Column: Don’t hang your stockings inside the fireplace


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

When you hang your stockings by the chimney with care, do you hang them inside your fireplace, ensuring they’ll achieve flambe status before midnight? I’m guessing you hang stockings outside the fireplace. Only you can prevent stocking fires.

This holiday tip hardly seems like a hack to help you remember something that seems so obvious, but I’m about to apply it to punctuation (and there was great rejoicing among the entire host of grammar angels)!

In the same way you always hang your Christmas stockings on the outside of your fireplace, in most of your writing, you should always put quotation marks on the outside of your punctuation. This applies to a majority of your writing (not all). For instance, you should always put quotation marks outside commas and periods: “I encouraged Buddy to meet his Etch-a-Sketch quota today,” Ming Ming, the North Pole foreman, reported to Santa. “Alas, he only completed 85.” The quotation-marks-inside-punctuation rule also applies to question marks and exclamation points: “Why don’t you just say it?” replied Buddy, clearly noticing Ming Ming was disappointed in his lethargy. “I’m a Cotton-Headed Ninnymuggins!”

If you’re wondering why you see the exact opposite rule applied by people who practice British English, that’s because after they unfairly taxed us without allowing for American parliamentary representation, we pretty much decided to do things the opposite way of the British out of spite: They like tea; we like coffee. They drive on the wrong side of the road; we drive on the right side. They put their punctuation outside of their quotation marks; we put ours on the inside of quotation marks. It’s just another way to celebrate freedom.

Some notable (albeit more rarely used) exceptions to this rule include quotation marks with dashes, colons and semicolons. I’ve heard you say, “I don’t believe in Santa”but as for grandpa and mewe believe. Almost everyone in Central Park was singing along to “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”; when Buddy’s dad joined in, Santa’s sleigh had enough Christmas spirit to fly.

For most of your writing, pretend quotation marks are cute little Christmas stockings, and take care to hang them outside the fireplace (a.k.a. your punctuation). Doing so will severely limit your Christmas Eve chimney fire emergencies.