Why, Does, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Have, Unnecessary, Commas?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 29 2011 5:13 PM

Copy-Editing the Culture: Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Cowboys & Aliens

Copy-Editing the Culture likes to think of himself as a man of quiet leisure, taking pleasure in his cup of lukewarm water, sipped at dawn; his favorite chair; his evening perusal of the latest news. Recently, when the rigors of urban life seemed too much to bear, he packed a modest knapsack and some light reading and set out for the country north of town. Copy-Editing the Culture adores nature, which reflects so beautifully the intrinsic order of things; studying a maple in full summer foliage, he cannot help but think of the extravagant beauty of a sentence diagram’s delicate branches—or, more than that, of the great, cosmic logic of the English language’s subjunctive. To set out into the natural world is, after all, to be cast back on one’s own best thoughts.

Yet Copy-Editing the Culture had spent only a few hours in this glorious environment—a folding canvas chair set out by the side of the lake, a refreshing glass of cool cucumber water poured over an ice cube—when disaster struck. Copy-Editing the Culture was in the process of building an outdoor fire on which to roast his modest Russet potato. While crumpling pages from a local newspaper to feed the flames, he read a few headlines. The first movie review he saw caused his soul to go stiff.

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Photo of Ryan Gosling (left) as Jacob and Steven Carell (right) as Cal in Crazy, Stupid, Love. by Ben Glass
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The atrocity that ruined Copy-Editing the Culture’s vacation is Crazy, Stupid, Love.—the title of a romantic comedy of middle age and remarriage being released today. He wonders: Was it actually released, or did it just escape? And if the appearance of this title on film screens across the country was deliberate, what, in the name of Russell David Harper, happened?

Most horrifically, there is the hair-raising savagery of the second comma. It is indefensible. If love is to be understood as a noun modified by two adjectives—if the title refers to love that is both crazy and stupid—a mark of punctuation in that spot only assaults the phrase's meaning. Crazy and stupid, in such a reading, are coordinate modifiers, rightly separated from each other with a comma: They describe the state of love independently and simultaneously. Not even a semi-literate schoolchild, however, would make the mistake of placing a comma between an adjective and the noun it describes (“a red, nose”; “a ridiculous, mustache”). Doing so is not just a grammatical crime: It sounds wrong. That such a ghastly error survived screenplay rewrites, an exorbitant production process, and a national marketing campaign shakes Copy-Editing the Culture’s faith in this fair planet to the core.

Still, the movie’s title has apologists. Some people have suggested that Crazy, Stupid, Love. is not intended to be a coherent English-language phrase—that it is, rather, a random selection of dictionary words. This makes sense only if the words are so random that they aren’t even a single part of speech. Crazy, Stupid, Love. is not a list of three nouns. (One would not say, “I saw a stupid at the Banana Republic today!”) But it’s not three adjectives, either. If it were (love can, in theory, serve that function, as in love dream or love lessons­), an obvious question would emerge: What has happened to the rest of this title-worthy phrase? What things are crazy, stupid, and having the nature of love—and so important in that context that they’re worth making a movie about? Crimes of passion? Post-erotic suicide? These do not seem like romantic, or particularly funny, concepts. Such a reading is further subverted by the strange, seemingly pointless period that ends the title. Whatever cryptic nonthought Hollywood may be trying to express, it’s a declarative one.

In fact, strange things are happening across the movie industry this summer. No sooner had Copy-Editing the Culture returned from his ill-starred lakefront week than he read mention of the movie, also out today, titled Cowboys & Aliens. Ignoring even the conceptual peculiarities of this film, described as a synthesis of the Western and science-fiction traditions, Copy-Editing the Culture found himself baffled by the title’s ampersand. One well-connected associate of Copy-Editing the Culture reported that the movie’s PR representatives explicitly insisted—in all-capitals—that an ampersand, rather than and, be used in all discussion of the film. Why?

“As a matter of editorial discretion,” observes The Chicago Manual of Style, “an ampersand (&) may be changed to and.” This seems a reasonable stance. Why would a PR firm require otherwise? Ampersands first came into being as conjunctions of E and T—that is, as renderings of the Latin et (or and). Their form has changed over the years, but their meaning is essentially unaltered. This means that an ampersand isn’t right for every use—and a movie about cowboys and aliens is a use for which it seems, in fact, particularly wrong. To apply a Latinate conjunction to a genre flick is nothing but pretentious.

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