Commas and Periods — Inside Closing Quotation Marks or Outside Them?

A reader asks:

I’m trying to finalize a “stylebook” for briefs our office files and am stuck on one thing and am asking around for views of people who might have an opinion to share. Given your interesting takes on language and usage, I’d love to get your thoughts. The issue is whether to use the American or British rule on the placement of added punctuation inside or outside a close quotation mark. (American rule = periods and commas inside the quotes, even if you are adding them to the quoted material; British rule: only quoted material goes inside the quote marks.)

I personally think the British rule is more sensible and may be especially appropriate for use in briefs where accuracy is especially important, but had been preparing to use the American rule for our briefs because I thought that was the universally-accepted practice here. But then I ran into Judge Easterbrook’s opinion in the McDonald case, and noticed he seems to use the British rule. I checked a few of his other opinions and it seems to be his practice. This suggests the time might be right to switch to the more logical rule, but I’m still tempted to go with the majority. (I am pretty sure the Supreme Court and DOJ use the American rule, and haven’t seen any other courts or judges do otherwise. Interestingly, however, in our office, a sizeable minority of draft briefs I see use the British rule until I force them to change.)

So, I put it to you: if you were setting a rule for [a large government] office, which rule would you use?

Here’s what I said in response: I see the value of the British rule, both because of the elegance of its logic, and because it may be more precise in some situations (if people know that one is indeed consistently following the British rule). But my sense is that the American rule remains vastly more common in America, and is also more aesthetically pleasing, partly because it reduces what strikes me as ugly white space, but partly because it is indeed what people are used to.

I would draw a firm line against moving other punctuation, such as colons or semicolons, to before the closing quotation mark (except, of course, when it’s part of what’s being quoted, such as “He asked, ‘What did you say?’”). There, usage is more mixed, and I see no reason to move the punctuation — plus I am personally annoyed when it is moved, though that might just be me.

Note, of course, that this is a question of what is better stylistically, aesthetically, and functionally, not what is “correct.” Certainly the American rule, much as it offends some people’s sense of linguistic logic, is correct in American usage, because it is usage and not logic that defines linguistic correctness.

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