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Mark my words, and his, and hers

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April October 25, 2008 02:40 PM

Lionel Shriver, author of "The Post-Birthday World" and other novels, has an essay in today's Wall Street Journal about the missing quotation marks in modern fiction. Someone must have issued a memo, she writes, saying "Cool writers don't use quotes in dialogue anymore."

She thinks (and I, a traditionalist when it comes to fiction, agree) that making the reader do the work of quotation marks has a downside.

By putting the onus on the reader to determine which lines are spoken and which not, the quoteless fad feeds the widespread conviction that popular fiction is fun while literature is arduous. Surely what should distinguish literature isn't that it's hard but that it's good.

And, she argues, omitting quote marks makes it hard to turn up the volume of dialogue. Reading a line like

Is this what you're like with LizAnn? I heard myself scream,

you don't hear the scream; it's "like watching chase scenes in 'The Bourne Supremacy' with the sound off."

But there are a couple of problems with the example she has chosen for her demonstration, a passage from Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men":

You could head south to the river.

Yeah. You could.

Less open ground.

Less aint none.

He turned, still holding the handkerchief to his forehead. No cloud cover in sight.

Shriver then gives the same passage with quotes:

"You could head south to the river."

"Yeah. You could."

"Less open ground."

"Less aint none."

He turned, still holding the handkerchief to his forehead. "No cloud cover in sight."

With the quotation marks added, "Is that landscape any less vast?" she asks.

But her repunctuation poses other questions. Why put "No cloud cover in sight" in quotation marks? I read it as the author's voice, not the character's.

More problematic yet: These lines of "dialogue" aren't really. They're interior monologue; Llewellyn Moss (played in the movie by Josh Brolin, above) is alone in the West Texas desert, debating his options. The monologue-styled-as-dialogue goes on:

You need to be somewhere come daylight.

Home in bed would be good.

Punctuating those back-and-forth thoughts as separate utterances wouldn't be appropriate when they're really one person's musings. Maybe italics would work -- at least then we'd know whether the "cloud cover" line is meant as a thought balloon (her interpretation) or part of the narrative (mine).

I'm still with Shriver in general; I pump my own gas and load my own groceries, but I'd rather not be asked to bring my own punctuation. But the McCarthy excerpt isn't the example that proves the point.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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