The end of conventional punctuation?

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One of the best books I have read during lockdown is Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, a funny and punchy novel detailing the interconnected life experiences of twelve (mostly) black British women. Deftly exploring poignant themes of feminism and race, the novel gives a voice to those who have been underrepresented within British fiction.

Alongside its refreshing narrative, one of the most striking features of this novel is the lack of conventional punctuation. Full stops, capital letters and speech marks are all scrapped in favour of emphatic line breaks and commas, both of which are used to tightly control the speed and rhythm of the prose: “while dancing/ for herself/ out of it/ out of her head/ out of her body/ feeling it/ freeing it/ nobody watching/ nobody judging”. Printed almost as verse, the narrative favours a close interiority of the characters: it is almost a stream of consciousness which mixes narration, dialogue, and internal monologue. 

Evaristo describes this style of writing as “fusion-fiction”, a conscious choice aimed at creating a “free-flowing reading experience”. Such a free, declamatory style of writing is unlike anything I have read previously. Where were the speech marks? The capital letters and full stops? Like many, I initially struggled to adapt to such a blatant disregard for basic punctuation. However, as I adjusted to this lyrical, flowing style of writing, I realised that such a neglect of traditional punctuation convention is not, in fact, a new approach.

Such a neglect of traditional punctuation convention is not, in fact, a new approach.

Fans of Sally Rooney will be accustomed to the lack of speech marks in her work. When asked about this in an interview, Rooney said “I can’t remember ever really using quotation marks. I didn’t see any need for them, and I don’t understand the function they perform in a novel.”

Traditionally, speech marks (inverted commas) are used to indicate something particularly noteworthy within a text. According to Keith Houston in his book Shady Characters, their first incarnation was under the guise of the “diple (>)”, used in early works of the Bible in the first century. Their current form developed in the eighteenth century to denote direct speech, part of a strive for realism, structure, and order within fiction. 

Against this context, it is easy to see why Rooney doesn’t see a need for speech marks in her work. Referring to her 2017 novel Conversations with Friends, she quipped “I mean, it’s a novel written in the first person, isn’t it all quotation?” Indeed, the text is saturated with dialogue: in-person speech, texts, emails, internal reverie. The lack of speech marks effectively blurs the lines between dialogue and surrounding narration, prompting the reader to take greater consideration of the prose itself. “You can love more than one person, she said. That’s arguable. Why is it any different from having more than one friend? […] I don’t have other friends, I said.” While reading both of Rooney’s novels, I certainly found myself re-reading sections of the text in an attempt to further decipher and unpick meaning. 

The lack of speech marks effectively blurs the lines between dialogue and surrounding narration, prompting the reader to take greater consideration of the prose.

Rooney and Evaristo are not the first to flaunt typographical conventions. Gertrude Stein, a prominent figure in modernist literature, famously said that “punctuation is necessary only for the feeble-minded.” This is an approach taken by many (often Irish) writers, including James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Cormac McCarthy, and Roddy Doyle. 

The type of (or indeed lack of) punctuation used is a distinct signal of an author’s intentions. For instance, while Stein ditches commas in favour of short sentences, the final episode of Joyce’s Ulysses has only two full stops and one comma, despite consisting of over 24,000 words. A more modern example is Lucy Ellman’s novel Ducks, Newburyport: a single sentence comprised of 426,100 words and over 1,000 pages. The placement of this novel on the longlist for the 2019 Booker prize alongside Girl, Woman, Other (the eventual joint winner) demonstrates the critical acclaim of novels that challenge traditional perceptions of punctuation.

Ultimately, the success of these novels is reliant upon the skill of the author and the interpretation of the reader. On a fundamental level, the role of punctuation is to connote meaning and to improve clarity. According to Cormac McCarthy, “if you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” Faced with the immense critical and commercial popularity of Bernardine Evaristo and Sally Rooney, it is hard to disagree. 

Image: Connor Pope via Unsplash

2 thoughts on “The end of conventional punctuation?

  • I thought the lack of punctuation in Girl, Woman, Other was really going to bug me (I’m a professional translator/proofreader for commercial texts). However it doesn’t! It’s a fabulously well written, interesting and funny book. The style is just perfect.
    By contrast, I didn’t enjoy reading Normal People by Sally Rooney, but I don’t think that’s because of the punctuation. I just didn’t find it emotionally engaging, whereas Evaristo’s book is bursting with life, vitality and real people, some of which I’m sure I’ve met. Well deserved Booker winner (I read The Testaments too, which I enjoyed – Atwood is one of my favourite all-time writers – whether they should have shared the prize is a moot point).

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