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Richard Nordquist

National Punctuation Day Special: Language Facts & Figures

By September 19, 2007

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Every month or so, we round up some of the questions we've received about the English language and attempt to respond to them cheerfully, lucidly--sometimes even sensibly. This month, in recognition of National Punctuation Day on September 24, we focus on two frequently abused points: apostrophes and quotation marks.

  • I know that in American usage a period goes inside a closing quotation mark: "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." But what about exclamation points and question marks: inside or outside of the quotation marks?

    Inside if the quotation itself is an exclamation or question:
    The boy asked, "Is this a kissing book?"
    Count Rugen shouted, "Stop saying that!"
    But outside if the question mark or exclamation point doesn't belong to the quotation:
    Which character in the movie kept repeating the word "inconceivable"?

  • If "its" is the possessive form of the pronoun ("a bird in its cage") and "it's" is the contraction for "it is," what is "its'"--with the apostrophe after the "s"?

    A mistake.

  • I'm currently working for a man with a broken wrist, typing all of his emails, notes etc. He works with a lot of forms titled with initials like "MP" and "CGL." When he refers to multiple forms, he wants me to put an apostrophe between the acronym and the "s"--such as, "We need to file more MP's." I just flinch every time I do this. As I understand it, you use an apostrophe for possessives ("the MP's formatting is wrong") but not plurals. He contends that the rule is different for acronyms. He's the boss, so he wins the argument, but I either need to be vindicated or to be told I'm wrong and work at accepting the apostrophe.

    Like you and your boss, style guides disagree on this one. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (2002) advises us to use the apostrophe "for terms like PC's, TV's, and VCR's." However, The Associated Press Stylebook (2007) tells us not to use the apostrophe with "plurals of numerals or multiple-letter combinations: 'She knows her ABCs. I gave him five IOUs. Four VIPs were there.'" Like you, I happen to favor the Associated Press policy. Let the unpunctuated "s" signal plurals. Reserve the apostrophe for contractions and possession. Unless, of course, you work for The New York Times.

  • When is it correct to use single quotes (' ') instead of double quotes (" ")?

    Most American style guides recommend using single quotation marks to enclose a quotation that appears within another quotation:
    "I said to her," Mr. Bush reported, referring to First Lady Laura Bush, "make sure the rug says 'Optimistic person comes to work.'"
    Notice that two separate quotation marks appear at the end of the sentence: a single mark to close the rug's observation and a double mark to close the president's report. (By the way, the British customarily reverse this order: first using single quotation marks--or "inverted commas"--and then turning to double quotation marks to enclose quotations within quotations.)

  • My son recently brought home a test with two questions wrong. I will write the sentences below, and explain the issues I am having.

    1. The dogs collars are leather. (Where does the apostrophe go?)
    2. (I say either "dog's" OR "dogs'" because we don't know if it's ONE dog with many collars or multiple dogs with one collar.)
    3. The singers music stands are very tall. (Where does the apostrophe go?)
    4. (Again, same issue: one singer with many stands or many singers each with their own stand?)

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated as I have a meeting with the teacher on Monday and want to make sure I am not overlooking something. I already had a talk with her, and she seemed like she was unwilling to bend, so I am in for a pretty big fight and want all the help I can get.

    You're right: both sentences are ambiguous. We have no way of knowing if the possessive noun in either sentence is singular or plural. As you suggest, it's not absurd to imagine that a single dog might have more than one collar (my cat has two, neither of which he wears) or a solitary singer could have multiple music stands.

    If you and the teacher are still talking, you might gently suggest to her that punctuation depends in part on context--and that a bit more context on the quiz could have eliminated the ambiguity. For example:

    • I have two dogs. The dogs collars are leather. (Where does the apostrophe go? dogs')
    • OR
    • I have a dog. The dogs collars are leather. (Where does the apostrophe go? dog's)

    Please let me know if you have made any headway with the teacher--though at this point you may be ready to join the Campaign to Abolish the Apostrophe.

More About Punctuation:

Do you have any language questions? If so, please send them our way by clicking on the "comments" button below.

Comments

September 19, 2007 at 2:33 pm
(1) HelenAnn Bower says:

THANK YOU! One of my favorite books is “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.” Although I was not an English major in college, I have had Latin and Greek, both of which are great for understanding English grammar. I am also old enough to have had to diagram sentences in grade school, and I am fortunate enough to have had several excellent English grammar teachers. Would you please consider tackling “I and me, he and him, etc.” before the 24th? I have attended teacher conferences at which the English teacher said, “I gave Shirl and he the same assignment,” or similar mistakes.

September 19, 2007 at 9:43 pm
(2) grammar says:

Thank you for your note. I’ll soon be returning to the topic of pronouns, but in the meantime you may want to visit my page on Using the Different Forms of Pronouns (at http://grammar.about.com/od/correctingerrors/a/pronounforms.htm ) and the accompanying exercise ( http://grammar.about.com/od/correctingerrors/a/proformpr1.htm ). Again, thank you.

Richard

September 20, 2007 at 9:30 am
(3) Mike says:

In your response to the punctuation inside or outside the quotation marks question, it seems to me you have neglected the closing punctuation of the sentence that includes the quotation.

Shouldn’t there be a period outside the quotation marks to end the sentence about what the boy asked?

The boy asked, “Is this a kissing book?”.

Or outside the quotation marks to end the sentence about what the Count shouted?

Count Rugen shouted, “Stop saying that!”.

The sentence about the movie character is correctly ended with the question mark:

Which character in the movie kept repeating the word “inconceivable”?

But if the question was about a declarative sentence that the character said, as in the following example, wouldn’t there be punctuation both inside and outside the quotation marks?

Which character in the movie kept repeating the sentence “It is inconceivable that John would have said that.”?

September 20, 2007 at 11:55 pm
(4) grammar says:

Thank you for your note, Mike–and for a great idea for an article.

Not so long ago, in American usage you would find instances of sentences ending with ?”. and !”.–just as you point out. Over the past century, the trend has been toward a more economical use of punctuation, and nowadays I don’t know of any American style guide that advocates placing one end mark after another. In the 15th edition of “The Chicago Manual of Style,” for example, the guideline is explicit: “Regardless of its placement, only one end mark (?, !, or .) can end a sentence in American English.”

This is not an issue of logic, of course, but of convention. I’ll soon go into more detail in an article.

Again, thank you.

Richard
About Grammar & Composition

September 24, 2007 at 9:08 am
(5) Mike says:

Thanks for the prompt reply, Richard. I look forward to the more detailed article.

September 24, 2007 at 3:53 pm
(6) michael bash says:

What is the correct Turkish translation of, “What time is it?”? What do you say to that??

September 24, 2007 at 5:44 pm
(7) grammar says:

Hi Michael. I’ve been waiting for this question.

According to the Associated Press Styleguide, in a sentence such as yours with multiple questions, use a single question mark inside the closing quotation mark:

What is the correct Turkish translation of, “What time is it?”

Again, it’s a matter of (U.S.) convention, not logic.

Best–

Richard

September 24, 2007 at 8:06 pm
(8) Lynda Hawkins says:

What is the correct way to indicate date? September 24, or September 24th and where can I find it in writing so I can correct our church bulletin? I think the ‘st’, ‘rd’ and ‘th’ should be left off unless it comes before a word that it modifies.

September 24, 2007 at 8:44 pm
(9) grammar says:

Lynda–

The AP Stylebook agrees with you on dates: “Always use Arabic figures (1, 2, 3, . . .), without -st, -nd, -rd, or -th.”

Best–
Richard

September 25, 2007 at 1:03 am
(10) Susan says:

Which is correct: “He is a friend of John’s” or “He is a friend of John”?

Also, I tend to go on and on when I write (in my journal) and am constantly qualifying myself. Sometimes, I use so many parentheses that I lose track by the end of the sentence. Please tell me what to do. What punctuation marks should I use inside a parenthentical part of a parenthetical part of a (see how I can go on and on?) sentence?

September 25, 2007 at 1:20 am
(11) Susan says:

Oops! Typo! Where’s the edit button?

September 26, 2007 at 4:51 pm
(12) Brian says:

When is it correct to use ” ” inch marks instead of “ ” actual quote marks? I see this happen on a daily basis throughout major news publications & on TV.
Thanks!
Brian M.C.

June 27, 2012 at 11:59 pm
(13) Max M says:

Thank you for your easy to understand explanations which are often funny as was your response “a mistake” to the question about the use of the apostrophe in “its’ “. I have two questions after a diligent search. (1) I have written many letters/memos/emails which include the name of a product and/or the name of a service. I have not found anything which says I should include quotation marks around it but it sometimes looks odd. Here is an example: I invented The Smith Service. See my next question for an example of my confusion. It is pretty funny that I do not know if quotation marks should be placed around the title Elements of Style.(2) Has there been a revision to the rule set forth in Strunk’s Elements of Style regarding the last comma when you create a list of three things such as “He liked the pictures of a diamond, a horse, and a house? I often see lists with the comma left off before the “and”. If so, does it make a difference if you have a list of items preceded by adjectives or a list of phrases such as “He liked the pictures of the huge diamond, the skinny horse, and the tilted house”? and “He liked the pictures of the huge diamond in the box, the skinny horse wearing a coat, and the tilted house on the farm’? thank you very much. I am not sure where to look for your answer. I hope I do not have to wait for “punctuation day” this year to find out the answer.

June 28, 2012 at 12:11 am
(14) Max M says:

Please strike the part of my question about use of quotation marks around a book title. Just after sending the Comment I saw your excellent piece on use of quotation marks, which validated my belief that you do not use quotation marks around a book title but instead italicize it or underline it. However, I find italicizing or underlining a book title in a letter/memo/CV, etc., looks odd if it is the only thing italicized or underlined since that draws unintended attention to it. I still do not know whether to use marks around a product or service name. Thank you again.

June 28, 2012 at 7:43 am
(15) grammar says:

Hi Max.

(1) Don’t use quotation marks around a product or service name.

(2) For information about using commas with items in a series, see What Is the Oxford (or Serial) Comma?

All the best,
Richard

September 22, 2012 at 11:59 am
(16) Max says:

I have been questioned again regarding how I presented something in my Bio. Do I need to capitalize or underline either the name of a product or the name of a company in my Bio? You already let me know that I do not have to put quotation marks around either one. For example, do I have to underline or italicize in a Bio the company name The Ad Network? Do I have to underline or capitalize in my Bio the product name The Edge? I thought capitalizing the first letter in each word was sufficient. Thank you again for your insight and expertise.

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