You put the quotation mark where?

One of the admittedly quirkier things about American punctuation conventions is where we put the closing quotation mark with respect to periods and commas--that is, always outside, regardless of whatever else might be going on. The placement of other punctuation marks depends on whether the mark is part of the quoted material or not.

For instance, we write
               I asked, "Are you a curmudgeon?"
               How do you spell "curmudgeon"?

In the first case, the question mark is part of the quotation and goes inside the quotation marks. In the second case, it isn't, so it doesn't. Makes perfect sense.

But we also write
               She said, "You're a curmudgeon."
               She called me a "curmudgeon."

To many of us (almost all of us Americans--in other parts of the English-speaking world, periods and commas tend to follow the same rule as question marks, etc.), this seems perfectly normal and natural. We've seen it done that way since we first learned to read and, if we were paying attention, that's the way we learned to do it ourselves.

That notwithstanding, there are a lot of people who can get themselves all hot and bothered about it. "It doesn't make sense!" they cry. "It's not logical!" they moan.

But it's perfectly logical--it just marches to a different syllogism, which goes something like this: 


If my objective is to have the most effective communication with the least amount of distraction from the message, and most of my readership will be least distracted by my following the conventions they are familiar with, then it serves my interests best to follow those conventions.


There has been much speculation as to where and why our peculiar practice originated. A lot of people subscribe to the theory that it has something to do with hardware technology problems in early type composition. Personally, I like the notion that it was an aesthetic judgment; very old type was set more loosely than what we're used to today, and the itty-bitty period and comma looked lonesome hanging out there all by themselves. Whatever the reason, it's there now, and I don't see it going away any time soon.

Whenever this subject comes up, you will find people claiming that, when writing about computer software, it is necessary--obligatory, even--to abandon this convention because otherwise you would be forced to write:
                Enter "file."
Then, of course, the user would enter the period as part of the command, creating an error and perhaps destroying western civilization as we know it.

Well, yeah, if writers insist on painting themselves into that particular corner, that's the risk. But in 40 years of writing--and editing what others write--about computer software, I've never been forced to write that and have never seen anyone else forced to do it, either. Kinda makes you wonder. 



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