Copy-Editing the Culture: Grown Ups

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 24 2010 11:30 AM

Copy-Editing the Culture: Grown Ups

Last night, while his seersucker cooled on the ironing board, Copy-Editing the Culture poured himself a glass of cold seltzer and settled into the movie pages. To do so, as this column has noted in the past, is often to submit to a depressing truth of modern life: that although this nation's cinematic minds have reinvented film technique, imagined distant corners of the universe, and gotten Julia Roberts to sing, a shocking number can't wield 26 letters and fewer punctuation marks to make grammatical sense. Copy-Editing the Culture was feeling resilient, though, and doughty. Steeling himself with a fresh measure of seltzer, he butterflied the paper and tried to set about making weekend plans. A dog, somewhere, barked with alacrity and purpose.

/blogs/browbeat/2010/06/24/copy_editing_the_culture_grown_ups/jcr:content/body/slate_image

Disaster followed.

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There's a new movie starring Salma Hayek, Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade, and Rob Schneider. The movie is about what happens when a group of friends grows up to be a group of older friends, and it is called—this is when the highball slipped from Copy-Editing the Culture's hand and water spread across his modest breakfast table in a range of Gulf-spill-like geometries—Grown Ups. Just to be clear: That's Grown , space, Ups. What this might mean is a problem of Noam Chomsky-esque proportions. What's fairly certain is that at no stage of the movie's well-funded production did anybody think to check the spelling of the title.

The dictionary that Copy-Editing the Culture happens to be wedded to (not always happily) is Webster's New World College Dictionary: Fourth Edition. It's called "college" because it is intended for, as it were, grown-ups—or, as Webster's also allows, grownups. Never has Copy-Editing the Culture met a prescriptive dictionary that supports Sony's version of the word.

That's because the noun grown ups makes no sense. To grow up—or to push down, to walk toward, to jump up—is a straightforward verb intensified with a preposition. Grown-up is a single noun compounded from those pieces. But what's a grown up? Grammatically, this uncompounded object makes sense only if one is describing an "up" that has grown. And what's an "up"? Does it eat? Need it be socialized?

By the time Copy-Editing the Culture had managed to shake these febrile questions from his mind and throw a roll of Bounty at the fizzing mess, he wanted nothing more to do with grown-ups and their tortured grammar. He's fleeing town to spend the weekend sipping still water and diagramming clauses in the mountains.  

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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