Cormac McCarthy’s Three Punctuation Rules, and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

cormac_mccarthy

Cormac McCarthy has been—as one 1965 reviewer of his first novel, The Orchard Tree, dubbed him—a “disciple of William Faulkner.” He makes admirable use of Faulknerian traits in his prose, and I’d always assumed he inherited his punctuation style from Faulkner as well. But in his very rare 2008 televised interview with Oprah Winfrey, McCarthy cites two other antecedents: James Joyce and forgotten novelist MacKinlay Kantor, whose Andersonville won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955. Joyce’s influence dominates, and in discussion of punctuation, McCarthy stresses that his minimalist approach works in the interest of maximum clarity. Speaking of Joyce, he says,

James Joyce is a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.

So what “weird little marks” does McCarthy allow, or not, and why? Below is a brief summary of his stated rules for punctuation:

1. Quotation Marks:

McCarthy doesn’t use ‘em. In his Oprah interview, he says MacKinlay Kantor was the first writer he read who left them out. McCarthy stresses that this way of writing dialogue requires particular deliberation. Speaking of writers who have imitated him, he says, “You really have to be aware that there are no quotation marks, and write in such a way as to guide people as to who’s speaking.” Otherwise, confusion reigns.

2. Colons and semicolons:

Careful McCarthy reader Oprah says she “saw a colon once” in McCarthy’s prose, but she never encountered a semicolon. McCarthy confirms: “No semicolons.”

Of the colon, he says: “You can use a colon, if you’re getting ready to give a list of something that follows from what you just said. Like, these are the reasons.” This is a specific occasion that does not present itself often. The colon, one might say, genuflects to a very specific logical development, enumeration. McCarthy deems most other punctuation uses needless.

3. All other punctuation:

Aside from his restrictive rationing of the colon, McCarthy declares his stylistic convictions with simplicity: “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.” It’s a discipline he learned first in a college English class, where he worked to simplify 18th century essays for a textbook the professor was editing. Early modern English is notoriously cluttered with confounding punctuation, which did not become standardized until comparatively recently.

McCarthy, enamored of the prose style of the Neoclassical English writers but annoyed by their over-reliance on semicolons, remembers paring down an essay “by Swift or something” and hearing his professor say, “this is very good, this is exactly what’s needed.” Encouraged, he continued to simplify, working, he says to Oprah, “to make it easier, not to make it harder” to decipher his prose. For those who find McCarthy sometimes maddeningly opaque, this statement of intent may not help clarify things much. But lovers of his work may find renewed appreciation for his streamlined syntax.

Related Content: 

Werner Herzog Reads From Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses

Seven Tips From William Faulkner on How to Write Fiction

David Foster Wallace Breaks Down Five Common Word Usage Mistakes in English

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  1. Wager says . . . | August 13, 2013 / 10:36 am

    Punctuation is like the beams in a house: the beams are there to support the structure of the house, to prevent it from falling into disarray and to give an added level in the house. An excess of beams, if artistically fashioned, can be passed off as pillars, which are essentially superfluous but help the onlooker to recognize that, yes, this is indeed a house.
    Punctuation was not a whimsical invention conceived by our long-winded progenitors in order to hamper literature. Quite the opposite, in fact: punctuation serves as a clarifier and a speech-guide.
    Of course, one can argue that the less punctuation one uses, the more skill one has a writer in order to pull this stunt off. However, this brings us to the golden rule in writing: the more straight-forward one writes, the better the style. A straight line from A to B is quicker and easier to follow than a convoluted chain of twists and turns.

    Bottom line: punctuation should neither be wanting nor in abundance, unless one is shooting for a particular style. I use punctuation where punctuation is grammatically necessary or stylistically or contextually useful, and, as a writer, I will not go out of my way to dash out a comma, a pair of quotation marks or even a semicolon.

  2. lhjasie says . . . | August 13, 2013 / 12:01 pm

    If you’re a grammar geek and enjoyed this article, you’ll enjoy reading this CultureMap I found at Mediander titled “Proper Punctuation and its Enemies” http://goo.gl/JdzQJZ

  3. Nigel Grant says . . . | August 14, 2013 / 5:39 am

    A well-punctuated piece.

  4. E says . . . | August 14, 2013 / 7:28 am

    McCarthy’s first book is titled ‘The Orchard Keeper’ not ‘The Orchard Tree’

  5. Hugh_C says . . . | August 14, 2013 / 3:09 pm

    I thought I’d just chuck in an additional oblique Irish reference which is that the famous gay Irish Nationalist Roger Casement was hanged in 1916 ostensibly on a comma. Poor Roger was convicted of treason carried out in Germany but on the detection of a virule, a prototype comma, in the medieval act covering treason written in Norman French, the interpretation was such that he was found guilty.

    I was attempting not to use punctuation in the above ;)

  6. Mike Mellor says . . . | August 14, 2013 / 3:35 pm

    Written language has grown closer and closer to spoken language. Many readers including myself, like to see a comma where a speaker would pause briefly in delivery. Confusingly, the “comma pause” of most speakers is identical to their “period pause” and their speech is delivered as one long sentence. I think that Cormac McCarthy wants to emulate spoken language as closely as he can. That, I believe, is the motivation for the long sentences that typify the McCarthy style.

    I would have preferred McCarthy to use commas more. To me, a long sentence without commas suggests a droning monotone.

  7. Marcia Turnquist says . . . | August 16, 2013 / 5:05 pm

    This article has given me much to think about. I adored McCarthy’s The Road, found it hauntingly beautiful and about as close to poetry as prose gets. However, on the subject of quotation marks in particular, I’m not sold.

    How do you, for instance, distinguish the difference between an author’s paraphrase and word-for-word dialogue? In some cases, it makes a difference. I’m thinking mystery writing in particular, but also perhaps in drawing differences between narrators and characters.

    And here’s where the question applies directly to my own writing: My first novel (still being shopped around) is partly told through letters that originally did NOT include quotations around dialogue. There are many letters, btw, that cover a span of several years.

    My sense in writing it that way to begin with was that letter writers don’t tend to compose like authors, but to tell a story through their own voices, typically paraphrasing others comments. Without the quotation marks, though, it became difficult sometimes–and unnatural, actually–to show where dialogue ended and the letter writer’s thoughts resumed. It also felt limiting in how detailed I could be with events, etc. in the story told through the letters. I actually got comments to this effect from readers.

    I ended up testing both styles on multiple readers and got a consensus that the quotes added clarity. And so far no new readers have mentioned them as feeling unnatural within the letters. On the other hand, it could be the skill of the writer, meaning me!

    If any of you have thoughts on this, I would love to hear them.

  8. BAReFOOt says . . . | August 17, 2013 / 12:50 pm

    So he’s a emotionally dead psychopath, small-minded can’t-handle-anything-more-complex minimalist conservatard, and a willfully ignorant delusional “believer”, and that’s somehow “cool” now to you pretentious wannabe-wise snobs?

    I say: Eat your heart out; With a “spoon”!! :P

  9. Kjell says . . . | August 17, 2013 / 1:30 pm

    Does anyone else find it terrifying to write and article like this or even comment on it? One slip of a grammatical nature and anything you write goes up in smoke.

  10. Thomas Huynh (@SunTzuShine) says . . . | August 17, 2013 / 2:50 pm

    As a writer, I find those punctuation rules rather restrictive and would inevitably confuse his poor readers. Rules are good where appropriate, not in extreme.

  11. Petar says . . . | August 17, 2013 / 3:01 pm

    And this is precisely the reason I sometimes lose enjoyment of McCarthy’s work: a lack of punctuation.

    Let’s see what punctuation can do!

    where james had had had john had had had had had had had had the teachers approval

    Now with punctuation.

    Where James had had ‘had’, John had had ‘had had’. ‘Had had’ had had the teacher’s approval.

  12. MIchael says . . . | August 22, 2013 / 7:40 am

    McCarthy is an amazing writer. The Road is, as someone wrote above, damn near poetry. And the style of the book’s writing is eerily suited to the subject matter.

    I cannot agree that all writing should be this way. Not all stories have the same tone or feel. Not all characters would/should speak in short, clipped sentences. And I think varying sentence length can often strengthen a piece of writing, moreso than aiming for tyrannical consistency.

  13. Syn-Fi says . . . | September 5, 2013 / 4:32 pm

    I just picked up ‘on the road’ and noticed the absence of commas straightway and thought I would turn this issue up, on the web to see if this was intentional. For example ‘…the word of God God never spoke ‘ p5 needs punctuation so as to yield any meaning.

  14. Trogdor The Burninator says . . . | October 11, 2013 / 6:10 am

    you seem upset

  15. IWearShoes says . . . | October 11, 2013 / 6:15 am

    If only you knew that the comma went before the quotation mark.

  16. Chris Fortney says . . . | October 12, 2013 / 11:18 am

    “However, this brings us to the golden rule in writing: the more straight-forward one writes, the better the style.”nnnnYou should take your own advice.

  17. Joe says . . . | October 13, 2013 / 8:25 pm

    On the Road is by Jack Kerouac and ‘the word of God God never spoke’ doesn’t need any sort of punctuation. It’s understandable as it is and only a fool would think otherwise.

  18. Jane Haze says . . . | October 14, 2013 / 11:39 am

    McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian which is one of the greatest books of the modern age. He can do what he’d like with punctuation. It’s like Dick Dale playing a guitar upside down, without reversing the strings – sure, it’s wrong, but he makes it work. McCarthy makes it work. If you want to live without quotation marks and commas, go ahead. I bet he doesn’t take cream or sugar in his coffee either.

  19. Jane Haze says . . . | October 14, 2013 / 11:39 am

    McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian which is one of the greatest books of the modern age. He can do what he’d like with punctuation. It’s like Dick Dale playing a guitar upside down, without reversing the strings – sure, it’s wrong, but he makes it work. McCarthy makes it work. If you want to live without quotation marks and commas, go ahead. I bet he doesn’t take cream or sugar in his coffee either.

  20. Katy Evans-Bush says . . . | October 18, 2013 / 5:50 am

    Yes but we can hardly forgive his Yahoo bowdlerising of Swift.

  21. Crunchy says . . . | December 11, 2013 / 5:01 pm

    Providing very minimal punctuation but instead relying on the natural rhythms of sentences is frequently a crap shoot. Writing with fairly generous punctuation, although maybe not easy on the eyes, is more than likely to assist with comprehension and communication.

  22. Guest says . . . | December 11, 2013 / 5:24 pm

    What a blow hard. The rules of punctuation are not subject to interpretation. I never read a book which inspired me to keep asking, “Dang, these quotation marks are sure confusing me as to who is supposed to be speaking.” The semi-colon is a perfectly friendly punctuation mark; it lets two dependent clauses with warm feeling towards each other snuggle up a bit.

  23. Guest says . . . | December 11, 2013 / 5:25 pm

    What a blow hard. The rules of punctuation are not subject to interpretation. I never read a book which inspired me to keep saying, “Dang, these quotation marks are sure confusing me as to who is supposed to be speaking.” The semi-colon is a perfectly friendly punctuation mark; it lets two dependent clauses with warm feeling towards each other snuggle up a bit.

  24. David says . . . | December 11, 2013 / 5:26 pm

    What a blow hard. The rules of punctuation are not subject to interpretation. I never read a book which inspired me to keep asking, “Dang, these quotation marks are sure confusing me as to who is supposed to be speaking.” The semi-colon is a perfectly friendly punctuation mark; it lets two dependent clauses with warm feelings towards each other snuggle up a bit.

  25. David says . . . | December 11, 2013 / 5:26 pm

    What a blow hard. The rules of punctuation are not subject to interpretation. I never read a book which inspired me to keep saying, “Dang, these quotation marks are sure confusing me as to who is supposed to be speaking.” The semi-colon is a perfectly friendly punctuation mark; it lets two dependent clauses with warm feelings towards each other snuggle up a bit.

  26. Sam says . . . | December 11, 2013 / 8:33 pm

    Complicated =/= convoluted. Based solely on the above, there is nothing wasteful or superfluous about Wager’s writing. I get the feeling you would have forced that comment regardless of what else was written.

  27. Guest says . . . | December 12, 2013 / 12:43 pm

    You have no imagination or style. This is why McCarthy is a real writer and you’re not.

  28. David says . . . | December 12, 2013 / 1:21 pm

    The article is about punctuation, not imagination nor style.

  29. Ulysses says . . . | December 14, 2013 / 5:58 am

    Why would you feel a need to bleat out that Casement, a true patriot, was gay? What possible relevance has it, true or otherwise ??nnNote the excess use of punctuation. Your mindless post has driven me to it.

  30. Seth says . . . | April 26, 2014 / 6:55 pm

    You prescriptive grammarian types, always eating the shell and spitting out the kernel. McCarthy is one of the greatest and most original writers of the last century. He makes his style work and work brilliantly. Meanwhile, you’re pedantically concerned with a lack of quotation marks?

  31. Jason Parker says . . . | May 30, 2014 / 7:10 am

    Tossing The Elements of Style into the trash right now.

  32. Dave says . . . | July 17, 2014 / 12:27 pm

    “Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
    “By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.”
    “And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders”

    About every 2-3 pages Cormac pens a bombshell of a sentence, and I stop in wonder of it. In reading The Road I became the third person with them in the story. I would try to figure out how did he write like this. I look for books that do this but nothing. Like one reviewer I saw, wrote: I. Love. This. Book. Showing the short sentenes Cormac uses. Can’t find any fiction that comes near this.

  33. Ted Fontenot says . . . | July 18, 2014 / 7:27 pm

    I don’t know about losing quotation marks. I can’t help but worry about what eschewing quotation marks would do to some really great writers of dialogue–like Mark Twain or P. G. Wodehouse, for instance.

  34. disqus_XTHANTE8GH says . . . | September 14, 2014 / 10:26 pm

    I’m currently reading The Road, and at first I was taken aback by McCarthy’s lack of punctuation. I’ve never read any of his novels, so the style is a little jarring. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before.

  35. Chad Butler says . . . | October 7, 2014 / 8:52 am

    there’s a semi-colon in the orchard keeper

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