Brad Feld

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Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Jul 14, 2004
Category Books

I appear to have several people in my life (Amy Batchelor, Dave Jilk, Chris Wand, and Steve Bayle) who view correcting my grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word usage as part of their role on this planet. I did not ask for this; however, I tolerate it because they have other useful traits (Amy just looked over my shoulder and said, “Great use of the semicolon; hot!”)

In an attempt to lower their workload, I read Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. I learned a lot which will hopefully be reflected in my future punctuation efforts. Unfortunately, the author is a brit so you might get some foreign usage.

This book is a ton of fun and a must read for anyone that writes anything (including text messages). One of my chronic problems is the placement of punctuation when quotes are involved. Truss, the author, has a good section on this where she enumerates the rules (with examples – although I’ll just give you the rules so I don’t spoil the book for you.)

  1. When a piece of dialogue is attributed at its end, conclude it with a comma inside the inverted commas.
  2. When the dialogue is attributed at the start, conclude with a full stop inside the inverted commas.
  3. When the dialogue stands on its own, the full stop comes inside the inverted commas.
  4. When only a fragment of speech is being quoted, put punctuation outside the inverted commas.
  5. When the quotation is a question or exclamation, the terminal marks come inside the inverted commas.
  6. When the question is posed by the sentence rather than by the speaker, logic demands that the question mark goes outside the inverted commas.
  7. Where the quoted speech is a full sentence requiring a full stop (or other terminal mark) of its own, and coincidentally comes at the end of the containing sentence, the mark inside the inverted commas serves for both.

For the Americans in the crowd, a full stop is the same as a period and inverted commas are the same as quotation marks. Oh – and Truss graciously says something to the effect of “none of this applies in America since American grammarians insist that, if a sentence ends with a phrase in inverted commas, all the terminal punctuation for the sentence must come tidily inside the speech marks, even when this doesn’t seem to make sense.” If you’ve followed all of this, now you understand why Her Majesty’s Kingdom lost the Revolutionary War.

Does this remind you of the interminably long hour a day of ninth grade honors English you had to endure from Mrs. Dowdywonker? I’ve decided on a new rule which is “do whatever the hell you want with the punctuation near ending inverted commas!”