Thursday, March 4, 2010

National Grammar Day (US)

It's National Grammar Day in the United States, though nowhere else I know of. Being Canadian, I thought I'd point out one difference in style between Canada and the US.

Canada's style and spelling reflect our common history with both the United States and the United Kingdom Commonwealth. In some cases, we follow British English, and in others, American English. In this post, I'll discuss one way we follow British rules instead of American rules.

Punctuation sometimes goes outside the closing quotation marks.

I've heard one reason the US does otherwise, and it may be an urban myth. *
Periods and commas always go within the closing quotation marks because, in typesetting in the 1800s, the pieces of type for the comma and period were the most fragile and could easily break. Putting them within quotation marks -- even when it isn't logical -- protected them. This is why this is often called typesetters' rules.

In Canada and Britain, some periods and commas go within quotation marks when they belong to the speech within the marks. They go outside the quotation marks when the speech they belong to encompasses the quotation. This is called British style or logical punctuation.

For an example, let's use Harold's greedy cookie habit:

  1. 1. Harold said to stop eating the cookies.

    (indirect speech, so no quotation marks)

  2. 2. Harold said, "Stop eating the cookies."

    (direct speech, where the period is part of the quotation, so is within the quotation marks.)

  3. 3. Harold told us not to "eat the cookies", then ate them all himself.

    (note the comma outside the quotation marks)

  4. 4. I wish Harold would stop saying "eating the cookies". It makes me hungry.

    (note the period outside the quotation marks)

Using typesetters' rules, these last two would be:

  1. 5. Harold told us not to "eat the cookies," then ate them all himself.

  2. 6. I wish Harold would stop saying "eating the cookies." It makes me hungry.

Note the comma and the period are within the quotation marks in these examples.

What's so logical about examples 3 and 4, compared to 5 and 6? They depend on which part of the sentence the punctuation belongs to. The comma in example 3 and the period in example 4 are not part of the speech within the quotation marks, but a part of the sentence which contains the quotation. Typesetters' rules arbitrarily place the comma and period within the quotation marks.

Now, all this aside, many Canadians -- and many Canadian resources -- do follow the typesetters' rules, such as The Canadian Press Stylebook. But the Guide to Canadian English Usage prefers the logical punctuation. Editing Canadian English lists both, but does not give a preference either way.

This leads to one of my recurring messages about style: very little is actually set in stone. There are ambiguities between regions and even within regions. These ambiguities are where the writer can pick and choose their personal style.

The important thing to remember is: Be consistent. Don't use typesetters' rules one time, then logical punctuation the next.

I hope I haven't confused anyone.

*Wikipedia's sole resource on this topic is a newsgroup article. I'd be happy to prove this using a better respected source. If you can provide one, please leave it in the comments.