of the original notation I’m trying to represent. I’m not going to change the standard, though, because that would be too cumbersome (and most other librarians/archivists wouldn’t be on board). If the patrons really need to know, then they could look at the original document or ask me (or my successor).

    • trumwill says:

      Correct. The exclamation point being outside of the quotation mark is correct. It makes no sense to hold periods to a different standard.

      • Sorry….I misread your original point.

        You (and the British and the chemists) are right about the period. But I’m so used to it that I’ll probably never change.

        But I used to say that about double spaces after periods, and I’ve changed my ways. My boss–who has a graphic design background–told me that the old typewriter style of hitting the space bar twice after a period looks bad on most word processor formats. I was resistant, but now I’ve started to change and it’s (almost) second nature for me.

  2. CK MacLeod says:

    Exclamation outside turns it into YOUR exclamation.

  3. RTod says:

    Chemists? You drilled all the way down to chemists?

    Would we consult with the Romance Writers of America to give their expertise on issue regarding solubility?

  4. aaron david says:

    If you are quoting someones exclamation it goes inside, if it is your question about the quote, it goes outside. ’nuff said.

  5. Michael Cain says:

    Working for the state legislature ruined me. I had to write amendments for committee reports, which were essentially instructions to drafters for how to change a document. It was not uncommon to end a piece of text with something like: “;”,’.”;. I was one of the better staff at getting these stupid things right. As I once told someone, “Look, it’s like Lisp; you just have to match up the pairs of quotation marks properly.”

    By rule, we only had straight double- and single-quotes. None of that opening and closing stuff. It will be interesting to see what WordPress does with that string when I hit the post button.

  6. Michael Cain says:

    More important, though, is where you stand on the issue of one or two spaces after a period.

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