Improper Usage

18 August 2008 · 9 comments

I have an editor. Each week one of my posts from Get Rich Slowly is reprinted at MSN Money’s personal finance blog, Smart Spending. I work with a woman named Karen Datko, whom I admire a great deal. She’s funny and helpful and full of advice.

Karen and I have a difference of opinion on commas, especially as they relate to quotations. I follow standard usage for dialogue, but I cannot bring myself to do so in a situation like this:

Kris Gates is always “right,” according to her husband.

That’s the correct usage, but it makes me tense. That comma does not belong inside the quotation marks. When I write, I always do the following:

Kris Gates is always “right”, according to her husband.

To me, this is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it’s also logical.

Unfortunately, Karen isn’t a fan of aesthetics and logic. She’s a fan of standard usage. “Won’t you please make an effort to fix your commas?” she asked me last spring. And I did for a while. But it’s difficult! I’ve been doing sensible commas for decades; it’s not a natural thing for me to “correct”. (Heh. See what I did there?)

Karen recently corrected another usage error that I consistently make. “‘Personal finance’ needs a hyphen when it’s a compound modifier,” she said.

She probably thought that was an innocuous statement, but to me it was a revelation. I’m not joking. I’ve been using hyphenated adjectival phrases (and adverbial phrases) a lot since starting to write full-time, but I’ve always just used my gut to tell me when to use a hyphen and when not to. As soon as Karen mentioned compound modifiers, the rule became clear!

Still, I’m not sure I can bring myself to write “personal-finance book.” I’ll probably write “personal finance book”. And Karen will weep.

1 JenK August 18, 2008 at 11:03

I think after a few programming classes the idea of inserting a comma without closing the quotes is just wrong.

2 Michael Rawdon August 18, 2008 at 12:53

I, too, use “sensible commas”. The standard usage drives me crazy, and I bet most people never notice the difference. As I recall, the book What Color Is Your Parachute? contains a preface which explains (to paraphrase from memory) that the author uses commas for clarity rather than grammatical correctness and if you don’t like it, then tough. I bet that was a hard-won concession by his editor after the book had been through enough printings that it was a bona-fide hit and the author could force the issue. :-)

As for “personal finance book”, you’re writing a personal book about finance? ;-) (I think hyphens are a poor solution to this problem, but English doesn’t have a good solution due to the unordered and generic nature of English adjectives and other modifiers, so they’re better than nothing.)

3 Lisa August 18, 2008 at 13:16

Just for the record, I always notice and mentally groan with sensible commas. If you choose to use them, don’t count on everyone overlooking them. I had assumed you just weren’t familiar with that particular grammar rule–I didn’t realize it was a deliberate choice.

4 Alan Cordle August 18, 2008 at 16:00

Your way drives me crazy.

5 Dave August 20, 2008 at 08:36

So how does the comma get placed when the material in quotes is a question? For example,

“Kris Gates is always ‘right’?”, asked her husband.

6 The Punctuation Whisperer August 21, 2008 at 18:37

Logic > Tradition

I agree with JD. Why use a rigid, antiquated system just because that’s the way you were taught to do it (by those trained in rigid, antiquated ways)? When you say, “Kris Gates is always right”, it just doesn’t make sense to put the comma inside the quotes. If anything, logic would dictate that it would read, “Kris Gates is always right.”, with a period inside the quotes to indicate the end of a sentence.

Put the punctuation wherever you please, but I choose to continue my “improper usage”.

7 pam August 23, 2008 at 12:47

why the hell put quotes around right anyway??? you already have a modifier in the sentence to tell us it is her husband’s opinion and not some absolute fact, so the logical thing would be to leave the quotes out entirely -it makes the comma argument moot.

i am also not big fan of the hyphenated modifier – it always looks funny. besides if one really were writing a personal book about finance, any decent writer would say just that to avoid the confusion in the first place.

8 Karen Datko August 25, 2008 at 05:47

No comma needed in “Kris Gates is always ‘right’?” asked her husband.

By the way, J.D., you write full time, but you are a full-time writer. And I sure hope you aren’t hyphenating “ly” modifiers.

Your fan,

Karen

9 Shanti September 15, 2008 at 15:38

Your way of using punctuation is how they do it in England. I punctuate how Karen does, because it’s what I was taught in the good ol’ American grammar books :P

I can’t stand it when people get it wrong, but only because I feel it’s ignorance. If you’re just doing it “wrong” because you prefer it that way, just say you use British punctuation, so there – and I won’t mind a bit :D

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