Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Quotation Dash Disappointment

What do you think of quotation dashes? (A quotation dash is a form of punctuation whereby dialog is indicated with an initial dash and traditional quotation marks are omitted.) Here is an example of some dialog that uses quotation dashes:

He ran to catch up with Jean as she headed toward the house.
--Are you coming with us?
--No
--Why not?
--I'm tired, that's all.
Jean opened the door and went inside.

I have recently encountered two books that used this approach and have reacted very negatively to it. In fact, I have (after a brief perusal) decided not to read either of the books. I find the odd punctuation so jarring and affected that I am pulled out of the story at every occurrence of it. The books I abandoned were The Book Borrower by Alice Mattison, and The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer.

I don't understand why a writer would adopt a format that is so off-putting. Why saddle your reader with something so distracting? It makes me angry. I feel like someone handed me a perfectly good book and then told me I had to read it while a siren went off in my ear at frequent but unpredictable intervals.

13 comments:

Kay said...

I agree you with on this, Becky. I have put down books myself that included this form of punctuation. Now, at this moment, I can't remember what they were, but one of them may well have been The Book Borrower because I have always meant to read that but haven't. Love your analogy of the siren in the ear. Ha!

Maxine said...

I was never taught anything like this at school! I agree, seems unnecessary to me, when there is a perfectly good punctuation system available already, and dashes mean something else, so I think it is confusing to use them to mean quotation marks.

Sam Houston said...

My reaction to that small sample was the same as yours, Becky. I've never run across this punctuation trick in a book but I found that sample to be very annoying. I would definitely find it a distraction, something so annoying that I would either abandon the book or think much less of it even if I finished it.

Susan Balée said...

I don't like that style much, but I get used to it, just as I get used to Shakespearean dialect when I'm reading his plays. The meaning is the thing; soon you forget about weird punctuation and just sink into the tale. "The Pickup" is a very good novel; I reviewed it when it came out some years ago. The other one I don't know.

This summer I read "The Road," by Cormac McCarthy, which also eschews not only quotation marks but any punctuation indicating dialogue -- you just have to figure it out. And it's a huge bestseller, won the Pulitzer this year.

The only thing that can turn me off a book is my sense that the writer isn't smarter than I am.

Becky said...

Well Susan, maybe I'll give it a try. I have never read Nadine Gordiner (confession time: I am intimidated by her). I just feel like there are so many other books out there, waiting to be read, books that don't set up barriers to my comprehension.

Susan Balée said...

Well, you're right about that, too. I'm reading a fun one right now -- "The Thirteenth Tale," by Diane Setterfield -- and I've been scouting out Georgette Heyer novels, since being reminded of them by your blog. Think I'll start with "The Grand Sophy."

I also have a copy waiting of "War and Peace," though it's not the translation I meant to get. My husband has read it twice and I think I must finally do my darnedest to get past my confusion over who is who (characters in Russian novels invariably have lots of names, though different people often have the *same* first names) and read the entire novel.

Have you ever read that one? It's probably the one 19th-century classic I've never finished, though I've certainly read most other Tolstoy novels.

Christopher said...

I believe quotation dashes are used in novels written in French.

And I agree: Nadine Gordimer is intimidating

Becky said...

Susan, I like to say (in jest) that I have not read War and Peace, but that I have read Peace. I read it years ago, but skipped all the sections that bored me. I barely remember anything about it, so I imagine I ought to try it again, this time reading the whole thing.

And I picked up that Cormac McCarthy book and dropped it like a hot potato when I saw what he was doing. I admire you for sticking with it. I supposed, in the end, I just don't want to have to work that hard to read a book. I am not a lazy reader, but I have my limits!

heather (errantdreams) said...

I could get used to it if the book particularly intrigued me, but I admit it would be jarring and thus pull me out of the story.

epeuthutebetes said...

It's a European convention.

Terra LeMay said...

The first time I ran across this convention was in a science fiction novel called Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand. She used the quotation dash, along with italics, to indicate unspoken dialogue between characters--sort of telepathic dialogue, I guess, though it was bit more complicated than that--and she used regular quotation marks for regular spoken dialogue.

I actually liked her use of the punctuation dash because it was used as shorthand for "This is not actually being spoken out loud.", but it would definitely have annoyed me a great deal if it had only been used to replace regular quotation marks.

I stumbled across this blog entry via googling "punctuation dash", so I'm a total stranger and I know nothing about you--but I wonder, if you read genre fiction like SF and fantasy, what do you think of this sort of usage?

Anonymous said...

I realize this discussion is old, but I just wanted to add that this is not new. In many European languages this is used all the time when writing out dialogue. Especially in interviews.

However, it shouldn't be two dashes as in the post, just one that is slightly longer than a normal hyphen, and it should be indented. It's not unusual to see vaguer structures, like the following.

As my eyes adjusted to the light, I smelled electrical burning.
– Neural simulator offline, said a voice. I blinked.
– Puh... Peter, I said. Is that you?
– Not exactly, said Peter. My real name is Doctor Hadrian. I inserted myself into your neural simulation as Peter in order to guide you.
– But.. why? I asked. He smiled and peeled an electrode off my temple.

Anonymous said...

(and of course, my indents disappeared from the post...)

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