Friday, October 3, 2008

A Writer-Engineer’s Dilemma

I haven’t had much time to write lately, but here we are again. This post is not about any topical event. Rather, it is about the  musing of an engineer trying to write correctly. More specifically, about quotation marks and how they relate to other punctuation like periods and commas. So, Ellen, stop wasting your time here…

For the engineer’s viewpoint, let’s start with the mathematics. In mathematics, parentheses serve as “delimiters” of a part of an expression. Therefore, regardless of the context, the following mathematical expression can never be correct: x = [a + (3.b - c]). Ouch, it even hurts to commit this to paper. (Never mind that the parentheses are not even needed at all in this expression.)  Indeed, the matching pairs of parentheses should be closed accordingly: you first have to close the parentheses ( ), and only then the brackets [ ]. Therefore, the correct expression is x = [a + (3.b – c)].

Now for the language, that is, the writer’s domain. If you think of a sentence as being “delimited” by its starting capital and its period at the end, this capital and period are the equivalent of mathematical parentheses. The same applies to quotation marks: the first pair (“) opens the quotation, the second pair (”) closes it. So far so good…

Now what happens if an engineer/mathematician tries to correctly combine quotation marks and punctuation? Upon asking the engineer, he stated, “I really prefer this form”. That is, you open the sentence with a capital (Upon), then you open and close the quotation with quotation marks, and finally you close the sentence with a period. Logically, the closing quotation marks should precede the period.

Afterwards, the engineer added, “However, I am aware that this is the correct form.” In other words, you first open the sentence, then the quotation, then you close the sentence and only afterwards you close the quotation. That would be the mathematical equivalent of stating x = [a + (3.b - c])—plainly  wrong! Nevertheless, in language—at least in English—this seems to be the correct way to construct your sentence.

You could argue that the closing period matches the capital at the start of the quotation (However), and that that is why the period should be placed before the closing quotation marks. But then the only correct form would be “However, I am aware that this is the correct form.”. And that looks even more awkward, doesn’t it?

More of this? Try this site (or more specifically for this post) or the matching book—an excellent reference for writers in English:


Don’t buy it for my birthday though—I already own it. As you would have guessed…