Saturday, May 28, 2011

And I quote…

I’m British, but I don’t often criticise American usage. Sometimes we’re right, sometimes they’re right and sometimes it’s just a matter of preference or habit.

The rule on where to put punctuation in quotations is often cited as “British outside, American in”, but it’s not as simple as that. In British usage, the comma goes inside or out depending on the context. That might seem confusing, but it’s actually very logical.

If you’re quoting a full sentence, the punctuation should go inside the quote marks. If you’re quoting just a phrase, the punctuation goes outside. In other words, if the quoted phrase needs punctuating, then punctuate it. So, British usage is as follows:
John said, “Grammar snobs are idiots.” (inside)
John described grammar snobs as “idiots”. (outside)
John described as “idiots” people who are snobbish about grammar. (none)
Why the difference? In the first example, the quote is a complete sentence. That’s why it starts with a capital letter. Logic would dictate that there should be punctuation inside and outside - since there are two sentences here - but that would be abhorrent. In the second and third example, the word “idiots” is just a word and needs no punctuation. That becomes most obvious in the third example, where a comma (inside or out) would disrupt the flow of the sentence and serve no grammatical purpose except to show that the writer blindly follows certain rules without thinking about how those rules affect the writing.

The value of this approach becomes even clearer when the quoted sentence is a question:
John asked, “Are grammar snobs idiots?”
The quoted part is a question, so needs a question mark. However, the full sentence is not a question; it’s a statement. We are not asking whether John asked a question; we are stating it as fact. Putting the question mark outside the quotation marks would be nonsense.

Things get a bit more complicated when incomplete sentences are quoted. A simple rule is to treat the quote as a sentence if the active verb is quoted, as in:
John told me he “went to the pub to discuss dangling participles.”
Clearly John’s actual words were, “I went to the pub to discuss dangling participles,” but that wouldn’t fit the sentence. If you find this awkward, it might be better to complete the quotation by adding words (which must be put in square brackets). Of course, you then have to be careful not to alter the meaning of the quotation. Perhaps that’s why I prefer either to quote a full sentence or reduce the quotation to brief phrases, as in
John told me he went to the pub “to discuss dangling participles”.
If this all seems too neat, then consider the following:
John told me he “went to the pub” to discuss dangling participles.
Using the logic I have just set out, there should be a comma after “pub”. The problem is, I just can’t bring myself to put one in. I know it shouldn’t be there and I can’t properly explain why. This is going to bother me all weekend (and, with Monday being a holiday in the UK, it’s going to be a long weekend).

This is all your fault. 

Moral: Think, but not too hard.

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