A Word, Please: Contradicting assumptions before the inevitable happens

Outside one of the many churches on Lipsi, a resident donkey keeps the lawn mowed.
Outside one of the many churches on Lipsi, a resident donkey keeps the lawn mowed. When it comes to punctuation, remember the old saying about what happens when you assume, writes June Casagrande.
(Amanda Jones)

I was in middle school the first time I heard the old saying about what happens when you assume. A teacher wrote the word on the blackboard then used slashes to show what it makes out of “u” and “me.” I giggled.

People’s tendency to assume things is still funny to me, but not funny-ha-ha. More like funny-strange, as in how strange it is people assume they can know punctuation rules without looking them up — relying solely on their sheer powers of deduction.

For instance, the phenomenon I call “quotation marks lite.” Here’s an example: ‘quotation marks lite.’

The single quotation marks in the second example — they’re wrong. Every credible punctuation guide says that, when you want to talk about a word or phrase, you use regular quotation marks: The word “hogwash” has interesting origins.

There isn’t an American punctuation guide in existence that says to use single quotation marks here. But lots of English speakers assume otherwise. Taught that quotation marks are for only for quoting speakers or writers verbatim, they assume that single quotation marks are a nice compromise — a way to call out a word or phrase without actually quoting a speaker. They assume wrong.

In American English, single quote marks are only for quotations within quotations. Newspapers also use them in headlines in place of double quotation marks to conserve space and keep pages clean-looking.

Another popular tool of punctuation assumers everywhere: the ampersand. Here’s something I see a lot: Guests drank beer, wine and gin & tonics. The cafeteria’s sandwiches include tuna, turkey and ham & cheese.

Makes sense, right? The word “and” connects the sandwiches, so the ampersand between “ham” and “cheese” indicates a different, closer relationship between the ingredients. It’s like ampersands are to “and” as commas are to semicolons. They indicate different strengths of the same relationship.

Sure. Makes sense. There’s just one problem. That’s not how ampersands work.

Ampersands are graphic elements that really have no place in running text. Skim some articles in any prestigious national newspaper for ampersands and you’ll see what I mean. Under no circumstances does the New York Times swap out some “ands” for ampersands, not even for “gin and tonic.” Instead, ampersands are for logos and business names and promotional materials. Yet so many people assume the ampersand has a specific job that it does not in fact have.

Regarding questioning Supreme Court nominees, a news commentator used a mashup of two basic concepts: declarative and interrogative sentences.

The most common assumption in the world of punctuation involves quotation marks next to periods and commas. The incorrect use looks like this: The word “hogwash”, which Joe says a lot, has interesting origins.

That comma is in the wrong place. It should be before the closing quotation mark, not after it.

People make the same mistake with periods: Joe uses the word “hogwash”. Everyone knows that, for quotations structured as complete sentences, the period or comma goes inside: Joe said, “This is hogwash.” But people assume that when the quotation is not a complete sentence, the rules are different. They’re not.

Granted, the rules are confusing. Different punctuation marks have different placement next to quotes.

A question mark or exclamation point can go inside or outside the quotation marks, depending on whether they apply to the whole sentence or just the quoted portion. I liked “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Did you like “Star Wars”?

Colons and semicolons always come after a quotation mark: The thing about “hogwash”: It’s a silly word.

But periods and commas, the two most common punctuation marks, always go inside the quote. Meaning isn’t important. The rule is rooted in aesthetics, not logic. You can’t make the call on a case-by-case basis. Outside of British English and Wikipedia, both of which follow different rules, a period or comma always comes before a closing quotation mark.

To assume otherwise would … well, you know.

The writer is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at

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