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From All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy:

Leading the horses by hand out through the gate into the road and mounting up and riding the horses side by side up the ciénaga road with the moon in the west and some dogs barking over toward the shearingsheds and the greyhounds answering back from their pens and him closing the gate and turning and holding his cupped hands for her to step into and lifting her onto the black horse's naked back and then untying the stallion from the gate and stepping once onto the gateslat and mounting up all in one motion and turning the horse and them riding side by side up the ciénaga road with the moon in the west like a moon of white linen hung from the wires and some dogs barking.

I am an English teacher for quite a long time and lately I’ve been reading All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. I can figure out what the author tries to say in the above excerpt since I already know the context. However, this single sentence paragraph doesn’t seem grammatically alright to me.

It starts with a verb in present participle form and is maintained by conjunctions and more present participles following. I’ve never been to an English-speaking country and am low on colloquial expressions and daily usage of language, especially in local accents. I can see that he utilized some figures of speech and a few contextual terms yet I don’t fully get it.

Where is the subject/doer? Why are the verbs conjugated in this way?

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  • 5
    Apparently "All the books of the "Border Trilogy" are written in an unconventional format which omits traditional Western punctuation such as quotation marks and makes use of polysyndetic syntax in a manner similar to that of Ernest Hemingway." I'm not sure I care for that myself; I like commas!
    – Showsni
    Aug 21, 2021 at 16:08
  • Ladies and gentlemen. I am sorry that I made some typos while dictating. I made the corrections right away. And yes, this book does not seem to abide by the rules of either punctuation or grammar. This small paragraph that I present above is just a small hint of how book begins and keeps going. And this makes life difficult for non-natives at some point.
    – Mr. Kaplan
    Aug 21, 2021 at 21:16
  • If you like having difficulty understanding things, read "The Crossing," in which McCarthy writes lines of dialogue in Spanish with no translation (and certainly no quotation marks).
    – cruthers
    Aug 21, 2021 at 21:17
  • Make like a programmer/linguist and insert parentheses into it, like you would with the Buffalo buffalo ... sentence.
    – Kaz
    Aug 22, 2021 at 7:39
  • Cormac McCarthy writes basically all his novels like that. Aug 22, 2021 at 21:38

5 Answers 5

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This passage breaks standard grammatical usages for artistic purposes. There are some works in which prose veers toward poetry, and they make for poor grammar lessons (William Faulkner's The Bear has a "sentence" that covers several pages without a period). This is in fact a very long sentence fragment with no real "verb." It conveys a certain breathlessness and detachment, with the actions coming one after another without pausing, but also without really "happening," simply being described in an eternal participular present.

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  • Other than that it's a fragment, there's nothing that really breaks grammar here; it's merely a stylistic matter that it's extremely long. Aug 22, 2021 at 4:31
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This is stream-of-consciousness writing, which reached its pinnacle with James Joyce in Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake. It is an attempt to convey a person's thoughts as they might run through that person's mind, higgledy-piggledy. The passage that you quote is a disjointed sequence of impressions, with the implication that they had a lasting effect on the person whose thoughts they depict.

In such a context, the grammar is not important.

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As others have said, this passage uses non-standard grammar for effect. It’s the written equivalent of a montage of images. To help you parse it, you can ignore most of the conjunctions, like so:

Leading the horses by hand out through the gate into the road.

Mounting up.

Riding the horses side by side up the road with the moon in the west.

Some dogs barking over toward the shearing sheds and the greyhounds answering back from their pens.

Him closing the gate and turning and holding his cupped hands for her to step into and lifting her own [sic?] to the black horses naked back.

Then untying the stallion from the gate and stepping once onto the gateslat and mounting up all in one motion and turning the horse.

Them riding side-by-side up the road with the moon in the west like a moon of white line hung from the wires.

Some dogs barking.

This does make some slight changes to the meaning (the third and final lines, “some dogs barking”, are probably meant to be part of the “with” of the lines that precede them—something happening while they ride up the road), but if it helps clarify the passage as a whole, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise.

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The grammar can be explained as

Ellipsis (from the Greek: ἔλλειψις, élleipsis, "omission") or an elliptical construction is the omission from a clause of one or more words that are nevertheless understood in the context of the remaining elements.

In this case "We were..."
Colloquial examples are common:
Going my way? (^Are you...)
Everything alright? (Is..)
Anything to declare? (Have you...)
Not bad for a beginner. (That is..)

The constant repetition of a closing syllable or syllables (homoeoteleuton), in this case -ing from recurring participles, can also be found in Southey's Cataract of Lodore.

Rising and leaping,
Sinking and creeping,
Swelling and sweeping,
Showering and springing,
Flying and flinging,
Writhing and ringing,
Eddying and whisking,
Spouting and frisking,
Turning and twisting,
Around and around
With endless rebound;
Smiting and fighting,
A sight to delight in;
Confounding, astounding,
Dizzying and deafening the ear with its sound.

Definition of homoeoteleuton from thoughtco.com.

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Leading the horses by hand out through the gate ...with the moon in the west like a moon of white line hung from the wires and some dogs barking.

This is a single participle phrase.

On a less exaggerated level it is equivalent to "Whistling" in "Whistling, he opened the gate", although, as you have noticed, there is no "he opened the gate."

As it is, it is a list of actions:

They led the horses by hand out through the gate and into the road. They mounted up and rode the horses side by side up the road with the moon in the west. Some dogs were barking over toward the shearing sheds and the greyhounds answering back from their pens. He closed the gate and turned and held his cupped hands for her to step into them. He lifted her on to the black horse's naked back and then, untying the stallion from the gate, he stepped once onto the gateslat and mounted up all in one motion and turned the horse. They rode side-by-side up the road with the moon in the west like a moon of white linen hung from the wires and some dogs barked.

To be frank, if I had started to read that passage in the book, I would have taken it back to the shop and asked for my money back.

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