How is your grandmother’s roast like a period inside a quote mark?
Somewhere along my path as a kid I heard the following story. Many of you probably have also. A youngster is watching his mother prepare the dinner roast. She cuts a chunk off of each end of the roast, sets it in the center of the pan, then surrounds it with potatoes and vegetables. He asks her why she cut the ends off. She tells him she learned how to cook from her mother, and that was how her mother did it. He asks why Grandma did that. Mom doesn’t know.
When Grandma arrives, he tells her that Mom has something to ask her and takes her into the kitchen. Mom asks. Grandma replies, “Because I only had a small pan, and the roast was always too big.”
In the case of the roast, the action had outlived the reason. Mom’s pan was big enough. The same lack of logic holds true for the period inside a closing quote mark.
Consider the following sentence.
The audience loved it when he sang “Stardust.”
A song title belongs in quotes, but the period certainly isn’t part of the title, yet Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) (and also AP, MLA and Strunk) wants the period inside the quote mark. The same rule applies to a comma. The rule for a question mark and an exclamation point are more reasonable. Both appear inside the quote mark if they belong to the quote and outside if they do not. Other punctuation, such as a semicolon or a dash, always appear outside the quote mark. So why not periods?
The reason has to do with typesetters. In the pre-digital era, type spaces were fixed width, and placing the period outside the quote mark would leave what looked to be an extra space.
William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, writing in 1959, noted that “[t]ypographical usage dictates the comma [or period] be inside the marks, though logically it seems not to belong there.”
In today’s digital world, just like Grandma’s roast, the reason is obsolete. In the early 1900s, the British decided to move into the modern age and place the period outside of the quote mark. But this placement is still traditional in the United States. We on the other side of the pond haven’t given in to logic. Did someone say metric system?