Copy-Editing the Culture: National Punctuation Day and Waiting for "Superman"

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 24 2010 6:20 PM

Copy-Editing the Culture: National Punctuation Day and Waiting for "Superman"

Today is National Punctuation Day , a festive occasion that Copy-Editing the Culture likes to celebrate quietly at home, ideally with an indulgent dessert ( Norwegian prune pudding ); a favorite book (Kate L. Turabian's  A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations , seventh edition); and an hour or two drinking peppermint tea, and then peacefully flossing, by the fire. This year, he thought he'd add a fine, socially responsible film to the holiday mix. So as the pudding cooled on the counter, Copy-Editing the Culture packed leftover soaked prunes in some modest Tupperware and read the movie listings. This was grim—until he stumbled on a film that looked promising and fitting for the day, a documentary about education.

The film was Waiting for "Superman , " and although Copy-Editing the Culture had a moment of terror on encountering those baffling quotation marks, he persisted. He should not have. Now he is more confused than ever—so distracted, in fact, that he added half of his countertop supply of Metamucil, not cornstarch, to his  cream sauce . It is still edible. But this is not the sort of indulgence he planned to grant himself on the high grammar holiday.

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What is one to make of those quotation marks? Are they supposed to signal irony? Isn't any real-life mention of Superman, the classic DC Comics character, necessarily ironic? (When one says to an acquaintance in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, "Only Superman can save me now," it is seldom necessary to signify, through air punctuation or other means, that the character Superman may not, in fact, do this.) Could the quotation marks be some kind of perverse and confused attempt to identify a trademark? Or, as certain viewers have suggested , could they mark an elaborate reference to the theoretical ideal of the "Übermensch ," as described by Friedrich Nietzsche in his seminal 1883 book Also Sprach Zarathustra , a concept frequently translated into English as, yes, "superman." This final possibility raises its own questions. 

It seems more likely that the offending quotation marks simply belong to the class of punctuation that a clever curator has dubbed " 'unnecessary' quotation marks"—that is, meaningless punctuation placed under false premises, under mistaken understanding of function, or under the influence. If that's the case, Copy-Editing the Culture can only suggest that the nation's education system indeed needs as much intense help as this ill-titled movie suggests.  

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.