Bad Idea...Trousers?

May 7, 2010

You know, I didn't get around to many BIJ posts this year, mainly because it's been a good season. Applicants were very well-behaved—even the admitted students who turned down our offers this year (yes, people do turn us down, and it makes me very sad) were extremely humble, gracious, and kind.

So if I'm in such a good mood, why am I in BIJ-land again? Well, it's that weird time of year where we're waiting for the dust to settle on the incoming class (no wait list activity yet, for those who are wondering), and I thought I'd come clean about the ONE THING in applications that Drives. Me. Crazy.

Take a look at the following sentences:

1. My favorite part of the 203 Blog is "Bad Idea Jeans."

2. My favorite part of the 203 Blog is "Bad Idea Jeans".

Don't know what I'm talking about?

Do you see how, in the first example, the period is neatly, soothingly, and ecstasy-producingly tucked within the quotation marks? And then do you see how, in the second example, the period is about to float off into space, making me want to kill myself?

That's what I'm talking about.

Perhaps you think I am being too nitpicky. You might be saying, "Is there some rule that says I have to keep the period inside the quotation marks? Or are you just doing one of your random Asha things where you are finding reasons to ding people?"

The only random criterion I use to ding people is choice of font. In this case, however, there is, in fact, a rule. It's called the American rule. (I'm kidding about the font thing, BTW, just wanted to make sure you're paying attention.)

You see, the British decide which punctuation mark goes within the quotes based on the quote itself. This rule is also known as the "logic" rule, and is consistently applied regardless of whether you are using a period, comma, exclamation point, or any other form of punctuation. The American, or "convenience" rule, by contrast, always defaults to placing commas and periods inside the quotation marks, regardless of their usage in the original quote. Other punctuation marks exclamation points, question marks, colons, etc.—follow the British rule. (If you are thoroughly confused, please see here for more explanation, including the historical underpinnings of this discrepancy.)

Now, you may be tempted to argue that, as future lawyers, you ought to follow the "logical" rule all the time and use the British form without fear of persecution. But let's dig a little deeper into the so-called "logic" of our cousins across the pond. Let's say we do decide to follow them down this path of punctuation consistency. What's next? Will we wake up tomorrow and find that our bars all close at 10? That we eat french fries with mayonnaise? That we have a shortage of orthodontists? Where do we draw the line?

Look. Apart from the whole Noor Diamond thing, which should really be returned to my people, I love the British. I mean, who couldn't spend an entire day browsing in Boots (now available in Target, but alas without the Boots-y atmosphere)? We could also learn a thing or two from a country where you won't find a single man wearing pleated pants. But I'm sorry to say that unless you grew up referring to the last letter of the alphabet as "Zed," you need to support your troops on this one and stick with the American rule.

I'll admit that I did second-guess myself on this a few times, and decided to confirm my instincts with our beloved writing instructor, Rob Harrison (who, incidentally, reviews admissions files). Here is what he wrote to me:

I concede that the British practice of placing commas and periods outside quotation marks has a lot to recommend it. For one thing, the British practice seems more honest and accurate because it makes clear that the quoted material did not itself end with a comma or a period; those punctuation marks are the work of the writer quoting the material. But, as Brandeis said, sometimes it's more important that things be settled than settled right; and in this country it is settled that commas and periods go inside quotation marks. Therefore, when I see students or lawyers following the British practice, I view the result as an error, not a stylistic preference, much as I would consider "favour" a mis-spelling of "favor" and driving on the left side of the road a criminal offense. When in Rome . . . .

When in Rome, indeed. Smashing.


Observer said:

…except that there is no American rule. Americans don't have an Academy (cf. l'Académie Française). Unlike driving, writing falls under the oversight of no lawmaking body. Your appeal to authority establishes nothing except preference, even if the preference identified is the more prevalent one in the United States. So let's “support our troops” and uphold the First Amendment on this one.

Besides, in the twenty-first century, one has good reason to begin preferring the logical rule: consider “”, “Create a Source File”, bullet #2, not to mention many technical and scholarly publications.

Note also that you use double-space between sentences and double-hypens instead of em-dashes, neither of which are current, standard practice, even by the “American rule”.

May 9, 2010 7:11 PM

asha said:

Thanks, Observer. The problem with your argument is that even if it comes down to preferences (which I dispute, as I've quoted a couple of writing authorities in my post even if they are not codified as law), we have about 60 people reviewing admissions files. Given the parity among applications, how your file rates compared to others in your batch will likely come down to nuances like the readers' assessment of your writing ability. If I were an applicant, I'd go with the commonly-used rule in order to avoid having a reader conclude that I do not have a proper command of English grammar, as I and Rob Harrison, Yale's writing instructor, would so conclude.

As far as double spacing after a sentence, those of us who grew up before computers were taught that as a rule (it's worth noting that all of our faculty readers are over 35, which means that they, too, grew up learning this rule). One can make an argument that if you grew up learning a particular rule, it may be acceptable to continue using it—hence my excepting people who grew up in a Commonwealth country from being held accountable to American grammar and punctuation.

Finally, I can't make em-dashes when writing my blog posts. Drives me crazy.

May 12, 2010 11:10 AM

SMRT said:

I would contest your point that it is not seemly to adopt the British style of punctuation due to the the apparent lack of a non-arbitrary line where we should divide which practices we should and should not adopt. I would argue that the line lies in the same name as the rule; where it is logical. Yes, we should not adopt practices just for the sake of conformity (though in the case of the metric system, I suspect the sake of conformity suffices, even aside from the fact that the system is more mathematically convenient), but there are certainly practices where there may be more method in their madness than in ours. Given, it takes an illusive set of criteria for what exactly "logical" is given the wide range of practices we differ in, but still, I would venture to say there are certain cases where it is more or less apparent that one system has more methodological consistency than the other (again, use the metric system as an example, a measure that converts across volume, length, and weight surely has more merit than one based on a monarch's appendages). I'm not necessarily saying a change needs to be made in this department, aside from yourself I do not know of many people driven towards suicide on the basis of punctuation, but perhaps there is a line somewhere that may be reasonably drawn.

May 16, 2010 8:58 PM

EF said:

I think Observer has a point about the rule in the programming context. When the exactness of quoted text is of great importance (as when communicating about programming) writers should follow the British rule; that seems obvious to me. While it likely does not warrant the American academy changing its rule entirely, perhaps at least Tina Blue should add it to her "just a letter or a number" exception.

Of course, that's neither here nor there for any YLS application essay, presumably. :)

Yield matching expectations, Asha?

May 20, 2010 5:12 PM

Curious said:

Does the "When in Rome" adage also apply to students who grew up in a Commonwealth country but are applying to an American institution?

June 3, 2010 9:39 AM

Jon said:

Now I am getting nervous.

I am British and in the beginning stages of drafting my personal statement. My linguist father asked me whether I would be using British or American spelling. I replied that I would use American as the statement was not the place to discuss the evolution of language or beat a drum about who is right or wrong. As a scientist I know something about evolution and believe there is much cross-over from Biology to language. “Right or wrong” doesn’t make much sense when you are discussing species and I consider the varieties of English akin to species, hence I don’t accept “wrong” spelling for words such as colour or flavor. They are just artifacts from speciation events.

I also gave my father a more compelling reason in that I didn't want to be rejected out-of-hand by automatic error-checkers. Do I need to make it abundantly clear that I use one of the many versions of English? Should I use only the British mode for everything in my statement? I suspect it will look strange if I use American spelling with British punctuation.

Are all reviewers acutely aware of the differences? Mr. Harrison seems keen to get out the red ink for my "errors" without a moment's thought as to my upbringing. Asha, you may make exceptions for Commonwealth citizens but Mr. Harrison appears not to want to. Where is the consistency?

I will be 34 when I attend law school next year. Indeed I did grow up with computers, but I also learned from my mother who was a professional typist; hence my double-spacing habit after full-stops. Are there allowances for age?

I will be applying to Yale and other law schools. Can I be confident the other admission teams will give me fair treatment, or will it be “simply not cricket”?

By the way, the historical reasons from the linked article are fine, but let’s not suggest that British printers didn’t care about the quality of their work!

July 15, 2010 3:07 PM

JMF said:

How do you feel about Oxford commas?

August 17, 2010 7:18 PM

IBB said:

Loved your additinal summary in blue and I wholeheartedly agree (despite being British!)

September 5, 2010 11:14 AM

Chris Grainger said:

What if the applicant is British or has spent their entire time at university in the UK?

Also, bars don't close at 10 in the UK. It's usually 1 in Scotland, which is considered pretty early. What's really annoying is the new Scottish licensing law that requires off-licenses to stop selling booze at 10pm. Pretty much killed my local Peckham's.

October 14, 2010 9:02 AM

asha said:

@ Curious, Jon, and Chris: Wow, U.K. is seriously representing on this post!

I personally take into account home-country conventions when reading applications, and don't mind British spelling and/or punctuation from Commonwealth folks. But you'd probably do well to consider that should you be admitted to an American institution and practice here, you'll have to switch over sometime. Cheers!

November 27, 2010 9:45 PM

asha said:

@ JMF: Having worked a stint at a magazine, I recognize that Oxford commas are a matter of stylistic preference. However, I personally like and use Oxford commas, as I feel that they result in less semantic ambiguity than when they are omitted.

Of course, reasonable people can disgree, as they have done on some pretty persuasive 250-word essays.

November 27, 2010 9:47 PM

Jon said:

Thank you for clarifying that, Asha. I hope to write so that you won't notice anyway!

Indeed, the changes are already evident. My hesitation when saying 'aluminum' is slowly diminishing. The wiggly red line underneath sulphur has caused me to 'f' it. My 'bottle of water' now sounds more like a 'boddle of warder.'

Speaking of pubs, I can't help but feel short-measured by the US pint - you know we're right on this one! Cheers!

December 11, 2010 2:20 PM

Ellen Cassidy said:

Asha, if only you knew how much this error annoys me as a writing instructor! I'm currently applying to Yale, but I've worked as a writing tutor/teacher for a few years, and this error is the bane of my existence. There is not a more telltale sign that the student doesn't know what she is doing (outside of the truly egregious).

By the way, you're one of my favorite writers, and I'm seriously not just saying that to suck up. Your blogs have made me consider Yale (over Stanford) in a much more serious fashion. Thanks for all the work you do.

August 29, 2011 5:26 AM

Stephen said:

I don't think the British rule is as logical as it seems, anyway. Consider, for example, if a quoted sentence falls in the middle of a larger sentence. We Americans might write the following:

Was it Voltaire who said, "Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr. Epstein," or was that Talleyrand?

There would be two options under the British rule. (Presumably there's actually only one, but I'm too lazy to look it up). First, one might write this:

Was it Voltaire who said, "Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr. Epstein.", or was that Talleyrand?

I presume this is not what the British rule actually entails; it is hard to conceive of such a crime against good taste coming from the country that brought us cheddar. But this leaves the following choice:

Was it Voltaire who said, "Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr. Epstein", or was that Talleyrand?

But where's the period now?! It's gone, along with the supposed fidelity to the source material's punctuation. But if we're not going to hew to the quoted author's usage after all—and it's clear we're not—then the period really does just belong to the outer sentence, all the time, so we should just choose one placement and stick to it, and this is exactly what we Americans have done.

Exactly the same reasoning also upholds our usage on the question mark and the exclamation mark, since these marks would in fact be included in a mid-sentence quote on both sides of the Atlantic.

December 1, 2012 5:14 PM