Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Against Inconsistent Typography Pendantry

Several years ago, I participated in an online forum that discussed the topic of spaces after a period.  That the “tradition” of putting two spaces after a period, as befit monotype font on typewriters, had become anachronistic thanks to font-creators for computers factoring in some extra space after the period to make up for it.  I argued that I preferred the two spaces, not because I argued against that, but for aesthetic and philosophical reasons; paragraphs get a break and an indentation, so why not give sentences a little extra breathing room to acknowledge their individuality?

Since then I’ve continued to put two spaces after the period, though a pedantic Slate article ensured that nearly everyone knows the historical basis for putting two spaces after a period, and as a result more and more people are eager to share this with me when I send an email or send a memo.  I’ve always been of the opinion that in this and other formatting peccadilloes, such as citation style, it’s more important to be consistent than to be pedantic.  Still, in more and more pieces of writing, I find myself only using one space. I still don’t feel as though the amount of space that has been allotted after the period automatically by programmers is sufficient, but I bow before the march of progress, and only continue my iconoclastic behavior in my poetry, where really anything goes.

Recently though, I wrote up a memo and sent it my supervisor for suggestions/edits and found that she had corrected another of my consistent punctuation patterns: when I use quotation marks, I put the punctuation outside the marks, unless the punctuation is part of the quote.  For example

I can’t believe that Jeff said, “punctuation always belongs inside quotes”!

It seems to me that by necessity, the exclamation goes outside the quotes: it’s my emphasis and putting it inside the quotes could make it appear that this was Jeff’s emphasis, when Jeff probably said this very casually.  I think that sort of issue makes the best case, but I’d also put the comma after the quotes in more basic grammatical situations, such as:

Americans put punctuation within quotes, according to supposed “rules”, but in fact there’s no reason to do so, and plenty reason not too.

This is a typographical peccadillo that comes up periodically, and appears to be yet another formatting topics where England, and Commonwealth countries such as Canada employ one technique, and the USA tends toward another.  I would have considered this akin to other topics, such as alternate spellings like “labor” and “labour”, where ultimately both are acceptable, and consistency is most important.  Honestly, I don’t know if my choice to put punctuation outside of the quotes is a result of having been raised by Canadian parents, or if, like two-spaces after a period, it just felt right.  To me, it seems obvious that the only thing that belongs inside a quote are the units of punctuation that are a part of that quotation. Partly it’s a philosophical issue, and in many cases it increases clarity, rather than creating confusion, which ought be the role of grammar and proper punctuation.

As to the title, ultimately it’s the inconsistent standards applied to punctuation that gets to me.  The pedants rail again those who use two-spaces after a period, occasionally on a scientific  basis (two spaces slows down reading: I think that’s a good thing and as it should be, but I’m apparently in the minority), and most often by trotting out the explanation about how this is an outdated practice, leftover from the time of typewriters.  

But the fact is that the American convention around placing punctuation within quotation marks is even more outdated than clinging to conventions from the days of typewriters, and instead dates all the way back to type-setting, when according to the CCC Foundation, the “.” and “,” were the most fragile metal-bits of type, and printers were worried that the piece of type may break away from the body of text, and be dented or ruined if they had the wider “”” on their right-hand side.  Therefore, printers began placing the smaller punctuation within the quotation, as means of protecting the type.  

This means that even once we began using typewriters, this convention was outdated, and doubly so in the digital age.  Unfortunately, the alt.english.usage FAQ that the CCC Foundation links to as proof of this historical basis is dead, and I have been unable to find another reference to this origin. Still, even if this story is apocryphal, the logic of not putting punctuation in quotations should win out. Even though the status quo is unlikely to change and I may still have my quotation/punctuation corrected, I will continue my current typographical practice.