There’s an old story about a certain woman cooking a canned ham. Before putting it in the baking pan, she always cut off both ends. Each time she did so, her husband watched with growing anxiety. Finally, when he could stand it no longer, he spoke up to her.
“Honey, why do you always cut off the end pieces? Those are my favorite parts of the ham.”
His wife was taken aback and indignantly answered, “My mother always cut off the ends!”
“Well,” her husband pushed on, “why did she do it?”
Hands on hips, she was prepared to give him a piece of her mind until she realized… she had no idea. Now her curiosity was piqued. She called her mother to find out why she had done it that way. The mother explained that she had to cut the ham down because it wouldn’t fit in her smaller baking pan. Thus, this woman was throwing away part of her meal for no reason at all.
What the heck does all this have to do with writing?!? It’s a perfect parallel for one of the most problematic punctuation puzzles posed to prospective prose-slingers. (How’s that for excessive alliteration?)
To wit: Why must we always put periods inside quotation marks, even when it makes no sense? The reason for doing so in the first place has nothing to do with sense. By modern American usage standards, the following statement is correct:
My favorite movie is “Star Wars.”
But it’s wrong. “Star Wars.” is not the name of a movie. (It would be OK to say my favorite TV show is “Awkward.” Unlike the previous example, the period is part of that show’s name.) The better (but currently incorrect) way of writing this is:
My favorite movie is “Star Wars”.
The reason, believe it or not, has to do with the thankfully long lost art of typesetting. Except for rare cases such as hobbyists and museums, we haven’t used typesetting in many decades. Here’s the explanation from the Grammar Girl, reproduced here without permission:
Compositors―people who layout printed material with type―made the original rule that placed periods and commas inside quotation marks to protect the small metal pieces of type from breaking off the end of the sentence. The quotation marks protected the commas and periods.
In other words, the pan was too small. Well, we don’t use the pan anymore. It’s time to drop this stupid convention that has no basis in our present world.
The British wised up. They dumped this antiquated practice early in the 20th century. But this is America. We know better than to change to some newfangled (actually it’s old-fangled because it predates the printing press) way of doing things just because it’s better. That’s why we still have 12-inch feet and 5,280-foot miles instead of simple meters and kilometers. We’re stubbornly stupid. Even Gutenberg would agree.
Well, not this guy! I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. Let the world kick me, deny me as a rebel, and ignore my opinion, but I refuse to be dictated to by ancient technological limitations. They’ll call me a “nutjob”. (See? I just did it! Let the revolution begin!) No matter. As Victor Hugo said, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” (Note: That period placement is OK.)
The time has come to join the modern world. Put the period in its place.
Uh-oh, now you really did it! I can hear the punctuation police sirens from here.
Bring’em on! I’m ready to go to punctuation prison for what’s right! 😉
You could beat the rap with a good punctuation lawyer. Just stay away from those grammar generalists. They don’t know their colons from their semi-colons..
I had a doctor like that once. Ouch!
Pingback: Extraordinary praise of the Ordinary | Scribbling in the Sand