Quoting thoughts – by Bob Rich

by Jul 14, 2022Article, Bob Rich, How to, Writing3 comments

by Jorm S


Quoting Thoughts

A principle of good writing is to make reading as easy as possible. We want the reader to be immersed in the content, not struggling with the medium.

Remember Angela’s Ashes? In every way but one, it was truly excellent and deserved its worldwide success. But that one feature almost stopped me reading beyond the first couple of pages.

There was no formatting device to distinguish dialogue from other text. Usually, we place direct quotes of the spoken word between hooks “like this.” In American English, this is always double quotation marks (which, confusingly, they refer to as “quotes”). In other versions you can do it ‘like this’ with single quotation marks.

That distinction doesn’t matter. Having nothing does. Reading is a complex multilevel activity. OK, having practised it since infancy, most of us can do it fast, unaware of the multiple steps, but they are there all the same. Arbitrary little marks on a contrasting surface combine into words. The meaning of each word is looked up in a dictionary that’s like a many-dimensional network of nodes, then the result is combined into meaning.

Anything that reduces this complexity leads to easier reading. Anything that increases it is to be banished.

Not having quotation marks (OK, you Yanks, quotes) around quoted speech makes reading more difficult and should be banished.

Why should the same not be true for quoted thoughts?

Dialogue is reporting what a person says. A quoted thought is exactly the same, minus the sound. It is what a person says inside without voicing it. When I read text that includes a quoted thought, I will benefit from a signpost telling me where the quoted thought starts, and where it ends. Make sense?

The conventional device for this is to put the quoted thought into italics. For some reason that makes no sense to me, some people like my friend Carolyn Howard-Johnson frown at this, but I will defiantly italicise quoted thoughts in my writing, and recommend it to my editing clients.

But actually, something else has triggered this rave. Some writers, even with degrees in writing, do an odd thing: they put the quoted thought in past tense and/or third person.

Let’s look at this little sample:

  • – I was walking at a great rate, feeling good, when my phone made its little noise. I answered it, to hear, “Hey Sally, what are you doing?”
  • – “She was out for her daily walk,” I answered.


I am SURE Sally said “I am out for my daily walk.”

Think about it. Suppose Sally thought, You should know, given the time of day. I am out for my daily walk, but aloud said, “What do you think? Flying to the Moon!”

Should her quoted thought be, You should know, given the time of day. She was out for her daily walk?

So, remember. A quoted thought is unvoiced quoted speech, and then you will never make this all too common mistake.

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  1. Bob Rich

    Thank you for having me here, Michael. I’ll be delighted to have a conversation with anyone who leaves a comment.
    I do love English. They can’t take a comment with them, can they? Once they’ve made it, poor things are forced to leave it.

    • Sleepylion

      It is much appreciated! Thank you for taking the time to write and allowing us to share your thoughts and expertise.

      Sleepy Lion Publishing

      • Bob Rich

        Oh dear, Michael, we must stop meeting like this. But you do know, an expert is a retired big drip under pressure?


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