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Tuesday, April 20, 2004

 
We Love Punctuation
By and large, Grinnellians tend to be a loyal bunch. We all went to a tiny, extra-liberal arts school in the middle of Iowa that no one has ever heard of, and we got to take whatever classes we wanted to outside our majors, which usually means that we were generally happier with our overall academic experience than we would have been elsewhere. But occasionally I see something that reminds me particularly of why I love Grinnell.

Last week, a CS professor posted the following on the Grinnell Plans system in response to some other students' complaints about the vagaries of the English written punctuation system. I never took a class from him, as I stayed out of the science building as much as possible, but John Stone is becoming one of my heroes for being able to explain stuff like this in such detail:

23:49 April 14, 2004

Under the traditional American rules for non-technical prose, which American writers should follow unless they are sure they know what they are doing, a period or a comma is always placed inside the close-quotation mark, even when it is not part of the quoted material. An exclamation point, a question mark, or a dash is placed inside the close-quotation mark when it is part of the quotation (in which case any external punctuation is usually suppressed) and outside when it is part of the enclosing sentence. In all other cases, it is usually possible and desirable not to include any trailing punctuation at the end of the quoted material; thus, for instance, a semicolon at the end of quoted material should be suppressed.

Twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophers and logicians found it helpful to supplement these traditional rules with a second set, derived partly from British practice, and confined to cases in which one is talking about the literal text string that appears between the quotation marks (and not using that string's meaning as part of the meaning of the surrounding sentence). The supplementary rule is to enclose the quoted material, including any punctuation marks that are part of the text string that one is referring to, in single quotation marks. Punctuation for the surrounding sentence is then never suppressed: typographical purists are just supposed to put up with the unsightly piles of trailing punctuation, in the interest of accuracy on the occasions when it is particularly necessary.

From the entry below for the William Saletan article, you'll see that I use both sets of rules. In the first sentence of my summary, I'm talking about the word `credible', and so I use single quotes and put the period outside the close-quotation mark. In the third sentence, I'm using that word as a descriptive adjective, and the quotation marks simply mean that I'm borrowing that word from Bush. Accordingly, I use the traditional rules -- double quotes, with the comma tucked inside the close-quotation mark.

The down side of using both sets of rules in the same context is that people sometimes assume that I'm being inconsistent or don't know the difference. I can live with this.

15:14 April 14, 2004

Saletan, William. ``Trust, don't verify: Bush's incredible definition of credibility''. Slate, April 14, 2004.

The gist: President Bush has a misconception about the word `credible'. He thinks that it means ``consistent in words and deeds.'' So, in order to ensure that the foreign policy of the United States is ``credible,'' he thinks that he has to make it internally consistent. This is a serious error when the internally consistent policy does not correspond to external reality, as in Iraq.


For more on written English punctuation, its wonders and usefulness, as well as heinous abuses it has undergone, you can read this article about the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I can't wait to start reading it.

And yes, I do own this poster. It hangs in the home office, so I can look at it while I'm grading papers.

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