Eulogy For The Quotation Mark

I’m not really a Grammar Nazi. Alright, maybe I am a little, but it’s not like I go correcting people in online forums for incorrect spelling, which is one of the definitions of Grammar Nazi. Although, I have been known to call someone out for incorrect usage of the word “pique,” because, well, that fucking annoys me.

As an aside, I really hate the phrase Grammar Nazi. I don’t think something as comparably trivial as policing grammar should be equated with something as mind-bogglingly evil as Nazis. I prefer the term Red Pen Police.

Anyway, my point is, I don’t get all huffy and puffy when people spell things incorrectly from time to time, because I spell things incorrectly from time to time. I’m not a “do as I say, not do as I do” kind of person.

That said, I’m here to bitch about grammar.

I used to be a book snob. I wouldn’t really read anything for leisure that was less than fifty years old, preferably written in another language. I found that classics are generally considered classics for a reason. Do you think that Machiavelli would have his own adjective if he hadn’t written one of the most innovative works in all of written language? Or Shakespeare. Yeah, I know, a lot of you are groaning right now, but imagine writing entire plays in iambic pentameter. I have a hard enough time writing haiku without counting syllables on my fingers.

I’m no longer a book snob. First, I kind of ran out of classics to read. Second, I decided that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to see what else was out there. There just had to be some excellent modern books, right? And there are. I’ve found some books written in the last fifty years, in English even, that are so potent that my life would be devastatingly different and devoid had I not read them.

However, for every amazing modern book I’ve read, there are three to four times as many crappy ones. I’m certainly not implying that this hasn’t always been the case. Modern literature is probably no worse nor better than literature throughout the ages ever has been. I’m sure that when The Prince was first published, there were a few stinkers that were also published on the same day. It’s just that The Prince has been time tested. It has withstood the pressures of the modern world and survived while its contemporary stinkers have not. The problem with reading modern literature is that the stinkers are still in the mix. They haven’t been weeded out through the course of time.

There is a disturbing new trend that I’ve discovered in modern literature. That of completely disregarding the laws of grammar. And yes, they are laws. Humans developed a complex and elegant system of communication. It’s called language. There are many of them, each with their own unique charms. Each of these languages has rules set forth and tweaked throughout the ages for usability. We use them because, quite simply, they are the easiest means of conveying information.

If I were to say, “Bananas mile the plantation disturbed.” You would wonder what the hell I was talking about, because even though it’s technically English, it doesn’t follow the rules of language. The reason we can effectively communicate with each other in a universal way is that we speak the same language and follow the same rules of constructing it.

So, when I read two books, accidentally back to back, that disregard those rules of language, I wonder why. Here is a page from the last book I read, José Saramago‘s Blindness:

(Image gakked from Amazon)

The entire book looks just like that. The whole book is nothing but run on paragraphs. Note that there is dialog on that page. Not only are there no line breaks, no question marks and an absurd amount of commas, but there are no quotation marks anywhere in the book.

And here is a page from the book I’m reading now, Charlie Huston‘s The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death: A Novel:

(Image also gakked from Amazon. Please don’t sue me.)

Huston at least has line breaks for dialog, but what’s with the “–”? Why would that ever be necessary?

I’m all for stylistic writing if it fits a story. Hell, in the piece of fiction I wrote yesterday, I used the double negative “no good for nothing” simply because I thought it fit better, even though it did cause me to die a little inside. Perhaps that’s what Saramago was going for. Perhaps we’re to believe that his entire book is chicken scratch written by someone who is blind, but it doesn’t fit. The book is written in third person. If it was the journal of some unfortunate blind person, then it would have been written in first person, limited to one person’s perspective, but that’s not the case.

As for Huston, there’s not even a hint of why he decided to use “–” instead of “”. It doesn’t fit stylistically with the story in any way. It seems that he’s disregarding the rules of language, honed over centuries so that we can easily understand each other, just for shits and giggles. Well, fuck that.

Huston, Saramago, Cormac “Ass Haberdashery” McCarthy and all the other writers of your ilk, I ask you, why would it be necessary to do away with quotation marks? Are you trying to make it more difficult for your reader to understand your story? That’s just silly. The whole point of writing is to allow people to understand your words. If you are consciously choosing to write in a way that makes it more difficult to slog through your book, most people won’t, especially in this textspeak era where people hardly write full sentences anymore, let alone read them. Nowadays, people just don’t have the patience for slogging. And why should they? There are so many wonderful and amazing things to read right at our fingertips that don’t require our brains to adjust to your ridiculous, self-imposed rules of grammar.

Reading is a wonderful, joyous pastime that opens up new worlds and exercises the imagination. Reading a book is a dying art. It should be encouraged. Don’t give the general public another reason not to read. Books are having a hard enough time staying relevant in this short attention span world as it is.