By May Huang
While the majority of sentences in published texts (including this article) depend on punctuation to make sense, the literary world is nonetheless no stranger to great writers who have famously forgone punctuation conventions and gotten away with it. Here are 10 writers whose usage of punctuation (or lack thereof) has both bewildered and impressed readers:
Both a Harvard graduate and World War I veteran, E.E. Cummings famously abandoned conventional syntax in nearly all his poems. For example, the standard rules of capitalization and punctuation find themselves ignored in Cummings’ “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” which at first read – or should I say ‘look’ – seems cryptic. The colons, commas and other punctuation marks are instead used to great visual effect, seeming more like embellishments than grammatical requisites.
However, that didn’t stop critics from hailing him as one of the most notable of 20th century American poets – Cummings received over 10 awards for his poems in his lifetime, including the Guggenheim Fellowship.
Born in Dublin in 1882, James Joyce is another punctuation-rule-defier whose works have been recognized as among the best of English literature. Ulysses, Joyce’s 256,000+ word long chef-d’oeuvre, is a difficult novel to digest, primarily due to its length, stream of consciousness style and – you know it – its punctuation. Inconducive to one’s understanding of the novel is the inconvenient fact that out of the 24048 words in the novel’s final episode, Penelope (also known as Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy), only 2 full stops and 1 comma can be found.
Way to end a novel on an unforgettable note. Thankfully, countless study guides have been written to help struggling readers digest the tome.
Long considered a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Cormac McCarthy, a reclusive yet Hollywood-recognized American novelist and screenwriter, is also not a fan of punctuation. Quotation marks – “weird little marks,” as he puts it in an interview with Oprah – find themselves shunned in his works, which include No Country for Old Men (adapted into an Academy-award winning film) and the Pulitzer-Prize winning, post-apocalyptic novel The Road. “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it,” McCarthy told Oprah. “I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” With a slew of literary awards under his belt, Cormac McCarthy certainly is not one to challenge when it comes to defining “writing properly”.
Portugal-born Nobel Prize winner José Saramago also adopts idiosyncratic punctuation in his writing, and is quoted by The Economist for having once remarked, “Punctuation … is like traffic signs, too much of it distracted you from the road on which you traveled.”
In fact, it seems that eschewing quotation marks is not so atypical anymore; the poor symbols are often the first to go when it comes to abandoning punctuation conventions. Without using so much as a line break during the characters’ dialog exchange in All the Names, Saramago relies on only a capital letter to signpost a switch in speaker:
“Then I’ll wait until things calm down, And then, I don’t know, I’ll think of something, You could resolve the matter right now, How, You could phone her parents …” (All The Names, p.65)
20th century French writer Marcel Proust also defied standard punctuation conventions.
His masterpiece In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), a 7-volume exploration of involuntary memory, is recognized as one of the defining works of French literature; however, it was rejected by many publishers due to Proust’s punctuation choices. Lost time isn’t the only thing searched for in the novel – so is a full stop in the 601-word long run-on sentence (847 words in the original French text) in the first volume, Swann’s Way.
The sentence, amongst many others in In Search of Lost Time, is indeed a stunning example of sophisticated, literary rambling; at least Proust used commas.
Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and two Pulitzer Prizes over the course of his career, American writer William Faulkner is another writer whose punctuation choices did not hinder his critical success. “The Sound and the Fury”, considered to be one of the finest Southern Literature books (and soon to be adapted into a film by James Franco), is no doubt Faulkner’s masterpiece. Yet one will not get through it without coming across paragraphs that look a lot like this:
“My God the cigar what would your mother say if she found a blister on her mantel just in time too look here Quentin we’re about to do something we’ll both regret I like you liked you as soon as I saw you I says he must be …” (The Sound and the Fury, p.105)
Faulkner’s advice to tackling it? “Read it four times.”
The second French writer and fourth Nobel Prize laureate featured on this list, Irish writer Samuel Beckett is perhaps best remembered for writing Waiting for Godot, which – although originally written in French – was voted the best modern play in English in 1998 .Yet, unknown to many, Beckett also wrote a three-part monolog titled How It Is about a man’s journey through mud – a journey that Beckett chronicles in 147 pages with… zero punctuation marks. Zilch. However, considering how the protagonist spends the whole novel blundering through the tenebrous dark, the absence of punctuation – of solid sentence structure – is quite apt.
“I see me on my face close my eyes not the blue the others at the back and see me on my face the mouth opens the tongue comes out lolls in the mud and no questions of thirst either no question of dying of thirst either all this time vast stretch of time” (How It Is, page.8-9)
Author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and current creative writing professor at MIT, Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz also finds no problem with abandoning certain punctuation marks from his writing. In fact, when confronted during an interview with a student from Harvard about omitting quotation marks in “Drown,” Díaz responded, “What happens when you get rid of them? I wanted to have parts where you can’t tell if somebody thinks or speaks. That’s the way memory is. I wanted to confuse that.” Moreover, the fact that Díaz is the 3rd Pulitzer Prize winning writer on this list just goes to show how keeping up punctuation norms isn’t a prerequisite for literary success.
A prominent figure from the Modernist Literature movement (along with Joyce, Cummings and Faulkner), Gertrude Stein was born in America but lived in France for most of her life with her partner, Alice Toklas. Stein didn’t like commas very much and made this quite clear in Lectures in America, in which she called the comma “a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath.” Stein even went as far as to tell a reporter , “Punctuation is necessary only for the feeble-minded.” Ouch. Thus, the comma and other punctuation marks are mostly shunned in her works; Stein favored short sentences instead and even wrote a play in 1932 titled Short Sentences, consisting of around 600, roughly 5-word sentences.
Without the same literary acclaim that the preceding nine writers have gained, Massachusetts-born businessman and writer Timothy Dexter is perhaps best remembered for having (in)famously faked his own death. Nonetheless, 8 years before his (real) death, he published “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress,” an 8000+ word novel that is so poorly punctuated and misspelled that the original transcription is near-illegible.
Here is an excerpt from the book, on building bridges:
“No 3 fouder there is plenty of Complant of the diffulty of pasing those briges Now as it is troue if those giddy people have Liberty to bould A brigg it wont pay but three or four per sent at most then they must have one halfe the passing of my brigg as I call it A mad bisness” (from Folio 2 of Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress)