Technical Writing: When Style Clashes with Clarity

Standard

Before Mignon Fogarty became known as Grammar Girl, she worked as a technical writer and editor specializing in biotechnology and pharmaceutical drug development. She is the author of the new books Grammar Girl’s 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again and Grammar Girl’s 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know.

It’s a relatively common technical writing problem: You’re working on a document that contains instructions, but when you get to the end of the sentence, you don’t know where to put the period:

Open the launch box and type “Death Star.”
Open the launch box and type “Death Star”.

Periods and Commas Go Inside Quotation Marks

In the United States, the period at the end of a sentence goes inside the closing quotation mark–always. The same is true for commas. But if you follow that standard style, your readers could misunderstand and believe they must include the period in the text they enter. How can you ensure that the Death Star gets properly launched?

Use a Different Method to Highlight Text

The best solution is to choose a different method to highlight text. Bold, italics, or another font can all work well:

Open the launch box and type Death Star.
Open the launch box and type Death Star.
Open the launch box and type Death Star.

Clarity Is the Purpose of Style

If your corporate style or client’s style requires you to use quotation marks, it’s OK to put the period or comma outside the closing quotation mark. The purpose of style is generally to make things clear for the reader, so it’s acceptable to deviate from the standards when they hinder clarity.

A Style Sheet Can Help Overcome Objections

If you regularly work with other people, address this problem in your group’s style guide before it comes up in real life. Doing so will make the exception easier for everyone to accept and will ensure that you aren’t perceived as making errors instead of trying to make your text as clear as possible.

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10 thoughts on “Technical Writing: When Style Clashes with Clarity

  1. I don’t think that the examples of your best solution, “Use a Different Method to Highlight Text” examples acutally do what you claim.

    In these examples, shouldn’t only the words “Death” and “Star” be bold (in example 1), italicized (in example 2), and in a different font (in example 3)? Making the entire sentences bold, italicized, or of a different font is essentially the same as the original sentence doing nothing to call attention to the “Death Star” phrase.

    Personally, in this case, I say standards be damned and put the period outside of the quotation marks. The rule makes no sense in this situation.

  2. I’m an Englihs major. It’s been almost 3 years since I graduated. I’ve seen so many people put the period and comma on the wrong side of the quotes I’ve confused myself. Thanks for this reminder. I do need a refresher about question marks, however. Love you Grammar Girl!

  3. Renae Jr.

    As a writing tutor, one question often arises. and I’m not completely sure how to approach it, so I always instruct them to do what makes the most sense in my opinion. If a sentence contains a quoted question, should the period still be placed inside the quotation marks? Which is correct?

    The turist asked, “How do I get to nearest shopping mall?”.
    The turist ask, “How do I get to the nearest shopping mall?.”

    The first seems to be the most logical choice, but please HELP ME GRAMMAR GIRL!

    • You don’t put a period after a question mark OR an exclamation point!
      I asked myself, “If these people claim to be so grammatically proficient, why don’t they already know this rule?”

      The question mark IS the punctuation.

  4. Are we to type the quotation marks along with “Death Star”? If not, don’t include the quotation marks. People will get confused and include them.

    At the prompt, type Death Star.

    If you must include the quotation marks, the period should go outside the quotation marks. Otherwise people will type Death Star. and it will cause an error message!

    When typing dialogue, the period should be enclosed with the quotation mark.

    My mother always said, “Make sure you are wearing clean underwear in case you are in an accident.”

  5. I think we should give our readers a little more credit. I mean, I’m all for clarity, but in the example, it is quite clear what the reader is being asked to do. A screen shot is always helpful, too.

  6. Mark F

    Yes, the standard is that all punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. But the exception is when the quotation marks instruct exactly what a person is to type on a keyboard (or write somewhere else). When writing about computer code, obviously, a quotation mark can be confused with a piece of code. So, in this case, the punctuation goes outside the quotation mark.

    As Mr. Dilbeck pointed out, your alternative solutions about fonts aren’t foolproof because a user cannot tell if the period is in italics, bold, or a different font. That said, if the conventions explained at the beginning of the book or otherwise conveyed about the written product make clear that, for example, all text the user types is in boldface, this should work well and is about the best you can do.

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