Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Get your punctuation out of my quotation marks!

No inexorable slide to becoming a grumpy old man is complete without a few pet peeves, and one of my faves is the ludicrous rule about putting periods and commas inside of quotation marks, regardless of context. For years I've complained about it to anyone who would listen (a select group if ever there were one).

So I've got to give a big shout out to the Chicago Manual of Style Online, which neatly makes my case for me. The section devoted to this rule amounts to a point-by-point condemnation of it:
  • First they start by absolving themselves of responsibility: "This is a traditional style, in use well before the first edition of this manual (1906)." (Don't blame us; we didn't think of it, and besides, it was always this way.)
  • Next they give it a double-whammy, leaning on Strunk & White for support while quoting them to say that it's nonsensical: "Typographical usage dictates that the comma be inside the [quotation] marks, though logically it often seems not to belong there". Good call on the logic. And what typographical usage? You mean the kind where printers used to lay up type by hand? Dudes, this ain't 1906. And they don't even say what the typographical issue is. Maybe this is just urban legend. Snopes.com is silent on the matter.
  • The next two sentences essentially say that you can skip it in cases where you need integrity, accuracy, or non-ambiguity. Not that any of these things are desirable in writing.

And that's it! In a related section they discuss the alternative system, which is apparently what the rest of the English-speaking world uses, including the British, who I need not remind you invented the language. They make their strongest argument there, asserting without example that this "alternative" system requires "extreme authorial precision". Presumably we Yanks are too stupid to get it right. But in the section on other punctuation marks, they follow the Brits, and go as far as to say "This rule applies the logic absent in 6.8" (the previous rule).

Soooo, let me see if I can sum this up. Because we are stupid, we have to follow an antiquated, illogical rule that costs us integrity and accuracy while leading to ambiguity. And we do want to follow the rule, lest we seem stupid. Yeah.

The worst part of all this is that the Chicago Manual of Style itself seems to think that this is a ridiculous rule, but leaves it in place, even though it gets to make the rules.

Are you reading this, Chicago Manual of Style? You can do this! I know you can! Change the damn rule already, and let people put their punctuation where it belongs. Look, I'm going to be grumpy enough as is -- eliminate this one pet peeve at least, and cut Nancy some slack, OK?

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