English Grammar and Usage, Eugene Volokh, Reader Polls

Grammer Pole of the Weak: Punctuation and Quotation Marks

In last week’s Grammer Pole, 60 percent of you supported forming the singular possessive of a noun ending in “s” by adding an apostrophe followed by an additional “s” — e.g., “Kansas’s statute” rather than “Kansas’ statute.” In this debate, you sided with Justice Souter over Justice Thomas (based on their dueling approaches in Kansas v. Marsh).

Today we call upon you to choose between nationalities instead of Supreme Court justices. When it comes to the placement of punctuation marks in relation to quotation marks, do you favor the British approach or the American approach?

Let’s review the differences….

The issue was tackled recently by Professor Eugene Volokh over at the Volokh Conspiracy (bracketed material in the original):

A few thoughts — perhaps helpful to law review editors and authors — about what’s customary in American legal publications. [Added: My sense is that this is also customary in most other books and journals, but I can speak with the most confidence about the custom in legal publications.]

1. Place commas and periods inside quotation marks, e.g.,

The Court’s answer to this was “no.”

2. Place all other punctuation marks outside quotation marks, unless they are logically parts of the quotation. I have seen some departures from this where semicolons or question marks are involved, but my sense is that those departures remain rather rare exceptions in modern legal publications.

The Court’s answer to this was “no”; but two years later, the Court changed its mind.
Was the Court’s answer “yes” or “no”?
The Court’s response was, in essence, “Says who?”
[The question mark is logically part of the quotation.]

(He also addressed the placement of footnote calls in his post, but we’ll leave that for another day.)

The reasons for these practices are obviously not solely logic; they are chiefly aesthetics and custom (which are related, because once a custom is established many people will find adherence to the custom to be more aesthetically pleasing). Nonetheless, unless I’m mistaken, the practices are pretty well-settled, and editors risk annoying readers — and being inconsistent even within their own publications — if they depart from this custom.

Speaking for myself, I’m a stickler for aesthetics and custom, so I support the approach outlined above by Professor Volokh. But as the good professor explains, there’s another side to this debate. Cue the Brits:

I should note, by the way, that many people are quite opposed to the custom of placing periods and commas in quotation marks, even when the periods and commas don’t logically fall within the quoted material; as I understand it, the modern British style is indeed to place periods and commas within quotation marks only when they are themselves being quoted. But I don’t want to get into this debate here (see this Slate article for one view of the debate), or enter into a similar logical debate as to footnote calls. Rather, I’m just trying to report what the custom actually is, for those who feel they ought to follow the custom.

I’m torn here between my support for aesthetics and tradition, on the one hand, and my Anglophilia, on the other. On balance, I’m inclined to stick with standard American style — even though the case for so-called “logical punctuation,” as outlined in Ben Yagoda’s Slate piece, is persuasive. Old habits die hard.

Readers, what do you think?

Do you support placing periods and commas inside quotation marks (the American way) or outside quotation marks (the British way)?

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Punctuation, Quotation Marks, and Footnotes [Volokh Conspiracy]

Earlier: Prior Grammer Poles of the Weak

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