Because neurotic is the new black....

Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols
East Lansing, Michigan,
December 31
I write, I read, I clean up after people and I worry about things. I have a chronic insufficiency of ironic detachment. My birthday isn't really December 31; it's March 22 but it won't let me change it.


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MAY 15, 2011 7:30PM

Fighting Words

Rate: 26 Flag

I have the makings of a first class pedant. From the moment I received my red Olivetti Valentine typewriter in the Fourth grade, I was fascinated by writing right. I inhaled the gospel of words from my parents, both academic types, proud that I put the comma inside the quotation marks, left infinitives uncleaved, and made two spaces between a period and the beginning of the next sentence. I knew my “its” from my “it’s,” my “theirs” and “theres” from my “they’res,” and the difference between a colon and a semicolon. It made me proud to use the language correctly, to demonstrate that I was literate and, as I matured, to understand that in many cases I was giving the correct signals to a reader so that what I wrote was easy, clear and (most important to me) above reproach. By college, I might receive a “B” on a paper because my thesis was “tendentious,” but never because there was a glitch in its infrastructure.


It has always been clear that some rules have no pragmatic basis; they are archaic and following them amounts to little more than a parlor trick, a kind of sleight of hand for the well educated. There is a substantive difference between a full colon and a semicolon, but there is no reason not to split infinitives with wild abandon, strewing rose petals and dancing wildly on the heath. It is incorrect and confusing to write about “they’re beliefs,” but absolutely inconsequential how many spaces follow a period.  There are some rules, like avoidance of the passive voice, that I have never followed because I like James more than Hemingway. Stylistically, I like an elegant, Byzantine, long-assed sentence. I am not writing technical literature.


Recently, The Language Gods, who I believe are called the ALA, have begun to make changes. It is now acceptable to split infinitives and to begin sentences with conjunctions. It was rocky for me, and I flinched for a while every time I saw a sentence that began with a “But” or an “And,” but I’ve turned the corner. When the rule about the number of spaces after a sentence was changed, it took me a long, long time to remember that I needed to hit just “space” rather than “space, space.” The change seemed silly, unless someone was terribly concerned about potential blindness from excessive whiteness on the page, but I did not want to look stupid or, even deadlier, wrong. I toed the line.


Two days ago I learned that it is now acceptable to put punctuation outside of quotation marks. “I’m going to split an infinitive”, she said blithely, wielding a shiny machete. My understanding is that this has some vague relationship to computers. On this, I throw down the gauntlet. It may be archaic, pointless, and troubling to speakers of binary code, but computers, of all people, should understand the illogic involved in such a change. If people can’t write today, they aren’t aware that punctuation is supposed to be enclosed by the quotation marks. They will not smack their empty heads and cry “Eureka!” in unison because they are free at last. If people can write, they know the rule as it has existed for decades, and a new rule will create an unfair and ridiculous stumbling block on the road to fluid composition. Will we look stupid to other pedants if we continue to follow the “inside” rule? Will old-school pedants judge us if we follow the new “outside” rule? Will either option make anything one iota clearer to any reader on earth?

It will not.


Dear ALA, you’re killing me. Your killing me. I am being killed by you.


Screw it.

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Smilin' atcha Annie.~r
I still have all my Warriner's Grammar books and view them as sacred scripture. Ending sentences with prepositions or prepositional phrases still makes the skin want to crawl right off my body. I once resigned from a group when they wouldn't allow me to eradicate passive voice from their promotional material. When discussing it with a friend I sounded like Mary Tyler Moore crying as Laura Petrie; it was THAT upsetting. Part of me lives to eradicate passive voice wherever and whenever encountered with my terrible swift red pen. (Thanks to my High School English mentor Mrs. Patricia Scott!) "EGADS"! - ? (God! Just look at that! It's so desperately wrong!) I have two friends who will enjoy this post as much as I do. Can't wait to share this! R
I agonized with you in your brief, and I concur with your conclusion.
For anyone not understanding grammar , may I recommend a great book? It is called, "Eats, Shoots, Leaves." Great post, Annie. -R-
"Stylistically, I like an elegant, Byzantine, long-assed sentence." You and me both, sister.

I cannot and will not get on board with punctuation outside the closing quotation mark. If the language gods think that is correct or acceptable, they are false gods. Only in extremely rare instances should the punctuation go outside the closing quotation mark, as in the following example:

Did I understand Mortimer to say, "The language gods are infallible"?

The single space at the end of a sentence has to do with the advent of word processing programs and our use of fonts whose letters take up different amounts of horizontal space (e.g., an "m" takes up more horizontal space than an "i"). With old typewriter fonts, the space each letter took up was more or less the same, and we needed two spaces at the end of the sentence for ease of reading.

I love knowing other people who think about this stuff.
"a glitch in its infrastructue" - great phrase.

I will never be able to put punctuation outside a quote. I am too well-trained.
infrastructure. Geez.
One of my clients is regimented about the one space rule and flips pieces back to me if I accidentally add one too many . Rrrrrrrrrr ep worthy essay
One of my clients is regimented about the one space rule and flips pieces back to me if I accidentally add one too many . Rrrrrrrrrr ep worthy essay
Some conventions of grammar are like the throw pillows on Ben Stiller's bed in Along Came Polly. Others are like surgical tools, neatly autoclaved.
thank goodness one can split an infinitive, if it sounds better and therefore reads better. some people are crazy about that, and it can be very awkward not to split an infinitive.
i'm witchoo, annie. they're (not 'their') going too far. but quotation marks only *always* went outside commas and periods and inside semicolons. and what if there's a double quote, quoted word(s) inside an existing quote? they're saying the following comma should go *outside* the single and then double ending quote? pfffffffft.

i'm guessing "some vague relationship to computers" actually means: (1) it's OK not to know the rule or be bothered to figure it out or remember it, or (2) it's even more OK to be lazy. i'm drawing the line. meet me in the bunker. xo
@Christine - My wife uses Eats, Shoots and Leaves in her sixth grade writing classes. Here's how the author explains her title: A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

'Why?' asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

'Well, I'm a panda,' he says, at the door. 'Look it up.'

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. 'Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.'

My apologies, Ann. My infrastructure compelled me.
You 'n' me 'n' Strunk 'n' White, Annie.

P.S. Putting the comma outside the quotation marks has been OK in Britain for a long time, so I'm told.
Back to give you another rating as tribute for weaseling in on your comment thread.
I was recently given the note via comments that I don't need to put two spaces in after a period. It is not necessary on the interwebs apparently. I would've loved, instead, her thoughts on my work.
Oah Deer. I'm effraid fonehtik iz gonna reelee kill uuu!
Hear, hear! Or is it here, here? I never understood that one.

I have always split infinitives, ended sentences with participles, begun sentences with "but" or "and," because I try to write the way I, and other people, speak. I've had arguments on this site about the one space/two space rule: I write here with two spaces because I like the separation between sentences - it's my page, so I'll do whatever I like - but I use one when I'm submitting something for publication elsewhere.

However, I'm a stickler about punctuation and was aghast recently when I reviewed some of my earliest writing and found punctuation outside the quotation marks, and fixed it in every single case. I don't care what the ALA says. I'm not changing my ways.
ha! I love it. And I don't know why this is happening, Ann. Why is this happening to us??
I enjoyed this thoroughly, and there's so much food for discussion here. I have not heard of an ALA, though. Might it be APA (American Psychological Association)? or MLA (Modern Language Association)? Their styles are distinct, and I believe there are a couple others, as well. But the interesting thing is that if you don't like a change, you can probably find a style manual to back your viewpoint.

I persist in double spacing after a period, because if I tried to change now, my typing speed would drop from a gallop to a trot.

And hurrah to Persistent Muse, a fellow fan of John Warriner!

I've repeatedly gone back to one website for enlightenment on points of grammar and usage: Guide to Grammar and Writing. It's sponsored by Capital Community College and was originally put together by an English prof of theirs who must have passed away, since the website is now maintained in his memory.

I, too, favor the "Byzantine" sentence as a natural inclination, and struggle against it, but only half-heartedly. It probably comes from reading too much Dickens when I was an impressionable teen.
Interesting points well raised, AB. As the sadness goes on, it occurs that the keys are to sit still and write and, drink a little less gin. Allow me that a hot, rolling writer can sometimes use three spaces after a vibrant sentence.
Sorry. Meant AN, Ann, not AB (unfocused) full moon, though, as big as a clock. Late spring where'iam.
For some reason I have always thought that a question mark should always be inside quotation marks while periods are outside. Maybe that's why writing dialogue is so hard for me.
The very best at what they do, your Joyces, Beethovens and their ilk -- and maybe their elk, who knows? -- mastered the rules, then broke them. They rewrote the rules to fit what they wanted to express. The ALA sounds like a bunch of behind-the-times bureaucrats. Giving their blessing to changes that general populace already adopted. [Yes, I still use two spaces after a period. I probably always will. That's how I learned it. That's how my thumbs are trained. Hit the space key twice.] Wasn't all this "don't split an infinitive" business the fault of Latin teachers imposing their dull, dull will on the English language? As if a Germanic language could neatly fit into the Romanesque world. Isn't that why our barbarous, linguistic ancestors kept fighting those armies of Rome? Just so they wouldn't have to decline nouns -- really, the "ablative?" [That's right, inside the quotes. Deal with it, ALA.] And I've been splitting infinitives like Lincoln split rails since Captain Kirk gave my childhood self the blessing to boldly go and ignore your English teacher's self-important smirk. Because listen to the difference. "To boldly go" sounds more exciting than "to go boldly." And that, my friend, is the whole point of language, written or spoken: to communicate, to express your meaning to another.

I think I wandered off the point.
I'm an inside girl myself no mtter what the ALA says....
Not knowing your age Anne, I am wondering if you are, like so many of us, products of a time when 'Authority' had currency in certain societal matters - a patriarchy of grammar, if you will, not dissimilar to that of gender roles, 'race' relations, Wall Street and fish on fridays. In those days of fixed and indisputable meaning (before the chaos of minispeak and all the grammatical crimes it unleashed) there were, on both sides of the Atlantic pond, rule books for editors that were biblical in their autocracy - the 'Chicago Manual of Style' and 'Hart's Rules' (aka the 'Oxford Guide to Style'). The idea was you fixed on one and stayed with it (religiously) in all of its idiosyncrasies and anachronisms without questioning the logic - for those who knew, knew better. The fact that the two Guides were contradictory - one space, two spaces, punctuation inside or outside, use z or s, splitting infinitives or not, etc - made no difference once it was consistent with one Guide or the other. I have heard it argued that the systems evolved in the printing presses themselves way back when - as a result of the processes of actually setting the type in lead, long before automated printing or computer-generated defaults. Thanks for the read.
I agree that grammar rules are set up so that we can communicate clearly with others - and that it's a delicate balance between this and just blindly following any old rules for the rules' sake. When I panic about the downfall of civilization and the fact that, if the world doesn't end in 2012, in my lifetime we may see words ending in "-ough" completely banished, replaced by the (admittedly more phonetically logical) "-tho", I just try to remember what my etymology professor said in college: language is a living thing, always changing. That calms me. As for the comma thing inside or outside quotes, I've always learned it was done differently according to the use. For example, with dialogue, the comma is always inside the quotes, but for quotes like I used above with "-though" and "-tho", it should be outside. I guess maybe our teachers were preparing us for the inevitable full transition?
Yeah, Susan got it right regarding the computer issues. The double-space rule is really a typography rule, not a punctuation rule, as she explained. One still uses two spaces after a period when using a monospaced font, otherwise one space.

Her example,

Did I understand Mortimer to say, "The language gods are infallible"?

is a great way to explain the connection with programming. The question mark modifies (or refers to, if you prefer) the clause "did I understand," rather than the statement inside the quotes. If the question mark were inside the quotes, the meaning would be different because the question mark would modify the statement inside the quotes. In programming (or any mathematical symbology), this kind of distinction occurs all the time.
Joanie - now you know the truth, that I am an obsessive grammar rulerarian and you are still smiling. Thank you.

Muse - I have Warriners ( my dad's), Strunk & White and various other hallowed tomes, and i use them. Sometimes, when i am sad and need distraction, i diagram a sentence or two. Or should i say, a sentence or two is diagrammed in these parts?

Matt - spoken like the son of a lawyer. :)

Christine - that is a great book. I gobbled it like candy when it came out.

Susan - thank you, THANK YOU for the explanation. That was very gratifying. We can grow old together pondering these things that no one else really cares about.

sweetfeet - thanks. :) They do spend an awful lot of time training us, only to throw us to the wolves every time they get a wild hair.

Bernadine - that would drive me nuts. I worked for someone obsessed with "em dashes" (and i know you know what they are) to the point where I know that I do not insert then when I should just to rebel against this person I will never see or hear from again. These things leave scars.

Kathy - yes. Beautiful comment; kind of a micropost.

Don - nicely done. And yes, it can be maddening and, dare I say, pointless?

Candace - I am SO in the bunker. How will i ever find time to write anything if I'm keeping up with all this garbage?

Matt - I love the book, and that part of the book. Grammar is the erotica of the pedant. ;-)

digitalzen - Strunk & White is my personal favorite. As for the Brits, I suppose that since it's really their language, we should at least respect their preferences if not follow their lead.

Clark - I love you, man.

Linnn - grammar, like manners, should never be used as a weapon. It is supposed to be civilised and courteous. that was just rude.

Doug - I was in elementary school in the days of phonics. About which, blech.

Indelible - I also kind of enjoy sentence fragments, although not in work-related expository kinds of things. I guess I have a "freestyle" rubric and a "words for money" rubric.

janie - I totally get it. It's like the Talmudic scholars debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.........

Cranky - you clearly also have two rubrics. i wonder how many of us do. I think, visually, I prefer two spaces but it took me so long to make the change that I can't go back or alternate now without having to go back into therapy.

Lainey - you won't like the answer. i think it's maybe because we are getting old and things are changing around us. Next thing you know, we'll be yelling at the kids to get off of our lawns........

Snippy - it IS the MLA!! Now I feel like an idiot. I think i always thought (because i grew up here in Michigan) that the "MLA Stylesheet," which I used with religious fervor, was the "Michigan Style Sheet" and that there was some "American" version that was national. I can't change the post at this point or all of the comments will be bizarre, but you are right, and I thank you.
JP - a hot, rolling writer may do as he or she pleases...........

Torman - that rule is really important in dialougue writing, but I think writing it well is hard even if one knows grammar and punctuation inside and out!

Stim another comment elegantly sufficient enough to be a post-let on its own. As for "boldly going," that was the very phrase my mother used to illustrate the split infinitive. I don't know how they taught it in the old, Kirk-less days.

Vendela - you are welcome to join Candace and me in the Grammar Bunker.

Aengus - thank you for another beautiful, literate comment. This post seems to be bringing that out in folks. I am not quite as old as the generation of which you speak; I was raised in the crazy 70s when rules were broken wholesale in every aspect of life. We Questioned Authority. I think my pedantry stems not from the view that I was required by authority to use language well, but because I was raised in a family of passionately literate people.

Alysa - it should be a living thing, like the U.S. Constitution and various holy books. I just wish the reasons for the evolution made more sense at times.
I'm sorry. Period. space, space. I'm just too old to change.
There all sorts of rules about composition in art, and in art school, everyone pretty much agrees that we should learn the rules first, then freely break them later.

Yet there are those who never learn the rules, and what they make changes everything. If I'd lived in the end of the 19c and wanted to be an artist, firstly, I couldn't, because I have no Y chromosome. Secondly, if I'd been ballsy enough to disregard that–something I'm not–I'd probably have gone to the academy, because that was where you went, unless you were Cezanne, who didn't know three point perspective from a noodle, and whose paintings were rejected from every salon exhibit he ever entered.
Bah, humbug. Anyone well-versed in his grammar can refudiate the rest through poetic licence. =-}
I do not like the look of those quotation marks just HANGING there, ungrounded by a comma or a period, getting to familiar with the letters. It's indecent!