The Novel And The Quotation Mark

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Holst Katsma

    Center for Hellenic Studies - Harvard University

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Many stories have been told of the novel’s emergence: the majority string a narrative of development through a handful of texts (e.g. Watt, 1957). More recently, methods in corpus linguistics and topic modeling have determined lexical differences in emerging genres, treating genres as bags of words and counting words to determine large lexical trends (e.g. Biber et al., 1998; Underwood, 2019). This talk offers a different account of the novel’s emergence by focusing on format. A preliminary survey of the 18th century literary field locates two formatting features that emerge within the novel as the novel emerges, monopolizing the novel and differentiating it from other genres. These two features are the modern quotation mark and the chapter number unaccompanied by title or table of contents. Here I will focus on the quotation mark, interpreting it as a high-fidelity index of genre emergence in four particular respects. As a visible index, the quotation mark offers a way of intuiting internal changes within the emerging genre. As a recurrent index, the quotation mark offers a way of gauging the pace of the novel’s emergence. As an evolutionary index, the quotation mark offers a way of registering alternative paths. And as an English index, the quotation mark offers a geographic point of comparison with the emerging French novel (which adopts a different format—the indented dash—to address the same essential question: how to represent conversational dialogue in prose). In other words, the quotation mark contains high information about the
contingency, and
geography of the novel’s emergence. What’s more, the quotation mark is fully adopted by the 19th century novel, thereby setting, for an extended period of time, the conditions within which the novel continues to evolve. It is a testimony to the significance of the quotation mark that it continues to affect the evolution of the novel—most notably, I will show, by making possible the celebrated novelistic invention of free indirect style.

A tendency among editors to modernize punctuation in editions of early modern texts has obscured the history of the modern quotation mark, which can now be reconstructed thanks to the wide-spread digitization of original editions. In order to attribute the modern quotation mark to the novel, I compiled my own corpus for each of the following genres—scientific articles (Philosophical Transactions Archive), trial transcripts (The Old Bailey Proceedings Online), literary reviews (Google Books), novels, poetry, drama, and history (ECCO)—then reviewed these pages looking for unique modes of quotation (as well as other genre-specific changes in format). Having attributed the modern quotation mark to the novel, I then reconstructed its emergence within the novel by recording methods of depicting dialogue in popular novels from each decade of the 18th century. As of now, these data are compiled by hand because computing within a larger dataset frequently encountered problems. In the case of the Chadwyck-Healey and HathiTrust databases, text-only transcriptions often remove marginal quotation marks and italics, and double quotation marks are sometimes replaced with single quotation marks (indistinguishable from apostrophes). This project thus raises questions about how best to encode OCR transcriptions to include formatting elements. Current practices have been shaped by the limitations of OCR and by the demands of corpus linguistics and topic modeling, both of which emphasize lexical differences above formatting ones. In what follows, I hope to demonstrate how quantitative analysis of the quotation mark results in a genuinely new account of the novel’s emergence, thereby demonstrating the value of developing new methods for preserving format in OCR transcriptions.

Plotting emergence
As the modifier modern suggests, the creation of the modern quotation mark was not a sudden ex nihilo invention, but rather a gradual but substantial reworking of an earlier species. This earlier species of quotation mark ran along the
left-hand margin and was used to denote
the transcription of written text (but not speech). One finds it throughout the 17th and 18th century: in the margins of
Philosophical Transactions denoting passages excerpted from treatises and correspondence; in the margins of literary reviews, denoting sample passages from books reviewed; in the trial transcripts of the Old Baily, which reserve quotation marks solely for texts read aloud in court (leaving witness testimony, which quotes the words of others, unmarked); and even in some early novels, in
Moll Flanders and
Pamela, where dialogue is left alone and where quotation marks exclusively frame the margins of transcribed letters and notes. Based on my survey of the 18th century literary field, this earlier species would plausibly have remained the dominant model were it not for the novel: for it is in the novel that the quotation mark moved from the margin of the page into the gaps between words, and it is in the novel that the quotation mark was expanded beyond transcribed text to denote the larger grammatical category of direct discourse, written and spoken.

I have started reconstructing the emergence of the modern quotation mark within the novel by recording the methods for depicting dialogue in five of the most popular novels from each decade of the 18th century (excepting 1700-1710 and 1730-1740 in which novel production was minimal). Within these novels, dialogue could be left unmarked, italicized in various fluid forms, or denoted by one of four forms of quotation mark: what I’ve termed marginal-inclusive, marginal-exclusive, endpoint-inclusive, and endpoint-exclusive. Figure 1 plots each novel’s most frequent form of depicting dialogue. While collapsing much of the struggle and variation within individual texts (many of which incorporate multiple quotation strategies), Figure 1 nevertheless captures a deep structural shift: the gradual inauguration of the modern quotation mark, which itself advances through three prototypical versions before arriving at the modern format.

Figure 1: Evolution of methods for representing dialogue in the 18th century novel. Novels were selected from three bibliographies based on number of editions (McBurney, 1960; Hahn et al., 1985; Garside et al., 2000). The earliest available edition was downloaded from ECCO.

Tempo, contingency, content...
Figure 1 captures a century-spanning trend: in this case, the gradual overlapping steps of an aggregating consensus. The gradual tempo of emergence suggests that a need is subconsciously intuited in the absence of a clear solution, that the quotation mark is being formed for an emerging content that is not yet fully understood. “During a paradigm shift,” writes Franco Moretti, “nobody knows what will work and what won’t” (Moretti, 2013: 74). And that is precisely what one sees here: expansive, almost blind, experimentation slowly whittled down to a single solution. Nor was experimentation limited to the
form of the quotation mark: novelists also fiddled with
purpose, most notably in the ultimately-failed experiment of printing indirect discourse within quotation marks:

Gale document number: CW3311810274

Gale document number: CW3311910127
Instances of this practice abound in the 18th century novel, and not without a certain logic: in each case there is an attempt to acknowledge the residue of direct discourse exuding through. Together with the many morphological possibilities, these instances remind us that the novel could have molded a very different type of quotation mark, both in form and function. These were alternatives, not mistakes. If the modern solution seems obvious, then it merely emphasizes how deeply the novel has defined our worldview. And yet one must ask: why did the novel develop the quotation mark in the way it did? The simple answer is because new forms emerge alongside new content, and in this case that emerging content was conversational dialogue...[abridged from abstract].

Free indirect style
The quotation mark instituted a genuinely new matrix for structuring storytelling, one into which the oral stories of the past were slowly squeezed. Over the course of the century, narrators and characters begin to fit themselves more and more neatly into the confines of direct and indirect discourse. As a result, novels like
Moll Flanders, which seem more like witness testimony, are replaced by novels like
Evelina, which seem more like—novels. This is an exceptional ramification of the quotation mark, and nothing illustrates it better than the most celebrated of novelistic inventions: free indirect style.

(Austen, 1816)
The introductory sentence is clearly a product of the narrator, and Emma clearly speaks the quoted section to herself; but who speaks those many dashed phrases that burst forth in frustration:
It was a wretched business indeed!—Such an overthrow of every thing she had been wishing for! The first linguists to recognize this style described it as a blending of what they considered two discrete categories: direct and indirect discourse. So Alfred Tobler noted a “peculiar mix of indirect and direct discourse” (Tobler, 1887). A decade later, Charles Bally brought the style to academic attention, defining “three possibilities of rendering the words or thoughts of a character”—direct discourse, indirect discourse, and discours indirect libre—“the first two being long known to grammarians,” the latter being some new combination of the two (Pascal, 1977: 8). As such definitions make clear, free indirect style depends on a clear distinction between direct and indirect discourse. Yet this very distinction comes into being, not with the ancient grammarians, but rather with the solidification of the modern quotation mark solely for direct discourse (Moore, 2011: 131). Novels that denote indirect discourse within quotation marks blur this distinction (see examples above) precluding the possibility of free indirect style. Only with the modern quotation mark, which created a functional and sustained binary between direct and indirect discourse, does free indirect style become possible. Which is not to say that Bally was technically wrong: the Greeks did make a distinction between direct and indirect discourse. Rather, it is a classic case of a theoretical distinction holding less influence than a functional one, and a powerful example of how a new format can allow a genre to evolve and differentiate in new, previously unthinkable ways.


Austen, J. (1816).
Emma: A novel. In three volumes. London: John Murray.

Biber, D., Conrad, S. and Reppen, R. (1998).
Corpus linguistics: Investigating language structure and use. Cambridge University Press.

Gale Group. (2003).
Eighteenth century collections online. Detroit: Gale Group.

Garside, P., Raven, J., Schöwerling, R. and Forster, A. (2000).
The English novel 1770-1829: A bibliographical survey of prose fiction published in the British Isles. Oxford University Press.

Hahn, H. and Behm, C. (1985).
The eighteenth-century British novel and its background: An annotated bibliography and guide to topics. Scarecrow Press.

McBurney, W. 
A check list of English prose fiction, 1700-1739
. Harvard University Press.

Moore, C. (2011).
Quoting speech in early English. Cambridge University Press.

Moretti, F. (2013).
Distant reading. London: Verso.

Pascal, R. (1977).
The dual voice: Free indirect speech and its functioning in the nineteenth-century European novel. Manchester University Press.

Tobler, A. (1887). Vermischte Beiträge zur französischen Grammatik.
Zeitschrift Für Romanische Philologie, 11(1): 433-61.

Underwood, T. (2019).
Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change. University of Chicago Press.

Watt, I. (1957).
The rise of the novel: studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. University of California Press.

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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO