Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Inventing the King's English

I make my own rules for English. By this I mean that I don't accept unacceptable usage. I don't care what authority someone hauls out to challenge me. I make my own English rules because I feel confident about my understanding of the English language. So there.

Recently I noticed that I developed a new rule while writing Xmas Carol. In a novel, you often find yourself dealing with quotes. My rule is that if you quote something, you have to quote it exactly the way it was written (or said). This leads me to do things that would make an English teacher frown. But what do they know?

Here's my rule. When a character quotes another character, the first word of the quote must be capitalized if it was capitalized when the person said it. Here's a for instance:

This is the way people usually do it: 
"He sauntered over to me and said, 'get yer dukes up'." 
I'm sorry. This won't do. When the person said this to the character, he undoubtedly said "Get yer dukes up." Therefore it must be capitalized. I'd write the sentence this way:
"He sauntered over to me and said, 'Get yer dukes up'."
This also leads to a variation. If the person is quoting something that was actually said, I use the above rule. But if the person is thinking that someone might say something, then the first letter doesn't get capitalized. Here's how I'd write that:
But if she told him the truth, he would surely say, "you need to be on medication, Mary".
See? If he really said this, I'd capitalize the y in you -- if it was the beginning of his sentence. But it's just a thought so I don't see a need for capitalization.

You'll also note another of my rules: if there is no period in the actual quote, the period goes after the final quote mark, not before, even if the quote is positioned at the end of the sentence. For instance, let's look at that first sentence again:
"He sauntered over to me and said, 'Get yer dukes up'."
Let's suppose for the sake of argument that the guy really said "Get your dukes up, Jimmy-Joe." So there was no period after the word "up" when he said it. See? So the period must go after the internal quote, but inside the overall quote. Almost no one does it this way though I sometimes see this at the NYT. They seem inconsistent about it.

To be clear, this also applies when the period is after the final quote. Let's use a one-quote sentence for an example, since it's simpler:
The popey guy said, "I have never sinned".
 Let's suppose the popey guy's actual sentence was:
"I have never sinned -- if we define 'sin' as 'the act of setting off a nuclear device on a Tuesday afternoon in May'."
We must put the period after the quote because there was no period after "sinned" in his original sentence. It looks funny but it's correct. A quote is a quote. That's how I see it. And you cannot change quotes because they're, well, quotes.