The Great Questions of Blogging

Brad DeLong may have stepped into a hornet’s nest. No, not in this post on Kerry’s health plan, but in this post on punctuation. Brad takes exception to the title of a recent book on punctuation, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” writing

First of all, there definitely needs to be a comma after “Shoots”. Do we, after all, wish to live in a world in which the sentence, “I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, [sic] is grammatical?

The final comma in a list before the “and” or “or” is an important banisher of confusion, ambiguity, and general silliness.

(Note that the “sic” is mine and refers to the comma; more on this below.) Now, I happen to agree that a comma belongs before the final “and”, precisely because it can never lead the reader astray and is sometimes useful. Having heard the author, Lynne Truss, on Fresh Air a while ago, I know the book title is an intentional punctuation pun. The joke was something along the lines of the difference between a panda bear that walks into a bar, gets angry (an angry bear, if you will), then eats, shoots [a gun], and leaves, as compared to a panda in its natural habitat where for the most part he simply eats [bamboo] shoots and leaves.

But in highlighting one comma-flaw, Brad may have committed another: the placement of the comma outside the quotation mark. This has long been a pet peeve of mine because I think the comma should be outside the closing quote, but after some checking, I became convinced that the rules clearly say it belongs inside the quotation marks. This is counterintuitive, because the quotation is generally a free-standing concept and so should be fully enclosed in quotation marks, and only then offset from the rest of the sentence. I’ve reached a modest moral compromise in which I stick to my principles, placing the comma outside the quotation marks, when the quoted item is a single word. But when a phrase or sentence is quoted, I follow the rules and put the punctuation inside the quotes.

The logic of this compromise is that in the former case, the quotes are serving in lieu of more complex typography such as italics or bold face, a remnant from the days of yore when word processors were not widely available. For example, were the book title at the end of the first paragraph underlined rather than in quotation marks, then the comma immediately following the title would not also be underlined. So why should it be inside the quotation marks, which are basically used as a substitute for underlining?

Another difficult punctuation issue is the parenthetic: does the period go before or after the closing “)”? (Or should that be … after the closing “)?”?)+ The unambiguous case is when the parenthetic is a self-contained sentence, separate from any other sentence. Then the sentence endmark belongs inside the parentheses. Unlike with quote marks, this conforms with intution: here’s an aside in parentheses and, as the reader can clearly tell from the period located inside the parentheses, it’s a full sentence.

More complicated is the sentence-ending parenthetic that is itself a full sentence. I thought that I usually put the period after the final “)”, but then I did a quick search of the archives and found this in one of my posts:

I’ve been pretty busy lately, which explains the dearth of in-depth posts about economics and policy (I made a modest attempt to rectify this in this post.)

Here’s an excerpt from one of Kash’s posts:

It’s a good list, heavy on the institutional issues that have been increasingly emphasized by development economists over the past decade (though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen “mentality” enumerated as a separate institutional requirement).

So I do not follow, at least not consistently, the rule I thought I followed. Kash, however, apparently does.

Final thought: ending a sentence with a preposition, yea or nea?


+ For fun, try getting the punctuation on this part of the sentence right. There’s a parenthetic, and it’s a question about quotation markes. The parenthetic question ends with a quoted “)?” but since there’s a question there, a question mark is then appended, followed by a closing parenthesis, yielding the extremely awkward string


Moreover, the first four characters of that string are also a quote. I used italics to distinguish the quoted punctuation from the puncuation that is part of the sentence, but that was just a guess. Alternatively, I could use single quotes, but that would lead to even less visually appealing strings like ‘”)?”‘?). Yikes.