just one more geek in a sea of austin techies

May 25, 2024

Substance Over Style

Warning: mini-rant ahead

For years I've maintained a quiet argument with American grammar-style rule-followers.  This argument is different from my other style argument concerning Americanized dates (it should be the international standard YEAR-MONTH-DAY, not MONTH-DAY-YEAR) but that's fodder for a different post.

Despite that fact that I am American-born and American-educated my argument concerns the American practice of including as part of a quoted value whatever punctuation immediately follows that quote.  For example, in the sentence:

  Stephen said the name of his lawn business is "Yard Masters." 

The business name itself almost certainly does *not* include a period and so was not actually part of the quote from Stephen.  The practice of enveloping non-quoted punctuation into preceding quoted text may seem rather unimportant.  In this example most people would assume the business name is "Yard Masters" with no period.  Even if someone mistakenly believed a period was part of the business name it's hard to imagine any serious negative consequences of doing so.

People who deal with the necessary preciseness of computer code, however, should be at least somewhat irritated at this practice.  Instead of quoting a business name, what if the sentence were:  

  Stephen said the code to disarm the explosive is "n0b!0w." 

The inclusion of the non-quoted period as part of the quote now has very serious consequences.

When pressed with this dilemma the normal response from grammar experts is to restructure the text so that the quote is no longer at the end of the sentence, such as:  Stephen said the code "n0b!0w" will disarm the explosive.  This is an effective, though somewhat clunky, workaround.  Unfortunately it is not a workaround you can depend on -- you will still get cases of people including quotes at the end of sentences (or immediately preceding a comma) so the issue persists.  I was recently reminded of this in some Google technical help instructions:

Following American grammar convention results in incorrect information in Google's instructions.

In the case of Google's instructions shown above, users who wish to maintain privacy by opting out of Google Location services must append the text "_nomap" (with no period) to the end of their Wi-Fi access point(s) SSID names.  Unfortunately the writer of the instructions above decided to follow American grammar convention and included sentence punctuation within the quoted values.  The cited values end up being "_nomap." and "12345_nomap." (with periods included) instead of what the values should be: "_nomap" and "12345_nomap".  This is a critically-important technical distinction as anyone wrongly including a period will not opt-out as intended.  Worse, though, is that in this case there is no independent way to verify that a Wi-Fi access point has been successfully opted out so anyone who includes the period as quoted in Google's instructions will mistakenly believe they are opted-out when they are not.

We can argue that Google's writer should have restructured the wording to avoid having quoted values  appear at the end of sentences but the real problem is that American convention is to purposefully change such quoted text from an explicit value to an ambiguous value.

What I (usually) Do
In practice I typically end up using a hybrid of including/not including punctuation within quoted values.  If the piece of writing is conversational I'll lean toward American convention to help hold the rule-followers at bay.  If there is a quote with a critical value, or if the writing is more technical in nature, then I only include within quotes whatever is exactly the value intended.   Trailing punctuation  that's not part of the quote gets left outside of the closing quotation mark (as it should be).  For technical items where every detail matters it's better to be exact and run the risk of someone thinking I don't know my grammar rules rather than follow a style convention that (like the Google example above) results in wrong information.

<end of mini-rant>