Grammatically incorrect pop culture

In between National Grammar Day and the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society, let us lament that “popular culture” does not always use “correct grammar,” thus making incorrect grammar more popular in our culture.

This phenomenon has been with us forever, of course, even longer than there has been a Popular Culture Association.

If you are old enough, you remember the outcry from “Winston Tastes Good, Like a Cigarette Should.” “AS” a cigarette should, many English teachers bemoaned, even as they lit up another one. If you’re younger, you may remember “The Kids Are Alright ,” which added to many parents’ fear that rock ‘n’ roll would indeed rot their kids’ brains. (Nearly 50 years after The Who released that song, “alright” is still considered nonstandard English.)

Hollywood has not been particularly careful about its movie titles. We have The 40 Year-Old Virgin, which lost its hyphen; Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a question in search of a question mark; Two Weeks Notice, an apostrophe short of correct; and the movies you never saw, like Eight Legged Freaks, where the missing hyphen might have made clear that it was the number of legs that was supposed to be scary, not the number of freaks. (If more people had understood that, the movie might have been more popular.)

The latest entry in this pantheon is Non-Stop, where Liam Neeson must endure a hyphen that should not exist.

Almost no American dictionary or airline website prefers to hyphenate “nonstop”; although the British still do, Slate noted that most of the people involved in the movie had no excuse, being American or at least not British.

But our purpose here is not to criticize the spelling and grammar of those in the arts, but rather to discuss what to do when the spelling or grammar of a movie, book, institution, etc., conflicts with a publication’s style.

The short answer is: Follow the lead of the movie, book, or institution, even though it may look goofy to you (and your audience). It’s their name. And watch that your spell checker does not automatically change it back.

If speaking of the Labour Party in Britain, include that “u.” That new movie should be Non-Stop, no matter how much you hate it. (A number of publications are printing it as Nonstop.) Resist punctuating titles “correctly”; Finnegans Wake never had an apostrophe, no matter how many times you see the title written with one. (Moby-Dick, on the other hand, has been printed in editions that do not use the hyphen; it’s almost fielder’s choice whether to include it.)

This advice, though, sometimes makes things look weird. The XXXXX Theatre
is still a theater, despite what its press releases might say. When the New York Times stylebook used different ordinal designations, the musical “42nd Street” was often rendered as “42d Street.” If the musical was called “42nd Street,” it might have been in an article that mentioned other shows on “42d Street.” In publications that put quotation marks around titles, “‘night, Mother” looks very strange.

The real danger in changing something to be “correct” grammatically is that it has the opposite effect to what was intended. Instead of making the publication look smart for correcting the “error,” it looks dumb for creating an error. You may be a Law Abiding Citizen, but your readers Can’t Hardly Wait to correct you.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.