Bench Memos

Punctuation Equilibrium

Ed, I am dizzy from the effect of your arguments about why “the American convention on quotation punctuation [is] seriously defective.”  Let me respond along several fronts.  (Like you, I will counsel readers uninterested in these things to browse somewhere else, like The Corner, where they deal with trivia like the national debt and creeping socialism.)

1.  Your first argument is that “when the closing period or comma is not in the original, placing it in quotes strikes me as a false statement.”  But there is no reason it should strike you or anyone else that way.  That’s the whole thing about an arbitrary convention: one simply learns it by rote (like looking to the left first when stepping off a curb on an American two-way street, which can you get in trouble at a British kerb), and habituates oneself to what it signifies and doesn’t signify.  The placement of commas and periods inside quotation marks signifies nothing at all, and therefore is incapable of being either false or true.  It is simply what one does.  On the other hand, the placement of question marks and exclamation points inside or outside quotation marks does matter in American convention.  Our usage has decided that signifies something.  You want periods and commas to be equally significant, and then we could say they are used truly or falsely.  At the moment we cannot say so.

2.  You follow this with a faulty comparison, saying that some mere conventions (e.g., “Good morning!  How are you?”) are a way of “facilitating pleasantries,” but that putting periods and commas inside quotation marks only produces confusion.  But as I argue above, to those with correctly formed habits of mind about these things, no confusion whatever is produced.  To the contrary, it is your iconoclastic practice that sows confusion: “Is he careless?  Doesn’t he know better?  Why does he get it right sometimes and not others?  Should I say something to him about it?”  Future readers of your work who are unaware of your deliberate defiance, much less of the reasons for it, will think these things, and worse.  This is the polar opposite of facilitating pleasantries.  It makes of oneself a grammatical porcupine, approached with extreme caution.

3.  Your second argument is really a variant of the first.  You say “the convention causes goofy results,” for instance when a judge writes:

The question in this case is the precise meaning of the statutory term “person.”

You say that “person.” is not what we want to know about, rather “person” is.  But no one, absolutely no one, thinks that “person.” has a meaning that differs in the slightest from “person,” (oops, watch that comma!) because the period (see above) signifies nothing whatsoever, except that the writer knows that his own sentence should close with a period.  Here you have created a problem where none exists.

4.  A final word about your “experiment” with “unconventional practice”: it is, I think, unconservative.  (And I know them’s fightin’ words ’round here, pardner.)  It is Hobbesian.  In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes famously belittled Sir Edward Coke, the great common lawyer, who regarded the edifice of English law, including the interpretation of statutes and the teachings of the common law that were grounded in custom, as evincing an “artificial perfection of reason,” concretely the product of many minds over time.  No one knew better than Coke that some of the particulars of the common law were more or less accidental.  But if they had been done “time out of mind,” then they were no less organic for being accidental, and the judge was bound by them until and unless a higher authority said otherwise.  Hobbes, with his “scientific” approach to politics and his rejection of the organic approach to common law, thought all this stuff ran too great a risk of “build[ing] on false grounds,” and he preferred clean, rational commands of an absolute sovereign from on high as against the humble gropings toward justice of judges dealing with the particulars of an organic community.

It strikes me that you are on Hobbes’s side in our matter of punctuation–but without the sovereign authority to enforce your will.  If I have not persuaded you to mend your ways, how about we submit to an authority we can both recognize?  William F. Buckley, Jr. would have been the perfect judge, but he is no longer with us.  How about Florence King, if she’s available?

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