What follows may be the least important of the 522 posts I’ve written since beginning this blog. That’s saying a lot, I know, but here it is anyway:
One thing I learned from years of studying philosophy is the distinction between naming, mentioning or referring to a word and using it. One half of that distinction should be perfectly clear. We all use words when we write or speak them. For example, I used either nine or ten words in that last sentence, depending on how you want to count the word I used twice.
Brief tangent: If the same word is used twice in a sentence, should it be counted twice since it appears twice or should it be counted once, since it’s the same word both times? The answer to that question has to do with another distinction (the one between token and type). That distinction isn’t the subject of this post, however, so let’s keep going.
As I was saying, it’s clear that we all know how to use a word. But how do you name it? It’s very simple, actually: you put quotation marks around it. For example, in order to refer to or mention the word “cat”, I put quotation marks around the three letters that spell it. Doing so allows me to ask you, for example, whether you can spell “cat”. If I asked you to spell the word cat, without the quotation marks, it wouldn’t mean the same thing at all. (The best I can figure is that it would mean to relieve the cat that’s good with words by taking its place.)
People, of course, have names like “Peter” and “Susan”. See how I just gave you the names of those fictional people by using quotation marks? In effect, I gave you the names of their names. If I’d said Peter knows Susan, I’d have simply used their names. I’m sure you get the idea.
My next point: We can also name, mention or refer to a sentence. How? Again, simply by putting quotation marks around it. For example, “This is a sentence” is a sentence. In that last sentence, I referred to the sentence “This is a sentence” in the same way I referred to the word “cat” above.
Okay, I’m now getting close to the point I wanted to make when I began this post several hours ago. When I was in school, I was taught a certain way to use quotation marks. It’s a rule that appears in a list Google presented when I asked their search engine how to use quotation marks correctly:
Rule 4. Periods and commas ALWAYS go inside quotation marks.
The sign said, “Walk.” Then it said, “Don’t Walk,” then, “Walk,” all within thirty seconds.
He yelled, “Hurry up.”
If you follow this rule, you’ll write things like this:
I can spell “cat.”
I can spell “cat”.
But the name of the word “cat” isn’t “cat.”. So what’s that period doing inside the quotation marks instead of being at the end of the sentence where it obviously belongs?
Likewise, if you follow Rule 4, you’ll write sentences like this:
This is a sentence: “This is a sentence.”
This is a sentence: “This is a sentence”.
Putting the period inside the quotation marks would be okay if you wanted to emphasize how declarative sentences are supposed to end with a period, but if that’s what you were doing, you’d need another period outside the quotation marks to mark the end of the whole sentence, like this:
This is a sentence: “This is a sentence.”.
Now take a look at the next rule in the list:
Rule 5a. The placement of question marks with quotation marks follows logic. If a question is within the quoted material, a question mark should be placed inside the quotation marks.
She asked, “Will you still be my friend?”
The question Will you still be my friend? is part of the quotation.
But wait a second. We’re supposed to follow logic with respect to question marks, but not when it comes to periods? What this apparently means is that the question below should be written this way:
Can you spell “cat”?
Not this way:
Can you spell “cat?”
Which makes sense, because “cat?” is not a good way to refer to the word “cat”, in the same way “cat.” isn’t a good way either.
Sometimes you have an idea and wonder why you’ve never heard that idea before. Why hasn’t someone else concluded that Rule 4 is dumb? Why are we all taught to use logic when using quotation marks with question marks but not with periods? Was there a problem with typesetting many years ago that gave rise to Rule 4? Was it a solution to a perceived problem or simply someone like Ben Franklin or Noah Webster who had a few too many and thought Rule 4 would be a good idea?
I decided somewhere along the line that I would ignore Rule 4 on this blog and in my other written communications. So far nobody has complained or, so far as I know, even noticed.
But imagine my surprise and relief when I found this today at the website of Capital Community College of Hartford, Connecticut:
Here is one simple rule to remember:
In the United States, periods and commas go inside quotation marks regardless of logic.
In the United Kingdom, Canada, and islands under the influence of British education, punctuation around quotation marks is more apt to follow logic. In American style, then, you would write: My favorite poem is Robert Frost’s “Design.” But in England you would write: My favorite poem is Robert Frost’s “Design”.
Capital Community even offer an explanation of sorts for this discrepancy:
There are peculiar typographical reasons why the period and comma go inside the quotation mark in the United States. The following explanation comes from [a link that no longer works]: “In the days when printing used raised bits of metal, “.” and “,” were the most delicate, and were in danger of damage … if they had a [double quote] on one side and a blank space on the other. Hence the convention arose of always using ‘.”‘ and ‘,”‘ rather than ‘”.’ and ‘”,’, regardless of logic.”
This seems to be an argument to return to something more logical, but there is little impetus to do so within the United States.
That last sentence sums up the situation perfectly. There is little impetus to be more logical here in the United States. It’s not the entire English-speaking world that’s doing it wrong, it’s just us. And we’ll keep doing it wrong because, well, most of our Constitution is more than 200 years old and much of it is out-of-date. Why shouldn’t our punctuation be old and out-of-date too?
So, here we are. I’ve explained the situation and assured you that I’m committed to breaking Rule 4 at every opportunity. I call on the rest of America to do the same. Sometimes we have to stand up for what’s right, even if it means risking reprisals from illogical, conservative elements among us.
But, I know, I know, you probably think you’ve wasted the past several minutes reading this post. Maybe you’d rather have been reading about Trump and Congress and France and Baton Rouge.
Or maybe in retrospect it was good to get away from that for a bit? If you’ve missed it, here’s a long article about Trump’s even longer history of lies and exaggerations. The reporter says it’s hard to find a project Trump worked on that didn’t involve dishonesty or misinformation of some sort. I couldn’t stand to read the whole thing, but maybe you can. (By the way, there’s a poll out that says a majority of registered voters think Trump is more honest and trustworthy than Hillary Clinton. Amazing. This is what years of propaganda and intense ideology will do.)
And in case you want to submit a question to one of the speakers at the Republican Convention, which starts tomorrow, there’s a form you can fill out here. Posing as a fictitious reporter, I asked to interview a member of the Trump family on the topic: “Is Donald Trump a psychopath or merely a dangerous con man?” Still waiting for a reply.