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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 06-Sep-15


Sunday 06-September-15

The power of emotional punctuation

I was reading Cormac McCarthy's 'No Country For Old Men' recently and was a bit baffled by the lack of punctuation. Ok, there are periods and commas, but little else. Not even speech marks. Apparently McCarthy is minimalist and believes clear prose needs little punctuation. It takes some getting used to and still feels oddly flat. This made me wonder and, after much musing, I came up with an explanation.

When we read, we seek not only to understand the words but also the deeper meaning behind the words. In particular, we want to understand the people, even when we know they are purely fictional. In effect we seek to read what they are thinking and feeling.

In normal real-time human interaction, we get a lot of information, especially about feelings, from the intonation of spoken words. So how do we cope with written text? The first stage is that we hear a voice in our heads as we read words, as if we were reading them out loud to someone. A clever trick we then do, often without noticing we are doing it, is to use quotation marks as a cue to read the words as if someone was speaking them. Without this prompt, the words would 'sound' a lot flatter, with far less intonation, as this is the way we tend to read narrative, explanatory text.

A further flattening can be achieved by removing apostrophes from contractions such as goin', don't, and so on, denying even these simple words any effective humanity.

The result in reading 'No Country For Old Men' is that the characters sound as if they lack emotion. This suits the book, as characters include psychopaths, jaded lawmen and relatively simple other characters. For other books it may be less effective or even counterproductive.

I dont know if this effect was intended, but it certainly affected my experience of the book in the way described. It also highlights the subtle power of punctuation and how understanding such detail, coupled with a creative ability to break rules, can lead to a boldly successful book.

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