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« Ideological Inconsistencies | Main | Ain't Science Wonderful! »

November 28, 2009

Period-Quote or Quote-Period?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Talk about gut-wrenching issues -- here's one that has vexed me off and on for years:

When quoting, what comes last -- the period or the quotation mark?

Via the indispensible Instapundit comes this link to a post on law professor Eugene Volokh's blog.

As the post indicates, American convention has it that commas and periods can be inserted in a quotation immediately before the close-quote. British style is that the final quotation mark is placed at the end of the quoted passage; if the passage is not a complete sentence, then a period (if needed) is placed after the quotation mark.

To me, the British convention seems more logical and natural, which means that I'm always gritting my teeth when having to conform to American usage.

Volokh, as good lawyer is wont to do, goes with precedent as you can see if you link to the post.



posted by Donald at November 28, 2009


In computer science, people tend to pick up the habit of only putting additional punctuation outside the quotation marks, which is the least ambiguous way to handle it when quoting text, where the use of punctuation is explicit. Programming languages usually use quotation marks for literal string values: exactly what you put in is exactly what it will display, regardless of whether it might change the behavior depending on whether it's inside or outside the quotes.

Posted by: Mark on November 28, 2009 6:26 PM

There can be no hard and fast rule. If you make one up, I'll generate an example that will produce an obviously improper result.

One good test is to replace the period with a different mark, and see if the usage still makes sense. One might write

He is a "yuppie."

But definitely not

Is he a "yuppie?"

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on November 29, 2009 3:04 AM

How do you feel about the Oxford comma? I'm pro.

Posted by: dearieme on November 29, 2009 8:51 AM

Rich, questions marks (and any punctuation marks) do, in fact, come before the quotation mark. At least, according to AP and Strunk & White.

Posted by: JV on November 29, 2009 12:59 PM

I go for British-style "logical" positional with American-style double quotes. If challenged, I say, "I'm an editor: I know." As a Canadian, I see this as our appropriate national style, in contrast to our actual national style of deciding whether to truckle to the Americans or the British.

Oxford comma = Serial comma? As in:

"I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God."


"I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God." quote the classic example.

Posted by: Chris Burd on November 29, 2009 1:23 PM

The wife and I were just discussing this yesterday. Your timing is exquisite. (We favor the British style.)

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on November 29, 2009 3:31 PM

AP style generally calls for punctuation inside the quotation mark but Chicago style generally places it outside. The contextual guideline that the punctuation should agree with the quoted material and the grammatical direction of the sentence containing the quotation trumps both.

My only real rule is that you should break any rule if following it makes the sentence awkward and cannot otherwise be rewritten.

Posted by: The Yellow Menace on November 29, 2009 3:35 PM

I was born in the 1960s and grew up in an industrial town in the Midwest that is certainly not known for its high-quality scholars, but I was taught to use punctuation outside the quotation marks, as well as the Oxford comma (although I can't recall that I ever heard it called that growing up). I also was taught to spell words like "traveling" as "travelling", even though the latter is supposedly the British spelling. And this was not just by a single teacher, but over the course of my entire time in school before college. So I question whether there is really such a hard and fast rule that one style is British and the other American.

Posted by: Laikastes on November 30, 2009 3:09 AM

"Oxford comma = Serial comma?". Yes.

Posted by: dearieme on November 30, 2009 4:48 AM

One basic rule of copyediting is that no stylistic format should be jarring. Any time the reader encounters a usage that looks odd, it's a speed bump that slows down comprehension.

So, if you're writing for an American publication or American readers, the punctuation goes inside the quotes. If the audience is primarily British, outside. Note that this is true only for "phrases, such as this." If a quote is a complete sentence, the Brits use the same rules as Americans.

Although Canadians, New Zealanders, and Australians use mostly British spellings, they tend to side with us on placement of punctuation inside quotation marks.

The best editors eat cereal commas for breakfast. Skipping the final comma is an AP-ism designed to save space in newspapers, and is largely irrelevant in other forms of writing, especially online.

Posted by: Rick Darby on November 30, 2009 12:31 PM

"So I question whether there is really such a hard and fast rule that one style is British and the other American."

I'm with you. In public school in South Carolina, I too was consistently taught the "British rule". Moreover, I'm pretty sure that when I taught Management 201 (business communication) at the University of Georgia I was supposed to teach the British rule as well. In fact, this is the first I have ever heard of the "American rule". By that, I do not mean it is the first time I have heard this name ascribed to the rule; I mean it is the first time I have heard the rule. And I think I'll be disregarding it.

Posted by: ben tillman on November 30, 2009 5:07 PM

Being a geek, I naturally use British style. And I am glad to report that wikipedia sees things my way.

Posted by: Leonard on December 3, 2009 4:59 PM

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