Copy-Editing the Culture: "Be Good Johnny Weir" and "44 Inch Chest"

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 17 2010 5:54 PM

Copy-Editing the Culture: "Be Good Johnny Weir" and "44 Inch Chest"

Just as we're surrounded by a world of micro-organisms—some good, some bad, many imperceptible—our culture is continually under siege by small perversions of the written language. Today, some of the world's nastiest errata appear on marquees and in book titles, burrowing into the innards of an unsuspecting nation. Copy-Editing the Culture collects the most prominent among these to offer both a diagnosis and a cure.

A few months back, Copy-Editing the Culture took on the tortured grammar of the latest Jamie Foxx movie, Law Abiding Citizen , whose title makes sense only in the context of a particularly trippy thought experiment . Our plea for grammatical integrity, though, went unheard: When the film came out on DVD yesterday , it had not one hyphen more of clarity. We are starting to wonder whether Hollywood has priorities besides its parts of speech.

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But so it goes. In the meantime, Copy-Editing the Culture has been beset by other horrors. Be Good Johnny Weir , a Sundance TV show, purports to chronicle the high style of an Olympian skater, but in matters of the written language, this unfortunate program has the style of a garment-district trash heap. The crisis here is a missing comma, one that would separate the command be good from the name to which it is addressed, Johnny Weir . Without that crucial punctuation mark, the title describes a show about a man called Be Good Johnny—a zoot suit of a nickname much more likely to land him in a trunk somewhere in Bergen County, N.J., than on the path toward Olympic glory.

And what is one to make of 44 Inch Chest , the gritty U.K. black comedy that seems to have left its hyphen on the toast rack? Does baroque British profanity preclude proper hyphen use? Abso-bloody-lutely not, muppet! Although there is little chance of the title being misunderstood as it is written, 44 Inch functions as a single modifier and thus deserves its own hyphen. Where did Windsor come from, after all, besides the great house of hyphens,  Saxe-Coburg-Gotha ?

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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