Thursday, November 8, 2012

The British are coming – again! Time to “Tuck the punc[tuation]!”

Is it the 1770s all over again?

We decisively kicked the Brits off our sacred shores once upon a time, but they’re creeping back in today.

They’re showing up in our news programs, commercials, TV shows, and movies. While they can cleverly manage to blend in by disguising their accents and mannerisms on the air, on paper they give themselves away.

And their influence is beginning to fog the writing of our countrymen.

It’s time to gear up the revolution all over again! To arms! Or, to pens! Or, PCs! You know what I mean.

Eats, shoots, and spellz weird

The first big assault came in 2003 with the bestselling book by Lynne Truss titled, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

It’s a great little book that trounces on those atrocious errors of punctuation peeving off those of us who passionately care about such things.

But there is one little issue: The author, Lynne Truss, is an Englander. A Brit from across the pond. A citizen of the United Kingdom. Not one of us!

Why is this a problem?

Because the “British style” of writing has significant variations from the grand old punctuation comprising our more sensible “American style.”

These cheeky Brits also indulge in some annoyingly weird spelling aberrations.

For example they insist on using an “s” in many words where a “z” (which they call “zed”) is supposed to go. They also fool around with “er” endings, throw in a random “u” and “r” here and there, and pointlessly convert “og” endings to “ogue.”

The correct American spelling
The aberrant “chiefly” British spelling

Doesn’t that just get your knickers in a knot? Harrumph!

You can quotation mark me on this

But let’s get back to punctuation issues and what is fast becoming the most egregious infiltration of the offal British style tainting American writing today.

When it comes to quotation marks, the Brits play fast and loose with usage pushing punctuation outside the pale.

When quotation marks are needed, the true blue American Patriot will faithfully place the punctuation at the end of a sentence securely where it belongs, inside the marks.
  • For example (American Style): Sally said to Tom, “Hey, let’s go shopping!”
Note that the exclamation point (!) is tucked inside the closing quotation mark (”).

The Brits, snubbing their nose at our exceptional grasp of punctuation toss periods, question marks, and the like outside the enclosing arms of the embracing quotation mark.
  • For example (British Style): Sally said to Tom, “Let us hie ourselves to the local shop”.
Makes you feel a little queasy, doesn’t it? It’s plain un-American.

If you are an American writing for an American audience remember to “Tuck the punc!” In other words, tuck that end-of-sentence punctuation inside your closing quotation mark.

Don’t ask why, just do it. It’s the Yankee Doodle Dandy thing to do.

The encroaching British blight

I’m seeing this punctuative slippage more and more among America writers.

It crops up provocatively in social media and blogs.

One blog that I enjoy from time to time has at least one contributor who, even after having this pointed out to them, continues to abuse their otherwise interesting content with improper Brit-style punctuation-shunning closing quotations.


Print is not immune, either.

Someone recently loaned me a copy of a self-published book written by a thoroughly American citizen where, throughout, the improper British style was used.

It was so jarring I couldn’t finish the book.

Further confusing the issue is the Internet which, oddly, is not American-centric.

The British style shows up on sites originating from Great Britain as well as countries that were formally under British control (India, South Africa, et al) and its close friends (Canada, Australia, et al).

Just as the colonies shook free of British rule, let’s spread the word with the fervor of Paul Revere and end this incursion of the baleful British Style into our exceptional American ways of writing.

In this, we must beat back Britannia! You can quote me.

Always “tuck the punc”…except

Are you doubtful that what I’m telling you is fair, balanced, accurate, and true?
Then check the transcripts – uh, I mean, check the style manuals!

There are several authoritative American style manuals you can refer to verify the validity of my voicing of this issue.

The Associated Press Stylebook states the rule most succinctly:
Follow these long-established printers’ rules:
    -- The period and the comma always go within the quotation marks.
    -- The dash, the semicolon, the question mark, and the exclamation point go within the quotation marks when they apply to the quoted matter only. They go outside when they apply to the whole sentence.
Oops. That last part implies there may be some exceptions to the “tuck the punc” rule. Here are examples of a few:
  • When an exact term is being specified and the punctuation is not part of the term or phrase. In this example, the period is not part of the password: The password for this account is “frabjous21”.
  • Or, as in this example from TIME, where a specific phrase is being quoted and the quotation marks do not apply to the entire sentence: …decades-old Anglais claim that “the French don’t bathe”.
  • The same is true in this example: How would you interpret  the phrase “out of left field”?
Because the exceptions can get a little confusing, you may want to refer to a style manual such as The Associated Press Stylebook referred to as the AP, The Chicago Manual of Style referred to as CMOS, or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association referred to as the APA.

You can also check out the Yahoo Styleguide online at

One rule to rule them all

Okay, the punctilious among you will probably cringe at this, but I’m going to recommend that, generally speaking, you don’t sweat the exceptions.

To keep things simple, when in doubt, the one rule you need to remember when it comes to where to place punctuation in relation to quotation marks is, “Tuck the punc!”
  • If you are writing for a scientific journal or working on your doctoral thesis, then pay attention to what the APA says.
  • If you are writing a book and get a little confused and feel it’s important to be precise with the exceptions, refer to CMOS and lean on your copy editor.
  • If you are writing an article for a consumer publication (online or in print), then follow the AP.
Otherwise, if you’re writing an email to a friend, a post or comment on Facebook, a blog entry, a memo for your workplace, a letter to a client, or developing a proposal for a customer, then remember to always “Tuck the punc!”

It’s the American way!

Please don't tread on our grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Click on the image to see it full size.


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