Gas station without pumps

2011 May 18

Logical punctuation

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 06:20
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Ben Yagoda in an article for Slate Magazine, wrote about the placement of commas relative to quotation marks: Logical punctuation: Should we start placing commas outside quotation marks?.

I’ve always been a stickler for punctuation rules, but I have resisted one rule that is often arbitrarily applied: forcing periods and commas inside quotation marks at the end of a quote, when they are grammatically part of the surrounding sentence and not part of the quote.  I’ve written about quotations before—the following is from a class handout of 1990 that I used for about 10 years:

Quotation marks (“quotes”) are used to enclose a directly quoted statement from another source, or, sometimes, to set off a slang word or deliberately mis-used word. The second usage probably derives from the first, attributing the word to an outside source. Don’t use quotation marks for emphasis—use italics or underlines instead. Single-quotes are used for quotations inside quotations. Some fonts have separate left and right quotes (“like this” and ‘this’); if yours does, use them. Brackets [ ] are for comments from the quoting author inside a quoted passage. One popular bracketed comment is [sic], which is used to indicate that the error in a quotation was in the original, and was not added in transcription.

We disagree with many punctuation experts on one point—they insist on putting commas inside quotes. This is correct when quoting human conversation or human-to-human writing, but when quoting any communication with a computer, retain the original punctuation inside the quote marks. For example, you type “mail”, not “mail.” Exact punctuation is often critical in computer communications—resist the attempts of those who know no better to “correct” your usage!

Of course, all my comments above pertain to standard American punctuation, not to other, equally-valid punctuation systems.  I did allow my students to use British conventions, as long as they used them consistently (no mix-and-match), though I did insist on the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma), because it increases readability.

Another common problem in modern communication is how to punctuate a URL that is included in a sentence.  It is often an appositive (and so would normally be set off by commas) or at the end of a sentence.  It is really, really bad to add extra punctuation to a URL.  My usual fix is to rewrite my sentences so that URLs are not adjacent to punctuation, or to put the URLs in parentheses. When I have to quickly fix someone else’s text (such as forwarding an e-mail), I often choose the unsatisfying approach of adding a new-line after the URL and omitting the sentence punctuation that would normally follow the URL.

(Incidentally, the “we” in the quoted text was neither the royal, nor the editorial “we”—I co-taught the class at the time I wrote the handout, and so there really were two instructors as the authors of the handout.)


  1. Hello,

    When italics or underscores are not available, e.g. in-code documentation, how do you prefer to punctuate emphasis? Do you use /pseudo-italics/, _pseudo-underscores_, “quotation marks”, or something else?


    Comment by Matthew O'Meara — 2011 May 18 @ 09:11 | Reply

    • Single-word emphasis is rarely appropriate in in-code documentation, so it rarely comes up. The few times it does, the emphasis has to be STRONG, so I use all-caps. In plain-text e-mail messages (the only kind I send), I sometimes use *asterisks* for emphasis, but mostly I avoid emphasis.

      The way to get block emphasis in in-code documentation is to put a blank line before and after the block to be emphasized. To get stronger block emphasis, a separator line of /////////// or /******************* (or whatever else is the standard separator line in the coding conventions of the programming group) can be used.

      Short, isolated sentences are emphatic.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 May 18 @ 09:45 | Reply

      • Thanks for the clarification.

        Comment by Matthew O'Meara — 2011 May 18 @ 10:39 | Reply

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