Everyone is Wrong About Quotation Marks



Convention dictates that commas and periods should always go inside quotation marks. This has always irked me.

Why should punctuation that is not part of a quote be placed inside quotation marks? This post from the Modern Language Association offers an answer: periods placed after double quotation marks are ugly; or at least they used to be ugly when printing technology was largely restricted to monospaced fonts. I’m actually sympathetic to the idea of letting aesthetics dictate typographical practice (I am persuaded by mathematician Allen Hatcher’s explanation of why he omits punctuation from mathematical formulas that are displayed on the center of a page), but that argument for quotation mark placement is a relic of obsolete technology. We can, and should, move on.

Consider this quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “when the Rabbit actually TOOK A WATCH OUT OF ITS WAISTCOAT-POCKET, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet.” Here is another: “In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” Both quotes were punctuated in the conventional way, but it is impossible to tell whether the periods are part of the original text or were introduced to satisfy convention. (A period was added to the former quote, but the period in the latter quote comes from the original text).

Titles containing punctuation present a similar problem. Consider the Tool song “H.” The title of that song contains a period, but this wasn’t completely obvious from the punctuation in the previous sentence.

I propose that we place periods and commas outside quotation marks when those periods and commas are not part of the original quotes or titles. For example, “when the Rabbit actually TOOK A WATCH OUT OF ITS WAISTCOAT-POCKET, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet”. The previous period is not part of the original text, and so it should be placed after the closing quotation mark. Punctuation within quotes still ought to be able to serve as punctuation for the sentence containing the quotes. Consider again this example: “In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” In this case, the period is part of the quote, but it also serves to end the sentence containing the quote.

It’s time to let the quotation mark rules join the dodo bird and the two spaces after a period rule. Drop the archaic conventions and put periods where they ought to go.

One thought on “Everyone is Wrong About Quotation Marks

  • Literal Quoter says:

    It’s especially bad when quoting text that must be duplicated accurately by the reader.

    Inaccurate: To lower the price, enter promotion code “123.”

    Accurate: To lower the price, enter promotion code “123”.

    If they enter “123.” for the promotion code, it’ll fail, because “123” is what the computer’s expecting, so let’s not tell them “123.” is the promotion code.

    My personal policy is to keep quoted material literal, including any punctuation, and to punctuate every surrounding sentence with the punctuation it deserves outside the quotes. That keeps everything straight. If enough writers do that on purpose and articulate why, it’ll eventually become accepted.

    I agree with you when you say, “This has always irked me.”.

    I say both periods are needed–one for the quoted sentence, and one for the sentence quoting the quoted sentence.

    Inaccurate: When did Martin Luther King first utter the sentence, “I have a dream?”

    Accurate: When did Did Martin Luther King first utter the sentence, “I have a dream.”?

    Martin Luther King wasn’t asking a question, so let’s not make it look like he was. I say the period is needed for the quoted sentence and the question mark is needed for the sentence asking about the quoted sentence.

    I say commas separating quoted list members should also be outside the quotes.

    Inaccurate: The first two words of each of your paragraphs are “Convention dictates,” “Why should,” “Consider this,” “Titles containing,” “I propose,” and “It’s time.”

    Accurate: The first two words of each of your paragraphs are “Convention dictates”, “Why should”, “Consider this”, “Titles containing”, “I propose”, and “It’s time”.

    None of the paragraphs has punctuation after the second word, so let’s not make it look like they do. The commas and the period belong to the sentence doing the quoting, not to the quotes, so let’s keep them outside the quotes.

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