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 ?

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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.

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Spot a grammar clunker in the cultural limelight? Send it to copyeditingtheculture@gmail.com .

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

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