Copy-Editing the Culture: "Law Abiding Citizen"

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 21 2009 2:49 PM

Copy-Editing the Culture: "Law Abiding Citizen"

Just as we're surrounded by a world of microorganisms—some good, some bad, many imperceptible—our culture is continually under siege by small perversions of the written language. There are errors that help us digest meaning ( Boyz n the Hood , Inglourious Basterds ), errors that we educate ourselves against (the deli's offering of "sandwichs" could never lead astray a stalwart English major), and errors that, for the most part, go unnoticed (when did you last catch a flubbed subjunctive?). Occasionally, though, disaster strikes. Some of the nastiest errata of our times show up on marquees and in bookstores, burrowing into the innards of an unsuspecting nation. Which crack team of aphasiacs let loose movies with the titles Two Weeks Notice and The Kids Are Alright ? What are we to make of Bill Cosby and Alvin F. Poussaint's 2007 opus, Come on People ?


Recently, while lamenting these and other matters over a pot of coffee and a dish of Weetabix, your culture copy editor flipped open his morning paper and felt the blood drain from his face. Law Abiding Citizen is a new movie starring Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler. It is also—reader, need I really say it?—a grammatical atrocity. Its crime is simple but insidious: no hyphen. Law-Abiding Citizen would have been a movie about good behavior (or, perhaps more likely, an ironic sendup of that conduct). Law Abiding Citizen is a movie about—what? Can law abide a human being? What, exactly, would that look like? Given the movie's vigilante-justice theme, could this be some kind of oblique pun attempt? (Ancillary question: Do oblique pun attempts belong in Jamie Foxx movies?) The ambiguities grow like pathogens across a petri dish. One thing we can be certain of: If any laws are being abided in this action flick, they're not grammatical.


Spot a grammar clunker in the cultural limelight? Send it to .

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?