The Dead Colon
So, it is my tradition: nigh on 13 years now. Nothing else can be gleaned from this if that isn’t made clear. It is my tradition that I read Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol every Christmas, but this year I read it differently; this year I studied it; this year gave birth to questions.
I’ve been a fan of Charles Dickens since reading Great Expectations in high school so long ago, but as a storyteller that writes, I’ve always been too engrossed in Dickens’ descriptive prose to concentrate on the mechanics of his writing. However, this year, for the first time in my life, I committed a portion of my weeks to developing my writing career. Though I may fall a little short of making my words-written goal for the year, I have surpassed my number of books read. I’ve read more and different books than ever before from new and different authors than I would have otherwise, and I have made a point to study their style and mechanics to improve my own craft. It seemed logical to take the same approach with a good ol’ favorite, and it was enlightening.
From the very first oddly placed colon in the opening sentence — as I tried to emulate in this article — A Christmas Carol is unique. Sadly, its uniqueness is not universal by publisher as I found out by fortunate accident. By conservative estimate, I have read the novella at least 15 times in my life. In all those times I have never stopped to wonder why the first half of the opening line, “Marley was dead,” is succeeded by a colon — not a comma like I have here — and finishes “to begin with,” completing the sentence. It is and would have been grammatically correct for the opening line to simply read “Marley was dead to begin with,” but Dickens sees fit to not only separate “Marley was dead” from the sentence’s infinitive, meaning: at first, from the start, already so, established and etc; but he does so with a colon.
Even though I was intent on studying Dickens’ mechanics this time, I was left unaware of that odd punctuation until nearly halfway through the book. It would seem obvious that if I were sincere with my intentions that I would have immediately noticed the curious colon in the opening sentence but studying the mechanics of A Christmas Carol became much more worrisome when I discovered that Dickens is grossly inconsistent among different publishers. I have several different editions of the novella, including the Special Kindle Edition with illustrations, but this year I pulled from my bookshelf a worn paperback from Washington Square Press, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc and began to read.
One of the first things I noticed was that Dickens did always, when appropriate, use question marks or exclamation points at the end of a partial quote before identifying the speaker. For example:
“Are you the spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Scrooge
I also noticed that he did not then capitalize “asked” even though “asked Scrooge” is a complete sentence with subject and verb following an ending punctuation. Dickens did not, however, act accordingly with the use of a period. For example:
“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “They have no consciousness of us.”
It may be elementary to other writers, but I love to tell a story through dialogue, and I have struggled to find my style, often experimenting with different methods to see what looks most appealing to me — considering words the medium I use to paint the story. How the words look, and the emotions they convey is as important to me, if not more so, than structure.
The next thing I discovered about Dickens was his liberal use of the semicolon and the em dash. The former, I almost never use in fiction; the latter, I am quite fond of. Catch what I did there?
I shy away from the semicolon when writing fiction for the same reason I have mentioned. It is related to aesthetics over structure. For me, the semicolon is cold and unfeeling, too industrial, like writing for an instruction manual. On occasion, when nothing else will do, I may use a semicolon when separating a list of comma-laden objects, but generally, I do not love the semicolon, nor the colon for that matter, when writing fiction. If an all-stop is needed, a period will do. If I wish to connect two clauses, then I use a conjunction. If I’m looking for an artistic pause, then it’s an ellipsis or more commonly for me, the em dash.
As for my common use of the em dash, understand my excitement to see Dickens’ liberal use of that punctuation! Equally, realize my disappointment to discover that my Washington Square Press paperback edition was not indicative of Dickens’ original, which, by the by, is the same reason I wasn’t privy, on this occasion, to the errant colon succeeding “Marley was dead.” The WSP edition of A Christmas Carol punctuates the opening line like so: “Marley was dead, to begin with.” In fact, it was another obvious error in punctuation that led me to this discovery.
In Stave Three, The Second of the Three Spirits, Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present were observing the Cratchits as they prepared for a hot drink after their meal. To emphasize the family’s contentment, though they be impoverished, Dickens chooses to describe the Cratchit’s collection of drinking utensils. The WSP edition reads as such:
“These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done and Bob served it out with beaming looks…”
For a writer such as Dickens, an obvious fan of the artistic pause regardless of how he structured it, how could he have missed a necessary comma after “done” to separate these two independent clauses? I further believed that he wouldn’t, so I looked to the same passage in my Kindle Edition, which read:
“These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done; and Bob served it out with beaming looks…”
Of course! A semicolon and not a comma, but a separation in the clauses, nevertheless. By my further inspection of the Kindle Edition, I discovered not only did Dickens more liberally use the semicolon than I first suspected, but his use of the em dash was immeasurable. Where the em dash had been used in the WSP edition to demonstrate a pause or a stutter, the Kindle Edition had nothing, surprisingly nothing at all. Where I was prepared to see a different method for demonstrating, in writing, this particular nuance of the spoken word, I was not prepared, however, to see nothing, and this further confused me. For example, when Marley’s Ghost visits Scrooge in his room, Scrooge nervously asks the ghost if he can sit down. The WSP edition demonstrates it like this:
“Can you — Can you sit down?” asked Scrooge…
When reading it that way, I can actually hear, in my head, the fear and doubt in Scrooge’s voice when he asks the question of Marley’s Ghost. And as a fan of the em dash, I can relate.
In the Kindle Edition, however, the same line reads like this:
“Can you can you sit down?” asked Scrooge…
Huh? Even my grammar check doesn’t like it this way.
Now I’m actually angry as it dons on me that the multiple times I’ve read Great Expectations or Tale of Two Cities, or the more than a dozen times I’ve read A Christmas Carol, or all the other works of Dickens I’ve read, I was actually reading somebody else’s edition of Dickens’ work. Will the real Charles Dickens please stand up?
In my quest to discover the real Charles Dickens, I came across one critic’s top ten “most amazing bold and creative,” uses of punctuation for which the colon after “Marley was dead” came in at number seven. “Marley was dead (colon) to begin with,” — for real? I turned back in my book to the beginning of Stave One. Nope! The WSP edition uses a comma following “Marley was dead” and preceding “to begin with.” I looked to the Kindle Edition, and there it was, just like this:
“Marley was dead: to begin with.”
My anger surges now with the inconsistency in these two editions of this beloved Christmas classic immediately available to me. Though in most cases, the differences in the two editions were subtle — I saw preferences in both — I am left wondering the author’s true intent in other cases — most notably the Dead Colon, in the opening line. I expect there to be differences in varying editions of ancient text, which is why I usually study multiple translations of the Holy Bible, but A Christmas Carol is less than 200 years old. Why didn’t anyone just ask: “Hey Charlie! What Gives?”
In the course of trying to figure out that colon, I read a few critics’ suggestions, but I honestly did not find any of them enlightening with the exception of one. The anonymous critic suggested that the colon was in fact grammatically incorrect, but Dickens intended it that way. That much I knew, but why? The critic goes on to say that Dickens used the incorrect punctuation to draw attention to the fact that Marley was “ALWAYS” dead, suggesting that while Scrooge was once alive and capable of warm feelings, at some point he dies inside, but “Marley was dead: to begin with.”
I think I prefer the “Marley was ALWAYS dead” explanation, but I would be remiss if I didn’t develop my own conjecture about Dickens’ Dead Colon. I think Dickens had a thing for lists. If you consider the rest of the paragraph, it really does read like a list of exhibits to prove that Marley was, “no doubt whatever about” it, in fact, DEAD. “Marley was dead: to begin with,” and it is followed by the “register… was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner,” Scrooge had also signed it. “Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
I will add the Dead Colon to the list of literary mysteries I have filed away for the day when H.G. Wells Time Machine becomes a reality, and I can go back to ask the greats exactly what they were thinking. In the meantime, I’m open for a discussion on the mechanics of Charles Dickens and the Dead Colon.