Confession: I sort of hate writing about grammar and mechanics. Sure, I bristle at typos on take-out menus, but I’m not one to march it up to the management. I’m NOT the grammar lady. To me, what matters in writing fiction is good storytelling—which can be hard to learn and even harder to help someone fix.
Grammar and mechanics, by comparison, are easy to learn, and much more easily fixed. So why obsess about it? That’s what copyeditors are for. [For more on the difference between editing and copyediting, see my advice for aspiring editors.]
“This is My Pet Peeve”.
But, okay, I’ll admit it: I have my pet peeves (see Stop . . . It . . . Now!) Since many of you seemed to enjoy my last rant, let me introduce you to my other pet peeve: punctuation that hangs outside quotation marks.
It’s a simple rule. In American English, commas and periods go inside the quotation marks. That means you: period. And you: comma. Got it? NO EXCEPTIONS.
Is It Because the British Hate Us?
The confusion most certainly stems from our British ancestors, who insist on doing a few things opposite from us. I’m sure they do it just to make us Americans feel insecure about our intelligence by making us question everything from spelling (is it theater or theatre?) to where that period should go when repeating my favorite children’s book quotation.
The British (and their partners-in-crime Australians and New Zealanders) would leave that period hanging—outside the quotation mark. But here’s your clue: those wiley Brits use single quotation marks. Some might call this a frugal choice—I say they’re just trying to outwit us Americans, AGAIN!
You Say: “But What About Exclamation Points and Question Marks?”
Yeah, so this is where it gets a little confusing. These—!—and these—?—require some thought. If the emotion they express belongs with the quotation, they stay inside. But if that emotion belongs with the surrounding text, it goes outside. No matter what, you always end a sentence with one punctuation mark, choosing the one that makes the most sense.
I hung this quotation over my desk: “I love revision. Where else can spilled milk be turned into ice cream?”
“Hey, You Forgot Colons and Semi-Colons!”
Oh you, nerd, you caught me. If you’re still reading, I know you really are here to learn. So yes, the colon and the semi-colon also break the precedent set by our commas and periods. They, too, belong outside the quotation marks.
I love this section from the poem “Ballpoint Penguins”: “The Ballpoint Penguins, black and white,/Do little else but write and write./Although they’ve nothing much to say,/They write and write it anyway.”*
*[Wish I had a couple of Ballpoint Penguins!]
Listen Close to Me (Or Not)
A lot of people do all this wrong. People who should know better. But I know it’s confusing.
Above all, don’t let snickety rules stifle your creative voice. Nine out of ten submissions are proofread to perfection. Only one in a thousand have a perfectly plotted story, unforgettable characters, and sparkling dialogue. Don’t be lazy: learn the basic rules—but if you’re going to obsess over something, make it your story.
In the words of a great children’s poet:
“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me . . . Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
Just for Fun
What’s your favorite children’s book quotation? Post it in the comments below!