Hollywood's Latest Attacks on the English Language

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 3 2012 12:48 PM

Copy-Editing the Culture: The Grey and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Still from The Grey
Liam Neeson savages the English language with The Grey.

Photo by Kimberley French © 2012 Open Road Films

Copy-Editing the Culture considers himself a friend of bird and beast. Not long ago, seeking a respite from the winter grind, he pedaled his modest bicycle into the barren countryside. A few miles from the main road, down a trail, he came on a creek nurtured by some early-melting snow. He found a granite stone to sit on, doffed his bicycling boots and woolen socks, and rolled up his trouser legs to the knee. The rush of nearly freezing water was vigorous on his ankles. He opened the small sack of picnic materials he had brought: a modest Tupperware container filled with prunes, half of a wheat roll, and a jicama, on which he slowly nibbled. Rural bliss! He had brought along some light reading, too—The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, second edition, by Bryan A. Garner—but the beauty of the landscape all around was so entrancing that he could barely focus. Overhead, a flock of small birds circled toward the sea, like commas in flight. A row of ants marched over the chilly earth, resembling an endless stream of periods. Hyphens seemed to fall with every shiver of a nearby pine. Copy-Editing the Culture felt invigorated from his coif to his empurpled toes.

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

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

Just as he thought his joy had peaked, he heard a rustling in the nearby twigs. A young coyote—sleek, timid, his eyes shining like dingbats in the winter light—emerged and fixed Copy-Editing the Culture with an inquiring stare. He seemed to want insight into the human world as much as Copy-Editing the Culture hoped to know the secrets of his animal awareness. Moments passed in sacred silence. Then, inspired toward connection, Copy-Editing the Culture quietly intoned the keenest, truest thing he knew about the experience of women and men. He said, “Traditionally, the semicolon is used to separate independent clauses that are not joined by a conjunction; it indicates a closer connection between the clauses than a period would.”

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The coyote blinked, as if in cosmic understanding, and then vanished quietly into the twigs.

After this spiritual experience, Copy-Editing the Culture was, for days, taken with warm, wild thoughts of canines. He was delighted, then, to hear of a new movie about wolves. But the delight did not last. The Grey—in which Liam Neeson fights a pack of wolves in some obscure Alaskan locale—is an insult to marquees everywhere and to the lupine species. In this country, the land of freedom and wild dogs, gray is properly spelled with an A. The E version, bearing the pretense and the inhibitions of the Old World, ought to be associated only with those words that hearken to that culture—earl grey, for instance, or grey peas. Grey, in short, signifies sorry cuisine. Now, it is true that Neeson hails from greyer lands. But The Grey is an American film, set in this nation’s northern soil; to force an E on this effort is to deny the blood and toil and orthographic genius of this country’s forebears, who fought, in great peril, to liberate a nation from the unjust spellings of its European colonizer.

Still from Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Still of Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

© 2011 - CBS Films

By the time Copy-Editing the Culture recovered from these un-American abuses, another bestial shock left him numb. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a forthcoming comedy about fly-fishing in that desert nation, might seem like an intriguing premise. Yet its artless title quashes any hope of ingenuity. While the British (once more imposing verbal curiosities on the entire globe) have been known to interpose needless articles in front of Yemen and Oman, it is standard practice in this country today to refer to Yemen, aka the Republic of Yemen, with no article. Where might that the lead? Terrible places. Imagine what violence could be leveled at other titles with this treatment: Midnight in the Paris, “Lullaby of the Birdland,” The England, the England? These are salmon already swimming upstream.

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