Quotation punctuation evolution

With English teachers for parents and a degree in literature, I’ve always felt a certain burden to uphold consistent, proper English usage. Over the past few years, though, one of the firm rules that I learned in my younger days – that commas and periods go inside quotation marks – has become impossible for me to follow.

This is an American rule, one that is mostly, if not entirely, about typographic appearance. If you place a comma or a period after the closing quotation mark, it’s kind of floating there in space. Placed before, it’s nestled tidily against the preceding letter. The American use of double-quotes intead of single makes this contrast even more dramatic.

I first started struggling with this rule when writing documentation for users of various web and database systems I was building. If I wanted users to type “foo”, and I didn’t want them to also type a comma, I knew that putting the comma inside the quotation marks was asking for trouble. So at first I changed the rule for myself for those technical writing tasks only, and thought of this style as “programmer’s quotes”.

The more I did this, the more I wondered why I was using two different rules. Where was that lovely consistency that I was sworn to uphold? The border cases between technical and non-technical writing began to bug me. I decided to abandon the American rule entirely and switch over to British-style usage (retaining the Americanism of using double quotes, rather than single, in most cases).

(You’ll notice that finding a label for what I was doing at each stage was important. Usage is about consistency, after all, and I wanted to make sure I had good rationales for my rogue behavior. I’ve never heard of anyone getting their college diploma revoked over a usage spat, but you can’t be too careful.)

After searching around the web a bit I can see that it’s not just me. In fact, the Wikipedia style guide entry on quotation marks seems to describe my favored style exactly.

One thing I learned when studying linguistics in college is that spoken and written language change continually. Rules are useful as a snapshot of current practice, but they evolve as that practice evolves. There is no timeless right and wrong. There’s just a big pile of rough consensus decisions that are constantly being challenged. It looks like we’re challenging, and changing, this one. Any bets on when this makes it into the Chicago Manual of Style?

Ian Bicking commented on Sat Oct 7 12:02:39 2006:

I’m pretty sure the Chicago Manual of Style also accepts the British style; if not preferred, at least as equally valid. They also say that “X, Y, and Z” is just as acceptable as “X, Y and Z” (my technical side strongly prefers the first form).

Paul commented on Sat Oct 7 13:45:43 2006:

I’m an Oxford/Harvard comma person too.

My 14th edition of Chicago (I think the current edition is the 15th) says this about the quotation punctuation issue:

The British style is strongly advocated by some American language experts …. In linguistic and philosophical works, specialized terms are regularly punctuated the British way …. the University of Chicago Press continues to recommend the American style for periods and commas.

I’d be interested to see what the current edition says.