Cormac McCarthy, Run-On Sentences, and Quotation Marks

With the introduction of the Kindle for iPhone, I’ve finally taken the opportunity to read Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.  I have loved the movie, even though I missed it an theatres and wanted to how close the movie stuck to the novel.  Needless to say, I was not disappointed.  No Country for Old Men is a terrific read, the most fun I’ve had since the Harry Potter series finished up.

One of the more interesting things with reading a Cormac McCarthy novel for the first time is his unique prose style identifiable by two consistent habits: run-on sentences and no quotation marks.  Now for the most part English teachers will balk at both habits as bad grammar but I’m always interested when a writer does something different.  I always want to understand why an author makes that choices that he or she does and how does it affect the manuscript.

Run-on Sentences

McCarthy has been compared to William Faulkner for his consistent use of the run-on sentence.  An example from No Country for Old Men:

The deputy left Chigurh standing in the corner of the office with his hands cuffed behind while he sat in the swivelchair and took off his hat and put his feet up and called Lamar on the mobile.

For the most part, this is a mild example of McCarthy’s run-on sentences but does illustrate the reasons why he uses them.  For the most part, McCarthy uses the run-on sentence to string together a bunch of action statements that by themselves are not that interesting.  It almost seems if McCarthy is following Elmore Leonard’s old axiom to eliminate the parts that the reader skips over.  However in McCarthy’s case, instead of deleting the boring description of action, he shortens them and puts them all together in the same sentence. In a sense, he is skipping over the text alongside the reader. Now, if I was writing it, it probably would have gone like this:

As the deputy walked in to the station, the door creaked in protest. I would have to oil that, thought the deputy. But he couldn’t do it right now because he was not alone. Upon his right hand rested the manacled hands of one Anton Chigurh. His arms behind him, Chigurh was led to the corner by the deputy. The deputy left him in the corner and walked over to his desk. Papers lay strewn everywhere and a pen could not be found. The deputy sat back into his swivel chair with a relaxing oomph. He dropped his hat upon the desk and put his feet up, taking the opportunity to scratch an itch that had been bothering him for the last ten miles. Leaning back, he picked up the mobile and dialed the number for Lamar.

As you can see, my version spends a lot of time describing things that aren’t really that important. McCarthy’s text zooms past this unnecessary description and cuts right to the chase.

While run-on sentences are generally seen as the result of poor grammar, I believe that in the manner that McCarthy uses them it works well. It skips over the boring text without completely removing it. It also makes the story appear to be going by faster.  For this reason, I would recommend it but don’t overuse less someone accusing you of simply copying McCarthy.  They’d be right but there is nothing wrong with copying good technique.

Quotation Marks

The other unusual grammatical quirk that is a trademark of McCarthy’s writing’s is his use of the quotation mark or more accurately, the fact that he never uses a quotation mark.  For an example, here is the second paragraph from No Country for Old Men:

Just walked in the door.  Sheriff he had some sort of thing on him like one of them oxygen tanks for emphysema or whatever.  Then he had a hose that run down the inside of his sleeve and went to one of them stun guns like they use at the slaughterhouse.  Yessir.  Well that’s what it looks like.  You can see it when you get in.  Yessir.  I got it covered.  Yessir.

Not one quotation mark.  McCarthy states that it’s because the quotation mark halts the reader.  That it is an intrusive obstruction into the reading experience or to paraphrase him, he hates seeing all of this marks all over his page.  At first it is a little jarring but you soon become used to it.  On this McCarthy has a point, the reading experience is far more fluid when you don’t have to deal with quotation marks.  The punctuation disappears and the dialogue and not the punctuation becomes the focus.  However, there are problems with this strategy when you mix dialogue and description.  For example:

Wendell leaned and spat.  Yessir, he said.  I’m ready.  He looked at Torbert.  You get stopped with that old boy in the turtle just tell em you dont know nothin about it.  Tell em somebody must of put him in there while you was havin coffee.

In this case, the reader must switch back and forth between description and dialogue several times.  Each time the reader has to shift focus, there is an opportunity for the reader to lose his place and become confused over whether or not he is reading dialogue.  I found that this happened several times while I was reading to book.  Confusion resulted, forcing me to go back and read it again.  Every time that I did so, it broke the momentum of the story, thus nullifying the advantage that Cormac McCarthy was trying to gain.  Thus, I would recommend that you stick with quotation marks.  They may mark up your page something awful, but they will ensure that your text is clear and easily understand, thus helping to maintain the flow of the story.  Now if you decide to forego quotation marks, just be aware of how the reader can become confused and try to avoid mixing description and dialogue in the same paragraph.

Cormac McCarthy is one of the best writers in the English language.  There is a lot that you can learn from reading his books.  But keep in mind that every writer has their own style and this style must have a purpose.  Take from your favourite writers what works for you and leave the rest.  Only you can write like you.

4 thoughts on “Cormac McCarthy, Run-On Sentences, and Quotation Marks

  1. I love Cormac McCarthy, too. I love that he takes risks with language. But the sentence you provide as proof of being a “run-on” is not a run-on. A run-on is two independent clauses connected without proper punctuation (usually a semicolon or a period) or conjunctions. You’ll notice the example you use does use conjunctions.

  2. Perhaps, but his sentences are still really long. That was the point I was making.

  3. You left out the lack of commas. The commas, the missing quote marks, and the run-on sentences IMO work as a piece to achieve an hypnotic effect. For me there is a deeper immersion with McCarthy’s writing than with almost any other authors.

  4. I recently read McCarthy’s Suttree, and I was dismayed by his writing style. Run-on sentences and not using quotation marks are not only confusing to the reader, they’re just bad grammar. Where were the editors when this book was published? If they were doing their job, they would have told McCarthy you are to write in the English language.

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