In previous posts I’ve talked about how English is a living, changing and very flexible language. Contributing to this is the way that writers often change, stretch and bend the framework of language – grammar, vocabulary and syntax – to make a better fit with their vision.
If you are learning English as a second language it is important to remember this as you will often come across cases in literature, popular songs, poems and journalism where the ‘rules‘ of English seem to have been broken or bent way out of shape! I get a lot of emails from our members who are confused after listening to a song or reading a book and finding grammatical errors all over the place. This doesn’t mean that ‘anything goes‘ when you write English but it does mean that some writers will push vocabulary, grammar and syntax around to get it to do exactly what they want it to do.
A few days ago I wrote a post about Marshall McLuhan’s ideas on the phonetic alphabet and finished by making some remarks about another writer, Cormac McCarthy and his book, The Road, saying that I felt that we can use language to break outside of a straight and narrow interpretation of reality and experience; contrary perhaps to McLuhan’s belief that we are straight-jacketed by our language.
By the way, if you are a student taking one of the English4Today Writing Courses, or interested in writing in any way, then I’d recommend reading The Road as a perfect illustration of how ‘less can be more‘.
Now, I don’t want to turn this blog into a muddy pool of dull literary criticism (in fact, tomorrow I’ll turn back to some of the grammar questions that have been sent in as they are piling up again … apologies to those who are waiting for their answer). If you studied English literature at university or college you’ll remember how boring it is to listen to the critical dissection of a great novel or poem that has moved you and how difficult it is to shake the habit of dissection once you’ve had the training drilled into you. I mention this because the friends who lent me The Road made the mistake of asking me if I liked the book. I started to see that glazed look on their faces when I swung into the ‘linear and progressive’ etc. … the look that says, ‘How can I get to the door without him noticing!’ – so I’ll keep this short and try to strangle the desire to take myself too seriously!
So, I’ll start by saying read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for the story which is bleak, chilling, deeply moving and beautifully told, and perhaps stay clear of the language and literature ‘mechanics’ who just want to take it apart piece by piece. Which may, of course, mean that you stop reading this here and go get a coffee instead.
However, picking up my tools, what I want to look at is how McCarthy’s breaking of the ‘rules’ creates the atmosphere of the book and how breaking the rules can sometimes work!
The Road, very briefly, is the story of a father and son journeying south in an ash-covered, burnt and poisoned, post-apocalyptic world where almost everything that we know of our world has disappeared and where humans have been reduced to amoral, cruel, cannibalistic scavengers desperately trying to survive in landscapes where there is virtually nothing left to sustain life with the exception of rare scatterings of left-overs from the past.
McCarthy chooses to write this story using an equally startling and spare style. The paragraphs are short and almost staccato like, the dialogue reduced to very short sentences often with little content. Perhaps because all the points of reference for language – things, feelings, emotions – have gone and there is almost nothing left to say. McCarthy also changes the way we punctuate prose – pulling out another reference point – an effect which seems to flatten the dialogue making it as dulled as the landscape it echoes against. Have a look at this conversation between the father and his son:
After a while he said: You mean you wish that you were dead.
You musnt say that.
But I do.
Dont say it. It’s a bad thing to say.
I cant help it.
I know. But you have to.
How do I do it?
I dont know.
What do you notice? Well, probably the first thing you noticed was that there are no inverted commas or speech marks telling us when a chunk of speech from someone starts and ends or breaking the writer’s description or comment off from the dialogue – it just isn’t there – everything, much like the landscape they are in, runs into each other and has a flat, sameness to it. McCarthy is breaking a pretty fundamental stylistic rule here but it makes the language do what he wants. The next thing you may have noticed is that the contractions are not marked with an apostrophe – dont, cant, mustnt. I don’t want to hammer the ‘why‘ of McCarthy’s intention – it’s perhaps better that you think about this yourself – but I do want to note, again, that the breaking of a fundamental rule of English grammar creates a new effect and isn’t, of course, a result of the writer not knowing enough about grammar. You may have also noticed that he does use the apostrophe for the contraction of ‘it is‘ to it’s – and in other parts of the book you can see that there is a real inconsistency in this ‘flattening‘ of punctuation. I don’t really have an answer to why he would write cant in one place and you’d in another. Maybe it is intended to show how language, like everything else in this new world, is mutating, being reduced, fragmenting – but again, this is something for you to decide after reading the book.
Early on in the book there is a short passage that describes what you, as the reader, feel all the way through the book:
The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of the thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone.
This is McLuhan’s world inverted where the word no longer points meaninglessly to a thing but where the thing no longer exists and the word, still existing, is rendered useless and meaningless. And McCarthy manages to make us understand this not only by using the words he has available to describe this terrible new world but by taking away from what we accept as perhaps timeless – accepted forms of grammar and punctuation – twisting them and reducing them in the same way as everything else in the landscape that they now have to inhabit and describe.
This is just a small glimpse into how McCarthy breaks the rules of English to deliver his story more powerfully. And, again, it is really to illustrate, for all of you worried English language learners, that the rules that surround the grammars of languages are not as inflexible as you may think and that it is in the breaking of them that great expression is often achieved.
I’m going to leave you with that and an encouragement to read The Road and to decide for yourself whether McCarthy is a great writer or desperately in need of one of our English4Today Grammar Courses!