Punctuation? Make Mine 'Illogical'

By Walker, Ruth | The Christian Science Monitor, June 27, 2011 | Go to article overview

Punctuation? Make Mine 'Illogical'


Walker, Ruth, The Christian Science Monitor


A spate of articles and blog posts suggests that Americans are adopting British rules for commas and periods with quotation marks; the Monitor's language columnist isn't sure she buys it.

Have you noticed the flood of reports lately that British-style "logical" punctuation is "taking over"?

OK, call it a "puddle" of reports, but how often does punctuation make headlines at all?

Last month Ben Yagoda published a column in Slate headed "The Rise of 'Logical Punctuation'." A subhead sternly warned that the placement of that period was not a copy error.

Mr. Yagoda began, "For at least two centuries, it has been standard practice in the United States to place commas and periods inside of quotation marks." That practice continues in professionally edited prose, he added.

"But in copy-editor-free zones - the Web and emails, student papers, business memos - with increasing frequency, commas and periods find themselves on the outside of quotation marks, looking in. A punctuation paradigm is shifting."

He supports his arguments with his own review of punctuation on pages on the Web ("because it displays in a clear light the way we write now"). The style he's describing is known as "logical" (when it's not known simply as "British"), because the comma or period is placed within or without the quotes on the basis of whether the punctuation is part of the original utterance.

Here's an example of a familiar sentence punctuated "logically": "The only thing we have to fear", said Franklin Roosevelt, "is fear itself." The comma after the first "fear" wasn't in the original utterance. And so it doesn't make it into the embrace of the quote marks but instead flaps out there in the line of text like an untucked shirttail.

Here's the same sentence punctuated "traditionally": "The only thing we have to fear," said Franklin Roosevelt, "is fear itself. …

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