September 21, 2007

Punctuational hypercorrection

It's the tiniest of things, but it still caught my eye: the punctuation at the end of this paragraph from Gail Collins's op-ed piece "McCain's Midnight Ride" (NYT of 9/20/07):

Here's the great thing about playing the role of Cassandra. We're not supposed to hold the four years of lost lives, international chaos and missed chances against John McCain because he always knew it was going badly. He said it on "Meet the Press!"

I did confirm my recollection that the name of the show is "Meet the Press", not "Meet the Press!".

How did that exclamation point get into the name of the show?  By punctuational hypercorrection: someone involved in the production of the column -- Collins herself or, more likely, a copyeditor -- overapplied the rule of punctuation (followed in most American publications, including the NYT) that says that certain punctuation marks should go inside closing quotation marks, even when they weren't in the quoted material.   This style rule applies only to periods and commas, however; other marks go inside closing quotation marks only if they were in the quoted material.  That last sentence should go: He said it on "Meet the Press"!

(Two remarks: (a) the hypercorrect punctuation was in the print edition and was still in the on-line edition this morning; and (b) you will note that I don't follow the rule myself.)

[Addendum: several readers have suggested that the exclamation point doesn't originate outside the title "Meet the Press" (which is my understanding of Collins's intentions), but was inserted into the title by someone who, believing that imperative sentences should end in exclamation points, altered the name of the program to make it fit this "rule".  Now, in some languages, the conventions of punctuation generally call for exclamation points in imperatives, but English is not such a language.  In English, an exclamation point conveys urgency ("Stop now!") or enthusiasm (the album "Meet the Beatles!"), and a great many imperatives lack them, as in the movie titles (chosen from a great many such) "Meet Dr. Christian" (1939), "Meet John Doe" (1941), "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944), "Meet Miss Bobby Socks" (1944), "Meet the Navy" (1946), "Meet Me Tonight" (1952), and "Meet the Fockers" (2005), all with imperative "meet".  I'd hope that writers and editors for the NYT would not be ignorant of these facts about English punctuation, and also that they would not alter significant aspects of the form of titles (this is a case where faithfulness should win over well-formedness).]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 21, 2007 10:19 AM