Holy hell, Batman; I’ve been wrong

On the tyranny of false, arbitrary beliefs.

I love knowing stuff. But the things I think I know are, alas, sometimes not true. And that means I don’t know them. I only believe them.

It’s sad how many things I think I know that are actually false. It’s sad and infuriating.

And recently I came forehead to ass crack with my own ignorance.1

It happened, somewhat astonishingly, while I was reading a news blog. The Guardian, to be fair, is a pretty good journalistic organization. Still, it’s jarring to be confronted with one’s own limits. At first, I thought the author was daft. Then, I thought their editor was also daft.

But the more I dug, the more I discovered just how limited my view was. So often there is more to the story. And this week I discovered that the world is a more fragmented, more complicated, more ambiguous place than I had imagined.

I shouldn’t blame myself. I grew up in Grand Centre, Alberta, and I soaked up the culture, and the world view, around me. And so I’ve lived my life believing in unexamined rules.

In this case, I’m talking about quotation marks. I’ve always believed that a quote that happens at the end of a sentence has to put the sentence’s ending punctuation inside the quote. Inside, always inside. My teacher, for example, told me that “I would fail at Language Arts if I didn’t put the period inside the quote mark.” So inside it went.

Even if it makes no sense and is awkward as hell, inside it went. This convention does often end up making sense because I was trained to fit quotes into my sentences in a way that makes the sentences well formed. But sometimes it leads to confusing and awkward constructions. I ask you, for example, why is my teacher’s quote given a question mark, when she has declared that this is “the way of all English writers everywhere?” 2

Regrettably, this habit was declared by my teacher to be universally true. It wasn’t just one teacher. It was a vast conspiracy. Teachers, parents, professors, all. Or perhaps it was also my fault.

Damn my propensity to mistake my local culture for universal truth.

Well, recently I discovered that other folks put periods and question marks and other punctuation outside of the quotation marks. Sigh. It so often makes sense.  My heart says the goddamn punctuation belongs outside the quote, so as not to alter the quote. Why would anyone think “that quotes should be modified with errant punctuation”? Sentences end where sentences end. When quotes happen inside of sentences, especially when they are incomplete, it makes more sense to put the ending punctuation outside of the quote.3

“Unless the entire sentence is a quote, and then it makes sense for the quotes to go around the whole thing.” So obvious. But it’s so rarely about what is obvious.

And now I’m torn. Because I write in a community of people with expectations. So, I guess it’s our turn to impose some kind of total solution.  Or is it?

Oh, by the way, both Wikipedia and the Journal of the Linguistic Society of North America have more or less adopted the Guardians’ quotation style.4

  1. Mind your language.
  2. This sentence makes way more sense this way: I ask you, for example, why is my teacher’s quote given a question mark, when she has declared that this is “the way of all English writers everywhere”?
  3. The Guardian Style Guide is awesome.
  4. Journal of the Linguistic Style of North America (PDF).