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March 23rd, 2005

Periods with quotation marks / an or a ubiquitous?

by Barbara Wallraff

Cathy Dahm, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: “Please explain when a period should go before a close-quotation mark, and when it should go after. A paper that my daughter recently submitted for a language-arts class included this sentence: ‘Sarah’s raiders are a close-knit group of girls who love to go out and “create art”.’ The teacher marked the period after the quotation mark wrong. But another language-arts teacher, who proofread the paper, believes the punctuation is correct. Is the English language this messed up? How can two teachers disagree over a quotation mark and a period?”

Dear Cathy: Your daughter’s teacher is following standard American practice. In U.S. (and, generally, Canadian) English, it doesn’t matter whether the period is part of the quoted material. It is tucked inside the close-quotation mark, mostly because it looks tidier there. British practice, though, calls for the period to be included between the quotation marks only if it is part of the quote. Logically, your daughter’s phrase “create art” doesn’t need to end with a period — so the way she punctuated her sentence would be normal in Britain. Alas, it isn’t here.

When other punctuation marks are used with quotes, the rules vary. On our side of the Atlantic, commas as well as periods always go before the close-quotation mark. Colons and semicolons go after the close-quotation mark. And question marks and exclamation marks come before if they’re part of the quoted material, and after if they’re not — like this: “‘At last I understand!’ she shouted joyfully.” But “How astonished I was that my daughter, instead of shouting, merely murmured ‘I understand’!”

Ralph Pettie, of Blue Hill, Maine, writes: “I recently wrote a piece for my local newspaper about animal abuse. I wrote: ‘The public must be made aware of what is becoming an ubiquitous problem.’ The paper changed it to read ‘a ubiquitous problem.’ My Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage states: ‘Before words with an initial vowel sound, “an” is usual in speech and writing.’ Who is correct?”

Dear Ralph: Everyone is — up to a point. “An” is certainly correct before words that start with vowel sounds: “an animal,” “an abuse of an animal.” But just because the first letter of “ubiquitous” is a vowel, that doesn’t mean the word starts with a vowel sound. A long “u” isn’t considered a vowel sound: Think of “a useful fact” or “a U.S. citizen.” I’m sure you wouldn’t be tempted to replace “a” with “an” in either of those, would you? “Ubiquitous” begins with about the same sound as those words do. (Words that start with a short “u” sound are different: “an unconscious distinction,” “an urban legend.”)

This, by the way, is similar to the explanation for “an historic,” “a herb” and the like, about which people often write me. Most Americans pronounce the consonant “h” in “historic” but drop it from “herb” — so most of us should say “A historic (h)eirloom was hastily hidden in an (h)erb garden.” Most well-brought-up English people, however, drop the first “h” but pronounce the last one: “An (h)istoric” ... “a herb.” Shades of Henry Higgins, Eliza Doolittle and “My Fair Lady”!

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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