September 20, 2001

A Column by Byron McAllister

Deleting all one's junk e-mail would seem even more annoying if it weren't for the occasional interesting tidbit that surfaces among them. A friend in Austria sent me this:

An English teacher wrote a sentence on the board and asked the class to punctuate it correctly. What he wrote was simple enough:

A woman without her man is nothing

The males in the class all punctuated it the same way:

A woman--without her man--is nothing.

The females were also uniform. They wrote it as:

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Part of what makes the thing work is that the word "her" may be either a possessive pronoun, as the males had it, or a substantive, as the females had it. To make it work in the absence of that convenience, we have to do some re-wording. For example, the male analogues of the two meanings of "her" differ: "him" and "his." But hey, we're re-wording, remember?

More to the point of today's rant, let's try, "A sentence: without it, punctuation is nothing," or possibly, "A sentence--without its punctuation--is nothing." The first is certainly true, and the example above suggests that there's plenty of truth in the second. Or, how about this: "Punctuation--without its sentence--is nothing." Surely a truism, though I imagine at some point e.e.cummings tried it. Meantime, "Punctuation: without it a sentence is nothing" may again refer to the original exercise.

On the other hand, what is good punctuation? We have a lot of rules about that. On the other hand, I was reading a British mystery the other day, and found not one but a host of spots where periods and commas had been placed outside of the quotation marks. Shocking! Long ago, my freshman English teacher caught me doing that, in an instance more or less like this:

Asked what they'd had for dinner, Al said, "Meat and potatoes", but Tom said, "Mostly vegetables".

I pleaded my case. I told him that the expressions in quotation marks aren't sentences, so the punctuation ought, logically, to apply to the whole shebang, all the way from "Asked" to "vegetables." The alert reader will understand from the way I wrote the immediately preceding sentence that I lost the argument. How come I lost? I was felled in one swoop when the instructor pointed out that English is only partly a logical language. It's hard to argue with that!

So, what's a boy (or girl, right?) to do? Well, you can be sure I humored the instructor. Then, the habit being formed, I did it his way forever. Only after that did I finally look it up. Seems the convention is primarily an American one. Could that possibly be why the British don't have to follow it? It goes back to a day long ago when printers wanted things to be beautiful and kept insisting that putting periods and commas after a quotation mark instead of before it made the thing look "unbalanced."

Whatever the reason, the practice is now inflexible in the USA. My style manuals allow me to put colons, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation marks inside or outside the quote, as logic requires. But it's logic-be-damned when it comes to periods and commas. Parentheses, on the other hand, are to be dealt with logically (like this).

But try writing computer stuff with that rule. Suppose I'd like to say:

In the third line, insert "y", "n" or "m" (for "yes", "no" or "maybe"). Don't include the quotation marks.

No way! If I'm a rule-follower, I can't say quite that. I have to say, instead,

In the third line, insert "y," "n" or "m" (for "yes," "no" or "maybe") Don't include the quotation marks, nor, in the case of "y," the comma.

Of course, I refuse. If that one sentence were the only one that bothered me, it'd be no problem, but hey, every time I wanted to list things that need, for one reason or another, to be stuck into quotation marks, I'd have to stop and ask, "Now, is what I did merely logical or does it also happen to follow the rule? Know ssomething? American standard usage can occasionally require too much re-working to be worth the proverbial candle.

Tell you what. How about this rule: when there's adequate reason not to conform, let's not conform, okay? When there's not? Well, then there's no price to pay for conforming and let's damned well do it.

For the hell of it, let's end with an exercise-this one taken from a Readers' Digest of nearly sixty years ago.

Punctuate the following so that it is no longer gibberish:

John where James had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect upon the teacher.

Need a hint? So did I. Here's one: the problem is not to re-formulate so that there's no difficulty. It's to punctuate what's given. Here's another: start by putting a comma after John. One more? Okay: put the commas inside the quotation marks and the semicolon outside. Okay, now you're on your own.