Breaking the Rules: The Unconventional Punctuation of The Road
If a student tells his or her teacher that adhering to grammatical rules proves unnecessary to acceptable writing, the teacher would in all likelihood balk at the student’s claim and continue reinforcing the need for proper punctuation. If someone asked Cormac McCarthy about the necessity of punctuation, he would probably respond the same way he did in a 2008 interview with Oprah Winfrey: “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.” McCarthy renounces common punctuation rules in his novel The Road in order to impart the novel’s underlying messages in a simplistic style.
McCarthy’s greatest deviation from conventional punctuation rules exists in his lack of quotation marks in dialogue. In one instance, McCarthy writes, “Can I ask you something? he said. / Yes. Of course. / Are we going to die? / Sometime. Not now. / And we’re still going south” (10). McCarthy’s decision to abstain from quotation marks heavily influences the way the reader interprets the tone. Withholding quotations gives the text a bare appearance, strikingly similar to the novel’s barren setting. The dialogue serves as another channel the reader uses to grasp the desolation of the world. The reader requires as much insight into the world as possible to fathom the stark difference between life today and the atmosphere of The Road. McCarthy’s dialogue also contributes to the audience’s understanding of the close bond between the man and the boy. The dialogue flows in such a way where the reader can almost hear the soft back-and-forth conversation between the two characters. The mood created by the absence of quotation marks reflects the solemn tone of the post-apocalyptic world. In addition, quotation marks do not seem necessary for the audience to understand the verbal communication and differentiate one character’s dialogue from the other. McCarthy not only simplifies his writing, but by excluding quotation marks, he actually expands the text’s meaning.
Although McCarthy places the occasional comma and colon in his writing, he largely keeps his punctuation to a bare minimum. In most cases, McCarthy elects not to place a comma before conjunctions in compound sentences. One example of this can be found in the sentence, “They ate well but they were still a long way from the coast” (McCarthy 213). Generally, a comma would be located before the conjunction “but.” However, McCarthy chooses to simplify the sentence by refraining from using a comma and thus conveying the same meaning with less complexity. Most of the commas in The Road seem to be a part of dialogue attribution. For instance, McCarthy writes, “This is our new lamp, he said” (135). Again on the same page, the text reads, “Come on, the man said” (McCarthy 135). The audience can assume McCarthy includes commas around dialogue attribution to distinguish text from speech, which proves especially useful with the lack of quotation marks. Colons appear more sparingly within the text. When McCarthy incorporates colons, it provides a contrast from the barren nature of the rest of the sentences. The contrast places emphasis on the information preceding and following the colon. One passage states, “In the morning the boy said nothing at all and when they were packed and ready to set out upon the road he turned and looked back at their campsite and he said: She’s gone isn’t she? And he said: Yes, she is” (McCarthy 58). This passage consists of two colons, adding twice as much emphasis to the paragraph’s content. McCarthy most likely intended to place a spotlight on this paragraph because it contains vital background information about the mother that the reader needs to know in order to fully understand the relationship between the man and the boy. McCarthy takes advantage of the aesthetic of incorporating and withholding commas and colons to further enhance his text.
At first glance, McCarthy’s use of apostrophes seems arbitrary, but upon further study, the reader can see that McCarthy methodically attempted to create a simplified vocabulary. For the majority of the novel, McCarthy does not add an apostrophe to words contracted with “not,” but he does use an apostrophe with other contracted words like “am,” “had,” “is,” and “are.” In order to understand McCarthy’s thought process, the contractions need to be analyzed in written form. One example from the novel reads, “I’m sorry, he said. Dont say that. You mustnt say that” (McCarthy 85). In this example, McCarthy includes an apostrophe with the contraction “I’m” because even in a society decaying in education, the words “I” and “am” still have separate identities. Not only that, but removing the apostrophe creates an almost unintelligible word that leaves the reader befuddled at the sight of “Im.” On the other hand, the words “dont” and “mustnt” have been paired together in speech so much that they almost seem like one word, and the reader can easily overlook the missing apostrophe without pausing out of confusion. McCarthy also combines words like “burntlooking” (49), “roofingfelt” (134), and “coathanger” (135) for arguably the same reason he avoids apostrophes, to reduce cluttered sentences and merge words generally associated with one another. In an effort to show the decaying world of The Road, McCarthy seeks every avenue of conveying the decomposition to the reader in a discernible manner, even to the point of writing words in the simplest form.
Though McCarthy’s blatant disregard for punctuation rules may set most readers on edge, the uneasiness associated with reading The Road may not necessarily be a negative reaction. McCarthy’s decision to break the set mold for writing led him to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. One could argue that if McCarthy included common punctuation like quotation marks around dialogue and commas before conjunctions, then his novel would not have garnered much attention above the sea of other fictional books. Writers should not hesitate to try something different now and again, even if breaking the rules causes a little anxiety. Notwithstanding, before one deviates from the rules of writing, like McCarthy states, one must first learn to “write properly.”
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