The Curious Case of Quotes and Periods

Punctuation has meaning.  It also has a look.  Here’s a case where those who want punctuation to be meaningful and those who want it to look right come into disagreement.

Take a look at the following sentences:

He spells his name “Jynsyn.”
He spells his name “Jynsyn”.

Which one do you think is right?

Right now, there are two competing rules that determine which of those sentences is right.

The first rule may be the more established.  It says that the period goes inside the quotes, period.  This is the “looks right” rule.  The period looks a little more connected to the letters of the sentence when it is inside the quotation marks.  Because quotes are high, and periods are low, when the period goes outside the quotes, it looks a little stranded.  Plus, this rule is easy to follow.  A copyeditor travelling quickly over a page can swiftly spot any places where a period is next to quotes, and make them all the same.

The second rule is a little more complex.  It allows a period and a quotation mark to have two different relationships, depending on the meaning of the sentence.  It lets the punctuation express more nuance.

This is the second rule:  “A period goes inside the quotation marks when they enclose a complete sentence; it goes outside the quotation marks when they do not enclose a complete sentence.”

By the second rule, that last paragraph has a correct relationship between the period and the final quotation mark, and so does the second sentence about Mr. Jynsyn.

I see both versions in well-edited text.  After all, the first sentence about Mr. Jynsyn seems to imply that the period is part of his name.  On the other hand, the lonely period in the second sentence is not beautiful, either.

So, what do you do?  For writing in your own blog, letters, and so on, you can pick the rule that suits you.  When writing for someone else’s publication, follow the publisher’s style guide on this one.  Rule 1 seems to be a little more common – if you are unsure, ask or check their previous publications.

In either case, follow one rule or another consistently throughout a single work.  Attention to details like that is the mark of a professional.  Being able to carry out either rule consistently through a work is a mark of a flexible editor.  But switching back and forth within a single piece is just sloppy.

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