Image credit: Horia Varlan

Is Your Punctuation “Logical”?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m no grammarian. I studied English literature, which is different from English language—a distinction not everyone is aware of. I’m jealous of people who know all of grammar’s technical terms and aspire to become one of them. Of course, realistically, life tends to get in the way of my lofty goals of being able to stand around at cocktail parties and talk about clauses.

I may be an outsider to the grammar world, but I find it fascinating. Sometimes at work I get a random grammatical question lobbed at me, I turn to Google because duh, and I find that I’ve been doing it wrong. Sometimes I discover there’s actually a raging debate going on. (Well, as raging as the grammar community gets.) So today, I’m going to bring you the raging debate on something called “logical punctuation.”

Image credit: Horia Varlan
Image credit: Horia Varlan

I learned about logical punctuation when I stumbled upon Ben Yagoda’s “The Rise of Logical Punctuation”. “Logical punctuation” can have a number of meanings, but I’m going to use the one that refers to punctuating quotations and where to put punctuation marks in relation to the quotation marks. According to Yagoda, if you’re American like me, you probably almost never see commas or periods outside of quotation marks in anything published offline, but any other marks (questions, exclamations, etc.) depend on the context of what’s being quoted. He says this is not the case in Britain, where the placement of commas and periods in relation to quotation marks tends to depend more on context. Here’s Yagoda’s example:

 [I]ronically, given the anecdote about “Tales of the City”, PBS is the ONLY widely available channel that has any serious LGBT content; e.g. documentaries such as “Ask Not” and “Out in the Silence”.

“Tales of the City” and “Out in the Silence” are units—consisting of the words and the quotation marks. Insinuating a period or comma within the unit alters it in a rather underhanded manner. American style is inconsistent, moreover, because when it comes to other punctuation marks—semicolons, colons, exclamation points, question marks, dashes—we follow British/logical protocol. Dean Hamer would pass muster in any U.S. newspaper or magazine, for example, if he were to write: I am a big fan of “Tales of the City”; did anyone else see “Ask Not”?

Yagoda notes that in “copy-editor-free zones” such as the internet, logical punctuation is an emerging trend in American usage. Furthermore, he finds two reasons that Americans should embrace logical punctuation: at the micro level, coding; at the macro level, the inconsistent American style is, well, illogical and based on mere aesthetics.

Who cares, right? Well, Yagoda’s article sparked a substantial response (if you Google “logical punctuation,” it’s mentioned in almost every result on the first couple pages). David Marsh wrote a response in The Guardian’s Mind Your Language Blog that both expands on the punctuation nuances Yagoda left out and also examines the style guides of different British publications. None of those style guides really agree with one another. His conclusion?

 The debate about “logical punctuation” suggests two things. First, there is nothing very logical about it. As with so many aspects of language, what you use tends to be the result of a battle between what you were taught, and what you like the look of. Second, British and American English have more in common than people sometimes think. And you can quote me on that.

Personally, I’m at a crossroads here. I was taught the American style. I can appreciate that “logical punctuation” is probably a more practical approach to punctuation. But I find it jarring to look at. I want to take a broom and sweep those periods back inside the quotes. I couldn’t even use it for this article. I do recognize that there’s no reason for me to feel that way, but it’s a powerful feeling.

The more I research about this, the more I’m inclined to agree with Subversive Copy Editor: both styles are pretty simple and consistency is really the important thing. So if I’m ever at the grammarian cocktail party of my dreams and things get heated over logical punctuation, that’s probably the moment I’ll pick to excuse myself to get a refill.

Lauren Seegmiller

Lauren Seegmiller

Assistant Editor at The Renegade Word
Lauren Seegmiller has a B.A. in English Literature and isn't afraid to use it. She currently lives in Denver, CO, trying to give enough time to reading, writing, knitting, and maybe even decoupage every once in a while. She helps other writers improve their craft as a creative writing coach.
Lauren Seegmiller
  • Mike

    Hi. Could you please confirm whether my examples and explanations below are correct.

    Per logical punctuation, the comma goes inside the quote marks in the sentence below, right? The comma inherently belongs to the sentence, punctuation-wise.

    “Mike,” he said, “do you know what time it is?”

    Original sentence is “Mike, do you know what time it is?”

    But:

    Per logical punctuation, the comma would go outside the quote marks in the sentence below because it’s not inherently part of the quoted material:

    “I want to know”, Mike said, “what time it is.”

    Original sentence is “I want to know what time it is”, not “I want to know, what time it is.”

    Thank you.

    Respectfully,

    Mike

    • Lauren Seegmiller

      Hi Mike,

      I think you’ve actually brought up a very important point I completely missed when writing this article. Other than this infographic, I cannot find any instance of logical punctuation being used in written dialogue. All the research I did for this article discussed logical punctuation as a way of formatting short quotations (which may be within dialogue but do not constitute the dialogue, i.e., a quote-within-a-quote situation).

      The infographic above names The Guardian as one of the major proponents of the use of logical punctuation. I gave a cursory look to a few articles and found a mixed approach to punctuation. For instance, if there was a short quotation, the author would leave punctuation totally outside the quotation marks. But for longer direct quotes, they kept the comma inside the quotes before ending with “s/he said.” Of course, in every case I noted this, the comma was taking the place of the period to allow the transition to the dialogue tag. The Guardian didn’t seem to split up their sentences the way fiction writers do.

      I’m no grammar expert, but I would argue that in written dialogue as in fiction the commas serve as transitions between the words the speaker uses and the dialogue tag relayed by the narrator. Of course, I am more used to the so-called American style, so I never put commas or periods outside of quotation marks (and I never got used to the way it looks, to be honest).

      I’d love other commentators to weigh in! This is a sticky wicket for me.