English is my second language, as you all know by now. And some may have realized that mine is a mix of British and American vocabulary. Go figure! My teachers back in the day taught us German students British English with as much of an RP accent as possible. Most of them were good teachers. But in one respect, they left their students totally in the lurch: punctuation.
German punctuation, at least when I went to school, was easy to learn (if you learned easily) because of its rigid and logical rules. I still go by them and can still explain each and every occurrence of punctuation in German. The trouble is – our English teachers left it at that. We used German punctuation for the English language, never having a clue that this wouldn’t work for a native speaker. Woe for this writer, who creates her texts in English and might upset other writers who are just as precise about placing their punctuation.
But here’s the deal: Give me an explanation why, and I’m ready to apply it. I know, that English quotation marks, e.g., don’t start a quote at the bottom and end it at the top; they are both at the top. Question marks and exclamation marks as well as (semi)colons work the same as in German – except that you use colons in book titles where they separate the main from the subtitle. In German it used to be a period. And German uses a colon before direct speech instead of a comma in English.
My big trouble are commas and periods. Of course, I know that a subordinate aka dependent clause is separated from the main clause by a comma if it starts the sentence. And I know that there is no comma when it follows the main clause unless it changes the meaning of the entire sentence or bewilders the reader. My trouble are these commas and periods that come in connection with italics and/or quotation marks.
Direct speech is just one example. Why is there a comma BEFORE quotation marks, not after? Example: “This article will lead the reader ad absurdum pondering punctuation,” said the author. In my mind, I said that sentence with a period, as an entity. So, my full quotation ought to have a period inside the quotation marks (there isn’t one in German either, by the way), not a comma. And if a comma, why not outside the quote?!
Readers of my new column “In the Book Nook with …” may have realized that there are no italics when it comes to book titles. Just as in any traditional newspaper article. Well, nowadays, this might have changed – with computerized technology, print media probably have no trouble in featuring italics. But I have to use quotation marks instead. Which lands me with book titles in quotation marks and commas and periods meddling with my mind.
Example: I have read the entire “Ulysses”! Yay for me, indeed, I have. (I use this title because it is not even remotely a sentence.)
Example: Have you really read “Ulysses”? Also, very logical as to punctuation. (And why? It was on the book list of one of my university classes.)
Example (here comes!): I have read “Ulysses,” which I would probably not have attempted just for the fun of it. But “Finnegan’s Wake” is even a more challenging read than “Ulysses.”
Why am I suggested to place a comma or a period INSIDE the quotation marks when the original title, just a name, contains no such thing? Has it suddenly stopped being an entity? And where does this leave me with titles such as “Absalom, Absalom!,” “O Pioneers!,” or others ending with a different punctuation mark. And do you see the punctuation salad between the titles in this last sentence?! Is it even correct? Or shouldn’t it read, “Absalom, Absalom!”, “O Pioneers!”, and others?
Alas, an immigrant, a writer, at that, I, though bent on doing better, can’t find any logical explanation. Do you have any for me? Meanwhile, if I have forgotten or misplaced any punctuation, please, let me make up to you by offering you these for free: , , , , . . .