Friday, January 22, 2016

A Grammatical Grimoire

[Warning: I'm about to get all English-major up in here, so if you couldn't care less about grammar and punctuation, I suggest you get out now.]

It's always bothered me that "proper" style in English, according to unassailable sources such as the Purdue OWL and Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, is to place commas inside of quotation-marks, even when a comma was not present in the quoted text.

Using Hamlet's famous utterance as an example, here are a few "wrong" ways to quote a sentence...

  • "Alas, poor Yorick!" exclaimed Prince Hamlet.
  • "Alas, poor Yorick", exclaimed Prince Hamlet.
  • "Alas, poor Yorick" exclaimed Prince Hamlet. 

...and the "right" way:

  • "Alas, poor Yorick," exclaimed Prince Hamlet. 

Note that the original sentence ("Alas, poor Yorick!") ends with an exclamation-point, not a comma. The sentence must be altered in order to make it fit with accepted citation style, and I've always taken exception to this rule.

It strikes me as strange, perhaps even a little dishonest, that style requires us to add punctuation where none existed in the original text. Granted, it's not a serious alteration to change a period or an exclamation-point to a comma, but it is a change nonetheless.

OK, Fry, you have a point. But hear me out!

Quotation marks are supposed to signify a direct quotation, to tell the reader that the text quoted therein appears exactly as it appeared in the original source: word-for-word, letter-for letter, and character-for-character. Normally, even capitalization cannot be changed without making it clear that something in the text has been altered from its original form. For instance:

  • "[P]oor Yorick," as Hamlet calls him, was his late father's court-jester.

If we're not even supposed to change the capitalization of a single letter in any text we quote, then how can we justify changing where and whether the sentence appears to end? Not every sentence needs to be quoted from start to finish, but for people who are so anal-retentive about correctness and uniformity, it's very strange that English teachers are not just allowing, but commanding us to misquote our sources.

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