Punctuation of a Short Story

There is an old saying, "Who shall decide when doctors disagree?" It is true that an examination of American magazines will show that each one has its own method of punctuation. A more careful examination will also show these methods differ, not in the essentials, but in degree of individual interpretation. An editor does not expect that a Ms. shall be punctuated according to the rules of his office, but he does expect that it shall be punctuated according to some method. Important as it is that a Ms. shall be typewritten, it is still more important that it shall be punctuated with some degree of accuracy. Neatly written Mss.—regardless of office rules—are read by editors when stories are promising. Authors like John Burroughs, Henry van Dyke, etc., seem to have a grudge against the typewriter, but it is safe to say that no Mss. receive more respectful attention than theirs.

Of all Mss. the hardest to punctuate is the short-story. In critical essays and descriptive articles no new conditions are met with, but in the short-story strange situations, for which there are no rules, are continually presenting themselves. This difference is due to the presence of conversation. In the magazine article the speaker does not stop abruptly and turn aside to speak to some one else. In the short-story, however, such occasions are frequent. Other things being equal, it is much better in doubtful cases to obey the spirit rather than the letter of any law of punctuation.

Here are a few slippery places where contributors most frequently err:

Any description of how words are spoken in a conversation is set off by dashes. The quotation marks are, of course, placed before and after the description.

"And mind you!"—he wagged a thick, impressive finger—"mind you, when I say that I mean it."

An interruption of the conversation or reading is marked by a long dash.

He picked up the book again, running over the leaves. "Ah, here 'tis!— 'when she saw him go-----' "

He was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a tall figure tethering its jaded horse to the post before the door.

When the meaning is perfectly clear, it is not necessary to repeat "said he" and "replied he" in a long conversation of short utterances.

"Where you been, Bill?" said the cowboy, dexterously rolling a cigarette with three fingers of one hand. "East." "Denver?" "Nope."

"Chicago, maybe?" "Nope, New York."

One of the hardest stories to punctuate is when one of the actors tells a story within the story. It should be noticed that all the second story must be included in quotation marks. Such marks must be placed at the opening of each paragraph of "story within the story," but the final quotation marks are placed only at end of the last paragraph. Any conversation within the second story is preceded by a single inverted comma and closed by a single apostrophe.

" 'Bully and warm, ain't it?' said Polly.

" 'Right you are, old girl,' said I. .

"She perched on my shoulder and began to oil and arrange her draggled feathers.

"What a hell of a wreck that was,' she said suddenly, and, after a pause: 'Where's my nigger?'

" 'He's forsaken you, old girl," said I, 'for Mother Carey's chickens.'

" 'Poor Polly,' said she; 'how I pity that poor girl.'"

Special care should be taken in such instances not to have several quotations so involved one within another that the paragraphs actually become ridiculous. Following the letter rather than the spirit of punctuation one could have such a paragraph as follows:

"In the New Testament we have the following words: 'Jesus answered the Jews, "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, "Ye are gods"' ?"'"— Wilson's Treatise on Punctuation. Page 231.

Such absurdities as the above may be overcome by changing direct to indirect discourse. Often, as in the Bible, the clearness is not affected by the omission of quotation marks.

Quotation marks, however, are very important. In one instance they sold a story. Paragraph after paragraph opened with quotation marks—and for no apparent reason. The fact was finally evident that some one was telling a story to a listener or listeners or that the author knew absolutely nothing about punctuation. The last hypothesis was hardly tenable so accurately were quotations within quotations handled. But to whom was the conversation addressed? Not till the last page of the Ms. was reached was the mystery cleared. Then, in a most clever ending, the fact was brought out that a story was being told by a commercial traveler to his chance companion in a fast race car. The beauty of the whole story was that this chance companion had been one of the leading actors of the story related by "the knight of the grip." The only portions of the Ms. not included in quotation marks were one or two paragraphs at the end. Needless to say it was one of those stories the ending of which a person ought to have guessed— because of the quotation marks—but which kept its secret till the author thought best to inform his readers. Stories of this kind are always "quite suited to the immediate wants of the magazine."