Our Friend, the Quotation Mark

An open letter to all writers everywhere, especially those who consider themselves “literary.”

Remember the quotation mark? We put a pair of them at the beginning of a statement to indicate when someone is speaking. When the person stops talking, we put another pair of quotation marks to indicate that the talking part is over.

Seems simple, doesn’t it? In fact, it is simple. As an English teacher, I teach it over and over every year, and it’s a concept so basic that after some practice, even the least promising of my students usually grasps it. And those who never do — well, it’s not a huge loss, because those students are likely to go to careers as engineers or janitors or nuclear physicists or daycare workers — all people who don’t need to worry too much about quotation marks.

In fact, just about the only people who absolutely have to know how to use quotation marks correctly are scholars, journalists, and fiction writers.

But then, dear fiction author with literary pretensions, your problem is not that you don’t know how to use the quotation mark, is it? No, you know the rules. You just believe that you transcend them. It’s not even that you can’t be bothered — it’s that you think you found a better, fresher, more original way to indicate dialogue in your narrative. You believe that whatever you’ve devised is an improvement on the tired, dreary, pedestrian old quotation mark.

News flash: It’s not.

Let’s look at a couple of (fabricated, I assure you) examples:

Example 1:

The warm breeze fanned her face. I’m getting out of here. Going home.

You don’t even know where home is anymore.

I do. She turned to him, her eyes hard. Home is away from you. Home is my shoes up on the table, my clothes on the floor. My life, my stuff, my own people. Home is what I wanted all these years. You’ll never understand that.

Shoes on the table. Clothes on the floor. For this she was leaving him? He turned away.

Example #2 — same passage, but appropriately punctuated.

The warm breeze fanned her face. “I’m getting out of here. Going home.”

“You don’t even know where home is anymore.”

“I do.” She turned to him, her eyes hard. “Home is away from you. Home is my shoes up on the table, my clothes on the floor. My life, my stuff, my own people. Home is what I wanted all these years. You’ll never understand that.”

“Shoes on the table. Clothes on the floor.” For this she was leaving him? He turned away.

I’m an avid reader, and I consider myself a fairly smart one. I read passages like Example 1 more often than I’d like to. Why? What does it add to the piece, to strip away the quotation marks? It forces the reader to figure out when people are talking, and blurs the distinction between what is said aloud and what is merely thought (like: “Shoes on the table. Clothes on the floor,” in the last line. In Example 1, I don’t know whether he said that to her, or just thought it to himself).

In fact, I’ve gotta say, the only difference I see is that Example 1 is waving a big red flag saying, “Look at meee!!! I’m a Literary Author!!! I’m all post-modern and avant-garde and I’m WAAYYY too cool for quotation marks.”

I’m sorry, but dropping your quotation marks is the literay equivalent of a forty-year-old youth worker wearing a baseball cap backwards and using the word “shizzle” in an effort to “be relevant.” Spare me.

As I said, I consider myself a moderately intelligent reader. I don’t mind working at a novel. I don’t mind putting in some mental effort to figure out what your character’s motivations are, whether your narrator is trustworthy, whether the minor detail you’ve just revealed is significant, or where your twisted, convoluted plot is going to take me next.

But I don’t want to have to waste those valuable brain cells (and after 40, believe me, every cell is sacred) figuring out when people are talking and when they’re not. Because we already have a perfectly good mechanism for indicating that.

Remember our old friend the quotation mark? You’re not too good to use it — you’re too good not to use it.

11 Replies to “Our Friend, the Quotation Mark”

  1. Ha! I agree. I just got through The Road, (Cormac McCarthy) it was a lot like that. It is a post-apocalyptic story describing a journey taken father and his son over a period of several months. The landscape blasted unnamed cataclysm which destroyed civilization and most life on earth. The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is dark and brooding, and male.

  2. Wasn’t that Oprah’s Book Club selection? Or something else by the same author … I remember reading somewhere where people were saying that readers who were expecting the usual sort of heartwarming feel-good Oprah novel were going to get a nasty shock.

    I know what you mean by “and male” too … I have to admit a big prejudice in favour of female authors. But on this issue of quotation marks women are just as guilty as men — and there are some books which I otherwise like or even love, that leave out the quote marks and it still irritates me even if I like everything else about the book.

  3. Rah rah!

    I know that at least one short story I taught last year dispensed with quotation marks. I forget which one. I do remember trying to figure out a way to work this particular choice into a productive discussion. What effect does this (lack of) punctuation have? How does it affect the meaning the story? Answers: not much, not significantly.

  4. Quotation marks are one thing, but I like backwards baseball caps on 40 yr-old “Shizzle” spouting youth workers. They’re fun. What are you trying to do, “Get all up in my bubble?” 🙂

  5. Cormac McCarthy could get away with this in The Road — if anything, his lack of quotation made the book seem even more like a nightmare than it already was.

    But for those of us who can’t write like him . . . yeah, Trudy is right.

    As for 40-year-old youth pastors who wear their baseball-caps backwards, I believe the cartoon in The New Yorker is right: this is not a fashion statement; this is a desperate cry for help.

  6. I’d have to say I’m on the fence with quotation marks. I’ve read McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and I find the lack of quotation marks adds to the hushed, internal feel of the book. Like any other literary technique it has to be used with care. Love your thoughts on books!

  7. As a journalist I know the power of quotation marks. They are most assuredly not optional. One of the most effective journalism techniques is letting the quotations do the story telling, and for that purpose the quotation marks themselves are vital. A good journalist won’t tell the reader that the guy is a creep. He’ll quote the police officer calling the guy a creep instead.

    Regarding the omission of quotation marks in an entire book as a literary device goes – icky. I don’t think I’d like that at all and fortunately I’ve never encountered something like that in my travels.

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