The Three Punctuation Rules of Cormac McCarthy (RIP), and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

Note: Today nov­el­ist Cor­mac McCarthy (All the Pret­ty Hors­es, The Road and No Coun­try for Old Men) passed away at the age of 89. Below, we’re revis­it­ing a favorite post from our archive that focus­es on punc­tu­a­tion, a dis­tinc­tive ele­ment of McCarthy’s writ­ing.

Cor­mac McCarthy has been—as one 1965 review­er of his first nov­el, The Orchard Keep­er, 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

Cor­mac McCarthy Explains Why He Worked Hard at Not Work­ing: How 9‑to‑5 Jobs Lim­it Your Cre­ative Poten­tial

Wern­er Her­zog and Cor­mac McCarthy Talk Sci­ence and Cul­ture

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

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Comments (13)
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  • David McSwiggen says:

    Thank you,

    With the pass­ing of the mas­ter his true bril­liance will evolve as peo­ple dis­cov­er what they thought were dark works, as in Blood Merid­i­an, is actu­al­ly real­i­ty as in what all of our ances­tors expe­ri­enced, in some form, get­ting us here.

    To appre­ci­ate McCarthy lis­ten to anoth­er 20th cen­tu­ry mas­ter, Shos­tivcvich, #8, as you read Blood Merid­i­an. Their punc­tu­a­tion is iden­ti­cal.

  • cyncycCynthia says:

    As I found out that Cor­mac McCarthy had died, I am about 2/3 through his Blood Merid­i­an. Such an unflinch­ing­ly vio­lent cul­ture, writ­ten in the most beau­ti­ful prose I have ever seen.

  • Keith Barnes says:

    Good prose should assume it might be read aloud. Punc­tu­a­tion is an invalu­able guide to struc­ture: the com­ma is a slight pause, the semi­colon medi­um and the full stop as long as you like, divid­ing first sen­tences then para­graphs. Sim­ples.
    Ignore cranky Yan­kee the­o­ries.

  • Jack Polsjy says:

    Why don’t peo­ple just say it! The phi­los­o­phy of this man is dark. He won’t be in hell but close by observ­ing

  • Daphne says:

    Yes!. Read it aloud. The com­ma comes when you take a nat­ur­al pause. Com­ma, pause. Peri­od stop. Why is this so dif­fi­cult?.

  • Basil says:

    you don’t need to state the obvi­ous…

  • Christine Murphy says:

    Agreed with com­ments

  • Jim Turner says:

    I found the book used, many years ago. I nev­er read any­thing like it. I have read much of McCarthy. Fun­ny how now, I find myself liv­ing in the pre­quel to The Road. (No ” ” in his hon­or.)

  • Ken Farmer says:

    I do like McCor­ma­cks style and I do use quo­ta­tion marks but I do not use tags at all. No, he/she saids, answered, added, or any oth­er type of tags. Just none at all. Like he says about writ­ing dia­logue, if you write it correctly…you don’t need tags. I find it quite easy to guide the read­er as to who’s talk­ing. The elim­i­na­tion of tags, to me, smooths out the entire read but that’s just me.

  • Lord Piddlepuck says:

    Lord, I’d be assas­si­nat­ed at dawn because I live for the com­mas and semi­colons; send my cre­den­tials to the High Court of Shake­speare.

    Sin­cere­ly and adieu,

    Lord Pud­dlepuck

  • Robert Heuer says:

    Good piece. But hilar­i­ous that the author defied their own mate­r­i­al by adding a super­flu­ous colon at the end of each sub­head­ing, along with redun­dant head­ing numbers—the title clear­ly says there are three, and there’s no sequence required for list­ing them in order. Then again, I’ve used more punc­tu­a­tion in this com­ment than McCarthy used in an entire chap­ter, so what do I know real­ly…

  • Jake Forrest says:

    What­ev­er, I just like his work.

  • Nick says:

    I liked the arti­cle. Please give cred­it to the author. They earned it

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