Department header
Bewildering Stories

Jots and Tittles

with Michael E. Lloyd and Don Webb

Editors Michael E. Lloyd and Don Webb discuss
To Be and Not ‘To be’,” in issue 320.

Page index

About quotation marks:

[M.E.L.] British writers and publishers used to employ double quotation marks for primary direct speech, but the practice died out many decades ago. I have in front of me a 1943-printed Penguin edition of an Evelyn Waugh story, where single quotation marks are used. I don’t have any older 20th-century printed texts to hand right now, but I’d guess the move from double to single quotation marks came some time between the wars.

Dickens’ first editions certainly used double marks, and there’s no doubt that to our eyes the American way looks very Victorian and heavy! Every modern British reprint of Dickens, Austen and all other writers uses single marks.

In addition to the corresponding use of double quotation marks for nested quotes, [...] it’s also fairly standard practice over here to use double marks for “quoted items” within any type of text, as I have just illustrated in this sentence.

[D.W.] I’ll cheerfully admit that the single-quote style has the charm of economy. And it has a logic that I have yet to find in French punctuation, where it’s sometimes hard to tell where a quotation leaves off and its speech tag begins. The formal quotation marks, the guillemets (« and »), are so heavy they’re not normally used for dialogue: they look like the gates of Versailles; no wonder nobody uses them unless they absolutely have to.

I guess North American style will just have to go on looking “Victorian.” Oh the irony: Noah Webster changed American spelling as his contribution to the American Revolution. And yet American speech — in whichever of its many dialects — still sounds very “old-fashioned” to the British.

About suspension points:

[M.E.L.] Again, I can refer to my 1943 printing of an Evelyn Waugh story. A single space between any word and a following set of “three dots” is standard throughout that edition, whether the dots act as suspension points or ellipses.

[D.W.] I won’t say that’s a formula for disaster, exactly, but it is typographical homonymy: three dots leaving the reader wondering whether the speaker choked or the editor deleted something.

[M.E.L.] Concatenating suspension points to a word, with no space (as in American usage), looks very unnatural to us, as if the writer could not make up his or her mind between a full stop (period) and a suspension ...

[D.W.] Maybe North American style snuggles the suspension points up against the last word for exactly the reason you say: they’re “dither points”! They indicate that the speaker might say something more but can’t quite get around to it.

[M.E.L.] The French usage of [...] does indeed solve the BwS problem perfectly for American eyes. A rare typographical event.

[D.W.] Indeed, it’s one of those strokes of genius that excuse all other bewilderments.

About relative pronouns:

[M.E.L.] It’s certainly the case that common British usage now makes little distinction between “that” and “which” as in the example above (although the formal distinction remains, and can and should be exploited when necessary, as in American).

However, it’s not right to assert that “that” has become obsolete as a relative pronoun in British. It is still used with regularity, and sometimes feels much better than “which” does, in context, e.g. ‘Choose the watch that most takes your fancy.’ Style often wins the day.

[D.W.] From what you say, Mike, I gather that the distinction in meaning between “which” and “that” has collapsed and that the choice of the two relative pronouns is now merely a matter of taste.

But language does not allow true synonyms. In British, either “which” or “that” will become obsolete as a relative pronoun, and “that” seems to be on its way out. The same is not about to happen in North American: both “which” and “that” will continue to function as relative pronouns as long as they differ in meaning.

[M.E.L.] It would be better to suggest that “that” can often feel a little weak to us, in context. So, either:

[D.W.] Aha, I espy “dither points.” Or are they an ellipsis? But the essential here is that the relative pronoun “that” “sounds weak.” I can understand why it might:

Maybe British usage is simply trying to balance the work load between the two.

And English grammar sometimes holds surprises. In which of the following may “that” be omitted:

  1. The train that is arriving is the Orient Express.
  2. The train that the passengers are boarding is the Orient Express.
  3. The train that they are boarding is the Orient Express.

The answer is: 2 and 3.

  1. “That” is obligatory; it’s the subject of “is arriving,” and every verb must have a subject.
  2. “The train the passengers are boarding [...]” may not pass for elegant in most quarters, but it is grammatical.
  3. “The train they are boarding [...]” is preferred; the relative pronoun “that” is normally omitted before a subject pronoun such as “they.”

The relative pronoun is optional when used as a direct object. That’s not my rule, it’s just the way the language works.

[M.E.L.] To turn the tables, however: American usage is now perfectly happy with the use of “that” as a personal relative pronoun. But British readers and writers physically shudder at the utterly impersonal nature of American usage in “the man that phoned me” or “the woman that I see in the distance”. For us, it must be “who” or “whom” respectively, or again (usually by preference, and always in speech) nothing at all.

[D.W.] I must object to “now.” In the history of the language, “The man who phoned me” and “The woman whom I see in the distance” are a recent innovation. “Who” and “whom” were originally interrogative pronouns only: “Who phoned?” “Whom do you see?” Their use as relative pronouns is a hypercorrection that happened to catch on.

Don’t hold us to Anglo-Saxon, where the relative pronoun was þe, but “The man that phoned me” and “The woman that I see” are echt English. Noah Webster could tinker a bit with spelling, but he could not change usage, which, in North America, remains in some ways quite conservative — or “old-fashioned,” if you wish.

About grammar, “than”:

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.”

[M.E.L.] The American usage is correct, of course, and to be applauded. But say that example out loud over here nowadays, and you’ll mark yourself out as aiming to be distinguished, and the result will not be pretty.

[D.W.] Egads, Mike, I’ll remember to say “than him” next time I’m in Merrye Olde Englande. I would not want inadvertently to cause anyone to make a distinkt about it.

[M.E.L.] The simple and most elegant solution (for both writers and speakers) is to revert to the full construction: ‘Jill is taller than he is.’

[D.W.] Please tell that to the science fiction author Peter F. Hamilton. He positively dotes on “than him” and “than them,” etc. I felt like writing him a letter.

On capitalization:

[M.E.L.] The American way took a bit of getting used to (remember the original typography of my first novel’s sub-title, Don?), but I’ve adopted it fully myself now!

[D.W.] Ah yes, “Singing of Promises,” of fond memory. At first I thought lower-cased “Singing of promises” was the first line of the text and had gotten misplaced somehow.

[M.E.L.] But over here it’s not actually as black and white as you suggest. I have the original British Pan paperback of Douglas Adams’ first story (printed in 1979), and on the inside title page it reads: The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

[D.W.] Shocking, or almost: I would have expected “Hitchhiker’s.” A hitch hiker is someone who (or that) hikes hitches; a hitchhiker is someone who thumbs a ride.

[M.E.L.] Most significantly, though, the issue is usually avoided over here by capitalising the entire title, on the outside covers and everywhere else, e.g. Waugh’s PUT OUT MORE FLAGS.

[D.W.] Many of our contributors write their own titles in full caps. I don’t mind; both Mariner Write and PageSpinner have a macro that converts them to word caps. Full caps for titles we are not going to use.

About initials:

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.”

[M.E.L.] I’ll drink to that. I’ve needed to make polite but firm requests on many occasions to have the full stop (period) (re)-inserted into my formal author’s name. Frankly, most of the time the omission was simply due to careless reading on the part of the culprit. But thereby lurks a much bigger subject ...

[D.W.] You have my every sympathy, Mike. Colin P (or P.) Davies may differ, as may Oonah V (or V.) Joslin or Robert N (or N.) Stephenson. It’s gotten to the point I don’t know what to think. We’ll fall back on standard style unless asked to do otherwise. As the French say, Un point, c’est tout — ‘Period and end of sentence’.

Copyright © 2009 by Michael E. Lloyd
and Don Webb

Home Page