A Word, Please: American rule vs. British rule

Not long ago I mentioned in this space that a period or comma always comes before a closing quotation mark. For example: Beth used the word “covert,” not the word “clandestine.”

I mentioned, too, that this is an American rule. British English doesn’t follow it, nor do most of the world’s English speakers. For them, if you’re using quote marks to single out a word or title, you put the punctuation outside quote marks: Beth used the word “covert”, not the word “clandestine”.

Technology is snuffing out the American rule. People who don’t know this punctuation trick now publish their writing in huge quantities, making it appear normal. We quickly and easily access international media from places that follow the British rule. And Wikipedia is adding to the American rule’s demise because the online encyclopedia follows British style for quotation marks. Most of our friends, family and favorite bloggers make the mistake of applying logic when they write, which is no help when you’re trying to suss out an illogical rule. So they end up breaking the American rule, too.

The more you see something, the more normal it appears. That means we’re just one or two steps away from a “wrong” becoming a “right,” which will be official when the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style change their guidelines.

When they do, it will be correct to punctuate in a way that’s now incorrect: Beth used the word “covert”, not “clandestine”.

But for now, American punctuation stands firm. Its rule, based not on logic but on aesthetics, says that the period or comma goes inside the quote, regardless of logic or meaning. Simple stuff, as I explained. Except there’s one thing I failed to explain. It’s not that simple.

“Re always putting sentence-closing punctuation marks inside a quotation mark:

What if the sentence already ends with a quote?” asked reader Lloyd.

Example: Should we watch “Cinderella” or “Fantasia?” vs. Should we watch “Cinderella” or “Fantasia”?

As Lloyd pointed out, the title of the movie is “Fantasia” not “Fantasia?” So just sticking that question mark inside the quote marks is misleading.

He’s right, of course. Putting every quotation mark inside the quote makes no sense because question marks and exclamation points are special. They don’t just end a sentence the way a period does or end a clause the way a comma does. These marks add valuable information. An exclamation point tells you that the sentence is either high stakes or high emotion. A question mark even more radically changes the meaning of the sentence, transforming a certain statement into uncertainty itself.

That’s why question marks and exclamation points have different rules. These two marks can go inside or outside the quotation depending on whether they apply to the whole sentence or just the quoted portion.

Alfred E. Neuman’s catch phrase is “What, me worry?”

Did you know Bart Simpson’s favorite word is “cowabunga”?

This raises the question: What would you do in a situation where you needed to double up: Did you know that Alfred E. Neuman’s catch phrase is “What, me worry?”

This question within a question might logically call for two question marks. But for purely aesthetic reasons, you drop the second one.

On the other hand, if you want pose a question with an exclamation inside it, you could keep both: Did you know Bart Simpson’s catch phrase is “Don’t have a cow, man!”? But I bet a lot of editors would just drop the exclamation point.

As if all that weren’t irksome enough, there’s one more rule to know. But at least it’s a simple absolute: Colons and semicolons always come after a closing quotation mark.

Some thoughts about the word “clandestine”:

She said “clandestine”; he said “covert.”

You can see why I think our current system is doomed to fail. It’s hard to follow. And that makes it hard to justify.