November 10, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: punctuation and quotation marks & using bullet points

Posted in bullets, punctuation & quotes at 6:44 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Punctuation and quotation marks

A reader writes:

I looked through the topics on the web site and came across the article on punctuation around quotation marks.  I get the rule that commas and periods go inside the quotation marks.  But it makes my head hurt when I have to use it that way when it clearly makes no logical sense.  For example:

This is a more disturbing film than “The Life and Times of a U.S. President.”

This just seems wrong to me.  It looks like I am asserting that the period is part of the title of the film.  So do I really have to do it that way?

I’m sorry, because I do feel your pain, but the answer is yes. This is the convention that we use in the US. In the UK, it is the opposite, that is, periods and commas are generally outside the quotation marks and are only inside the quotation marks if they are part of the quotation. It is very telling that grammarians call the US method ‘conventional’ and the UK method, ‘logical.’

I agree with our pained writer that the US form tends to defy logic, but there is some logic to why this style was originally developed. The convention started centuries ago and had to do with typography and the printing process. There are different stories about the origin of the conventional style of using punctuation within quotation marks. One story holds that aesthetic concerns were responsible—they hold that it was more attractive to have the punctuation inside the quotes instead of hanging outside in the cold. [NOTE: I have to agree; to me, it is more pleasing but then again, I learned to read in the US, and it might just be that I am used to seeing type this way.] Another story is that the method was the result of the low print quality of newspapers—that periods and commas were difficult to see in smudgy news copy. The last story I heard has to do with mechanical printing and movable (and as result, reusable) type and espouses that putting the punctuation outside the parentheses often resulted in punctuation being broken away from the attached quotation marks: “, being more fragile than ,” — regardless, only the first possibility recounted here still holds, since printing is now almost universally computer-driven.

Still, the convention persists and has no appearance of going away anytime soon. I agree with the writer that the example is problematic:

This is a more disturbing film than “The Life and Times of a U.S. President.”

I would probably resolve this by rewriting the sentence to avoid the awkward structure, e.g.,

I found “The Life and Times of a U.S. President” to be a less disturbing film.

Alternatively, we could italicize  the title instead of using quotes. In general, the rule is to italicize longer works (e.g., book titles) and to put quotation marks around shorter works (e.g., chapter titles) However, I’ve seen contradictory “rules” about film titles; some say to use quotation marks (e.g., AP Style Manual), and others say to use italics (e.g., Chicago Manual of Style).

This is a more disturbing film than The Life and Times of a U.S. President.

 Using italics helps make the sentence more graceful. So keep in mind, when you have a sentence you are uncomfortable with, there are generally ways to rewrite it or reformat it that will bring you peace of mind.

 Tip 2: Using bullet points

Bullet points can be very useful for written communication. They highlight important material. They can be quickly read. They present critical points clearly.  They break up long pieces of text. Done well, they are succinct.

Or I could have written it this way:

Bullet points can be very useful for written communication:

  • They highlight important material.
  • They can be quickly read.
  • They present critical points clearly.
  • They break up long pieces of text.
  • Done well, they are succinct.

The “rules” around the use of bullets are changing all the time, and they are often conflicting. I am going to present some guidelines that make sense to me for proposal writing, in particular, and for writing in general.

First of all, I am going to slash a rule, that was drummed into me many years ago and that I have faithfully followed until recently. This is the rule:

When you have a set of bullets introduced by a statement with a colon, end each bullet with a semicolon, and add the word ‘and’ before the final bullet.

So why am I willing to kill this rule now? It’s simple: it makes no sense. If the beauty of bullets is that they are short, clear, and to the point, why mess it up with fussy punctuation? That’s plain silly.

The main thing to keep in mind when you are using bullets is consistency. They should be parallel in terms of format, capitalization, punctuation, and length.

  • If one bullet in a list is a sentence fragment, make all of the bullets sentence fragments.
  • If one bullet in a list is a complete sentence, make all of the bullets complete sentences.
  • All bullets (whether sentence fragments or complete sentences) should start with a capital letter.
  • All bullets (whether sentence fragments or complete sentences) should end with a period.

[NOTE: That was a hard one, and I could have gone either way, but this was my fallback position since it is easy to remember, and once memorized, we wouldn’t have to think about whether to punctuate or not.]

  • All bullets should have consistent structure with respect to starting with nouns or verbs.
  • All bullets should be of a similar length. (Since there is no hierarchy in a bulleted list, having a very long bullet among shorter ones would give more emphasis to the longer bullet.)
  • All bullets should be relatively short. (If we want to meet the bullet’s goals of easy readability, brevity, and clarity, we don’t want to get lost in long complex thoughts.)
  • All bullets should be simple, and you should avoid bullets that are fancied up (⌘v✪★) and might be a distraction for the reader.
  • All bullet points should be related. (All should be associated with the same topic.)
  • All bulleted lists should be kept pretty short. (A long page of bullets would get boring in a hurry.)
  • All bullets should be indented. (The obvious exception to this is in proposal writing—there, we need every bit of space we can get.)

Keep in mind that bullet points are effective in communicating information,  but they are not warm and fuzzy, and they will not be helpful is your goal is to create a rapport with your audience.

And that’s about it. If you don’t like these guidelines, don’t fret. Change is happening all of the time.

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