September 22, 2007

Punctuate this

How right Arnold Zwicky is to refuse to follow the dumb punctuation-sequencing rule that American publishers and copy editors all insist on (occasionally to the point of hypercorrection): the rule that small punctuation marks (the comma and the period but not the question mark or the exclamation mark) should be shifted to the left of any closing quotation mark that they fall next to and would logically be to the right of. Take a look at this nasty, from the Pears & McGuinness translation of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as published in England by Routledge and Kegan Paul (1974 impression, printed in Suffolk by Richard Clay Ltd):

Logic is prior to experience—that something is so. It is prior to the question ‘How?’, not prior to the question ‘What?’

I just happened to notice it this morning while cleaning the apartment (there are Wittgenstein books all over our coffee table right now, because Barbara is going to teach a course on Wittgenstein at the University of Edinburgh next semester). The sentence looks unfinished to me: it doesn't have a final period like it should. But at least the comma is outside the quotation marks around How? as it logically should be. Things get much worse when American publishers reprint such passages.

Here's how that second sentence looks when quoted on page 2 of Richard M. McDonough's book The Argument of the "Tractatus" (the title of which is its own little punctuation conundrum that I'll deal with later):

It is prior to the question ‘How?,’ not prior to the question ‘What?’

But is How?, the question, or is How? the question, the comma being extraneous to it? Surely the comma logically belongs in the structure of the main sentence, not inside the quotation marks where a one-word question (How?) is quoted and used in the main sentence as if it were a noun phrase. Punctuated this way, the sentence looks as if it has neither a comma before the phrase beginning not nor a final period. Ugly.

Here's how I would really like to see the sentence punctuated, if I had been doing the editing myself:

It is prior to the question ‘How?’, not prior to the question ‘What?’.

That makes it clear that the structure of the sentence is It is prior to X, not prior to Y. — it has both a comma and a period in it.

At this point, if you are half the scholar I expect you to be (you are a Language Log reader after all; you do care about such things), you will be wondering if we couldn't go back to the original German and see how things were done there. And of course we can: the Routledge edition is bilingual, German on the left and English on the right, in parallel. But we learn nothing: what Wittgenstein did in German was to coerce the words for how and what into being nouns. He gives them definite articles and capital letters (as German nouns have to have). So we get:

Sie ist vor dem Wie, nicht vor dem Was.

Literally, "It is before the how, not before the what." (You may also be wondering what the hell he means by this statement. But that is not my province. For that you take Barbara's seminar, where you will have a chance to discuss such profoundly difficult matters at length.)

One loose end remains: the correct title of McDonough's book, published by the State University of New York Press. On the cover we see this, in blue:

Its Relevance To Contemporary Theories of
Logic, Language, Mind, and Philosophical Truth

Inside on the title page we see this:

The Argument of the Tractatus
Its relevance to contemporary theories of
logic, language, mind, and philosophical truth

And on the reverse of the title page in the Library of Congress publication data we see a third version:

McDonough, Richard M., 1950—
   The argument of the Tractatus

So are there quotation marks inside the title, or not? I think we have to draw a distinction between the structure of titles and the typographical realization thereof (notice the differential use of Gratuitous Capitalization of Significant Words, which independently supports this conclusion). The main title has the form the argument of X, where in this case the X is the title of another book. We have to make a decision about how to typeset the whole thing. The designer of the cover made one decision, and the designer of the title page made a different one, and both are different from the Library of Congress cataloguers. Bibliographers will probably make a fourth choice, namely this:

McDonough, Richard M. (1986) The argument of the Tractatus. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

In that version, the title is italicized, and the embedded title is identified by dropping of the italics: when you're already in italics you signal the effect of italicization by switching back to plain roman. (There are other books that have to be dealt with in this way; one example is Howard Lasnik's book entitled either Syntactic Structures Revisited (if you're not in italics but you want to italicize the title) or Syntactic Structures Revisited (if you are in italics so you want the title not to be). Personally I find such book titles very typographically annoying. But that's just me.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 22, 2007 07:22 AM