March 8, 2012

Cormac McCarthy, fuss-budget grammar guy


Cormac McCarthy

It was recently revealed in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that tough-guy novelist  Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, No country for Old Men) is a grammar nerd. And not just any grammar nerd, but one with a bone to pick with the semi-colon and the exclamation point; really!

In an article occasioned by the paperback release of the biography Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, by Lawrence M. Krauss, the Chronicle notes that there is a discreet mention on the title page and back cover about the involvement off McCarthy. Krauss, first-time biographer and a professor of physics and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, told the Chronicle:

I was thrilled that Cormac volunteered to do this. He said he had never done this before, but he loved the book so much that he wanted to make it better….

To start with, he made me promise he could excise all exclamation points and semicolons, both of which he said have no place in literature…[He] went through the book in detail and made suggestions for rephrasing in certain points as well.

This must be the first time a copy editor ever got credit for his/her work on the cover of a book. But it was not the first time McCarthy had volunteered his services. According to this post on the New York Times’ Arts Beat blog:

In 2005, Mr. McCarthy, through a friend, offered to read the manuscript of the Harvard physicist Lisa Randall‘s first book, Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions.

“He gave it a good copy-edit,” Ms. Randall told the Radcliffe Quarterly in 2007. “He really smoothed the prose.”

He also fiddled with the punctuation. “Cormac isolated all the semicolons in the margin; I then removed them,” Ms. Randall said in an email. “Apparently exclamation points are only for exclamations! Those were removed too.”

Ms. Randall’s copyeditors were a bit less conscientious, rendering his first name “Cormack” in the acknowledgments. But that didn’t stop Mr. McCarthy from offering to help out again on Ms. Randall’s second book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

“He removed the semicolons the editor added,” Ms. Randall said. “On a more serious note, we had some nice conversations about the material. In fact, I saw a quote where he used a physics example I had given in response to a question about truth and beauty.”

Apparently, that interest in beauty extends to scientists’ prose.


Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.