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Vanishing quotation marks: Editor's Notes #379
November 30, 2022

If you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.
—Cormac McCarthy

In this issue:

1. Vanishing quotation marks
2. Tickled my funny bone
3. Interesting Web site
4. Writing prompt

1.Vanishing quotation marks
My recent recreational reading was the launching pad for this issue. The fact that so many excellent writers were not using quotation marks, a convention created to help readers know that someone is speaking, got me thinking.

Not all languages use what we think of as quotation marks, but all those I investigated had some way to indicate that someone is speaking. Different countries using English have different rules for how to differentiate speakers. Some use 'single marks' and others use "doubles".

Technology has influenced the shape of quotation marks. Given how email programs can mess with text, I am not giving you examples, but you may understand if I call them straight quotes and curly quotes. Your word processor will have a default style, and you can usually change to the other in the processor’s preferences.

I can’t put my finger on who invented punctuation marks or when punctuation for dialogue or quotations arose, but I can see that the printing press and subsequently typewriters and now computers have influenced their look and use. World-wide literacy and the Internet allow for lots of linguistic mixing, including punctuation conventions, which brings us to what looks to me like a trend toward putting quotation marks on the shelf.

Don’t get me wrong. I think they’ll be around through my lifetime. But I do see a tendency to dispense with quotation marks. As a practitioner of the the written word, this is something that deserves your consideration.

Remember that your goal is to communicate as clearly as possible. If you remove quotation marks, how will you help the reader understand someone is speaking?

The McCarthy quote that opens this issue is big-picture advice. To shorten it even more: write well.

When you are writing dialogue, distinguishing the voices of your characters will be one of the most important skills. Listen to the characters speak in your head until you know exactly how each communicates. This is important whether you use quotation marks or not, but it is vital if you want to do without the punctuation.

The writing prompt below offers you a way to discover other features of dialogue that could influence the need for quotation marks.

In case you have not yet stumbled upon books that have left quotation marks behind, let me point you to this short list.
  • A Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
  • All the Names by José Saramago
  • Anything by James Joyce

A good editor can help you through the choppy waters as you swim without the personal flotation device of quotation marks for dialogue. I would be honoured to work with you on this or other writing goals.

2.Tickled my funny bone
YAWN: An honest opinion openly expressed. 

3. Interesting Web site
This page on quotation marks is long enough to offer something for pretty much everyone.

4. Writing prompt
Rewrite a piece of dialogue, yours or someone else’s, eliminating the quotation marks. What changes do you have to make to maintain clarity as to which words are spoken? I’d love to hear your insights.

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