Jul 16

Perfect Endings Belong to the Quotation Mark

Picky Penny said, “I’m studying The Chicago Manual of Style.”

Misplaced Mark replied, “I hope I never have to read that”.

Penny is attracted to Mark because of his gifted story-telling. He’s prolific with his ideas. Mark thinks Penny is really cute, and he likes that she always seems to know how to spell words without having to look them up in a dictionary. He notices that she’s good at applying the rules of grammar, too. Their common interest in writing is what first brought them together. Each realizes that, if they were to blend their talents, they would have a beautiful marriage in which they create compelling stories through clear, consistent communication.

Before they can live happily ever after, however, our two lovebirds have some issues to overcome. Penny is a stickler for the rules that she studies so well. In her quest for perfection, she corrects punctuation errors, fixes parallel construction flaws, and battles to avoid inconsistent verb tense while she’s composing first drafts. Her compulsion to be exact gets in the way of production. She would notice the mistake in the opening dialogue above and abruptly stop to fix it before moving on with another thought. Heaven help her; she can’t let anything go.

Mark is overly distracted by his surroundings. He keeps a notebook on hand to jot down tidbits from the conversations he hears, peculiar behavior he sees, and story lines that come to him. When he writes, he knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it, but he has little patience for Penny’s nagging about following the rules. In his opinion, those are really just suggestions that slow down his creative process. To Penny’s horror, he finds revision to be cumbersome. He wouldn’t care to change anything in the same opening sentences above.

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Penny and Mark’s relationship is complicated. Both have strong opinions and skills in different areas. Is there a way to help the couple get along despite their individual styles and abilities?

I relate to both of them. As a writer, I admire Mark. He is comfortable with his craft. He’s confident, capable, and inspiring in his creativity. He knows how to set a scene, develop characters, and engage audiences. He paints entertaining images, even with discrepancies in protocol. From him, I’m learning to let the rules go for awhile, write what I need to write, and fix the grammatical issues later.

At least I try to fix them later. When I’m revising, I’m aware that I’ll never master all of the idiosyncrasies that pertain to good writing. There’s just too much information to remember. But certain things pop out to me. Either I know how to make those items conform better to the rules, or I have to look up advice in a style guide. Taking a cue from Penny, I most often rely on The Chicago Manual of Style for three main reasons. First, it’s widely recognized by writing professionals as a reputable, Standard English resource. Second, each subsequent edition evolves to keep up with changes in the writing industry. Third, through my online subscription, I can get answers to questions that stump me.

Generally, I’ve heard it said that once you know the rules, it’s okay to break them. This applies to writing. For instance, consider the difference between conversational language and more formal communication. Suppose you draft the following e-mail to the high school composition teacher: “I am wondering to whom I should forward the paper.” Doesn’t it just feel a little awkward? It sure sounds that way to me. Few people, often not even the English teacher, talk like that. In relaxed, everyday conversations, I think most people simply bend long-standing rules and ask, “Who should I send the paper to?” It may not be perfect grammar, according to Penny, but it’s perfectly acceptable, as Mark will point out.

While I’m okay with text that reflects the way people naturally talk, I’m increasingly concerned about certain grammatical mistakes that are making their way into e-mails, messages, and online articles. One of the most common offenses I’ve noticed is misplaced quotation marks. Having seen so many, I started to doubt my understanding of the basic punctuation rules.

I went back to the books to brush up, and I’m relieved to say that some things never change. We still only have three rules to consider when determining where to place our ever popular quotation marks: inside, outside, and sometimes inside/sometimes outside.

Of those three, the rule I wish Americans would agree with and apply is: periods and commas always go inside quotation marks. The Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Stylebook, and MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers say so. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) concurs and further notes that this punctuation is standard in the United States but not necessarily in other countries.

For many reasons, we just don’t do things the same all throughout the world. Consider the following ways we in the US differ from the English. Here we write gray versus their grey, and practice instead of practise. We go on vacation, and they go on holiday. We can try to emulate the accent in their speech. But we don’t follow a king or queen and we shouldn’t follow foreign punctuation rules. We simply don’t want to confuse our American audience.

If you look back at Mark’s statement to Penny, you may notice that it’s improperly punctuated for those of us in the US. I should have written: “I hope I never have to read that.” The ending quotation mark is now correctly placed outside the period. Whew! Hopefully, I’m not the only one breathing a sigh of relief.

I recognize that it’s difficult for us writers to come to consensus over all the little details we face. Even within our own U.S. borders, we are bombarded with inconsistencies in how things are done. For instance, I used to cringe every time I read an article on Wikipedia that looked to me to be incorrectly punctuated. That organization has American roots and computer servers located in the US. So, why are its articles littered with periods and commas flagrantly outside quotation marks?

After a little research, I realized that the mistakes weren’t due to inexperienced contributors. The errors weren’t missed during half-hearted attempts at revision. They weren’t accidents at all. Wikipedia had established its own style and its own rules—which, as noted, are unconventional for us Yanks.

My Picky Penny tendency pushed me to get an explanation from Wikipedia itself. Why was a basic standard compromised? In an e-mail response, I was told that, “All of Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines are developed by community consensus…Wikipedia’s users are all over the globe, not just in American-English speaking places.” Yikes! That seems like a pretty big compromise to me, but I suppose if you make up your own rules, then you can rightfully claim that you’re really not breaking any.

I do concede some flexibility in what we’ll consider guiding principles. Remember my favorite resource, The Chicago Manual of Style? It discourages the use of italics for emphasizing words placed at the end of sentences, like I did in Mark’s statement to his betrothed. I could have written, “I hope I never have to read that.” The prevailing thought is that my readers would have naturally put emphasis on the last word, without a prompt from me. Was I wrong or breaking a rule to help the readers by forcing the emphasis and putting the final word in italics? Not exactly. The rule that applies is a pliable one. Not a hard and fast rule, like where to place an ending quotation mark. In this example, I was given flexibility to exercise a preference.

The hard part for writers is discerning between unbendable rules and suggested guidelines. It’s a daunting task. I’ve counted 35 different style guides used by just as many different groups of people. Lawyers, librarians, journalists, musicians, government officials, students, scientists, researchers, geologists, businessmen and editors all have their own style guides. No wonder writers struggle in deciding what to do under specific circumstances. Every industry, even every company, has the potential to do things differently.

If you pay attention, you’ll see how other writers address grammar issues. Be forewarned that they bring their own knowledge and personal choice—right, wrong, or just different—to their work. Personally, I have quite a bit of fun discussing fundamental principles with my father-in-law. He’s known to have a quirky way of punctuating sentences. Eventually, he convinces me of his unique logic, and I in turn try to persuade him to find a style guide that supports his view. (I’m beginning to think he’s British.) Picky Me suggests that if he can’t find one, then it’s time to conform to some published criterion. Heaven help me if he chooses Wikipedia or writes his own!

Let’s think back to Penny and Mark. In trying to help them blend their different writing worlds, I suggest that they, too, agree on one basic style guide. It’s less distracting to readers if there is uniformity amongst us writers. That’s one reason publishers and online sites post submission guidelines or indicate the manual of style they would like writers to comply with. At the very least, we don’t want to alienate or irritate their editors by ignoring the very tool they want us to utilize. We want our submissions to work for us, not against us.

Following the rules can be considered one of writers’ most basic job requirements. Consistency in applying them will make us look credible. Accuracy will generate respect; compliance may generate a paycheck. And Mark and Penny will have one less thing to argue about on their way to a fairy tale ending.

5 comments

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  1. Following comments.

  2. I like the way you tell this and get your points across at the same time, nicely shown! I get a lot of comments about using single quotes instead of double, but I think that’s something the reader learns early on in a story and just reads past it after a page or two. As long as it doesn’t “stop” the reader, I’m okay with almost anything.

      • Kelly Bixby on July 23, 2014 at 10:59 am
      • Reply

      Thanks, Phil. With ongoing evolution of our language, writers should be open to and watching for changes in the usage rules. I haven’t explored the single quote issue, but I can say that your stories don’t hold back the readers. You’re consistent in your punctuation and that, along with your well-developed characters and story lines, helps tremendously.

    • Sue Remisiewicz on July 20, 2014 at 7:01 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for the reminders! It’s easy to forget the rules when texting shortcuts have become so common.

      • Kelly Bixby on July 23, 2014 at 10:26 am
      • Reply

      You’re welcome. I hope the article was helpful.

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