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Perverted Commas and Heart of Darkness

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Edited by Richard Walker, Tuesday, 30 Jun 2020, 17:06

James Joyce is said to have disliked inverted commas (AKA quotation marks); in Ulysses and elsewhere he avoided them in favour of the dash. He referred to perverted commas, although the quip seems to go back earlier [reference needed]. Here's a famous example

STATELY, PLUMP BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him
by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

   —Introibo ad altare Dei.

   Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

   —Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!

~WELL~...

I like quotation marks (a.k.a 'quotes', I think they are fun. You can nest them and that's the kind of stuff I like, it's the wordpuzzleist/programmer/mathematician/... in me. In the UK the nesting goes

""
"''"
"'""'"

In the US they start with the single quote*.

You can in principle nest as deep as you need or please, but it gets hard to construe after about three levels. Grammar books often have artificial examples such as

Jack said "Jill said, 'Never say, "Never say, 'Never'"'"

The deepest nesting I know where it arises naturally from the plot is from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (who  —they said,  —spoke in Polish, thought in French, and wrote in English, which was more or less correct). The narrator, Marlow, is describing what someone else said about someone else. Marlow says

“I was broad awake by this time [...] The fat man sighed. 'Very sad.' 'And the pestiferous absurdity of his talk,' continued the other; 'he bothered me enough when he was here. “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.” Conceive you—that ass! And he wants to be manager! No, it's—' Here he got choked by excessive indignation, and I lifted my head the least bit."

Colours help us follow the speakers

I was broad awake by this time [...] The fat man sighed. 'Very sad.' 'And the pestiferous absurdity of his talk,' continued the other; 'he bothered me enough when he was here. “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.” Conceive you—that ass! And he wants to be manager! No, it's—' Here he got choked by excessive indignation, and I lifted my head the least bit."

I am pretty sure Conrad is using this as way of building up the atmosphere of the book, which is quite (and quote) deep. Heart of Darkness has many levels; the grammar echoes them.

* Why? I don't know either but the sparkling David Crystal explains somewhere in one of his books (I think).





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