Why do I care so much about punctuation?

posted in: Blog | 2

My other job in addition to being a technical writer is teaching a university class on professional writing. Surprisingly, punctuation is a subject that requires a lot of my time and attention. Students often don’t know how to use punctuation, and it can lead to such common mistakes as the comma splice and the run-on sentence.

But one mistake that I see occurring now is the use of the single quotation mark. According to my understanding, which is consistent with most if not all style guides, is that the single quote should only be used for a quote within a quote. For example, “I got so tired of hearing her say ‘TMI’ that I threw a sock at her.”

If you happen to be a journalist, you can use a single quote in a headline to save space, but these two uses are it. So why are we seeing people–people in my company, and not just students–using single quotes instead of double quotes?

Slate Magazine ran an article on Oct. 21, 2014, entitled “Single Quotes? It’s Really Quite Simple,” by Andrew Heisel. Heisel has noticed the same thing, people using single quotes, and looks at some of their justifications. Some say it is to emphasize a word or phrase rather than an entire sentence. But Heisel believes it is just a product of laziness, because you can type a single quote without pressing the Shift key.

Believe me, as someone who hates texting, I dislike having to press the Shift, or any extra key for that matter.

I don’t like to think that laziness is what causes changes in language and typography, but I guess it does. For example, “e mail” became “e-mail” became “email” because one word was just easier to type. So, if someone starts using the single quote instead of the double quote, I suppose they are just following the logic of language to take the path of least resistance.

One more example before I finish my rant. Another thing I teach my students is that the punctuation (period, comma) goes inside the quotation mark, such as “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” This is standard American typography, but in Britain they would put the period outside the quote, as in “…country”.  This is being challenged as well in the netsphere, as discussed in Ben Yagoda’s  May 21, 2011 column in Slate Magazine “The Rise of Logical Punctuation”. (The period in the title is intentionally outside the quote to make his point.)

Yagoda claims this practice is on the rise and comes from “copy-editor-free zones” such as the Web, emails, student papers, and business memos. Yogada thinks this happens for two reasons. First, it comes from the computer world, where typing a period in a command can mess things up, as in Name your file “Appendix A, v.10.” This makes perfect sense to technical communicators. The second reason is aesthetic: keeping the quote mark inside the punctuation mark keeps the quotes together, not separated by punctuation, as in “Tales from the Crypt”.

Why should I obsess or worry about such peccadillos? I guess it just comes from years of reading and seeing things done in the same way for so long. I suppose I wouldn’t mind it if I thought they were intentional. But they seem to reflect that that online world is overtaking the written world, and that, for a seasoned technical communicator, is hard to take. And that comes from someone who has spent the last 30 of his life in front of a computer and who has weathered all the changes that have occurred in the online world. That doesn’t mean I have to like it!

Charles R. Crawley is the Immediate Past President of the Eastern Iowa Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. He has been a technical communicator for 30 years and an adjunct professor for over 10 years.

2 Responses

  1. Michael O'Neill

    The only thing we can count on is change, eh Charles?

    I’ve not seen the drive towards single quotes as you have, but I wonder if some of it is driven by exposure to programming languages. As I remember, in JavaScript (and others), ‘ and ” can be used interchangeably. The only caveat is that you need to take care of nesting. In such a construct, this:

    “…and then she said, ‘grow up!’ ”

    …is interpreted the same as,

    ‘…and then she said, “grow up!” ‘

    As more and more people are exposed to programming constructs, I wonder how else (if a all) we’ll see the planned languages (like computer languages) start to alter the organic ones.

  2. Kurt Rogahn

    Along with punctuation outside the quote, the single quote mark also is used in Britain. Its growing use stateside drives me up the wall, too, for the reason Charles cited: the single quote should only be used for a quote within a quote.

    Or, should I say, “the single quote should only be used for a quote within a quote.”

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