A Word, Please: U.S. punctuation battles a British invasion

We had a good thing going for a while, but it could soon be toast. By "we," I mean readers, writers and editors. By "a good thing," I mean a system for placing periods and commas relative to quotation marks. And by "toast," I mean falling victim to that annihilator of printed word traditions: the Internet.

For decades, American publishing has had some very specific rules on how to handle punctuation that comes next to a closing quotation mark. And if, as a reader, you never noticed how it was done — well, that was the point: a visually unobtrusive system that creates no stumbling blocks to sentence flow or ease of reading.

Here is how we Americans are supposed to do it. A period or comma always comes before a closing quotation mark: I like the word "hello," but I usually say "hey."

An exclamation point or question mark, however, might go before or after the closing quote mark, depending on whether it applies to the whole sentence or the quoted portion. So you would write: Do you use the word "hey"? But you would also write: Alfred E. Neuman's catch phrase is "What, me worry?"

In the first example, the question mark comes at the end because the whole sentence is a question. But in the Neuman example, only the quotation is a question. So the question mark goes inside the quote marks.

By the way, according to this system, semicolons and colons always come after a closing quotation mark. But that doesn't come up much and, when it does, it's pretty intuitive.

And, no, you never need to double up question marks for, say, a question within a question: Is it true that Neuman's catch phrase is "What, me worry?"

The British system treats periods and commas just like question marks and exclamation points. So in British style, you often see things like: I never hear you say "hey".

American style guides ruled long ago that it's cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing to put periods and commas inside the quotation marks — a system that's been working great for years. But now, more and more Americans in blogs and tweets and every other online forum you can imagine use British style.

Some people applaud this slow but steady march toward the British system. Here's their rationale: The American rules are inconsistent and don't take logic into account. True enough, but these supporters are overlooking something. Their rationale focused only on the writer and not the reader. That is, the Americans who prefer the British method feel that way because it's harder on the writer to keep track of conflicting rules in American style.

For years, these conflicting rules weren't a problem because the writer didn't have to know them. Most printed text you saw had been professionally edited and it was copy editors' job to enforce these rules. They did so not for the writer's benefit but for the reader's because, remember, the whole point was aesthetics and ease of reading.

Now, thanks to the Internet, everyone's a writer. Yet almost none of these writers have editors. So, faced with a sentence in which quotation marks come next to a comma or period, writers try to apply logic. None would guess that there's a special rule that trumps logic in favor of aesthetic considerations.

So amateur writers assume the comma and period placement is logical, and thus write things like: I like the word "hello", but I usually say "hey".

So it's not so much a choice as just a bad guess.

Call me "old school," but I'm sorry to see this changing.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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