Mar 25, 2014
Grammar Hammer: Comma Drama
In the thousands of news releases that cross the desks of the PR Newswire Customer Content Services team on a weekly basis, placing commas outside of quotation marks ranks as one of the most commonly made errors. Though misplaced commas are not a major grammatical offense in comparison to some others we’ve seen, its frequency makes this a topic worth exploring.
What’s fascinating about this topic is really how the U.S. grammar rules vary from the British. In the U.S., the comma (or other punctuation) goes inside the quote marks, regardless of logic. I refer you to English Grammar for Dummies, 2nd Edition, which gives a great recap of the scenarios in which this rule applies. On the other hand, British grammar rules focus on the context and want the punctuation placed “logically” versus “conventionally”. (See what I did there?)
For historical context, good old-fashioned typography is the primary reason Americans place punctuation inside their quote marks. According to the Guide to Grammar and Writing, when printing used raised bits of metal, periods and commas were the most delicate keys and writers risked breaking off or denting the face of the piece of type if they had a quotation mark on one side and a blank space on the other. Hence the convention arose of always using periods and commas inside the quote regardless of logic. In today’s digital age, it seems that we could eliminate this rule as easily as the rule of two spaces following a period.
My advice is to pick a style and stick with it. In 99% of my writing, I’ll follow the American rule of tucking my punctuation marks neatly inside the quotation marks, except for that teeny tiny 1% where context or logic necessitates it being outside (and please know that inconsistency makes an editor’s brain hurt).
In other grammar news, the Associated Press announced they were relaxing their stance even further on “more than” vs. “over.” A part of me has died; I just talked about this topic in February. How do you feel about AP’s new position on this rule?
Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.