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I despair of Western civilisation

June 9, 2016

I mark a lot of creative writing assignments, and I’ve noticed for some time that many writers – indeed I would say an actual majority – don’t know the rules for setting out and punctuating dialogue. They are often confused about whether the punctuation goes inside or outside the speech marks and they tend not to realise that a new line of dialogue needs to be indented like any other paragraph. But the mistake that annoys me the most, I think, is the persistent uncertainty about whether to capitalise the word that follows the utterance. The rules seem simple enough to me: if the utterance is followed by he said or she said or equivalent, you don’t capitalise (unless of course the next word is a name: Roger said). Moreover the utterance should not terminate with a full stop, but with a comma (or a question mark, or exclamation mark, if that is more appropriate). For example:

“I don’t think much of that hat,” said Phyllis.

Or:

“Take off that ridiculous hat!” said Phyllis.

Or:

“What the hell are you wearing that awful hat for?” asked Phyllis.

However, when the utterance is not followed by he said or equivalent, but a separate action, then you do use a full stop (or question mark or exclamation mark if that is more appropriate), and the next word starts with a capital letter. For example:

“I’ll close my eyes, and when I open them that hat had better be off.” She shut her eyes and counted to three.

Actually now I’ve written those rules out they do seem to be fairly complicated. Nevertheless, they are not secret rules. They are on plain view for all to see in any published novel (well, not Ulysses). It surely takes more effort to diverge from the models in front of one’s eyes than to conform to them. So why do people find it so difficult?

I got a clue to the answer today when I happened to write the line “What the hell am I doing here?” thought Joseph and my Neo Office grammar-check programme inserted a squiggly line under thought. As an experiment I then wrote “What the hell am I doing here?” Thought Joseph and the squiggly line disappeared.

So even the grammar-check programmes don’t know the rules! It’s enough to make one despair of Western civilisation.

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One Comment
  1. Your computer may be following US linguistic practice (even if it is officially set to UK English). A similar point that affects me when drafting contracts is where a sentence is divided in numbered paragraphs such as:
    (a) this one, and
    (b) that one.

    In Microsoft Word, the words “this” and “that” are usually capitalised automatically whether I want them to be or not! This is US practice rather than UK practice.

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