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What Cormac McCarthy taught me about grammar instruction

  03/09/08 19:47, by , Categories: Education, Literature

Yesterday I started reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road (It's a wonderful book, by the way--the kind I would stay up all night reading if I didn't have to take care of my 1-year-old son the following morning). Here is the first paragraph:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. 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. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

As I read this opening what really stood out to me was the grammatical style, and I couldn't help thinking what kind of comments this book would receive if given to a high school English teacher for an assignment. "Fragment. Fragment. Fragment. Don't needs an apostrophe. Fragment."

When I first started teaching English I thought it was important to strike a balance between the necessary evil of teaching formal grammar and my desire to make language exciting and creative for students, although I wasn't always sure of how to do it. I think that one tactic I settled on was teaching students about using different writing styles for different occasions: what is appropriate for a novel may not be appropriate for an academic paper. I still think this is true, but I've always felt there's more to it than just that.

While reading Cormac McCarthy's writing (this is the first novel of his I've read and now I'm wondering why I waited so long) I've figured out a different reason for teaching grammar. What I've realized is that while McCarthy breaks the rules of formal writing, it is not at all chaotic or disorganized. In fact, I would say that he writes in a very consistent style that has its own consistent set of rules. This kind of writing must be very intentional. I'm sure there's a reason he leaves the apostrophes out of contractions like cant, dont and wont, and I'd love to hear him explain what that reason is.

I think that intentionality is the difference between good writing and bad writing. If a student is going to choose to use sentence fragments, it must be a deliberate choice, which requires knowledge of the formal rules of grammar and a clear purpose for violating them. And above all, grammar should be taught with the understanding that any stylistic choices must be made with the audience's reaction in mind.

I think I'll show my students this passage from The Road next time I teach about sentence fragments in a regular education English classroom.

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Comment from: Adam [Visitor]

I’m actually about halfway through The Road right now and agree that it’s fantastic. I figured the reason he wrote the book in such a minimalist way (very straight forward descriptions of what is happening, very little punctuation, etc) is to put a focus on what is literally happening instead of how it’s written.

03/16/08 @ 21:01
Comment from: Scott [Visitor]

I call bullshit. The Road is an awful book that is unreadable. If anyone other than Cormac McCarthy had written it, The Road wouldn’t have been published. This is a case of the Emperor’s new clothes…

12/25/08 @ 16:12
Comment from: [Member]

There’s no accounting for taste, I suppose. I was so captivated by it that I finished it in two days. I absolutely could not put it down.

By the way, I had never read anything by Cormac McCarthy before, and I only read this because it was recommended by a friend.

12/26/08 @ 06:23
Comment from: An English Learner [Visitor]
An English Learner

This is a very good article. Most of English learners find that it is difficult to master English grammar.

01/06/09 @ 21:21
Comment from: asimpleteacher [Visitor]

This is the second Cormac McCarthy book that I’ve attempted to read, and I find it very difficult due to the absence of appropriate punctuation. McCarthy can say all he wants about simplicity, but inserting a comma in the appropriate place makes sentences easier to read. I’ve also just heard from a friend that lower level sophomores at my former school are reading The Road. This is an awful idea because it will create the idea that grammar, sentence structure and punctuation are purely optional. Some editor should have had the guts to stand up to McCarthy and edit this book more seriously.

01/10/09 @ 11:34
Comment from: [Member]

I think it’s perfectly appropriate for young people to be reading books that treat punctuation and grammar rules a little more loosely. Not everything needs to be written like a term paper or an article in the New York Times. I think it’s good for students to learn that there there are many different writing styles, and that you can get away with things in a novel that you can’t in academic work.

Don’t forget that the low-class narrative style and unconventional spelling Mark Twain used in Huckleberry Finn was quite controversial in his time. Now it’s a required text in many 9th grade English classes.

01/10/09 @ 12:01
Comment from: Zoe [Visitor]

I agree with his stylistic choices. Though his style may be seen as unconventional it is far from “unreadable".

McCarthy is trying to tell the story of a particular father and son simply trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Adam, you hit the nail right on the head- the story is what is supposed to be so captivating. This is what this man and boy are doing right now. Even the dialogue is so raw that your throat gets tight with emotion whenever the boy tries to trust his father as he asks if they will die.

The lack of punctuation is not laziness or bad editing. It’s called Post- postmodernism; it’s almost like a return to traditional modernism (Elements of: chaos, futility, pessimism, unstability, loss of faith, collapse of morality, and lost sense of self) with a futuristic twist. Note that the story does not contain ALL of these modern elements.

This work could be tied to the works of Vonnegut; there are no embellishments- which Vonnegut would’ve loved. McCarthy tells the story, how the story should be told, and that is all. This should make the book an easier read because the author puts your right there- into the fears/journey of the man and the boy.

06/19/09 @ 14:12
Comment from: Simon [Visitor]

I loved the book. In some ways I wonder if the lack of punctuation was to make the prose itself bleak, to mimic the environment it is describing.

For a real grammatical challenge, try reading ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn; by Hubert Selby, Jr. That’s a real challenge and show the true value of breaking the rules of grammar to paint the situation as the author sees it. Amazing book, too.

07/14/09 @ 21:44
Comment from: Dix Powell [Visitor]  
Dix Powell

A long time ago I used to be so hard nosed about grammar and I am also a writer realizing that sticking to the strictest rules of grammar can get in the way of creativity. Passages and stories require sentences to be written certain ways. Sometimes requiring no sentence at all. Fragments help. Fragments show the startling fact of some event. Some moment. Some idea. Simplicity. Plus it could be conjectured that some marks just clutter a page and need of commas or apostrophes (like couldve been used here or the apostrophe) shouldnt be the be-all end-all if a reader is good at reading. Reading is a required skill that has to be cultivated, and nothing about The Road is difficult to read without such marks such as quotation marks. There are much more difficult books out there. If you cant cope with this one then you may be limited to only reading the easiest of pulp fiction.

The usage or lack thereof of punctuation shows the stripped down nature of a post apocalyptic world where everyone left is an animal. No names to show this. Fragments to show this. No grammar rules to show this because there are none. There is no literature. No Law. No anything that falls within the realms of dictating a society. Because there is none.

10/17/09 @ 10:25
Comment from: Jim [Visitor]

“Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.” - that is just terrible English, stylistic intention or not. What a hack, and where is McCarthy’s editor in all this? AWOL, I presume.

11/19/09 @ 16:23
Comment from: JohnG [Visitor]

McCarthy’s novel is dealing with notions of nihilism, i.e the complete anihilation of society. the degeneration of his language alludes to the degeneration of society. language becomes obsolete in the novel, people people forget colours, names of birds etc. Friedrich Nietzsche defines nihilism as ‘the radical repudiation of value, meaning and desirability.’ well thereis no doubt that language’s value and meaning is repudiated in his work.

12/10/09 @ 06:46
Comment from: Alex [Visitor]

I think that what needs to be understood is that The Road is a work of literature and art, not having to adhere to any specific rules of grammar if it is considered art work. Should all painter’s paint the same? The same can be said for authors.
It should not be mistaken for proper language and correspondence. A NY Times article is communication and information. That should be written grammatically correct. It is not art work.
These things must be understood by everyone. Otherwise the beauty of manipulating language and writing effectively will be lost. And what a terrible loss it would be.
P.S. The Road was excellent.

01/22/10 @ 07:09
Comment from: Andrea [Visitor]

I feel that the grammar isn’t there to emphasize what is really important to the father and son or anyone in an apocalyptic world. Are all those rules really helping anybody survive? No, and therefore they are not even considered in their world. The get the point across in the a very simple way and give only what is necessary. Even read the brevity of the dialogue. Spoken word isn’t even important any more. What matters is survival, just as grammar didn’t exist when we first started writing because it wasn’t important.

10/24/10 @ 15:14
Comment from: Morgan [Visitor]  

I don’t think Cormac McCarthey’s grammatical style is particular for The Road. All of his books I’ve read are written in the same style. It might suit the bleak landcape of The Road, but he writes that way all the time (of course, all of his books are pretty bleak). If I accept it as poetic license I seem to be able to understand it better. Some of his descriptive passages are very difficult to read out loud. That being said, All The Pretty Horses is one of my favorite books.

11/12/10 @ 09:53
Comment from: David [Visitor]

I just tried to read this book and had to put it down after around thirty pages due to the absolute atrocious writing style and complete disregard for language structure. Fragments, overuse of conjunctions, lack of multiple different kinds of punctuation. Overall it makes the book a very slow read due to having to re-read passages multiple times.

Language structure is there to aid communication, it should not be modified willy nilly by some hack author as a literary device in a way to inject what he is unable to convey through language. In this case all you have is a clumsy, choppy, piece of sub-par writing.

And speaking of language, the text reads like it was written by a freshman with a thesaurus. There is excessive use of bizarre adjectives and over-description. Simple sentence structure with over use of a inappropriate descriptors just reeks of poor undergrad writing.

11/27/10 @ 13:25
Comment from: Matt [Visitor]

McCarthy writes all of his books like a short bus riding thirdgrader and he has won the pulitzer with that style so how can anybody question it so no the style was not meant as an emphastylistic enhancement to complement his post apocolyptic masterpiece it is just how all short bus riding thirdgraders and bathroom wall graffiti artists communicate.

When you are a genius like Cormac McCarthy you mustnt be held down with antiquated theoretical grammatical constructs such as rules against runon sentences and punctuation requirements because when you are Cormac McCarthy you are a master artist and storyteller not a writer.

As Cormac says why waste space on the page with little marks that centuries of people have mistakenly though make reading easier when you can replace commas with the word and over and over in a sentence and create new fantastigraphic words instead and let people figure this out for themselves and just sit back and collect the money people pay to buy your books and say how good they are. Your story doesnt even need to be all that good if people are wondering if they just have a lousy kindlescribed version of the printed book and have to spend too much effort getting through each runon or fragment or otherwise crapulously constructed sentence to concentrate on the plodding plot.

11/28/10 @ 15:07
Comment from: Dave [Visitor]

Wow, some of the comments are venomous. I teach high school English, and have an excellent grasp of grammatical conventions. I read the Road in two days and was completely overwhelmed by the perfection of the book. Cormac McCarthy is a hack. Just like Tom Waits and Bobby Orr. Thank God The Road is not a term paper.

01/04/11 @ 20:13
Comment from: Netserf [Visitor]

Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it.

01/18/11 @ 14:18
Comment from: Greg [Visitor]

McCarthy is not an easy read. His prose does not skip across the mind or tongue. It takes quite a bit of mastication. But, the reader becomes engaged once the rules are known. The visual imagery begins to jump from the page.

I read the Border Trilogy first. The Road is a wilderness best avoided.

01/27/11 @ 21:26
Comment from: Jenna [Visitor]

I agree with Kyle’s comments entirely. I teach writing and I tell my students you may not break the rules until you have complete understanding and control of them… because then, when you do so, it will be both conscious and intentional.

It is ridiculous to cast aspersions on the style of writing of a pulitzer prize winner. He does this very deliberately and repeatedly in his works. He has his reasons and he is entitled to them. If you do not like his style then might I suggest you don’t read his books.

I accept the style is difficult to read at first, when we are used to the support structure that grammar and punctuation provide, it is tricky at first to adjust. For me though reading McCarthy’s work is a test of my maturity as a reader - can I make sense of the text; having an understanding of the way language functions and applying this to his particular way of writing. After a while it becomes quite easy. This is because McCarthy is not haphazard about his style. He is very deliberate and consistent.

It is important when reading or studying McCarthy’s work with students that these things are pointed out. It is not, however, a dangerous thing to open up discussion nor to look at different ways of doing things; in many respects this can reinforce the value of the structures we teach and commonly adhere to.

I applaud McCarthy for his ongoing commitment to his personal style as a writer and we would do well to develop the writing skills of those we teach in order to enable them to reach a point where they can make informed and critical analysis of the merit of a text without getting hung up on judgements of style.

05/21/11 @ 16:54
Comment from: Matt [Visitor]

dave netsurf n jenna u r rite no rezn 2 uz . n stuff cuz dey suk

sur cm maks ppl tlk abt crppy styl nstd of hz rehshd plotz but thts k cuz pultzr sz its k

mabe hiz nxt bk wil hv vmprs n warwlvs n luv w grlz but he cn txt 2 r phonz cuz he iz cool so he get nothr priz nstd of dat twilite chik

06/12/11 @ 15:55
Comment from: theater of the mind [Visitor]
theater of the mind

The thing about reading Cormac McCarthy is that it’s a paradigm shift. It’s theater of the mind. It’s the images the words without grammatical rules create – like when you see someone with what seems a stupid or blank look on their face but really they are active inside their imagination of daydreaming. Like the kid in Man Without a Face. Like Gumby and Pokey walking into storybooks.

07/06/11 @ 14:57
Comment from: Dreamweaver CS5 tutorials [Visitor]
Dreamweaver CS5 tutorials

Learning a good grammar is really a must! I found this article very informative. Thanks for the post.

09/10/11 @ 22:56
Comment from: brisbane swimming pool builders [Visitor]
brisbane swimming pool builders

Grammar and spelling is everything when it comes to language. Once use it well many are can easily understand what you are trying to say.

09/13/11 @ 18:23
Comment from: Will [Visitor]

Well edited or not it’s still garbage.

09/17/11 @ 15:20
Comment from: Email marketing [Visitor]
Email marketing

I was curious about this book as I have read through all the comments.

09/18/11 @ 21:34
Comment from: Outdoor spas perth [Visitor]
Outdoor spas perth

Indeed the grammatical style is really confusing, the writer should insert a comma into its appropriate place in order to make the sentence much easier to read.

09/19/11 @ 05:48
Comment from: [Member]

Says the commenter using a comma splice.

09/19/11 @ 10:03
Comment from: Carol - Pinnacles day tour [Visitor]
Carol - Pinnacles day tour

I’m interested this book, this is what I need for my research.

10/03/11 @ 08:52
Comment from: Psychologist Perth [Visitor]
Psychologist Perth

Practice makes perfect. Just like in grammar, constant practice and learning helps a lot.

10/07/11 @ 23:47

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