I must admit I was taken aback by David Marsh’s blog post last week at Mind Your Language. In “‘The British Style’? ‘The American Way?’ They Are Not So Different,” he explains that British style for punctuating quotations is not as “logical” as popularly thought.
Am I the only one who didn’t know that not all Brits even agree on this matter? That Radio Times style is not necessarily Guardian or Economist or Telegraph style? True, in all of them a period or comma may follow an end quote (not allowed in American style). But I’ve always thought (not proud of this) that the only determining factor was whether the punctuation was part of the original quotation.
Not so. Turns out it also matters whether the original statement was grammatically complete—an issue often ignored or misstated. Marsh points out the difficulties in identifying for sure what exactly constitutes grammatical completeness, and after some head scratching, he concludes that contrary to portrayals of the British system as “logical,” in fact “there is nothing very logical about it.”
Marsh was responding to confusion he had noticed online, mentioning in particular a recent Slate post by Ben Yagoda, who promotes a simpler method of “logical punctuation” whereby commas and periods fall outside the quotation marks regardless of syntax or original punctuation. (Since Yagoda calls this “the British way,” I’m guessing he missed the same memo I did.)
Yagoda thinks “logical punctuation” will prevail. Perhaps hoping to whip up some controversy, he e-mailed Chicago to ask whether The Chicago Manual of Style would consider adopting it for online prose.
Our e-mailed reply:
As you know, we’re pretty slow to jump in with endorsements or prohibitions when it comes to writing and editing fashions. We have the luxury of several years’ reflection between editions, and we don’t update our guidelines in the meantime. Our practice of having identical styling in print and online seems to work fine for us. Having just launched the 16th edition, we won’t be changing anything soon in CMOS.
That said, we already recommend flexibility in styling for the sake of one’s readers. We publish books by Canadian and British authors, and in each case the manuscript editor decides whether to Americanize the punctuation and spelling or leave them as they are. If an online article or website is likely to be read internationally, that might be reason enough to adopt British-style punctuation. So it’s not like we would throw up our hands in horror. Naturally, we recommend consistency.
Yagoda was what you might call “snowclowning” when he reported our reply as “in essence: ‘How about never? Is never good for you?’” But CMOS got feedback from all directions on it. I don’t know which was more annoying, the flak for our “rigidity” or the high-fiving from kneejerk sticklers.
So this time let me speak for myself: Who wants a style you have to puzzle over or research every time you come to a quotation? Chicago’s styling and Yagoda’s “logical” method are both efficient in their simplicity. In or out: either way, everything will probably work out just fine.