While editing this month’s Klingbrief, I looked up a rule about quotation marks. I frequently encounter very insightful, bright writers who approach end punctuation very differently when they are using quotations. Today, I finally decided to do some research.
It turns out, both camps are right, and one’s geographical orientation matters in resolving such disputes.
The Grammar Girl website adds a wonderful note to settle the debate; I offer it to you today as an example of (1) how an initial decision can lead to a profound domino effect and (2) the ways in which thoughtful interventions can (sometimes) halt or redirect habits.
Compositors―people who layout printed material with type―made the original rule that placed periods and commas inside quotation marks to protect the small metal pieces of type from breaking off the end of the sentence. The quotation marks protected the commas and periods. In the early 1900s, it appears that the Fowler brothers (who wrote a famous British style guide called The King’s English) began lobbying to make the rules more about logic and less about the mechanics of typesetting. They won the British battle, but Americans didn’t adopt the change. That’s why we have different styles.
According to this interpretation, American-style punctuation at the ends of quoted sentences reflects a choice made during the days of metal type, while British-style punctuation at the ends of quoted sentences reflects an intervention based on logic.
So I guess the next time a student challenges me by saying that some grammar rules seem to be arbitrary and even illogical, I will have to be honest and reply, “that’s true, but only in America!”