Because I look at a lot of student writing, I sometimes think of things like grammar and punctuation. Other times, journal editors bring things to my attention (like the fact that there should only be one space between sentences – though I can’t resist using two when writing). A relatively recent Slate article explored the use of logical punctuation, which seems to be arising out of the same common-usage patterns that lead to a singular “they.” Logical punctuation is the placement of punctuation outside of quotation marks, even in situations where the placement does not affect the meaning. While I would not include a question mark in a quotation that did not originally include it, then, logical punctuation suggests that commas and periods don’t belong inside the quotation marks, either.
It is easy for me to get behind something like a singular “they” because it makes practical sense. Despite the fact that it also seems practical, I am hesitant about logical punctuation for two reasons included in the article:
If it seems hard or even impossible to defend the American way on the merits, that’s probably because it emerged from aesthetic, not logical, considerations. According to Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, it was instituted in the early days of the Republic in order “to improve the appearance of the text. A comma or period that follows a closing quotation mark appears to hang off by itself and creates a gap in the line (since the space over the mark combines with the following word space).” I don’t doubt Feal, but the appearance argument doesn’t carry much heft today; more to the point is that we are simply accustomed to the style.
Basically, I think that logical punctuation is ugly. I prefer “they.” to “they”. That period outside of the quotation marks looks so far from the word that ends the sentence, while I guess I am used to seeing space between words and the quotation marks themselves. Like putting one space after sentences, I don’t see myself taking up logical punctuation any time soon. It would, however, save me a lot of time when grading student papers, since they seem to use it exclusively.