Monday, November 5, 2012

Grammar ABCs: Q is for Quotes

In recent years, I’ve read a couple of books by highly-acclaimed literary authors who use no punctuation. Well, almost none. They don’t use quotation marks for dialogue. Cormack McCarthy is one, and I do not want to read another of his books because it drives me absolutely crazy. (And that’s a short trip!)

 On the other hand, the novel Dirt Music by Tim Winton didn’t bother me as much. I think because the dialogue was properly attributed with actions, reactions or taglines. And the author started a new paragraph for each new speaker. McCarthy doesn’t always, and sometimes refers to two different characters as “he” a couple of times within the same paragraph. Confusing? To say the least.

That said, McCarthy is a best-selling author and has won many awards. He knows his literature and he knows the rules. I always tell my writing students and editing clients that it may seem like we are spending a lot of time on “rules” when maybe we should be concentrating on writing. But…we need to KNOW the rules to know when to effectively break them. And that takes a lot of practice. I don’t recommend it for new writers or even intermediate writers.

So a few basics. (I won’t get into every rule concerning quotes. That’s what your Chicago Manual of Style or Little, Brown Handbook is for.)

A double quote mark is used for direct quotations, whether it is dialogue or quoting the exact words of an original writing. “Life remains a very efficient therapist,” said Karen Smith. (Note that when using a tagline—said—a comma is used inside the quote marks. If you use an action instead of a tagline, you would use a period.) “Life is an efficient therapist.” Karen stared out the window. “Sometimes a little too efficient.”

Many writers use single quotes in trying to differentiate thoughts from spoken dialogue. That is not correct. A single quote is used only to enclose a quotation within a quote. Example: “In formulating any philosophy,” Woody Allen writes, “the first consideration must always be: What can we know? Descartes hinted at the problem when he wrote, ‘My mind can never know my body, although it has become quite friendly with my leg.’” (Note the single quote plus the double quote at the end of the sentence, with the period inside.)

In addition to quotes with dialogue, titles of short works are enclosed in quotation marks: Songs, short stories, short poems, magazine articles, essays, TV episode, chapter names in books. (Larger works, such as books, plays, magazine names, and movies are italicized.)

Quote marks may also be used with words being used in a special sense. Example: On movies sets movable “wild walls” make a one-walled room seem four-walled on film. Again, these are double quote marks.

What are your concerns or tips about quotes?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.     
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  1. So many people need this post Heidi, I'm glad you're addressing it. Almost every write I know is shy about putting a period inside both a single and double quote as you did in your Allen/Descartes quote—they'd so much rather close the single quote, add the period, and then use the double quote.

    The literary writers who mess with standard quotation mark usage drive me batty at first, too, but I find if I can hang in there for a chapter or two, I do get the hang of it. I find that the tolerances for such "hanging in" are individual and extreme, though, so any writer choosing to do so should realize they may be losing readers because of the choice.

  2. My stumbling block is always the quotes vs italics for television shows, song titles, etc. No matter how many times I check the rules, it won't stick, so I either look it up again or ask my editor.

    My other stumbling block is where to put the punctuation if the quote marks aren't for dialogue, and whether to leave a space between single and double quotes when your character is quoting someone at the end of a line of dialogue, because seeing three of those marks is confusing to the eye. Usually, I'll do a write around.

    Trying to get creative with the rules, as Kathryn said, is more likely to drive readers away. We want the story, and we're accustomed to the conventions so we know what's happening.

    Terry's Place

  3. I agree with Kathryn: breaking the rules creates a high risk of losing (aka alienating) readers. A writer must evaluate the practice of breaking any grammar rule in light of the the cost and the purpose. In other words, why?

    Quotation marks are part of our accepted punctuation for a reason — actually, for a number of reasons. Attribution. Dialogue. Titles. And so on. Immediately, the reader knows that the enclosed words are a quote or a title or some other special designation. Without those marks, the meaning or import of the writing may be lost. Or the reader may need to read it multiple times to "get" what the writer is saying. Again, why?

    In my opinion, a writer who chooses this path is a "rebel without a cause." Rather than establishing a new (and incredibly ambiguous) trend, they mark themselves as purveyors of confusion rather than proponents of clarity in a world where the proper written word is falling victim to more visual (and more instant) forms of communication.

    Quote marks? Absolutely! I refuse to edit any manuscript in which the reader purposely violates grammar rules. Its readership is doomed to be miniscule at best, and my editing time increases exponentially as I try to create some sort order in the grammatical chaos.

  4. If you see a hitchhiker on your drive to "crazyville," that'd be me.

  5. And when you quote someone's words, it's called a "quotation" not a "quote". How's that for confusing the issue in one swell foop? I just cringe when people start sharing popular quotes. Bleeeeehhhhh. Terry, FYI, on this blog: Our house rules use italics instead of quotes for titles. This is quite common in publisher style sheets, too.

  6. Also, Linda, keep in mind why certain conventions were born. When machines weren't equipping with italics, we used quotes to show a title. Today, there is simply no reason to, if italics are available on the platform.

  7. Lately, I've been seeing authors use the period between the single quote mark and the double quote mark. And publishers don't seem to be changing it.

  8. Now I have to try and remember all of these good tips. It does get confusing when using quotes.

    Morgan Mandel

  9. This is perfect timing! I have internal dialogue in which the character is explaining a scenario with a second dialogue. What do you recommend I use to differentiate this? Single quotes, italics, or something else all together?

    Here's the paragraph:

    What if we get off at the same floor? Then we’ll probably make eye contact because that’s the way it is when you get off with someone else at the same time. You lock eyes momentarily as if to say, ‘Please, go ahead. No, you go, I insist. Very well, then. Thank you. You’re welcome.’ Maybe I’ll get lucky and we’ll do the eyes-down shoulder shove. Or, what if I get off first and he glances up, because that’s another law of elevator riding – always look to see who gets off first.

  10. Thank you all for dropping in and commenting today. I was in Florida, traveling and didn't find that I was published a day early!

    Terry, it really does seem more logical to put a single quote, then the period and then the double quotes, but...

    Red Shoes, I recommend italics for VERY short internal dialogue (present tense, first person). Many publishers are getting away from use of italics for that however, so if you do use it, use it sparingly. Otherwise it can still be in your character's thoughts, but in 3rd person, past tense.


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