You Don't Need Quotation Marks (And You Can Quote Me On That)

Christopher J. Yates is the author of the novels "Black Chalk" and "Grist Mill Road." Neither book uses quotation marks. In this guest post, he explains why. 

Christopher J. Yates, Writing for
6-minute read

Once upon a time, Grammar Girl readers, we were cut from the same cloth. For years I was employed as a puzzle editor and crossword writer, so the meaning of words is intensely important to me. I also worked as a copy editor—and if a misplaced, missing, or superfluous apostrophe doesn’t cause you to foam at the mouth, you have no business wearing the copy editor uniform. (Black leather, shiny buttons.)

But then something happened to me. I underwent a Gollum-like metamorphosis, transmogrifying into a warped creature who prefers a dark hole to the sunlight. I became a novelist. And suddenly, free from the tyranny of the imposed style manual, I discovered within myself a grammatical rebellious streak. It would be fair to say that this did not please all my readers. 

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I’ll allow one of my Goodreads complainants to state the case for the prosecution, regarding my novel "Grist Mill Road." This question was posted by Skip Worrell, a man who looks like he has never in his life misplaced one apostrophe or so much as a single hair:

"This is the second novel I've read recently where the author chose not to use quotation marks. Is this some new literary fad, or, as seems to me, just an annoying affectation?"

Reaction #1: How dare a man named Skip accuse me of an annoying affectation.

Reaction #2: This is an entirely fair and reasonable question.

Novelists have been wriggling free of the “” convention for over a century.

 Let’s tackle this in two parts. Firstly, is this some new literary fad? The answer to this question is: ish. Novelists have been wriggling free of the “” convention for over a century. For example, what if I said to you:

     — James Joyce used a line break and an em dash to indicate direct speech.

Following Joyce’s lead, other writers such as William Gaddis, Nadine Gordiner, Charles Frazier, and Roddy Doyle all happily em-dashed away to indicate chatter on the pages of their novels.

But in the mid-twentieth century, another Irish writer (and Nobel Prize for Literature winner) Samuel Beckett began to eschew any marks or typography at all to indicate direct speech. Later Raymond Carver (periodically) and E.L. Doctorow would also use only words to let the reader know when a character was speaking (he said, she said, etc.) Doctorow had a very simple explanation as to why he did this:

     You can tell when it's dialogue, he said.

(Did it throw you, a lack of quotation marks strangling the previous line?)

However, more recently this quoteless convention (or non-convention, perhaps) has gathered pace. A list of famous contemporary writers who don’t use typography to delineate direct speech would include Ali Smith, Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, Sally Rooney and, possibly most famously of all, Cormac McCarthy.

In a rare interview, McCarthy told Oprah Winfrey, There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.

(Again, did a lack of weird little marks throw you?)

So now let’s move on to Skip’s second question. Is this break in convention just an annoying affectation?

Well, Skip, it’s true that as a schoolboy I used to wear a hammer and sickle pin, that I once owned a chunky purple cardigan and used to wear my hair in a ponytail, but I would argue that these have been my life’s only annoying affectations.


About the Author

Christopher J. Yates, Writing for Grammar Girl

Chrisopher J. Yates was born and raised in Kent and studied law at Oxford University before working as a puzzle editor in London. He now lives in New York City with his wife and dog. "Black Chalk" is his debut novel.