Wednesday, March 11, 2009

British Punctuation And Books

As anyone who has read one of my unedited stories or an email from me can tell you, I am to punctuation as Dubya is to speechifying (sic). Proper punctuation and me are lost to each other, we circle each other like strange dogs and bare teeth...each unsure whether to outright attack or sniff...never mind. Holy sh*t, speechifying is actually a word!

At any rate, I still don't have a handle on all that Messrs. Strunk and White were trying to impart, yet they know me well as bastard that is making their graves spin faster than all of the satellites in Earth's orbit combined.

So last January, I was reading "The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh and while it said it was the U.S. edition, something was odd about it..., not the book itself mind you. It's a nice piece of neo-noir about Scottish magician that runs into a spot of trouble in London and he scores what seems like fortuitous gig in Berlin, Germany...or is he better off in another country? I said it's "neo-noir," so you know that all does not go well.

As I said, the book itself is fine, it was something else that was off, it was the punctuation-

'There's something I'd like to know.'

He played with his glass, not taking a sip from it, just looking into the brown liquid as if the answer might lie amongst the bubbles. Curiosity and the dangerous faint hope of an easy score kept me in my seat.

'Go on.'

'I'd like to know what Inspector Montgomery had on my dad.'

The sentence hung in the air, a bridge between Bill's world and mine. A bridge that I wasn't sure that I wanted to cross.

Eventually I said, 'So why don't you ask him?'

'It's not as simple as that.'

'Sorry to hear it.' I reached for my jacket. 'I'm in the entertainment game. Complicated isn't my scene.'

Okay, what's wrong with this picture? Did you see it? Single quotation marks. They created our language and they use single quotation marks?

I can understand using "s" instead of "z," such as in the Brit usage of "organisation," actually, no I can't. Still, I've gotten used to seeing the letter "s" in unexpected places, and half the fun of reading British and Irish crime fiction, is translating the idioms and pop culture references.

Yet as I read Brit and Irish crime fiction, I keep asking myself, what spun this singular quotation mark usage off? A stylistic choice? A type-set error way back in the day? An odd effort to save ink?

And conversely, why do we have two quotation marks, if the English language was born in Britain?

Any thoughts, theories or snark (not directed at me (sic) writing, mind you) would be appreciated.


Paul Brazill said...

I blame the French!

Cormac Brown said...

Paulie Decibels,

I would too, but when they call me "Rôs Bif Américain" when I taunt them, it takes everything in power not to break down in tears.

rebecca said...

you want to read something that will really make you want to scream? Go pick up a copy of Jose Saramango's Blindness. There are sentences that run for an entire page with little punctuation; you never know "who" is speaking because everything morphs into itself. At the beginning I found the style hard to read, but once I got past it, it was for naught. Though the theme was excellent, I found the graphic narration very hard to deal with. Suffice to say I never did finish reading it and it is on my bookshelf collecting dust.

Cormac Brown said...


Welcome, and barring being on a deserted island, there is no way I could read "Blindess" in that would lead me to madness. Often when I read, there is all sorts of commotion going on, both at home and at work, undertaking prose like that would just drive me out of my skull.

Gifted Typist said...

Egads Cormac, you are right.

And do you want to hear more?

I just pulled a collection of one of my fave British columnists John O'Farrell and saw that not only do they use singular quotation marks
but (you'd better sit down for this)
When they quote inside a quote, they use double quotes!

'I can't believe he said "use double quotes" to the children in the grade three class,' she said, breathlessly.

That's just wrong. Singles are used inside of doubles, no?

You have educated me. I am forever in your debt sir.

Cormac Brown said...


"When they quote inside a quote, they use double quotes!"

Good gravy, if six were nine? It would be British.

"You have educated me. I am forever in your debt sir."

Just make that check payable to "Rôs Bif Américain."

Katie Schwartz said...

I sat my A-levels in the UK and one of the classes I took was Literature. I don't recall single quotation marks as being acceptable.

As to your grammar, I disagree. you have awesome grammar. I wish I was grammatically correct as you are. I've read many, many, maaaaany of your yarns and I believe I can say this with confidence.

Cormac Brown said...


I don't remember that either and I've read plenty of English and Irish books that were American editions. I wondered if this were an anomaly, but the single quotation mark phenomena happened in the U.S. version of Ken Bruen's "Ammunition," but not the U.S. version of Bruen's "The Guards: A Novel."

I guess either is acceptible over there.

"I wish I was grammatically correct as you are. I've read many, many, maaaaany of your yarns and I believe I can say this with confidence."

Ha, you're too kind!

Paul Brazill said...

I was dabbling with the no quotation marks thing. Some writers have used this;I remember colin wilson's Ritual In The Dark doesn't use quotation marks. But, anyway, only one quotation mark looks correct to me. When i teach writing to EFL students -which is once in a very blue moon- almost all the books say one mark but two for reported speech! Doesn't help, does it?

( By the way, I once lent a great book of American short stories to a Polish student. When it came back she'd 'corrected' all the 'mistakes'- mainly US English spelling!)

Cormac Brown said...

Paulie Decibels,

Thanks, that does give me some insight.

BTW, it would drive me momentarily nuts if someone "corrected" my books like that. Not because of the corrections, per se, but the fact that they wrote in the book.

Princess LadyBug said...

What is this punctuation you speak of?

Cormac Brown said...


It's a small town just off the map that only a few people know how to get to. Me? My GPS is permanently on the fritz.