Diane Sandford is the Director of Library Services for the Washington, DC office of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP. She has many years of experience in editing and as a grammar expert within the firm.
Punctuation problems are often a prime indicator of poor writing.-- Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford, 2003), page 652.Poor punctuation is a distraction that can single-handedly derail an author’s message and credibility. Punctuation marks not only indicate how a writer wants words grouped together for meaning and emphasis, but they also serve as visual guides that can tell the reader immediately who said something or what type of subject is being discussed. Consider a simple direct quotation (a citation or an excerpt):
“We are fine,” said Robert, “and they are fine as well.”
Notice that the quotation marks enclose both the comma and the period. In British punctuation, the comma and the period would follow the quotation mark.
Look at this sentence:
Robert asked, “How are you?”
The final period is omitted, because end punctuation is never doubled. The question mark is inside the quotation marks, because it is part of the quotation. Question marks, colons, and semi-colons that are not part of a quotation are always placed outside the quotation marks.
Time for a quiz! A comma needs to be placed after “Billy” in the following sentence. Should it go inside the quotation marks or outside the quotation marks?
“Billy” Mr. Roberts said “will go first.”
Since the comma is not part of the quotation, you would think it should go outside the quotation marks, which is the convention in British English. But in American English, the comma goes inside the quotation marks:
“Billy,” Mr. Roberts said, “will go first.”
When we wish to write about a particular word, should we use italics or quotes—that is, should it be “widget” or widget? The answer is either form is correct, but be consistent.
Quotation marks may be applied to words being used in a special sense—for example, Robert is a “priest” of grammar. (Of course, the Grammar Goddess would prefer the term “so-called priest”!) In this particular case, words used as words may also be italicized.
In dialog, it’s customary to indent each new speaker’s sentences. This is for clarity only. In short conversations, omit the indenting.
And let’s not forget single quotation marks, which are used primarily to enclose a quotation within a quotation.
“Why did you yell ‘fire’?” he asked.
Complete literary works published individually require italics. This applies to book titles, Web sites, films, journals, magazines, newspapers, and plays. Nearly every other short literary work takes quotation marks: newspaper and magazine articles, short stories, book chapters, poems, song titles, television shows, and radio shows. Don’t forget to italicize the names of spacecraft, aircraft, ships, and trains.
Foreign phrases should be italicized. Caesar’s famous veni, vidi, vici means “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Yet most Latin abbreviations in common use are not italicized: etc., e.g., i.e., vis., et al., and vs. There is no need to italicize or use quotation marks for foreign words that have become part of the English language:
a la carte gratis prima facieamicus curiae habeas corpus prix fixe
bona fide in flagrante delicto status quo
carte blanche in vitro pro forma
caveat emptor ipso facto pro rata
coupe d’etat laissez-faire pro tem
détente mea culpa quid pro quo
deus ex machina nouveau riche sans serif
ex officio per se status quo
gestalt prima donna vice versa
Among the exceptions that come to mind are scholarly abbreviations used in footnotes: ibid. (in the same place), id. (the same), op. cit. (in the work cited), s.v. (under the word, used when making reference to a dictionary entry), sic (exactly reproduced from the original, mistakes and all), and loc. cit. (in the place cited). Some other exceptions (italicize):
cogito, ergo sum in forma pauperis
de minimis in loco parentis
ex libris wunderbar
Consult a good dictionary for guidance on which words should be italicized. The test is whether your dictionary lists these words as main entries (do not italicize) or as a separate list of foreign words and phrases (italicize).
Finally, italics are used for an emphatic word or phrase—for example, the book was censored by its own author. Why not use an exclamation point instead? Never use an exclamation point in formal writing. Use italics instead.
Occasionally, it’s appropriate to underline or use boldface for emphasis. The initial use of a word that is defined in technical writing is often boldfaced to make later reference easier. As a joke, one could box, italicize, underline, boldface, change typeface, add quotation marks, highlight in yellow, and circle with a red pencil—all for emphasis. Perhaps the document could also be affixed to the recipient’s door with a dagger. But I digress.
According to the Perrin-Smith Handbook of Current English, “Italics should be used sparingly for emphasis. When used excessively or with words that do not deserve stress, this device makes the writer seem affected or childish.”
Should the previous quotation have been set off like this instead?
Italics should be used sparingly for emphasis. When used excessively or with words that do not deserve stress, this device makes the writer seem affected or childish.—Perrin-Smith Handbook of Current English, 3rd ed. (Scott Foresman, 1968), page 188.
The author had a choice, and I felt the second choice was distracting.
If a phrase is not in italics, it is usually in roman type. Notice that the initial letters in the words roman and italics are not capitalized. Even the “r” in roman numerals is not capitalized. By the way, we italicize in America, but they italicise in the United Kingdom. The British also analyse rather than analyze; they call the letter “Z” zed, not zee. School blackboard erasers are referred to as “rubbers.” Who knows what conventions may exist in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or other English-speaking segments of the world.
The rules of grammar, like those of law and religion, are not based exclusively on logic, but rather on tradition and the impressions and culture of our ancestors. Are there too many rules for mere mortals to remember? Absolutely. Your best defense is to keep some tried and true reference materials nearby. Some of my favorites are A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (Bryan Garner), Garner’s Modern American Usage (Bryan Garner), New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage (Andrea Sutcliffe), A Writer’s Reference (Diana Hacker), and Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition.
Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know.