The case of the bothersome apostrophe

When my bookclub chose Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for March’s bookclub, I was most excited. My blog crush, the Largeheartedboy had said it was one of his favorite books last year.

I’m about 1/4 of the way through the book and I’m somewhat annoyed.

When I picked up the book during Operation Maneater, Kelly remarked about how he didn’t use quotes in the dialog.

We talked about that weird trend and how I had seen it in a lot of the short stories in this year’s Best American Short Stories 2006. I think we came to the consensus that skipping the quotes is not avant garde at all and people should just put them back in.

The lack of quotes in the McCarthy book hasn’t bothered me at all. What has bothered me is his random use of the apostrophe. Now this might sound petty, but one the things we are constantly reminded in our writing classes is that we should never do anything that takes the reader out of the story — whether it’s wonky dialect, implausible situations, or, I would argue, random apostrophization.

The random apostrophes are bothering me and take me right out of the story. See, he apostrophizes I’m, I’ll, I’d, and It’s, but not cant, wouldnt, aint, isnt, and dont. It drives me bonkers. I think I am paying more attention to the contractions then to the story. While reading, I’m constantly making a mental tally of the apostrophes and trying to figure out the mystery. Why do some words get them? What could possibly be the symbolism? Does anyone have any idea why he did this?

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  1. Damon 29.Jan.07 at 11:50 am

    If he didn’t use apostrophes in I’ll and I’d you might confuse the words with ill and id.

    As for the remainder (ok, all of them, including I’ll and I’d), he just used them to be cool. Lots of people do things that are incredibly stupid just so they appear “cool”. Some people begin smoking (’cause we all know it ain’t for the flav-or) and some people invade foreign countries under false pretenses of WMD creation prevention and nonexistent terrorist links.

    So, in a round about sort of way, Cormac McCarthy is allied with the forces of the pro-smoking movement and middle east war supporters.

  2. Jodi 29.Jan.07 at 11:52 am

    Well that explains the desolate, sparse, post-apocalyptic tone of the novel, I guess.

    It just makes me sad that so many apostrophes had to die for his art.

    1. alimay 20.Oct.13 at 2:45 pm

      i’m a little late for this conversation. but i’m writing an essay for AP lang about The Road and I can tell you my opinion on his lack of apostrophes. he did not do it to be “cool”. he did it to convey that in a world the has no hope there are no rules.

  3. UH 29.Jan.07 at 12:03 pm

    Aha, so you’re a closet grammarian.


  4. Jodi 29.Jan.07 at 12:06 pm

    Merely a wannabe.

  5. mkh 29.Jan.07 at 12:53 pm

    Closeted? Since when?! I seem to remember a rather heated debate on the subject of serial commas on this very site.

  6. kelly 29.Jan.07 at 5:16 pm

    Well…if he’s in high school then it’s probably an oversight. People don’t seem to recognize contractions with apostrophes anymore.

    Other than that, I’d say he’s trying to be artsy.

    This information of course means that I can’t read the book. While I can handle a lack of quotation marks, a lack of apostrophes can induce a seizure.

  7. Jodi 29.Jan.07 at 5:51 pm

    But how is not using apostrophes in certain contractions art? That’s what I don’t understand. Is it supposed to be symbolic of the breakdown of civilization? Come on.

  8. kelly 29.Jan.07 at 6:17 pm

    I don’t think it is art; I think he’s trying to make you believe it’s art, which it is not.

  9. wolfdog 29.Jan.07 at 7:10 pm

    upper-case shunning is art, non-apostriphication is lazy.

    Use of ellipses is…

  10. Jodi 29.Jan.07 at 7:12 pm

    ee cummings would call it art. But, I have to admit, my all-lowercase posts bug the living shit out of me now. I have half an OCD-notion to go fix them all.

  11. UH 29.Jan.07 at 8:41 pm

    No, old posts must remain as-is as a testament to your continual growth as a writer and human being.

  12. Jodi 29.Jan.07 at 8:44 pm

    Or as living proof on what an idiot I really am?

  13. david 01.Feb.07 at 3:56 pm

    Youre not an idiot, its just a sign of growth.

    But seriously, I blame McCarthy’s editor for not standing up to him about the apostrophe situation.

  14. The todd 20.Aug.08 at 9:59 pm

    I’m only 20 pages into _The Road_ and I finally gave up reading in order to try and find apostrophe solace on the web.

    Initially I wondered if it was maybe a tricky play on words (wont: highlighting the characters’ need to develop new habits or accustom themselves to their collective new situation; cant: a new/skewed perspective; ill: sickness?, etc), but that doesn’t explain other issues… (dont, aint, wouldnt, etc).

    I’d like to think that he is trying to accomplish something by all of this–the thought crossed my mind about the loss of oral/aural context in a world without agreed upon sign systems–but it really is distracting, and I am finding myself much more bothered by the whole situation than things of this nature should. Maybe it’s because of McCormack’s already somewhat distracting prose…

    Anyhow, thanx for the confirmation that I’m not alone in thinking that this is weird. I look forward to reading more about it, but for now I’ll just read more of the book.

  15. Carrie 04.Sep.08 at 10:32 pm

    I’m an English lit major at Trinity College Dublin. I read “The Road” this summer of my own accord, and actually thoroughly enjoyed McCarthy’s ingenious tricks with apostrophes. Understand, I’m as much of a grammar nazi as the next English lit major, but I get excited about new and inventive grammar, too.

    Thoughts about apostrophes in “The Road”:

    Only the negative contractions eliminate the apostrophe. In the devastating, barren, pessimistic environment of the book, negative contractions like “won’t” and “shouldn’t” have been used so much and are so common that they have become their own words. Contractions that imply the future (“I’ll,” “we’ll,” etc.) retain the apostrophe because the future is such a foreign, uncertain thing in this new, post-apocalyptic world.

    …So yeah. I hope that makes sense. Hope I’ve helped out some people…?

    Do me a favor and don’t publish that idea or anything, though. I need to write about it for a class and don’t want to be accused of plagiarism.

    1. Megan 16.Oct.12 at 5:42 pm

      yes I completely agree. I’m an English major at Berkeley in my third year and I am actually writing a paper (like a quiz) right now about how his usage of contractions further the “positives” in the story. Nothing in this novel is random. It all has a purpose, and it demands to be read in a very structural way, with your eyes wide open and a dictionary at your side. I hope you all really enjoy it!

  16. Drew 22.Dec.08 at 9:53 am

    Cormac McCarthy actually doesn’t use apostrophes for negative contractions in any of his works – it is not just representative of the mood of “The Road”.

  17. kathryn 20.Apr.09 at 9:18 pm

    The apostrophies aren’t random. If you notice all the contractions with the word “not” in it don’t have an apostrophe. It’s McCormac’s writing style.

  18. Josh 10.May.09 at 9:36 am

    ::in Mo Rocca-like voice::
    You say “I think I am paying more attention to the contractions then to the story.” Don’t you mean to say “*than* to the story?”

  19. Jodi 10.May.09 at 9:52 am

    Yes, yes, you’re right. Thanks for pointing out a typo on a two-year-old post.

  20. Jaclyn 07.Apr.11 at 1:05 pm

    I’ve actually just completed my senior thesis on The Road in which I explore this very idea. Here’s an excerpt from my essay. Many have touched on this interpretation so it may be a bit of a reiteration, but I hope it helps to clarify a bit.—-

    “Postmodernist texts often deal with the instability of our modern world and The Road, with its lack of punctuation and grammar rules, linguistically enacts the breakdown of societal structures. McCarthy’s form is minimalist as he uses only periods, commas, question marks, and the occasional apostrophe. His use of the last of these punctuations is probably the most interesting and revealing. In the text, McCarthy uses many negative contractions like dont, didnt, couldnt, wouldnt, and shouldnt without putting an apostrophe, meanwhile he does in his positive contractions, like that’s, we’re, you’re, we’ll, he’ll, and there’s. Though the presence of apostrophes might be something a reader easily overlooks, it has a lot to say about the nature of language and its presence in a post-apocalyptic world. To understand this idea, one must first think about the significance of an apostrophe and ask the question, what difference does it make? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an apostrophe is the sign (‘) used to indicate the omission of a letter or letters when words are combined (OED, def.). We, as readers, still understand a contraction when there is no apostrophe, which makes its presence even more recognizable, and when McCarthy uses an apostrophe, he is acknowledging that something has been lost. It is telling that McCarthy acknowledges this sense of loss only in the text’s positive contractions. He is saying that to be positive is to identify a loss, and by the same token, being negative is to pretend that this world is enough, and to ignore the loss. The text uses almost equal amounts of positive and negative contradictions, which seem to mirror the man’s indecision about whether or not it is necessary to acknowledge his lost life.” (Burt,12)


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