I enjoy answering questions about grammar and usage on Quora.com. Here’s a recent one that set me thinking: What’s the most widely misunderstood English usage rule?
There are lots of possible answers! Confusion about its/it’s has to be high on the list. But my nominee for the top spot has to be quotation marks.
Rarely have I taught anyone who knows that in American punctuation, commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks. Right after I say that there are no exceptions (none! not ever!), students always say, “Yes, of course – but the period and comma go outside when….”
Disbelieving looks follow when I hold my ground, along with muttered rebuttals and promises to prove me wrong…followed by sheepish looks at the next class meeting.
But maybe you really can argue that I’m wrong. After all, I’m not the one who makes these rules. Can I really declare that my way is the only right way?
I’m going to suggest that those are the wrong questions. If you’re a serious writer, you should be going down a different road altogether. I think you should be asking how you can demonstrate to a publisher/editor/professor that you’re a genuine, honest-to-goodness, serious professional writer.
One way is to submit a manuscript that doesn’t have glaring mistakes. Pros don’t ask anyone to clean up after them. They know what editors, publishers, and professors want, and they just sit down and…do it.
It doesn’t matter that thirty years ago your typing teacher told you to put two spaces after a period. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore! The rule today is one space after a period. When a pro submits a finished article or book, no one has to go through it and remove the extra periods.
Similarly, nobody has to rework the quotation marks. All the periods and commas are nicely tucked inside the quotation marks. And it doesn’t stop there. Pros always ask for a style sheet that adjudicates controversies about spelling (ok/okay/OK/o.k.), compound words (health-care/healthcare), and punctuation issues (yes or no to the Oxford comma).
A few years ago I wrote a chapter for a volume that a friend was compiling for a British publisher, the Cambridge University Press. I am a proud American. But when I wrote my chapter, I used British spelling and punctuation throughout.
That’s what pros do, and that’s what you should do too.