“They’re called ‘quotation marks’.”

Diving a bit deep into the weeds of the writer brain, I’m always thinking about…quotation marks. Because my way of using them is, for most Americans, incorrect. This drives my poor friend and editor, Jason Bennion, to distraction each and every time I send a manuscript his way. And I am always sympathetic, apologetic, and…unwilling to change.

What’s the issue?

The problem isn’t quotation marks in passages of dialogue; those I deploy correctly (or when I mess up, it’s a genuine typo). My problem comes when using quotation marks when denoting words or phrases specifically, at the end of a sentence. Because now the question becomes, Where does the punctuation go?

In American usage, punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks, no matter what:

“Surely you’re joking,” he said. “You cannot seriously think we’re going to let Mr. Bond live.”

Now, that example I get right. But here’s an example where I differ with many:

He passed her a slip of paper on which he had written a single word: “Monopoly”.

See the difference? In American usage that should be:

He passed her a slip of paper on which he had written a single word: “Monopoly.”

To me, though, that looks wrong. And it always has looked wrong to me. In my brain, what’s in the quotes is itself a single unit, and I honestly don’t get why the period should be inside. This holds even for phrases in quotes:

We were playing Hearts, and as I looked at my hand, I realized I could take all the tricks in this hand. This is called “Shooting the Moon”.

But, if that phrase where in a sentence that is itself a quote? I get even messier:

I looked at my hand and I thought to myself, “Look at this hand! I might try…’Shooting the Moon’!”

Again, this drives my editor friend crazy.

To my great delight, though, a while back I did some searching to see just how badly incorrect I am on this–not that I had any intention of correcting my habit, because at this point in my life the die is cast, I can budge no farther on this, and it will have to be my way of things, one of my authorial and personal editorial quirks, not unlike how The New Yorker always employs a diaresis in words containing diphthongs (not to be confused with the umlaut)–I found an article that makes the point very nicely. It turns out that my preferred usage of quotation marks aligns with the British:

Since a period marks the end of a sentence, it should not be placed before marking the end of the quotation. You can compare this with nested or hierarchical structures, or with stacks, or even with first in, first out methods of computing, systems theory or asset management. Under any comparison, the British style will seem preferable to the American. You resolve the nested item first, before resolving the parent.

While I certainly do not align with the British in all such matters, in this one, their approach seems much more logical and sensible, as well as more consistent. But reading this post, I suddenly realize where my tendency on this comes from: way back when I was a computer nerd (in another universe I’m something of a computer programmer), I learned that in programming, parentheses must always be closed, and if you closed them incorrectly, bad things would happen to your program. If you had a program section or line with multiple parentheses-usages inside each other, you had to close them out. This results oddly (in passages that (might look kind of (if you’re not used to it) strange)). This also made debugging programs a lot of fun, if the bug that was killing your program was that somewhere in Line 63 you had three left-parentheses but only two right-ones.

So I treat quote-marks as programmers do parentheses: You close one out before doing anything else, and that includes any punctuation that does not specifically belong to the word or words in the quotation marks.

I shall therefore continue using my quotation marks in the British manner, and I shall continue to “eschew the American”.

i have spoken



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One Response to “They’re called ‘quotation marks’.”

  1. Roger says:

    I’ll admit that I’ve actually rearranged sentences to avoid, say, ‘Shoot The Moon’, at the end. Ultimately, it’s one of those “grammar” things I’ve said… whatever. Still, I agree with your choices, because the “correct” choices hurt my head too.

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