For at least two centuries, it has been standard practice in the United States to place commas and periods inside of quotation marks. This rule still holds for professionally edited prose: what you’ll find in Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post—almost any place adhering to Modern Language Association (MLA) or AP guidelines. 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.
The US, apparently, is fairly alone on this. Many English-language speaking countries, Great Britain included, place their punctuation marks on the outside of quotation marks. (The Dutch do this as well, and I’ve always been grateful that my high school teachers never marked down my papers for incorrect punctuation placing! I had enough “real” mistakes to grade down as it was.) They do it because it’s more logical – it’s the rule of minimal change: once you place punctuation marks within quotation marks, you’re changing the original material that you’re referencing or at least implying that the period or comma was a part of the original material. And that would be WRONG. (Yes, capitals are needed here. Can’t you feel the injustice?)
The writers of the piece then go on to say that
…the vast majority of the legion of logical punctuators are not consciously rejecting illogical American style, or consciously imitating the British. Rather, they follow their intuition because they don’t know the American rules. They don’t know the rules because they don’t read enough. Don’t read enough edited prose, that is; they read plenty of Facebook posts and IMs that make these same sorts of mistakes.
No? That could just be me then.
Anyway…what they’re saying is that although the English way might be more logical and it’s common practice on the internet and other mediums of informal communication, it doesn’t look like it will be changing soon in the US:
Some shifts in punctuation practice make their way, over time, to grammar books and official acceptance. Imagine Jane Austen starting a book today with the sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Her editor would take both commas out. But despite the love it gets from the masses, logical punctuation isn’t likely to break through to the rule-keepers any time soon. The old way is just too established. When I asked Feal and Carol Saller, who oversees the Chicago Manual of Style, if there was a chance their organizations would go over to the other side, they both replied, in essence: “How about never? Is never good for you?” What’s likely is a more and more pronounced separation between official and unofficial practice. That is, prose published by established entities will follow the traditional rules, while everyone else will follow logic. As a wise man once said, “You pays your money, and you takes your choice”.
I don’t really have an opinion on this, other than that I subscribe to the idea of the punctuation within the quotation marks being more aesthetically pleasing. On the whole though, it doesn’t really matter. Language constantly changes and evolves – that’s what makes it so fascinating! I like the idea of now being aware of this punctuation discrepancy and coming across it while reading – it offers me a neat little guessing game on whether the author is British or just unaware. I love guessing games, don’t you?
And to end this piece on a slightly irreverent note: who wants to come over to my house and play punctuation mark bingo? I’ll make popcorn and I promise it’ll be awesome! (Seriously, do a google image search on any phrase you want – you’ll always find something fun.)