At Kill Zone Blog: Dot…Dot…Dash. The Messages You Send With Your Punctuation
Great topic! Very inviting! And oh, look, the post starts this way:
“If you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” — Cormac McCarthy.
That’s really funny! I wonder if he really said that? Apparently he did: Here’s a post about writers who decline to use normal punctuation. Some are remarkably extreme about it. Take a look at the one who doesn’t signal at all when switching from character to character in dialogue. Wow. There’s a guy who doesn’t mind making his readers work hard.
Have any of you read McCarthy’s The Road? Let me see … Okay, here’s an illustrative selection:
They crossed the river by an old concrete bridge and a few miles on they came upon a roadside gas station. They stood in the road and studied it. I think we should check it out, the man said. Take a look. The weeds they forded fell to dust about them. They crossed the broken asphalt apron and found the tank for the pumps. The cap was gone and the man dropped to his elbows to smell the pipe but the odor of gas was only a rumor, faint and stale. He stood and looked over the building. The pumps standing with their hoses oddly still in place. The windows intact. The door to the service bay was open and he went in. A standing metal toolbox against one wall. He went through the drawers but there was nothing there that he could use. Good half-inch drive sockets. A ratchet. He stood looking around the garage. A metal barrel full of trash. He went into the office. Dust and ash everywhere. The boy stood in the door. A metal desk, a cash register. Some old automotive manuals, swollen and sodden. The linoleum was stained and curling from the leaking roof. He crossed to the desk and stood there. Then he picked up the phone and dialed the number of his father’s house in that long ago. The boy watched him. What are you doing? he said.
A quarter mile down the road he stopped and looked back. We’re not thinking, he said. We have to go back. He pushed the cart off the road and tilted it over where it could not be seen and they left their packs and went back to the station. In the service bay he dragged out the steel trash drum and tipped it over and pawed out all the quart plastic oil bottles. Then they sat in the floor decanting them of their dregs one by one, leaving the bottles to stand upside down draining into a pan until at the end they had almost a half quart of motor oil. He screwed down the plastic cap and wiped the bottle off with a rag and hefted it in his hand. Oil for their little slutlamp to light the long gray dusks, the long gray dawns. You can read me a story, the boy said. Cant you, Papa? Yes, he said. I can.
There you go! I don’t suggest most writers try that. I did read The Road all the way through, by the way. I even sort of liked it. It’s extremely dark, but redeemed by a moment of light right at the end. I started to type “a moment of hope,” but I’m not sure I’d go that far. Hope is rather a stretch. But light, yes. I feel compelled to add, one does get used to the lack of quotation marks. Even so, I can’t say I think experimenting with quirky punctuation is a good idea for most of us.
But back to the post! Let’s take a look:
Ah, the author of the post — PJ Parrish — also comments about The Road.
When I first started the book, the lack of punctuation annoyed me. It wasn’t that the narrative was unclear or that I was confused. It just felt pretentious, as if the author were saying he was above all things mundane. And if you believe his quote at the beginning of this post, you’d say he was just being a….well, you fill in the blank. … After a while, I didn’t care about the punctuation. The story sped along, the characters captured me by the throat and by the heart.
I agree, pretty much. I did find the story gripping and I read it fast. I’ll never re-read it, however.
Parrish goes on to discuss Faulkner and then contrasts McCarthy and Faulkner by looking — get this — JUST at the punctuation, with the words removed! Hah! That’s a really neat idea! I love it. Wow, there’s a tremendous difference.
So this post is really about punctuation as part of the author’s voice or style. Interesting! I don’t remember ever seeing a post on this topic before. Parrish says:
I think most of us, myself included, don’t think too much about the punctuation we use. We know the basics of periods, question marks and quotation marks. We get a little confused about commas, and when to use dashes or ellipses. And we have banished the poor semi-colon to the grammar dungeon. We put in the symbols quickly and race on, saving our tsuris for the big issues of plot, characterization and theme. But I’d like to suggest today that we give more thought to [punctuation marks].
I, of course, disagree with absolutely everything in that paragraph other than giving thought to punctuation. I don’t believe I get confused about commas very darn often. Commas are, of course, partly a matter of taste, and I know my tastes have changed over the past however many years and will no doubt change again, but I do know the rules and know what choices I’m making. I know the difference between dashes and ellipses — the difference isn’t even subtle … right? And I love semicolons; so much so that I make an effort to go through and remove about a third of the semicolons I put in to start with. There are still plenty left.
Anyway, a good discussion of punctuation ensues, with examples. I am persuaded by the main point, which is that punctuation is certainly an important element of style and voice; also that punctuation contributes in important ways to pacing, tone, and even genre.