CRAFT: On the Precision of Language by P. Casey Telesk

One word can change the meaning of a sentence. Certain words emphasize certain things. The tense of a verb can change the narrative distance. A modifier can add stress to an object, drawing the reader’s attention to it. Editing our work is often hard because we remain too close to these words we’ve written and sometimes we need to put them away for varying periods of time. “Put it in the drawer and come back to it,” is a phrase you’ve probably heard before. Stepping away from your work for a while before coming back to it is a good idea, however time is not all that’s necessary to see your work clearly. The precision of language is important for all writers to consider, and this is learned mainly through reading, not the act of editing or writing alone.

The following sentence is from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is a work of fiction, but the concepts discussed are applicable to both fiction and nonfiction.

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off.

What does this sentence tell us? We know the subject is a woman, a mother, who is dead, right?

Let’s take a look and see what else we can find out.

THE mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. 

This is THE mother — not any mother, but a specific one, so a child must exist.  Through this wording we know that this story, at least at this moment, is about two people.

The mother DEAD these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. 

The sentence isn’t, “The mother, who died fourteen years ago…” She didn’t simply die all those years ago. The mother is DEAD, an active adjective. She is currently dead, and will continue TO BE dead. The choice made by the author not to use the past verb “died” creates the sense that the mother’s death still lingers. We can look at the next word to reinforce this assumption.

The mother dead THESE fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off.

THESE fourteen years. “[T]hese” is a demonstrative pronoun that, when acting as a determiner, adjectivally modifies the noun that follows, creating a sense of distance, in time and space, but also emotionally. The word choice could have been “The mother, dead FOR fourteen years,” but it isn’t. She’s (actively) dead for THESE (specific) fourteen years. We find out in the following paragraph that the boy is 14 years old. “These fourteen years” are the fourteen years the boy has been alive. So, once we hear his age, we automatically understand that the mother died during childbirth because of McCarthy’s choice to use the demonstrative pronoun “these.”

This information is being relayed by a third person, God-like narrator in such specific terms that we can ourselves determine the sense of emotion surrounding this event. McCarthy’s narrator doesn’t tell us that the death is an event that lingers or haunts, we get that sense through the language used. The specificity of the language allows McCarthy to walk a tightrope of narrative distance, relaying emotion by getting close enough, but not too close.

The mother dead these fourteen years DID incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off.

“Did” is an auxiliary or helping verb often used to create emphasis. For instance, “I did eat your candy bar,” has a different emphasis than, “I ate your candy bar.” The use of DID in the first sentence implies an admission of responsibility in the act of eating the candy bar. The emphasis in the case of “DID incubate” is exactly the same, an implication of responsibility. The sentence could have been “The Mother, dead these fourteen years, incubated in her own bosom…” But, again, it isn’t. She DID incubate. And we can again look to the next part of the sentence for evidence to support this assumption.

The mother dead these fourteen years did INCUBATE in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off.

Bacteria and infectious disease incubate, but mother birds also incubate their eggs by sitting on them with deliberation and care. Two very different natures of the word. DID being the helping verb of INCUBATE reinforces our initial assumption that responsibility was implied through the language. But what’s the nature of the word? It would seem normal to say that the mother bird DID incubate her eggs, right? The mother bird (did) this thing. Would you say “Syphilis DID incubate in his brain”? It sounds strange, but what if a person had died for reasons unclear, but a doctor knew this person had this specific disease. The doctor might make the statement, “Syphilis DID incubate in his brain.” The use of “did” emphasizes the action (incubate) and implies that the noun (syphilis) could be responsible for the death. And it’s possible that a duality exists for “incubate” in this case. Let’s look further.

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in HER OWN BOSOM the creature who would carry her off.

“[H]er own bosom …” Her OWN bosom. “[O]wn”, when couched between a pronoun and a noun like this, implies that something is done to or caused by a particular person, and not by anyone or anything else. As in, “It’s her own fault.”

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the CREATURE who would carry her off.

“[C]reature” is the word that gives “incubate” a dual meaning. “Creature” is non-human, and that allows “incubate” to also be read as something negative or harmful like an infectious disease.

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature WHO WOULD CARRY HER OFF.

The way the last part of the sentence is worded places responsibility the mother’s death on the child. Again, the sentence does not say simply, “The Mother died fourteen years ago during child birth.” The way McCarthy has written this last part of the sentence conveys a judgment in a nonjudgmental way, which is that the child is responsible for the death. Once we realize that McCarthy is walking in that grey area between the POV of the narrator, and some unknown character or characters who feel in some way that the child is responsible for his own mother’s death, we begin to understand something fundamental about POV, which is that it is not static, and that POV really begins at the sentence level.

The structure of this sentence has a logic to it that supports the reader’s ability to interpret meaning beyond the superficial. When we break this sentence down to its individual parts, we’re able to extrapolate and examine the meaning of each word, but also the meaning created between the words. The word choices are precise, and because of this precision, the sentence conveys much more than is stated. However, McCarthy may or may not have constructed the sentence in the way we’ve broken it down. The important thing is that we read with precision the same way we’ve just examined this sentence. By reading this way, you will inevitably become a better, more conscious writer.

P. Casey Telesk, Craft & Writing Life Columnist

P. Casey Telesk published his first short story, an alternate history tale about the assassination of President Truman, in his elementary school journal at the age of eight. His 1999-2005 anthology of bad breakup poetry has not yet found a home. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he received a bachelor's degree in English literature from The Pennsylvania State University and is a graduate of the Wilkes University M.A./M.F.A. Creative Writing Program. He enjoys writing about modernist literature, the Death of Affect, and the importance of structure in literary craft.

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