Punctuation, Schmunctuation!


26 January 2014

In the citation world, most sins against punctuation, capitalization, and stuff of that ilk are pretty venial. Occasionally, they matter. Sometimes they matter greatly. Consider this pair:

  • Mollie Mucklefuss, “Recollections of a Life on a Wagon Train, through the Eyes of a Child” (Sacramento, 1880).
  • Mollie Mucklefuss, Recollections of a Life on a Wagon Train, through the Eyes of a Child (Sacramento, 1880).

Did you spot the difference between the two citations? One title has quotation marks around it, the other drops those marks and substitutes italics. Does it matter?  Would it affect our future research, or someone else's? Yes and Yes. The two basic issues involved here are these:

  • Italics, when used for the title of a work, tell readers that this is a “standalone” publication—a book, a CD, a website, or published microform.
  • Quotation marks, when used for the title, tell us that it’s (A) an unpublished manuscript; or (B) an article/chapter (i.e., a dependent part) of a larger work (book, journal, website, etc.) that has been published.  In the case of the quoted title above, the other details in the citation inform us that we’re dealing with Option A, an unpublished manuscript. If that authored work by Mollie Mucklefuss had been an article published in a journal, or as a chapter in a book, then the citation would have also identified the book or the journal.

As for why it matters:  future readers of our work, who need to locate material we have used, will have a clear idea as to where to go to find it. For that matter, if this is a long-term project, then a bit down the road we may need to reconsult that material and we will appreciate our having made the effort to properly identify the source. That's because

  • Catalogs for books (such as Library or Congress or WorldCat.org)  rarely carry unpublished manuscripts or individual articles (unless the article has been reissued as a standalone booklet).
  • Catalogs for manuscripts (such as the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, also at LOC) don’t carry published books.
  • Catalogs for periodical literature such as journal and magazine articles (e.g., PERSI—aka Periodical Source Index) rarely include books, other than book reviews.

Yesteryear’s people had a saying: “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Resource catalogs operate on that same principle. If we, as researchers, know what something is, then we know the direction to go to seek it. When it comes to citations, a nitpicky little thing such as italics vs. quotation marks, really does make a difference in our “understanding” of source materials and how to use them.



EE 2.68 provides other guidance about the situations in which italics should or should not be used.