Raging against the grammar machine

I’ve been getting lots of “S”-figured markings in my papers this semester, and probably throughout my seminary career. They always indicate that I should switch the order of a quotation mark and another point of punctuation. The rule is that generally punctuation at the end of a quote is placed inside the quotation mark. Here is Turabian’s more nuanced rule:

In American usage, a final comma or period always precedes a closing quotation mark, whether it is part of the quoted material or not (A Manual for Writers, 6th ed., 61).

I immediately run into trouble. I don’t like this rule and I refuse to follow it. There are some cases where I persist in thinking that a period or comma is better placed outside the closing quotation mark. Turabian goes on,

Question marks and exclamation points precede quotation marks if they pertain to the entire sentence of which the quotation is a part (A Manual for Writers, 6th ed., 61).

In my opinion, the same rule should apply to periods and commas, and that’s generally how I do it.

By the rules, I would write a made-up sentence from a Hebrew paper like this:

This is a better understanding of the word normally translated “peace.”

Why should such a short quotation get all the punctuational goodness? This is how I would actually write it:

This is a better understanding of the word normally translated “peace”.

Doesn’t this make more sense? Doesn’t it look better? My beef is essentially an aesthetic one. It’s a valuable element in the writing/reading experience. More than that, however, why should the rule be different for periods and commas?

Joel also pointed out that following the rule in lists results in back-to-back quotation marks.

…the words translated as “peace,” “judgment,” “righteousness,” and “justice.”

Here is how I would write it:

…the words translated as “peace”, “judgment”, “righteousness”, and “justice”.

My beef is an aesthetic one and it has mainly to do with quotations that contain only a few words. With longer quotations, I will generally follow the rule.

What do you think?

18 thoughts on “Raging against the grammar machine

  1. Ky

    I follow the MLA rules, which means: … the words translated as “peace,” “judgment,” and “justice.”
    Oddly enough, I find that way to be much more aesthetically pleasing. I feel like when the . and ,s are outside of the “” they look like stragglers that belong to nothing.

  2. Marc

    Outside the quotation marks they belong to the whole sentence, rather than just the quotation.

    When I started reading your comment, I thought you were going to say that MLA rules agree with me. Evidently, my way is in contravention of both MLA and Chicago/Turabian rules!

  3. Joel

    Bad news for both of us Marc, I checked Strunk and White, and this is what they say: “Typographical usage dictates that the comma be inside the marks, though logically it often seems not to belong there.” They then provide an example very similar to yours, indicating the dreaded “,” as correct.

    But I believe Eats, Shoots, and Leaves offers the opposite advice. Don’t you own that book? It might be worth a look.

  4. Marc

    Well, as I say, I am willing to admit that what I am arguing goes against what the grammar books say. I mention Turabian in the post; Ky mentioned MLA format. I think Strunk & White is really the nail in the coffin.

    Incidentally, I have the 3rd edition, 1979. Has much changed? I can’t seem to find the appropriate reference in my edition. What’s my best approach?

    I did a quick check of Eats, Shoots & Leaves and I can’t find a direct reference to the subject (there’s no index). However, her usage indicates an approach similar to mine. She puts periods and commas both inside and outside quotation marks, depending on usage. Lynne Truss, at least, is on my side.

    Although I tend to be a stickler for grammar, the English language is always in flux. I submit that the placement of periods and commas in relation to exclamation point is not an egregious error, nor will it make a document difficult to read.

  5. Andrew

    The bigger question is why is this even an issue at the grad school level? I mean, I can understand the big red pen coming out for egregious grammar or spelling violations, but something of this nature isn’t worth the ink, is it?

  6. Joanne

    I don’t really care which is right or wrong but I agree 100% that it looks aesthetically better to have the punctuation outside the quotation marks.
    As in: This is a better understanding of the word normally translated “peace”.
    The following is taken from grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/marks/quotation.htm
    From what I can see placing it inside the quotation mark seems to be an American thing. In the United States, periods and commas go inside quotation marks regardless of logic. Here is an explanation (sort of).
    In the United Kingdom, Canada, and islands under the influence of British education, punctuation around quotation marks is more apt to follow logic. In American style, then, you would write: My favorite poem is Robert Frost’s “Design.” But in England you would write: My favorite poem is Robert Frost’s “Design”. The placement of marks other than periods and commas follows the logic that quotation marks should accompany (be right next to) the text being quoted or set apart as a title. Thus, you would write (on either side of the Atlantic):
    What do you think of Robert Frost’s “Design”? and
    I love “Design”; however, my favorite poem was written by Emily Dickinson.

    I would be interested to know what the Gregg Reference Manual say?
    I am by no means a grammar expert just sharing what I found.

  7. Marc

    Andrew: I’m pretty sure I didn’t lose any marks because of it. Or, if I did, it was a negligible amount. But you raise an interesting point. I would have expected that at a grad level, professors would have higher expectations, but maybe by this point professors have other expectations than the rules of grammar.

  8. Marc

    Joanne: The first time I wrote this post (it disappeared after saving it the first time) I wondered what the rules were for British English. Truss is English and her book reflects my opinion. I’m sure Strunk & White as well as Turabian are American. Your quote seems to support Truss’ position.

    At our seminary, Turabian is the guideline, so I guess we follow the American rules.

  9. Randall

    Do you mean I don’t HAVE to follow that rule?

    I’ve always thought the way you do, yet I step in line and obey the rules. Mostly so that I don’t look like a punctuational fool. I do enough of that anyway.

  10. Toni

    Just claim that you’re following you European heritage, and you are therefore correct to write that way.

  11. Jay

    I’ve always used the Canadian/UK way because I find it more logical. I didn’t know if that was correct, but it made more sense to me.

    Good discussion.

  12. rilla

    Your professors are right according to MLA, and Chicago, which means that if you ever were dreaming of sending your papers into journals or magazines (in North America), those editors would look askance at those strange dangling punctuation marks outside of your quotation marks. And, since its a professors job to encourage professionalism within their field, that’s why they’re bothering to waste the ink. Whether it looks right or wrong to you, you’re doing it wrong.

  13. rilla

    From your comment to KY: “Outside the quotation marks they belong to the whole sentence, rather than just the quotation.”

    To help you find some peace with the quotation punctuation, don’t think of the quoted material as removed from your sentence. It is not, somehow, separate from the grammar and thought that you have considered and constructed. It just happens to be pieces of someone else’s thought that you have included in your own, and those quotation marks might as well not be there. That’s actually a really great way to make sure that you have incorporated any quotation properly and grammatically into your own sentences.

  14. Marc

    Rilla: I feel I’ve struck a nerve! I’m pretty sure I understand why.

    I do recognize that “my” way is at odds with the American way, and the school does officially require Chicago (via Turabian) for theology students (MLA for counseling students). I simply don’t like it in this case, which is why I find some consolation in Lynne Truss’ use.

    But your point about professionalism viz. journals, etc. is noted and appreciated. I would usually expect Canadians to follow British grammatical style, but I assume most Canadians are trying to publish in the U.S.

    Re: your second, peace-making comment: doesn’t that argument work better in favour of periods and commas outside of the quotation marks?

  15. rilla

    Canadian publications use British spelling (the optional u) but Chicago, MLA, or APA style guides. So, even if you were looking to get published in Canada, you would need to be compliant with those rules.

    As for my second comment, the way I see it, you write your sentence, punctuate it, then add the quotation marks around the words that are quoted, rather than punctuating after the quotation marks have been added… does that make sense?

    Years of editing has made me authoritarian about how to punctuate because I spend all my working hours thinking about it.

  16. Andrew

    Completely arbitrary – but like so many things, you have to just go along with the arbitrary rules.

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