Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Comma or Cap, Not Both

Here's a little thing that readers occasionally ask about: What should be done with a construction like this?
But, she added, "it is likely to fail."
The answer depends on whether you want the "but" to go with the quote or with the fact that the person is saying such a thing. The difference between those two choices is generally too subtle to worry about, but it is important to avoid a mixed bag in your punctuation. A comma before the attribution indicates that the "But" is part of the thought being attributed, and so the quote, being a continuation of that thought, should not be capitalized as though it were the beginning of a sentence.

If the "But" is meant to apply to the "she added" part, a quote that is a complete sentence should be capitalized like a complete sentence:
But she added, "It is likely to fail."
These little markers can be obscured, of course, if the quotation begins with a proper noun or if you have avoided or overcome any lingering trauma from the Strunkwhite caution on beginning a sentence with "However":
However, she added, "John is like to fail."
In that case, you could emphasize that "However" isn't being put in the speaker's mouth by using a colon instead of a comma to introduce the quote.


Leonard said...

Frankly, I find it a clumsy construction. Having proofed and edited people in the corporate world, I've run into more than my fair share of sentences beginning with a conjunction (and what, exactly, is it conjoining way up there?) that is invariably followed by a comma. People who do this are, in effect, treating the body of the sentence as though it were an independent clause in a compound sentence. And why? Because they insist on beginning sentences with conjunctions.

And I know how tempting this can be. And how forceful it can seem to the ear. But I don't think it is a good practice. And I do think the best solution is to rewrite, perhaps by adding the whole thing, conjunction and all, to the preceding sentence as an independent clause. However, I could be wrong.

Leonard said...

Martin, I know you're right; I've just added convincing people to avoid this pitfall to my list of quixotic ventures.

Leonard said...

But what I'm saying is this (and I don't doubt you concerning "parts of speech): Words do have functions within the sentence, and what we used to call "conjunctions," in the type of construction I'm referring to, work to join two independent clauses. I find, in most case in which sentences begin with "and" or "but" and in which those words are followed by a comma, that the author's intent is to join that sentence to the previous one, but that author is afraid of writing a sentence that has more than one clause.

This usage and the way that it needlessly separates elements that might better be wedded together in a quest for added emphasis si what, in my opinion, has led to that new and far more dreadful construction: BEST.WHATEVER.EVER.

Here in the States, what we used to call compound sentences are feared and avoided. However (and I have no problem with starting a sentence with "however"), using compound sentences makes for better writing.