Rules Do Change

Spacing after periods, colons, question marks, and exclamation marks

Originally, typewriters had monospaced fonts (skinny letters and fat letters took up the same amount of space), so two spaces after ending punctuation marks such as the period were used to make the text more legible. However, most computer fonts present no difficulty with proportion or legibility, so use just one space after a period, colon, question mark, or exclamation point at the end of a sentence. You will not be struck by lightning, I promise!

Quotation marks and punctuation

In several English-speaking countries besides the USA, a period used with quotation marks follows logic.
Myrtle said the word “darn”.
The period is outside the quotation marks because only the last word was quoted, not the entire sentence.
Myrtle said, “I would never say that.”
The period went inside the quotation marks because this was Myrtle’s entire statement.

Today, in American English usage, the period always goes inside the quotation marks.
Example: Myrtle said the word “darn.”
This does not follow logic, but it makes life easier for those of us who have enough to think about besides punctuation.

As time has gone on, we have shortened some words and dropped the former plural form.
Example: The words memo and memos used to be memorandum and memoranda.

With the word data, we no longer see the singular datum used at all. Data is now often seen with both singular and plural verbs, although the word is considered strictly plural by purists.
The data are being tabulated.
data is useful to the scientists.

Yet other words still retain their original spelling and plural form.
Example: curriculum (singular) and curricula (plural).

In “the old days,” you may have been scolded for starting a sentence with but, and, or because. But you wouldn’t have deserved that scolding. If you start sentences with these words, it’s usually a good idea to follow them with independent clauses.

But she would never say such a thing!
Because of this bee sting, my arm is swollen.

Posted on Friday, December 1, 2006, at 8:54 pm

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18 Comments on Rules Do Change

18 responses to “Rules Do Change”

  1. Tom says:

    I have always done two spaces after a period. You’re making me rethink this a bit. And I’m guessing it’s all right to use not only “but” at the beginning of a sentence but also “or” and “and.” Did I do the previous sentence correctly?

  2. ravi bedi says:

    Will I be wrong in suggesting the following changes in the texts used above:

    1. Grandma’s days…instead of Grandma’s day.
    2. And I’m guessing if it’s all right…

  3. Jane says:

    It’s “Grandma’s day,” not “Grandma’s days” because this is an expression or idiom in the language.
    I’m not sure what you are referring to in your second comment, Ravi.

  4. ravi bedi says:

    Thanks Jane. I had always used ‘days’.

    The second one refers to the second sentence used by Tom.

  5. Pam Kiefert says:

    Which is correct….data was used or data were used?

  6. Jane says:

    “Data was” or “Data were” are both correct. In the old days, “datum” was the singular form of “data” but now “data” is used as both a singular and plural.

  7. Greg Calvert says:

    Some of these rules are merely interpretations and beliefs of rules. Remember that English is not math. Coordinating conjunctions (such as and, but, or, etc.), in my OPINION, should not be used at the beginning of sentences. Save that for the sports writers. As for the two spaces, keep up the traditional interpretation; two spaces much more clearly indicate a new sentence to the reader.

  8. Vay says:

    Sorry to correct you but ‘Datum’ IS still used.
    As a science student, every single lecturer I have had so far is annoyed by the misuse of the word ‘Data’ as a singular form, as ‘datum’ is the singular form and is still in use.

  9. heather daniels says:

    While I disagree with much of the advice given above, (such as starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions is advisable in an academic paper), I have to agree that data can and should be considered singular. In English is possible to have singular nouns which sometimes represent a collective, as in the words class, research, etc. Also, it is normal for a loanword from a foreign language to eventually behave according to the rules of the language which has borrowed it. There is no reason for this word to behave according to the rules of Latin just because it came from Latin. If the sciences want to hold on to “datum” let them do so; outside of the sciences, data should be acceptable.

    • Thank you for your comment. It was not our intention to encourage beginning sentences with coordinating conjunctions in an academic paper. We were only acknowledging the acceptability of doing so in American English.

    • Roberto says:

      It’s understandable that it would change, although I still have a preference for preserving the Latin behavior. Datum/data, medium/media, vertebra/vertebrae, alumnus/alumni, phenomenon/phenomena (Latinized Greek). English is such a hodgepodge of languages roots, I find it rather charming that it has these idiosyncrasies.

  10. Rose W. says:

    Just needing a bit of clarification.

    I noticed that in several documents and letters we have received, people are only putting one space after periods. I assume this is to save space on i-pads and such. Is there a new rule for this trend or just people using short cuts?

    • With the near universal use of computers to produce letters and documents, it is now standard to place only one space between sentences after any punctuation. It is not really to save space. It’s because skinny letters take up less space than fat letters with a computer. On a typewriter, each letter was allotted the space of the widest letter. Because this created big spaces between some letters, you needed an even bigger space to show that you’d reached the end of a sentence.

  11. Mary DCF says:

    What an interesting post!
    Thanks for sharing!
    Let’s spread the word, helping foreigners and even natives to avoid mistakes!
    Thanks once again!

  12. Lawrence Cook says:

    Where have all the commas gone? I had a 4.0 gpa in college, and always used a comma before and, because, and all other conjunctives. Where has this rule gone? Has it just fallen off of the planet? A better question is why did I not get corrected even once for doing that? Now I cannot find the rule anywhere in history.

    • You may be overgeneralizing what you were taught. For example, you wouldn’t “always” use a comma before and: Lawrence and his sister went shopping.
      In our Rule 1 of Commas, you’ll see that we agree with you in that we recommend using the comma before and in a series to avoid misunderstandings. However, newspapers and magazines commonly omit this comma (sometimes referred to as the Oxford comma). Newspapers and magazines generally follow the Associated Press Stylebook, which recommends omitting the comma before and in a simple series unless omitting the comma may make the meaning unclear.
      Also see Rules 3b and 3c. You should use a comma before a conjunction to separate two independent clauses: He entered his apartment, and he shut the door. However, do not use a comma if the subject is not repeated in front of the second verb: He entered his apartment and shut the door.

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