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Punctuation and quotation marks

Q From Bob Thorsen, South Africa: Occasionally I see a comma after quotes, such as in this example on your website: ‘short for “Mid-InfraRed Advanced Chemical Laser”, part of the Star Wars program’. Can you please let me know under what circumstance the comma become correct before the quotes, if at all?

A Or, putting it another way, am I making a mistake by putting the comma outside the quotes? Most American style guides would say that I’m wrong, but British and Commonwealth ones will equally firmly say I’m right. This is another example of the tiny differences that exist between styles in different varieties of English and which cause much unnecessary controversy, criticism and irritation.

At one time Britain and America agreed. The convention used to be, and in American English still is, to put full stops (periods) and commas inside the quotation marks, irrespective of the sense. So American publications usually punctuate like this:

The show began with a “sneak preview,” held at the hotel.
He made his debut singing in “Faust.”

British English has moved away from this style while American English has retained it. British style now prefers to punctuate according to the sense, in which punctuation marks only appear inside quotation marks if they were there in the original. So British usage would punctuate the sentences above as:

The show began with a “sneak preview”, held at the hotel.
He made his debut singing in “Faust”.

But this isn’t by any means the whole story. In US style, question or exclamation marks and semicolons are always inserted according to the sense. And the system for marking dialogue is the same in both countries:

“The police,” he protested, “have always been fair to me.”
“Keep away from me!” she shouted. “I hate you!”

Moreover, formal British English practice requires a closing full stop to be put inside the quotation marks if the quoted item is a complete sentence that ends where the main sentence ends:

She had told me, “I still love you.”
The sign said, “Keep off the grass.”

but it’s common to see the stop outside the closing quotes.

There’s actually a lot more variation in practice than the style guides imply. For instance, the American system is not universal even in that country. The Chicago Manual of Style remarks that “The British style is strongly advocated by some American language experts.” But it goes on: “In defense of nearly a century and a half of the American style, however, it may be said that it seems to have been working fairly well and has not resulted in serious miscommunication.”

It can seem a bit of a muddle. And I don’t always follow the letter of British rules, either, especially when I quote an extract in a sentence. My feeling is that this debate is largely sterile. There is a case for consistency within any one publication. But nobody will misunderstand what you write because of where you choose to put your stops relative to quotation marks. A writer who fixes too much attention on the correctness of his punctuation, or a reader who does the same, is missing the point: the job of text is to communicate, not satisfy pedantic rule makers.

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Page created 08 Jan 2004