Quotes and punctuation

I have thought about what I want to blog about for a while. There’s so much going on in the world, and it seems most of it is scary stuff, but this website is supposed to be about my life as a writer. I think it makes sense to put up a story in my first blog post. Actually, kind of a parable. Jesus used them a lot to demonstrate a point.

Seven-year-old Johnny and his 5-year-old sister Sally are in the back yard playing. Mom looks out the kitchen window and sees Johnny committing an act of unspeakable horror, or at least in Mom’s mind it is. She opens the window and yells, “Johnny, get out of the flower bed, your killing the forget-me-nots.”

“Sally did it first!” Johnny replies.

“Oh, I’m sorry, go ahead then,” Mom replies.

Wait! What? Of course that’s not what happened. “I didn’t see Sally. I see you! Get out of the flowers before I come out there and drag you out!!!!!”

That’s better. But what has this to do with quotes and punctuation you ask. Simple. There is a thing called “scare quotes”. I just used them to show that I am quoting someone else, actually, I guess, everyone else who talks about them. We use them all the time when we are talking to each other. You know those quotes we make in the air with our fingers when we are repeating something someone else said, so our friends know we are using the exact phrase that the victim of our gossip used. Verbally, we call them air quotes; on paper we call them scare quotes. Air quotes, scare quotes- It even rhymes.

Back when man first starting using free type, where each character, and even each space, had its own little piece of type that would be lined up and locked into the press, periods (dead stops if your British) and commas were very weak. They needed support or they would move or break. If you put them after a quotation mark or an apostrophe, which set high in the line, and then a space after them, they would sometimes fail, move, or just generally create a problem. Question marks and exclamation points were tall and had the support of the quotation mark before them

Printers came up with a solution called “typesetter’s quotes”. If the punctuation mark was part of the sentence, usually part of dialog, then the punctuation would be inside the quotes. If it were reference quotes, like the scare quotes I have been using, then question marks and exclamation points go outside, like they should, but periods and commas go inside the quotes, so they have the support of the letter character just before them.

So we have one set of rules for commas and periods, and another for question marks and exclamation points. Where’s the logic in that? That’s why there is a rule called “logical quotes”, which is what I have been doing in this blog. For dialog, or anytime the punctuation is part of what’s going on inside the quote, the punctuation goes before the closing quote. For scare quotes, it goes outside the quote. All punctuation has the same rule.

There are two standards that I know of for grammar in the English-speaking world. You have the Oxford Standard, published by Oxford University in England, and the Chicago Manual of Style, used in the USA, and maybe some Canadian publishers, and published by the University of Chicago. Now by the late 19th century, printing press technology had advanced to the point where typesetter’s quotes were no longer needed. Oxford changed the standard to logical quotes, and the Queen’s English world took note. The Chicago Manual of Style however decided that Sally did it first, so it’s okay. I am quoting here from said CMS, section 6.9 “This is a traditional style, in use in the United States well before the first edition of this manual (1906).”

So this acceptable compromise, and that is what it was- a compromise between what is correct and what is necessary, should continue, just because Sally did it first. Yet in section 7.79 when talking about computer formats, CMS uses logical quotes, simply because typesetter’s quotes might lead to confusion. Don’t you do it though, or a publisher’s editors will argue with you for weeks.

I think it’s time for the US, and the University of Chicago Manual of Style, to get it right.

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