Thursday, May 24, 2012

On commas and quotes

Here at Musings we sometimes wax about the small things. Today, it's about the comma, and its usage in the American system and the Rest of the World (RoW).

I was put onto this by a posting at Noop.NL about the global comma issue (an issue that I was actually unaware existed, but hey!, we don't keep up with everything here), to wit:
  • In Amercian usage, the comma goes inside a quoted passage: She said "I hate commas," and she went on to say more.
  • In the Rest of the World, it's outside the quotation: She said "I hate commas", and she went on to say more.

To my eye, we in America have it wrong; RoW has it right. For the sake of clear communication in project writing, this really should be resolved.

Now, when extended to question marks, ?, and exclaimation marks, !, we follow the world rules: if the question is part of the quote, it goes inside, but if it's part of the sentence as a whole, it goes outside. In other words, we and the world follow the logic of the sentence. What a concept!

A great explanation for the background of the 'great global comma fuss' is found at Tina Blue's posting on this topic. She says (referring to commas inside the quote marks):
And just why, you may ask, do they belong there? Well, it seems to be the result of historical accident. When type was handset, a period or comma outside of quotation marks at the end of a sentence tended to get knocked out of position, so the printers tucked the little devils inside the quotation marks to keep them safe and out of trouble. But apparently only American printers were more attached to convenience than logic, since British printers continued to risk the misalignment of their periods and commas.