Where did the quotation mark go?

by Steph Koo

"Quote marks." (Image via Flickr | Creative Commons.)
“Quote marks.” (Image by MatthewRad via Flickr | Creative Commons.)

We are approaching copyediting time at the Long River Review and it has me thinking about grammar, punctuation, and writing style—leading me to this question: Why do some authors do away with the quotation mark in dialogue?

Perhaps I am noticing it more as I am reading more “serious literature” for my classes now, versus less “fun reading” aimed toward the masses. For example, two critically-acclaimed books I have recently read have decided to remove the quotation mark: The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012) and We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (2013).

Is the lack of quotation marks a form of snobbery or trickery on the part of the author?

“The reader should read my work with extra care and attention; if they can’t grasp what I’m trying to say, they aren’t worthy enough of my writing anyway…,” says the imaginary author, pointing her nose in the air.

Before wondering where the quotation mark has gone, let’s talk about where it has been. I cracked open a book written on just this, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (1993) by M.B. Parkes to get started.

The “diple” (< and >) was used in the West during the 1500s to indicate that quotations were coming in the line the quote preceded—not yet used for widely for dialogue. It could also indicate some passages of direct speech, alongside the use of italics. The advances of the printed word also helped unify how the diple should work. Additionally, printed plays placed “verbs of speaking into parentheses,” which “helped the reader to identify quickly the full extent of a passage in direct speech” (Parkes 59). Since plays were widely popular, the convention to separate dialogue from other parts of the work soon spread.

Parkes writes, thus, about the rise of the quotation mark:

“In the beginning of the 18th century English printers transformed the comma-marks used for the diple into a new punctuation system which we may properly call ‘quotation marks.’ As a first stage in this new development, they repeated the nota by inserting inverted commas in the text immediately before the passage of direct speech or quotation to ‘open’ it. The second stage was to insert raised commas in the text at the end of the passage to ‘close’ it (Parkes 59).

Gradually accepted in the early 1700s and increasing in frequency during the 1750s, English and most Western languages added a double comma for direct speech with a single comma used for reported speech. Eventually, the commas shifted to the top left and right places that today are known as quotation marks.

Without getting entrenched in a long, grammarist debate—as you probably know how passionate people get when it comes to writing “correctly”—but today, typically, dialogue is bookended between two quotation marks, sometimes with a tag (like “said”) and sometimes not. This marks it separately from other areas of the passage. Authors are told to write each new speaker in a new line. It is a form we all know. It is familiar, it is easy, and it helps bad students like me skim the page for essential text.

At a time when written literature is arguably on the decline popularity-wise—having to share its place in the entertainment industry with television, movies, internet media, and more—why would a writer purposely choose to make literature less accessible and more difficult to read?

Cormac McCarthy, perhaps most famous for his writing style without quotation marks, argues that quotation marks make things harder to read. In 2008, he told Oprah that he traces his quotation mark-free style back to James Joyce, and how he “keeps it simple” and to a minimum. He argues that using quotation marks “blocks the pages with weird little marks,” and instead focuses on how he writes: simplifying the structure of his sentences and text to “make it easy for people to read.” The focus on ease of reading is the reason for his elimination of quotation marks, semi-colons, and long sentences.

Although McCarthy and other established writers are paving the way for these unusual conventions, they do not all have his simple, Joyce-like style. I don’t know about you, but I actually like my commas, semi-colons, em dashes, and long-winded sentences. Writers may choose to forgo the quotation mark in dialogue for reasons other than simplicity and ease of reading.

Presumably, those who get work published want to be read but that does not necessarily mean that a writer must follow the rules. It could mean that they are, indeed, highbrow and selective in their readership. It could mean that they want to write in a more intimate, connected style for the effect of the piece—for example, it could copy the style of the oral story, whose narrator and the different characters are all in the voice of the speaker.

There’s a sense of immediacy when a quotation mark is removed: a barrier is lifted that puts the character and the reader closer together. There is also an argued elegance to the voice and tone of the piece—often, writing can be seen as a lot clearer and subdued. However, argues novelist Lionel Shriver in a Wall Street Journal article, this may affect the action of the piece: that “burying characters’ verbal conflicts” frustrates readers’ experience with the plot.

Sometimes, writers desire to break from tradition and convention. Back to my opening example of “ethnic writers” that have become popular, such as Hispanic writer Junot Diaz, Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo, and Native American Louise Erdrich—they all do not use quotation marks in dialogue. It calls back to the literary division and power dynamics within the world of writing and publishing itself. Ethnic literature is not always mainstream, and broadly classifies an almost too large area of work under a single category. It is seen as cultural and elite. It is also no secret that the publishing industry is extremely white. The way these books are marketed begs the question: are white audiences reading the ethnic book doing so to assume cultural eliteness, or gain a cultural insight? Therefore, is the lack of quotation mark married to this idea of eliteness?

The danger of this mindset is that writers of ethnic writing are aware of their place, pigeonholed in the publishing industry, perhaps purposely choosing not to use quotation marks in order to create a distinctive mark. Or, alternatively, conventional grammarists and readers who complain about authors not using quotation marks are pushing back against a style that has just as much literary merit as quotation-using authors.

Removing the quotation mark is made of further significance because of that very reason: it’s a choice. For whatever choice that is, even if it may be as small as “I do not like the way the marks look like in the font,” are legitimate. Perhaps not well-liked, but legitimate all the same.

Authors all write for different reasons and the way they write change, among many factors, with popular convention at the time. Perhaps it is the next stage of writing—or not. If anything, it’s another flavor option in the giant cookbook that is the English language.

P.S. One last note—this is just in the English language. What about other languages, and other areas of literature? That’s food for thought for another day.

Steph Koo is a third year student majoring in English and Biology. She is the editor of the Fiction panel of Long River Review.

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