A Word, Please

The Associated Press Stylebook editors recently hosted one of their periodic Twitter chats. Users pose questions, hashtag them #APStyleChat and get answers. It’s a good way to for editors to pick up some finer points of the news agency’s widely used style rules. For casual observers, it’s a peek into the problems that perplex editors and writers. Here are a few questions from AP’s recent chat.

“Does the comma always go inside the quotation marks, or does it go outside the quotation marks?” a user named Dan asked.

If you’re a regular reader of this column, I know what you’re thinking: “Dan is you, right, June?” To which I would reply, “No.” To which you might reply, “Yeah, right (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).”

As these readers know, I’m rather emphatic about the issue of where to put commas relative to quotation marks. But I swear I’m not Dan. I probably didn’t even pay Dan to pose that question. I’m just happy he did.

In American English, a period or comma always comes before a closing quotation mark: Crocs are “awesome,” according to self-styled “fashionistas.”

It doesn’t matter if the comma or period is part of the quoted text or not. It always comes before. I suspect this rule is on its way out. Now that everyone’s a writer and no one has an editor, people guess where to put these commas and periods before publishing their writing online. They apply logic, assuming that the comma goes outside anytime it’s not part of the quote. But logic has nothing to do with it. The rules are based on aesthetics, dating back to the days when typesetters decided that “this”, is just ugly.

Making matters worse, exclamation points and question marks have different rules. Their placement depends on whether they apply to the whole sentence or just the quoted portion: I can’t believe she calls Crocs “awesome”! How dare she call herself a “fashionista”?

Another question in the style chat was also near and dear to my heart. A user named Jake asked, “What’s the difference with 70’s and 70s’. Does it matter?”

Yes, it matters. As AP editors noted, apostrophes indicate dropped letters or numbers. They’re almost never used to form plurals. When you’re talking about the 1970s and shorten it to ’70s, you need an apostrophe to stand in for 19, but you don’t need one before the S and certainly not after it. And here’s a tip: When you type that apostrophe, your word processor assumes you wanted an open single quotation mark. Its autocorrect feature becomes an auto-mess-up feature as the software turns your apostrophe the wrong way. A proper apostrophe, if curved, curves with the opening to the left, like a backwards letter C.

Along those same lines, user Alex asked the AP folks: “Is it each other’s or each others’?” That’s advanced stuff. We think of “each other” as a plural — two or more people affecting one another. When you make it possessive it’s tempting to put the apostrophe after the S because, after all, that’s where apostrophes go with most plural possessives: the cats’ tails. But though it’s plural in emphasis, “each other” is singular in form: The two cats hissed at each other. When you make that “each other” possessive, you need to add an apostrophe followed by S because there is no plural S at the end of “each other.”

A user calling herself Christa kept the focus on apostrophes with the question “Is it DVD’s or DVDs?” This one’s a little fuzzier. The standard rule is to not use an apostrophe to form a plural. So DVDs is the standard form. But you can, when necessary, use an apostrophe to prevent confusion. If it appeared in a big storefront banner in all caps, “DVD’S FOR SALE,” you could use an apostrophe to prevent the misreading of a four-letter initialism. But that’s the exception. DVDs is the rule.