Friday, March 15, 2013

The Confusion Over Quotations Marks and Periods~Blame It on Noah Webster


Do you every wonder why we spell it color not colour, favor not favour, judgment not judgement, odor not odour, apologize not apologise? Do you wonder why Americans put the quotation marks outside the periods not inside like seems logical to me? Want to know why we use double quotation marks [“ ”] when the British use singles [‘ ’]? It is all due to lexicographer Noah Webster (1758-1843).

Webster had two reasons for changing British English into American English: his poor education and belief that America should be different from England. He was born in Hartford, Connecticut and was educated at public schools. He called his teachers in elementary school the “dregs of humanity” (in Britain they would use single quotation marks here) and the learning conditions deplorable. After graduating from Yale University, he taught school for a while and found he could not make a living at it; he also thought the teaching materials were horrible. He studied law under Oliver Ellsworth, later the Chief Justice of U.S. Supreme Court. Opening a law office in the midst of the Revolutionary War, Webster soon realized he could not make a living at practicing law either. Much to our advantage and confusion, he became a lexicographer (from Greek meaning "words" and "to write" i.e., a writer of dictionaries). 

As a young adult during the Revolutionary War, Webster became a strong advocate of the more liberal Federalists instead of the conservative Republicans. He felt that America should shrug off the trappings of the English aristocracy for a society that was for everyman. He felt the new nation had to drop the cultural and speech habits of England for a more relaxed approach to life. He wrote hundreds of essays and newspaper articles advocating the American life.

Paramount to the success of this endeavor (not endeavour), he set about changing grammar, punctuation and spelling. Webster was triumphant in most of his promotions. He is responsible for Americans spelling words without the “u” e.g.,* color and favor and using “-ize” instead of “-ise.” The latter went along with his attempt to change words to reflect their more phonetic sounds. Some examples of words that failed to catch on are: yung, reeding, masheen and tung but theater and plow did. He thought it made more sense to use double quotation marks to indicate written conversation leaving single quotation marks for other uses. He decided periods should logically (really?) be put inside double quotation marks. Type setters of old quickly adapted Webster's use of periods inside double quotation marks because it kept the tiny "." from falling over which is why my spell and grammar checker must be British. It tries to correct me when I put them inside. It irritates me because I agree with the British that periods belong on the outside. For no obvious explicable reason, sources say that British writers and publishers are slowly converting to our use of quotation marks. I say, “Harrumph”. 


In order to earn a living, Webster started a school for children of wealthy New Yorkers. This seems dichotomous to his principles but a fellow does what a fellow has to do. Because his education was so poor and unable to find acceptable teaching materials and books for children, he expounded the American spirit of entrepreneurship and wrote his own. For over 100 years, Webster's books on grammar, reading and spelling were used successfully to teach American children. Commonly called The Blue-back Speller, it sold 77 million copies. Every American child had access to these learning tools, not just the aristocratic families. From the profits of the sale of these books, a half-cent royalty per copy, Webster was able to dedicate eighteen years of his life to writing the first dictionary of American words, An Compendious Dictionary of the English Language published in 1806. Incidentally, trying to protect his work from plagiarism led to the first copyright laws in the United States in 1790. Reports vary on the number of words in the book but do agree that thousands of them had never been published before including skunk, squash and moccasin. 

An American Dictionary of the English Language and thereafter popularly known as Webster's Unabridged, was published in 1828 by Merriam Publishers later to become Merriam-Webster as it is known today. Webster and Mirriam Publishing produced a second edition. He died on May 28,1843 days after compiling another revision. He is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven Connecticut. He was 84 years old. You may visit Webster's house, now a fine museum, 227 Main St., Hartford, CT. An excellent resource for further study of Noah Webster's profound impact on shaping American and American English, is The Forgotten Founding Father Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, by Joshua Kendall, G.P Putnam's Sons, 2001.

So, are hats off to Noah Webster? Understanding the political fervor (not fevour) at the time, I can understand his reasoning on the spelling but continue to have doubts about those quotation marks. What do you think?

*British English does not use a comma after e.g.
Please note: the many resources I consulted had conflicting titles of his books and dates of publication.

2 comments:

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

I insisted on what I considered to be proper spelling during my long and winding road to a B.A. My essays would come back with circled words and I would fight back. When I had the head of the English department tell me, "You are at an American school, and you must use American spelling, or be marked down," I caved and got straight A's from that moment forward. As I continue to live in the U.S. and write in the U.S. I carry on, but when reading books by British, or Canadian authors, I am aware of it all the time. As I never knew much about the historical context, I found this post very interesting. Thank you.

Jennifer Rova said...

Glad you liked the post. My five-year old American niece living in London came home crying because her teacher crossed out "MOM" on her handmade Mother's Day card saying that the correct spelling was "MUM". Webster wrongly created a monster but for the right reasons for the politics of his time. I am much more impressed with his influence on education than on grammar.