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Bewildering Stories

“To Be” and Not ‘To be’

by Don Webb

A truly Bewildering disquisition on fine points of grammar and style. But flee not: stay with us till the end, because you may find out how we read your name...

Our Style Manual says: “Bewildering Stories respects both British and American usage. Contributors may use either or both.” And we have cheerfully done so, as esteemed contributors such as Michael E. Lloyd and Colin P Davies (or Colin P. Davies) can attest. However, George Bernard Shaw (or G. B. Shaw or G B Shaw) was right to note that England and America are separated by the same language. For example:

Quotation marks:
British and North American quotation marks are, for all practical purposes, the exact opposite:

In North American: “Didn’t George say, ‘Hello, Joe’?” Jim asked. — The bigger quotation marks mark the primary quote; the smaller, a quote within a quote.
In British: ‘Didn’t George say, “Hello, Joe”?’ Jim asked. — Proceed 1-2.

Suspension points:
In British: ‘I know what you mean ... I think.’ The suspension points “float.”
In North American: “I know what you mean... I think.”
The suspension points are attached to the last word; if they’re not, they’re ellipses, which indicate that text has been omitted.

Confusion is inevitable. To avoid it, Bewildering Stories has adopted the French style to indicate omitted text, namely three points between brackets, thus: [...].

Relative pronouns:
In British, the relative pronoun “that” has become obsolete; only “which” is used any more:

British: ‘Attention, class: answer all the questions which begin with “what”.’
North American: “Okay, class, answer all the questions that begin with ‘what’.”

North American style retains the distinction between “that” (essential) and “which” (incidental).

American exchange students in a British classroom would look at the quiz and be puzzled to note that some questions begin with “who,” “where,” “why,” etc. And they would reasonably say, “But not all the questions begin with ‘what’.” A row would naturally ensue if the instructor did not realize that the students had heard: “Answer all the questions, which begin with ‘what’.” That is, “Answer all the questions, and they all begin with ‘what’.”

Less confusing but grammatically jarring: in British, “than” has become a preposition. “Jill is taller than him.” Ouch. In North America, “than” remains a conjunction only: “Jill is taller than he.”

So far, North America and the British Commonwealth countries can still understand each other. But we have to draw the line when usage begins to make Bewildering Stories’ indexes chaotic.

We seem to agree on book titles, thus: Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Pride and Prejudice. But titles included in a larger work take lower case in British: “The three little pigs” or “Goldilicks and the three bears.” That also seems to be the case with stand-alone poems.

The usage may have been borrowed from the Romance languages, where the title of even so monumental a novel as Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu begins with a capital À and that’s all, thank you very much. (There is a reason for it, but believe me, you’d rather have an explanation of Calabi-Yau shapes in string theory.)

Bewildering Stories adheres to North American style, in which all the important words in any title are capitalized, thus: Remembrance of Things Past and “The Three Little Pigs.”

Finally, we’ve been receiving submissions in which authors’ middle initials are bereft of punctuation, thus: “George W Bush,” etc.

In North American style, initials are always punctuated, e.g. “George W. Bush,” because the initial indicates the first letter of a complete word. Exception: “Harry S Truman” is properly written without punctuation because he had no middle name; the letter “S” is not an abbreviation.

In the on-line schedule “In Times to Come” (sorry, not ‘In times to come’), I’ll have to stop omitting punctuation in names where it’s called for. The omission saves space but causes confusion. And I’m going to start adding punctuation to authors’ initials everywhere unless the authors tell me that their initial is like Harry S Truman’s and doesn’t stand for anything.

Of course we’ll have a grandfather clause. Or, in the case of our dear friend and colleague RD Larson, a grandmother clause, because she always goes by “RD,” which has practically become a word in itself: “Ardie.”

Copyright © 2009 by Don Webb for Bewildering Stories

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