Punctuation Matters and Matters of Punctuation

George P. Landow

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No scare quotes, please!

Don't use quotation marks, whether single or double, to indicate that you do not accept some word or phrase or that you take it ironically. Use "so-called" or some other means of showing your attitude toward a particular word or phrase.

Do not mix American and British punctuation systems

As George Bernard Shaw pointed out long ago, we are two nations separated by a common ocean and a common language. For example, British rules of punctuation require single quotes inside commas, periods, and semicolons: Jane said, 'Look at Dick run'. American rules of punctuation require double quotes outside commas, periods, and semicolons: Jane said, "Look at Dick run." Contributors to the site should pick one system and stick with it throughout an entire document. Writers are permited to translate quoted material into whatever style they follow; thus, someone following U. S. punctuation can change quoted material to follow that. Of course, quoting longer passages that appear in indented blocks of text often avoids such problems.

Whatever you do, never use double quotes for quoting material and single ones as scare quotes (see above).

Do not mix American and British spelling

The people who thought this one up must be ancestors of the people who write instructions for VCRs and the like. British "colour," "centre," and "towards" become "color," "center," amd "toward" (no "s") in American English — all largely the result of Noah Webster's attempts at producing a more rational phonetic spelling. But there's more! Unlike the procedure you follow when quoting British English punctuation — that is, you can Americanize it — you follow British English orthography in quoted passages. Hey, I didn't make this up.

Quotation marks and indented passages of text

Don't use quotation marks around blocks of inset (or set-off) text, since insetting text serves as an equivalent to quotation marks. Of course, do use quotation marks inside such blocks of text when they appear in the original — for example, in dialogue.


Do not begin a new paragraph immediately after a set-off quoted passage unless you move to a new subject. If you explain or discuss the quoted passage, start at the left margin. [This is usually not a problem when using html since the basic paragraph tag places text flush left.]

Hyphens in Adjectival Phrases

When using a century as an adjective, (a) spell out number and (b) use hyphen: "eighteenth-century poets," not "18th century poets." On the other hand, when a phrase acts as a noun — e.g., "poets of the eighteenth century" — it takes no hyphen. Isn't English wonderful?

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Last modified 4 December 2006