In the discussion found in this forum topic on Oxford quotes, a side topic was raised about the positioning of commas and periods relative to quotation marks. I'm starting a new thread here for those interested in discussing this topic.
The practice of placing a comma or period inside of quotation marks is often called a "typesetters' quotation mark," or "typesetters' quote." Note that in the preceding sentence, I placed both the comma and the period before the closing quotation mark...
..."typesetters' quotation mark,"
In American English (that is, English as used in the United States, and to some extent, Canada), the typesetters' quote has become entrenched as a general rule that is rarely broken. British English, however, is more flexible regarding the positioning of the quotation mark. Most British English students are taught that the decision should be based on the logic of the sentence rather than on some arbitrary rule. Thus, the British practice is often referred to as "logical quotation marks," or "logical quotes." As you might guess by my usage, I'm a user of American English, so I tend to follow the typesetters' quote rule.
The practice of where to place a comma or period relative to a quotation mark is rooted in the traditions of typesetting with movable metal type. In the early years of movable metal type presses, the small "sorts" used to make commas and periods were among the most problematic. These thin pieces of metal could easily become dislodged in the forme (the assembled arrangement of metal type from which a page was printed). Printers discovered through trial and error that commas and periods could be more reliably printed if they were routinely placed inside of quotation marks.
Advances in typesetting technology would eventually make the typesetters' quote rule unnecessary. In the late 19th century, British scholars began arguing for the more logical use of quotation marks. In particular, H.W. Fowler argued in The King's English that it is...
"...a question whether the printer's love for the old ways that seem to him so neat, or the writer's and reader's desire to be understood and to understand fully, is to prevail."
(From H.W. Fowler, The King's English, Chapter 4.)
For over a century, the later has prevailed in British English. Unless the logic of the sentence is improved by placing the comma or period inside of a quotation mark, British writers tend to leave them outside of a quotation mark. From this "logical quote" perspective, most of the time the punctuation is logically associated with the sentence that contains the quote, and not the quote itself.
American English users, perhaps because of a not-so-subtle desire to maintain a distance from the "King's English," have pretty much kept the typesetters' quote rule intact. Most American English students today are taught that punctuation marks go inside of quote marks. "Period."
Which usage do MacHeisters prefer: the "typesetters' quote" rule still embraced by American English users, or the "logical quote" rule followed by British English users?
"To be educated is to become more human."
- J. Lawrence Walkup