Colon: Currer Bell Edition.

Last year we discussed Victorian colons in the context of Dickens; now, as I am finally remedying my lifelong failure to read Jane Eyre, I am struck by the punctuation in the second paragraph:

I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.

I like those colons very much; semicolons just wouldn’t be the same (and in any event one of the cardinal tenets of my editorial beliefs is that you can’t have two semicolons in the same sentence unless they are separating groups of items themselves separated by commas). It’s a pity we’ve let this form of punctuation slip away—I wonder when that happened?

The following paragraph has what to modern eyes is a bizarre mismatch of punctuation and wording:

The said Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mama in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with her darlings about her (for the time neither quarrelling nor crying) looked perfectly happy. Me, she had dispensed from joining the group; saying, “She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she heard from Bessie, and could discover by her own observation that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner, — something lighter, franker, more natural as it were — she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children.”

The combination of indirect discourse with quotation marks (which I encounter also in the Trollope novels I am reading to my wife) displeases me, and I am glad it has vanished into the dustbin of history. (I reproduce the punctuation from the 1850 edition of Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. By Currer Bell that is available on Google Books.)


  1. It would be really interesting to read a history of English literary punctuation — there are more such conventions than you might expect, many of them now moribund. For example leaving off the quotation mark at the end of a paragraph to indicate that the quotation continues is something you hardly see in modern novels (because multi-paragraph quotations have become rare themselves); likewise nested quotations where ” alternates with ‘ — what would Conan Doyle have done without those?

    Another useful punctuation practice, which fell into disuse sometime in the 19C, is placing a quotation mark at the beginning of every printed line of a quoted speech. It makes it very easy to see where the quote begins and ends. If I ever self-publish a novel, I’d be tempted to bring that one back.

  2. Indirect-discourse-with-quotation-marks suggests to me that only pronouns and tenses have been altered, and the rest is verbatim rather than paraphrase. Of course the language would suggest this anyway even without quotation marks, in this passage as in many in, say, Dickens; but perhaps there was formerly a convention to allow for cases where it was not so obvious?

  3. I am not one to peeve about language much—certainly not about punctuation. However, I have to say that unusual uses of quotation marks may be an exception. Using quotes around indirect dialogue feels totally wrong, and I also dislike the conventions (mentioned by TR) of not closing a quote at the end of a paragraph when the quote continues in the next or putting quotation marks at the beginning of every line. I guess I feel that quotation marks should always come in matched pairs.

    I did have to deal once with a very agitated coworker, who refused to believe that the omission of closing quotes at the end of a certain paragraph was not simply an error. He got quite verbally combative with another colleague and I when we told him.

  4. Was indirect speech with quotation marks actually an established style for a certain period, or was it more of a quirk? I actually quite enjoy the effect (it’s a trip!), but I only recall having encountered it a couple of times before.

  5. It would be really interesting to read a history of English literary punctuation

    Not just English, but the standard is Parkes’s Pause and Effect, discussed here from time to time.

  6. I just found out that colon (the punctuation mark) comes from Greek κῶλον ‘member, part’, whereas the intestine part goes back to κόλον (id.)—both without any known further etymologies, even by the ingenious Beekes.

  7. The Patrick O’Brian novels that you used to read to your wife include plenty of old-fashioned indirect quotation, and also some very pleasing (to me) uses of the colon. I believe that O’Brian was a big Jane Austen fan.

  8. The Charlottean colon means, roughly speaking, pause 1-2-3-4 as opposed to the semicolon’s 1-2-3. But this particular colon seems fine to me even by modern standards: it introduces an elaboration of what precedes, like the colon in this very sentence. I use it a lot.

    In addition to Parkes there is Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, & Other Typographical Marks (click on the book cover), after the blog of the same name (which really otta be in your blogroll, Hat).

  9. > Was indirect speech with quotation marks actually an established style for a certain period, or was it more of a quirk?

    I don’t think it was ever the style for indirect speech, but it seems to have been more than a quirk. To add to the examples already mentioned, here’s one from Jane Austen (the first paragraph of chapter 11 of Northanger Abbey):

    > The morrow brought a very sober-looking morning, the sun making only a few efforts to appear, and Catherine augured from it everything most favourable to her wishes. A bright morning so early in the year, she allowed, would generally turn to rain, but a cloudy one foretold improvement as the day advanced. She applied to Mr. Allen for confirmation of her hopes, but Mr. Allen, not having his own skies and barometer about him, declined giving any absolute promise of sunshine. She applied to Mrs. Allen, and Mrs. Allen’s opinion was more positive. “She had no doubt in the world of its being a very fine day, if the clouds would only go off, and the sun keep out.”

  10. But this particular colon seems fine to me even by modern standards: it introduces an elaboration of what precedes, like the colon in this very sentence. I use it a lot.

    So do I. I also like the old use of the colon from the times when writers tended to organise their thoughts into good classical “periods”, in which the colon separated the principal thought or recapitualation from those that led to it (often separated by semicolons if they were long or complex enough): this, after all, is where the words “comma”, “colon” and “period” come from. Today many people either consistently keep their sentences short and simple, so that the full stop is the only punctuation mark they really need, or use a sort of stream of conscuousness broken here and there by random dashes and ellipses.

  11. But this particular colon seems fine to me even by modern standards

    Which? There are two, and two colons in the same sentence is unthinkable by modern standards.

  12. See Eric Partridge, You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies (1953, or any of its later editions), on parenthetical colons and semicolons. They were common in the 19th century, but have dropped out of use since. Other antiquarian punctuation marks are compound points, “strengthened” with a dash:
    (also formerly used in pairs to mark parenthetic insertions).

  13. Either one, actually, though I meant the second (my eye skipped over the first painlessly).

  14. Two semicolons verboten, but two colons ok? I require explanation.

    (This is a maddening issue to me in my poetry. When revising, I regularly find more than one colon in a sentence. Should I just leave them, rather than trying to downgrade them to semicolonical unobtrusiveness?)

  15. Two semicolons verboten, but two colons ok?

    OK in the 19th century, but as I said just above, “two colons in the same sentence is unthinkable by modern standards.” And poetry doesn’t have to abide by the rules of prose.

  16. Yes, I found colons invaluable in my Dust Bowl epic.

    I’m delighted to hear you and your wife are reading Trollope; I think he is vastly underrated. Is there a more interesting marriage in English lit than Glencora’s in the Palliser novels? Trollope was a Freudian before Freud, and a feminist despite all his protestations.

  17. a feminist despite all his protestations.

    Did he protest? I don’t know much about his life and thought, but his novels are unique (for the time) in their multidimensional, interesting, self-motivated women. We’re still on the Barchester novels, but looking forward to the Pallisers!

  18. Anne J.P. O'Rexia says

    I don’t know much about his life and thought

    You probably know he worked for the Post Office, for ten years in Ireland.

    In 1851 he was sent ‘on loan’ to expand the rural post in the west of England. To establish a regular delivery system throughout Somerset, Wiltshire, Devon, Cornwall, south Wales, and beyond became, he said, ‘the ambition of my life’. One assignment took him to the Channel Islands, and, having taken the idea from nearby France, he introduced roadside letter boxes (‘pillar boxes’), the first being erected in 1852, at St Helier, whence they spread throughout Great Britain.

    A question that puzzled Trollope’s contemporaries was how this man could have written these novels. Of course like all writers, Trollope was ‘different’ from his books. But here the difference was compounded by his elusive and seemingly contradictory personality. W. P. Frith, an intimate of Trollope, said:

    It would be impossible to imagine anything less like his novels than the author of them. The books, full of gentleness, grace, and refinement; the writer of them, bluff, loud, stormy, and contentious, neither a brilliant talker nor a good speaker.

    James Bryce, another friend, said that at first ‘you were disappointed not to find so clever a writer more original’, and even when, on further acquaintance, he appeared more of a piece with his books, one still ‘could never quite recognize in him the delineator of Lily Dale’. Frederick Harrison, after describing Trollope’s violent passion for hunting, whist, and smoking, his loud talk and ‘burly ubiquity and irrepressible energy in everything’ as one of the ‘marvels’ of his generation, was mystified as to how:

    such a colossus of blood and bone [a muscular 5 feet 10, 15 to 16 stone] should spend his mornings, before we were out of bed, in analyzing the hypersensitive conscience of an archdeacon, the secret confidences whispered between a prudent mamma and love-lorn young lady, or the subtle meanderings of Marie Goesler’s heart. (Hall, Trollope, 507–9)

    Although most of Trollope’s friends and acquaintances despaired of reconciling the man and the author, they invariably qualified their assessments of Trollope as gruff, outspoken, and boisterous by referring to his proverbial honesty and loyalty: ‘a kinder hearted man and truer friend never lived’ (Frith); ‘Crusty, quarrelsome, wrong-headed, prejudiced, obstinate kind-hearted and thoroughly honest old Tony Trollope’ (G. A. Sala); ‘as good and staunch a friend as ever lived’ (Wilkie Collins). A few friends did insist that they saw the author in the man: T. H. S. Escott resorted to a simple assertion that style is the man, and that those who did not see the author in the ‘unreserved friend’ and ‘candid, plain-speaking companion’ were lacking in perception. Publisher Fred Chapman wrote to a friend that his wife fretted constantly after Trollope’s death, saying:

    she never loved any one so much—barring me … He was a very good fellow, very kind … I fancy you met him at our house; if so, and not knowing more of him, your impression would be that he was a rough boisterous man, and too uncouth for the society of ladies—He was the reverse. He was as tender hearted as a girl.

    (all quotations found in Hall, Trollope, 507–9)

    – Oxford DNB. There’s a lot more there. He was a Liberal, of course.

  19. Thanks for that! I took the liberty of reformatting it; I hope you don’t mind, but I found your block italics unreadable.

  20. Thank you. It looks much better. I ought to have added a ‘[…]’ after the pillar boxes paragraph. The original is much longer and well worth reading.

  21. David Marjanović says

    English appears to be unique in (usually) restarting quotation marks for each quoted paragraph.

    Other antiquarian punctuation marks are compound points, “strengthened” with a dash:

    I’ve always interpreted these as sequences where the dash just indicates an extra pause.

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