Logical punctuation: Should we start placing commas outside quotation marks?

Language and how we use it.
May 12 2011 10:07 AM

The Rise of "Logical Punctuation".

The period outside the quotation marks is not a copy error.

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For some, though, logic is more compelling than tradition. Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of North America, for instance, has adopted the British way. * The first item under "Punctuation" in its Style Sheet says:

The second member of a pair of quotation marks should precede any other adjacent mark of punctuation, unless the other mark is part of the quoted matter: The word means `cart', not `horse'. He writes, `This is false.'  

By far the biggest fount of logical punctuation today is Wikipedia, which was started by two Americans but whose English-language edition is by and for all English-speaking countries. The site's style guide notes that "logical punctuation … is used here because it is deemed by Wikipedia consensus to be more in keeping with the principle of minimal change." That is, if you put a period or comma inside quotation marks, you are wrongly suggesting that the period or comma is part of the quoted material, and thus you have "changed" it.

Thus in the Wikipedia entry on Frank Sinatra one finds:

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… an FBI report on Sinatra, released in 1998, showed that the doctors had also written that he was a "neurotic" and "not acceptable material from a psychiatric standpoint". This was omitted from his record to avoid "undue unpleasantness for both the selectee and the induction service".  

Logical punctuation is also the official style at the popular music site Pitchfork, where, as I write, the lead story notes that "Covers on the LP [from Iggy Pop] include the Beatles' 'Michelle', Fred Neil's 'Everybody's Talkin' ', and tracks from Serge Gainsbourg and Henri Salvador." I asked managing editor Mark Richardson why Pitchfork does it that way, and he emailed me to say that it was "partly because it makes sense when the quoted titles don't contain punctuation (which I guess is why it's called 'logical') and partly because it was absorbed from reading the UK music press."

Pitchfork is an outlier in this regard. That is, the vast majority of the legion of logical punctuators are not consciously rejecting illogical American style, or consciously imitating the British. Rather, they follow their intuition because they don't know the American rules. They don't know the rules because they don't read enough. Don't read enough edited prose, that is; they read plenty of Facebook posts and IMs that make these same sorts of mistakes.

Some shifts in punctuation practice make their way, over time, to grammar books and official acceptance. Imagine Jane Austen starting a book today with the sentence, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Her editor would take both commas out. But despite the love it gets from the masses, logical punctuation isn't likely to break through to the rule-keepers any time soon. The old way is just too established. When I asked Feal and Carol Saller, who oversees the Chicago Manual of Style, if there was a chance their organizations would go over to the other side, they both replied, in essence: "How about never? Is never good for you?" What's likely is a more and more pronounced separation between official and unofficial practice. That is, prose published by established entities will follow the traditional rules, while everyone else will follow logic. As a wise man once said, "You pays your money, and you takes your choice".

Correction, May 13, 2011: This article originally misstated the name of the Linguistic Society of America. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Ben Yagoda is the author of a new e-book about recent language trends, You Need to Read This.