Punctuation: “Inside,” or “outside”, that’s the question

Which one is correct, (a) or (b)?

    (a) Leadership is like parenting . . . “do as I do” is much more compelling than “do as I say.”

    (b) Leadership is like parenting . . . “do as I do” is much more compelling than “do as I say”.

The difference may be small but it’s important: does the final punctuation mark (in this case a period) go inside the quotation marks, as in (a), or outside, as in (b)?

We’ll address that question today.

Two methods

When it comes to quotation marks, there are in fact two methods of punctuation: American style and British style.

In American style (which we also follow here in Canada), commas and periods go inside the quotation marks, as in these examples:

    “We Gypsies are a poor people,” Pastor Walter explained.

    In John 3:16 it is “for,” in 2:17 “indeed,” in 3:19 “because,” in 3:24 “of course,” in 3:34 it is left untranslated.

    Leadership begins with “being” but ultimately turns to “doing.”

Semicolons always go outside of the quotation marks. Thus, the second sentence above could also have been written as follows:

    In John 3:16, it is “for”; in 2:17, “indeed”; in 3:19, “because”; in 3:24, “of course”; in 3:34, it is left untranslated.

When it comes to question marks and exclamation marks, their placement depends on whether they were in the original quote. If they belong to the sentence being quoted, they go inside the quotation marks, as in these examples:

    The fundamental question for leaders is, “How can I move people to do what needs to be done?”

    Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!”

Contrast that with these examples (and yes, as you can see, I’m also a parent):

    How many times have I told you already “Go to bed”?

    I don’t want to hear you say at bedtime “I’m still hungry”!

British style differs from American style in the placement of the commas and periods. It places these outside the quotation marks. (British style also uses single quotation marks rather than double quotation marks, reserving double quotation marks for quotations inside quotations.) So, to go back to the examples above, British style would punctuate these as follows:

    ‘We Gypsies are a poor people’, Pastor Walter explained.

    In John 3:16 it is ‘for’, in 2:17 ‘indeed’, in 3:19 ‘because’, in 3:24 ‘of course’, in 3:34 it is left untranslated.

    Leadership begins with ‘being’ but ultimately turns to ‘doing’.

British style is followed in the UK and in the Commonwealth countries (though not in Canada).

Knowing your audience

So, to come back to our initial question as to which one was correct, the answer is: It all depends!

If you’re writing for an American audience, you’ll want to follow (a); if you’re writing for a British audience, you’ll want to follow (b).

Here is a good illustration of the importance of defining your audience as a writer (or editor). (See my earlier post.) I just helped edit a newsletter for a Bible translation organization in Papua New Guinea. Since Papua New Guinea is a Commonwealth country, we (the local editors and myself) decided to use British spelling and follow the British style of punctuation.

If you’re editing for an international organization, and especially if the publication is going to be posted online, you may have some flexibility depending on the author’s own preferences.

In any case, remember the Golden Rule of Editing – be consistent throughout your document – and follow either the American or British style of punctuation throughout.

Happy writing (and punctuating)!
Dirk

dirk_kievit@editors.ca
www.dirkkievit.org

(Image at top courtesy of Free Digital Photos. Please understand that I cannot vouch for the appropriateness of all images on that site.)

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