Yesterday, I made a big deal out of the fact that an end-mark goes at the end of a sentence. There is one notable exception in American English: Sentences ending with quotations.
If your sentence ends with a quotation, the end-mark is placed inside the closing quotation marks, whether or not the punctuation is part of the quotation.
She repeated her assertion, saying that the typesetters were “completely wrong.”
According to a rather clearly written article at Wikipedia, the reason for this preference has more to do with typesetting preferences than with grammar. Apparently, smaller pieces of type, such as commas and periods, were more easily damaged, so putting them inside the quotation marks protected them.
In England, the more grammatical guideline is followed, and the end-mark is included only when it is part of the quote. This makes a lot more sense, so you’d think that I’d favor the English style.
However, I do not, and all I can say in my own defense is that I think it looks nicer the American way. I know; that’s a lame reason.
It’s especially lame when you consider the fact that one must go to great, ridiculous lengths sometimes to avoid ambiguity or confusion when following the American guidelines. For example, when I give reading quizzes to my students, I ask them to identify important quotes from the text. What I want to write would look like this:
In Romeo and Juliet, which character says, “A curse o’ both your houses!”?
The exclamation point is part of the quote and I think it’s important to include it in this case, because a student not remembering the exact quote might remember the sentiment when it is expressed this way. Mercutio is quite annoyed (to say the least!) with the Montagues and Capulets when he screams this in the town square. However, because I’m asking a question here (Which character says…), I need a question mark at the end of the sentence, and I can’t very well put it inside the quotation marks, can I?
In Romeo and Juliet, which character says, “A curse o’ both your houses!?”
Even if I didn’t think the exclamation point was necessary, I’d still have to put the question mark inside the quotation marks if I wanted to follow the American standard.
In Romeo and Juliet, which character says, “A curse o’ both your houses?”
As you can see, this could really confuse a student who might be racking his or her brain to remember which character would ask a question like this!
This has led to my having to reword the instructions. Instead of asking a question in this manner, I have to give an instruction at the top of the page: Identify the speaker of each of these quotes from Romeo and Juliet. This allows me to quote passages exactly with no ambiguity of meaning.
In situations where I am not expected to model good, American English, I might not be so rigid. The example in the Wikipedia article is a good one: If you’re quoting something that includes a URL, you don’t want your audience thinking an end-mark is part of the URL. Athough I wonder who would think that in this Web-saturated culture, the point must be reiterated that good writing is clear first and elegant second. If there’s a chance someone might misunderstand you, find a way to follow the established conventions of whatever language you’re writing in (as in my re-wording of the reading quiz questions) without compromising clarity.