Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wordly Musings

Some things stick with you.

Like, I haven't read (or had read to me) Winnie-the-Pooh since I was about, I don't know, 30 years younger than I am now.

It was never my super favorite set of stories anyway. I preferred Kipling's Just-So Stories.

But for some reason I have long remembered this bit from that one story where Pooh eats too much honey and gets stuck in the tunnel trying to get out of Rabbit's house:
"I thought at the time," said Rabbit, "but I didn't want to say anything,"said Rabbit, "that one of us was eating too much," said Rabbit, "and I knew it wasn't me," he said.
OK, that was me writing it down from memory. Thanks to the wonders of books that have gone out of copyright, I shall find an online version and check my work, which we may do here here in Chapter 2.

And I got it pretty close to right, except it's "only I didn't like to say anything," instead of "but I didn't like to say anything" (which I might have known, since it's more English) and the original does not italicize "me."

Also, this version renders the line as "one of us has eating too much," but that doesn't really make sense even as an old-fashioned Britishism, so I'm going to assume it's a typo.

The point is, I kind of love this. I love the way the language keeps looping back with the "said Rabbit," catching the sort of jumpy way he's talking, and the way it finally wraps up by switching to a decisive "he said."

It's stuck in my head for years and years, I suppose because I always kind of liked it, and only now it occurs to me to remember it again and think about why I liked it.

I'm only slightly likely to go re-read the whole book to better appreciate any other bits of fun prose, but I guess I'll always have that nearly-accurate memory of that one deliciously choppy line. I mean, unless I forget it.

On a slightly related topic, I also see here in Chapter 2 a use of quotation marks that you do see in older books, where they put quotes around the idea of what a character is saying, rather than using them to signify the exact words used.

For example, here in chapter 2 of Winnie-the-Pooh we have Pooh asking if there's any more to eat, followed by the line,
Rabbit took the covers off the dishes, and said, "No, there wasn't."
It doesn't actually make sense that he would say "no, there wasn't"--wasn't is past tense, as is the story as a whole, but the question "is there any more?" is present tense, so the answer really ought to match. We would expect Rabbit to say "no, there isn't" instead.

So today we would either leave the quotation marks out of that line and just write,
Rabbit took the covers off the dishes, and said, No, there wasn't.
Or we'd match the tense to that of the question and write,
Rabbit took the covers off the dishes, and said, "No, there isn't."
I just finished Jane Eyre (no, I had never read Jane Eyre before, yes, as a former English major my head was perpetually hanging in shame), and that book is bristling with this kind of "quotes around the general idea of what the person said" usage. (Hmm...what kind of usage were those quotes just there? Never mind that now.)

And either way we know what's going on, so it's really not a concern for readability, but these days we tend to assume that quotes are for setting off the precise words used by a speaking character, or an exact quote from another text.

These are the words that were used! I was taking notes!

I think it's interesting that there was a time when quotation marks apparently had a more general purpose, signaling that a character said something, and this was the main gist of it, but the author isn't going to worry about exactly transcribing the dialogue.

This was basically the information someone wanted to convey, but I wasn't taking notes, so don't expect a script!

It would be a good way to get around writing differentiated character 'voices,' not that I'm saying that's what Milne or Brontë was doing.

Also, if you don't want to write dialect or accents but they would make sense for your story? This could totally save you!

I'm going to remember this when I start working on a story full of dialects and accents for NaNoWriMo.

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