Pronouns, "Quotation Marks," and Punctuation (oh my)

Dr. Mercury at Maggie's Farm supports my use of "they" as the gender-neutral third person pronoun English needs but does not have (though he includes a tasteless picture of a family member in distress).   But he wants to make it clear that I am 20 years late in joining the revolution.  So be it.   I will add that I am also on board with putting punctuation outside of "quotation marks".  For anyone who has done a lick of computer programming, in which resolution order of mathematical symbols is a key part of early training, putting sentence punctuation inside of quotation marks makes no sense.  Quotation marks are like parentheses in math, holding together one coherent expression, and so putting sentence punctuation inside them (as I did in the title) is, to me, the equivalent of this:   (2 + 4 x) 8 = 48

There was a great little book a while back called the Professor and the Madman, discussing the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary.  While the French dictionary is constructed top-down by a few folks to describe what French should be, the OED was constructed bottom-up from actual examples of usage, describing English as it is actually used.

By the way, for those of you who are horrified by the grammatical mistakes on this site (I know my friend Tom in Seattle pulls his hair out over this), they come mainly from my inability to proof, not lack of knowledge or concern.  I have some sort of mental dyslexia that can read right over horrible typos and gaffes, even four or five times, without spotting them.

PS:  Looking back at my title, I suppose we could even get into an Oxford comma argument too.


  1. Dr. Mercury:

    Well, crap.

    You ruined the surprise!

    I was going to dash by here and let everyone know the horrifying news that Dr. Merc had posted yet another vile, reprehensible piece on this scurrilous scofflaw -- only be beaten to the punch by the aforementioned scurrilous scofflaw, hisself!

    As far as the punctuation goes, with me it was DOS batch files that broke the mold. By the rules of English, my instructions should read:

    Open the DOS window, type in "CD," then "CD..," then "Quit."

    The only problem, of course, is that


    aren't DOS commands and the reader will get nowhere fast.

    The only time I put the period at the end of a sentence inside quote marks is when it's an actual quote from someone. But mid-sentence quotes and commas are always outside.

    Oh, and sorry about the family member. But she's doing quite fine. As the description indicated, she was merely knocked out. She woke up just after mom snapped the pic and the rest is history.

    Or dinner, in this case.

  2. Elam Bend:

    "Inability to proof" I have the same issue. I don't know how you dealt with it when you consulted, I'm to the point of paying someone to review my work product.

  3. NL7:

    Dyslexia is the inability to interpret letters and words instantaneously, forcing dyslexics to expend mental energy translating words like hieroglyphs. Simply being a little sloppy about English is to dyslexia as having a messy desk is to hoarding. So I think you're probably fine.

    I like the period inside the quotations, probably partly because I'm used to it, but also because it seems like a more efficient use of space. I used to do some programming (html websites back in the day, and programming the BASIC ripoff in graphing calculators to make text-based games during class) so I get what you mean about closing marks, but it's just a different language. Spanish requires the adjective follow the noun, English requires the adjective precede the noun, Germans shift infinitives to the ends of sentences, math requires closing parentheses in order, and English requires that periods fall inside quotations. These are just the rules, and to the extent they arbitrary, I generally go with the dominant rule to be best understood.

  4. Dr. Mercury:

    Dear Mr. Coyote:

    I have a question about the title of this post. What is a "questions marks,"? I did a careful Google search for "question marks,", using + signs to ensure they were spelled exactly as you instructed, and all it came up with was:

    No results found for "+question +marks,".

    Gosh, if only there was SOME WAY this confusion could be prevented!

  5. ColoComment:

    Re: proofing

    For years I have kept handy a copy of this excerpt to remind me of my proofreading fallibiity.

    "The Perfect Book, By William Keddie

    The Foulis’s editions of classical works were much praised by scholars and collectors in the nineteenth century. The celebrated Glasgow publishers once attempted to issue a book which should be a perfect specimen of typographical accuracy. Every precaution was taken to secure the desired result. Six experienced proof- readers were employed, who devoted hours to the reading of each page; and after it was thought to be perfect, it was posted up in the hall of the university, with a notification that a reward of fifty pounds would be paid to any person who could discover an error. Each page was suffered to remain two weeks in the place where it had been posted, before the work was printed, and the printers thought that they had attained the object for which they had been striving. When the work was issued, it was discovered that several errors had been committed, one of which was in the first line of the first page."
    (As found in A Passion for Books, by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan.)

  6. Jens Fiederer:

    Logical quotation marks (surrounding only the contents quoted) are actually the norm in the UK. (Wikipedia: "The prevailing style in the United Kingdom and other non-American locales—called British style[13] and logical quotation[14][15]—is to include within quotation marks only those punctuation marks that appeared in the quoted material but otherwise to place punctuation outside the closing quotation marks.[15] Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage provides an early example of the rule: "All signs of punctuation used with words in quotation marks must be placed according to the sense."[16] When dealing with words-as-words, short-form works and sentence fragments, this style places periods and commas outside the quotation marks")

    While singular "they" continues to be debated, it goes back at least to the King James Bible.

  7. Matthew Slyfield:

    I do not support the use of "they" as the gender-neutral third person pronoun. They is plural and it simply feels much too awkward using it where a singular pronoun is called for.

  8. MingoV:

    Using they in place of he/she is inappropriate, unnecessary, and annoying. This "problem" always can be solved by rewriting.


    A child ran away. They hated the orphanage. {very bad grammar}

    A child ran away. He hated the orphanage. {grammatically but not politically correct}
    A child ran away. He or she hated the orphanage. {acceptable but awkward}
    A child ran away. The child hated the orphanage {acceptable: avoid the pronoun}
    A child, who hated the orphanage, ran away. {perfect: use the genderless "who" in a clause}

  9. Chuck Bradley:

    More than half a century ago, I worked for a printing company. They required accountants, lab techs (me), almost every new hire to take a course called "Printing Practice". There, the different rules about punctuation in or out of quotes were explained. The American style was invented by American typesetters; the justification was just that it looked better, to them. We were always to do what the customer expected.

  10. markm:

    This "problem" always can be solved by rewriting if one is tonedeaf.

  11. Scott:

    You also use larger spaces to identify the conclusion of one sentence and the beginning of the next.

  12. Boris Bartlog:

    Punctuation belongs inside quotation marks if it's part of the semantics of the quoted material. For example:

    She asked me "Do you want fries with that?" as I mumbled to myself.

    There are probably some special cases where this would result in double punctuation. For example:

    I wondered to myself - had she really asked me "Do you want fries with that?"?

  13. Boris Bartlog:

    You could probably also rewrite anything to avoid articles, or the use of the word 'blue', or adverbs of more than two syllables. That doesn't mean that those bits of language wouldn't be more useful or apt than the alternative ways of expressing the idea.

  14. obloodyhell:

    I've always found, myself, the response of "fuck off" to be the best solution to people who complain about usage of "they" in place of the OBVIOUSLY missing singular third-person gender-neutral pronoun.

    90% of the time, the response is unneeded, And it seems most appropriate in the other 10% of the time.

    Rewriting seems to be much more work.

    I'm also partial to the (apparently apocryphal) response to similar absurdities expressed by Winston Churchill:
    "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!"

    Yes, you can rewrite to make it grammatically correct. But it's clunky, clumsy, and hence lacks any semblance of FLOW. And writing that FLOWS while remaining CLEAR is the primary objective. Not a sticky, mindless adherence to Zero Tolerance notions as applied to grammar.

  15. obloodyhell:

    Well, I'm all in favor of inventing a new one, for those like you who imagine contortions like "he or she", or "s/he", or "them bungoles over there" is preferable....

    How about "sheit"?

    "Sheit happened to think this was a silly argument."
    "When sheit realized what had happened. sheit realized it was inevitably thus."

  16. Tosin Williams:

    As a high school math teacher, I enjoyed the analogy you made to the order of operations (is there an extraneous 'x'?). Over the past few years I've sat back and watched couple many an English teacher avoid any sort of math-related discussion!