Thoughts of an Eaten Sun

through the mind of kyle tolle

Punctuation: Before Or After Quotes?

Inside, Sometimes

Lately, in my writing, I have used dialog. And it’s usually bound to some other part of the sentence.

Larry said, “How would you go about this?”

This makes sense to me. The thing Larry said is all wrapped up in quotes. We have the question mark inside the quotes too, because it’s part of what Larry said. Fantastic.

It’s set apart from the rest of the sentence by a comma. Not sure exactly why that’s there, but it’s the rule. Okay, I can deal with that.

“I’m not sure I would go about it that way at all,” Terry replied.

This one isn’t all too different. The sentences are wrapped up in quotes. And we even set the quote apart from the rest of the sentence with a comma. Great. Except… this time, the comma is inside the quotes. It’s the rule, okay, but why in the world is this the rule?

Why Not Outside?

I guess we “need” to join this quotation with the rest of the sentence. Like we did in the first example. I get it, consistency is important. But, why don’t we have the comma outside the quotes?

“I’m not sure I would go about it that way at all”, Terry replied.

This makes more sense to me, because Terry didn’t speak the comma at all. The comma is a relic of our sentence structure, not anything that Terry verbalized.

But this is also odd, because the spoken equivalent of that sentence really ends with a period.

Perhaps this would be more accurate:

“I’m not sure I would go about it that way at all.”, Terry replied.

Okay, this seems like it’d make more sense, but it feels strange. The period is the punctuation that was spoken, and the comma is there to join the quotation to the rest of the sentence, but now we’ve got three characters of punctuation in a row.

Shorthand and Convention

Is it a shorthand to omit the period and just use the comma? Maybe it’s not as precise, but it’s easier to write, and we don’t have these awkward punctuation characters throwing a party in the middle of our written idea.

It’s still no reason to favor the comma outside the quote versus inside the quote. Unless we have a standard of making commas hug the left-most word, and the comma has priority in determining proximity to words. The comma hugs the word and then the next-highest-priority character follows, which would be the quote.

Non-Periods

The question mark seems to be a different beast. The following is how you’re supposed to do it:

“Are you kidding, Terry? Do you think I’m daft?” Larry asked.

The quote is a question, so we end it with the question mark. But now we have no comma at all. What the hell? If we omit periods and replace them with commas because that’s a convenience and convention, okay. But why do we just drop the comma when a question mark is involved? I’m not certain, but I’d guess the same is true for exclamation points too.

“It all seems so arbitrary!” the narrater exclaimed.

What if we wrote it like this:

“Are you kidding, Terry, do you think I’m daft?,” Larry asked.

or

“Are you kidding, Terry, do you think I’m daft?”, Larry asked.

I rather like this last option. But I suppose we still have that annoying bunching of punctuation which, while accurate, is distracting. So we English-speakers really hate that punctuation party, and we break it up by omitting the comma. The question mark has left-hugging priority here.

My Stab at the Rules

So far the rules seem to be:

Oh, so that’s easy to understand. English makes so much sense.

Although, it might make more sense when viewed through the lens of scribes in past ages who transcribed and translated and copied works by hand. The extra punctuation could slow down the flow of writing by hand, or be hard to get right. So, they invented a couple short cuts, and they had an easier time.

And maybe there was some mid-level shift manager who got a nice bonus for “eliminating unnecessary, potentially confusing, redundant, and ink-ily expensive punctuative characters, resulting in the saving of 400 gallons of ink yearly,” when really it was one of his direct reports who did that. Douche.

Make Your Own

I’d really like to know why these rules or conventions exist. Maybe no one even can say for sure.

I’m tempted to start using the comma-after-the-quote style on my own, and just roll with it. Language can be made to suit those using it, instead of being handed down from the Grammarian gods.

Do what you want. Maybe it’ll stick.