Thursday, September 10, 2009

Comma Inside or Comma Outside the Quotation Mark?

Does the comma go inside or outside of a closing quotation mark? The difference is less than a milimeter, but there is an ocean of difference to an editor. The Atlantic Ocean, to be specific. This is one of those things, like whether to put a u in color or spell gray with an e, that distinguishes British from American English usage.

First, let’s answer the question. In the United States, the comma goes inside the quotation mark. The period goes inside the quotation mark too. No logic or thinking is involved. You just put it on the inside, like this—she said, “Don’t even think about it,” then slammed the door. And this—He gave one good reason: “Because I said so.”

If it sounds like a fight, that is because in business and editorial offices this often does become a fight, because it is an arbitrary-seeming style rule. However, it is important for consistency, which is the mark of a high-quality publication or a well-constructed business document. And the tradition in American publishing is to punctuate quotations this way.

Here are the U.S. rules for other punctuation with quotation marks:

Colons and semicolons always go outside a closing quotation mark.

Question marks and exclamation points go either on the outside or the inside of the quotation mark, depending on whether the punctuation is part of the quote or not. Thus:

He asked, “How do you punctuate a question?” (The quote is actually a question, so the question mark is part of the quote.)

She shouted, “No way!”(The exclamation point is part of the quote.)

Did he say, “I don’t know”? (The quote is not a question, so the question mark does not go inside the quotation mark. The overall sentence is a question, so the question mark goes at the very end, after the closing quotation mark.)

Did she ask, “Where is the library?” (When both the quote and the overall sentence are questions, you arbitrarily opt for inside.)

Now that we have looked at the rules, it is time to look at the exception. In text that is specifying exactly what to type in something like a computer programming language or a URL, you do not put the comma or period inside the quote: Now type “”, which is the web address of our company.
"Every time you put pencil to paper or move your cursor, you are making a judgment. Every time you don’t put pencil to paper or move your cursor, you are also making a judgment."
—Ellie Abrams

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

When we join things, are they always plural?

Which of the following is incorrect?

1. Both the status report on the bridge project, as well as the budget report, are in the folder.

2. The page proof as well as the list of corrections has been sent.

3. Smith, Michaels and Jones is our law firm.

I often see errors of verb agreement in business writing, even though at its most basic level, verb agreement is considered quite elementary. After all, almost no one who writes professionally would say “the reports is in the folder” or “the project are complete.”

How, then, do we end up with verb agreement problems in professional writing? Often the problems occur when more than one subject precedes the verb in a sentence.

The basic rule for multiple subjects is that when two or more subjects are connected by the word “and,” a plural verb is used. For example, “My dog and my cat [a total of two pets] are [plural verb] hiding behind the couch.”

The second rule, however, is that if you use a connecting phrase other than the exact word “and,” the subjects do not add up. So when you connect two subjects with phrases such as “as well as,” “in addition to,” “along with,” the additional subjects do not count. For example, “My dog [the main pet I am discussing] as well as my cat [which does not count, because I used a phrase other than “and”] has [singular verb] fleas.”

Another problem that comes up with “and” versus other connecting phrases is the use of the word “both” in front of any other connecter but “and.” The words “both” and “and” form a team, known as a correlative conjunction, and “both” cannot be used with other phrases. “Both Jack as well as Jill” is completely wrong. Either eliminate “both” or use “and” instead of “as well as.”

Finally, there is an exception to the “and makes plural” rule. I call it the macaroni and cheese rule. Some phrases containing the word “and” actually describe a singular thing, like macaroni and cheese. When you eat macaroni and cheese for dinner, you are eating one dish. The macaroni and the cheese are all mixed together to form one substance. So we correctly say “The macaroni and cheese [one substance] is [singular verb] good tonight.”

Not only other foods, such as spaghetti and meatballs, but also many proper nouns and job titles contain the word “and” but name a singular thing: steak and eggs is my favorite breakfast; the Stars and Stripes is waving atop the flagpole; Smith and Jones is the accounting firm; our secretary and treasurer is Mike.

With these rules and exceptions duly noted, by now you can be sure: No. 1 is incorrect, and Nos. 2 and 3 are correct.