Slate has an occasional feature called “Copy-editing the Culture” through its Browbeat blog — and I do mean occasional, given there are three entries since October.
The most recent entry — the lamenting of the nonsensical spelling of Adam Sandler’s “Grown Ups” — has caused no small amount of Sturm und Drang among the commenters. Some are taking the curious tack of defending the established legitimacy of the word sans hyphen, though none really exists; others are defending the term on loose grounds that sound a lot like “screw rules”; some have missed the point entirely in choosing the criticize the admittedly forced rhetorical styling of “Copy-Editing the Culture”; and almost everyone has descended into a world of “you made an error, so you can’t ever criticize anyone else’s error. Ever. Oh, and you left out a comma, jerk.”
What is in danger because an Adam Sandler film has a messed-up title? Not too much. But does it matter that we recognize whether it’s wrong? Absolutely.
I’m not a grammarian. I’m a solid copy editor and editorial quality-control stalwart because I’m a product of voracious reading, a good memory, Catholic school grammar lessons and copy-editing experience that spans about half of my young life. I’ll poke fun at published errors, particularly the most silly ones, but I’m loathe to emphasize such small errors in everyday life. After all, it’s not like I’m error-free, and if it’s a victimless mistake, I’m just showing off by declaring the flaw and the fix.
But just because I’m not perfect doesn’t mean I can’t ever say, “Hey, the way that’s written (or used)? That’s wrong.” Where we have to be careful is our reasoning. In the aforementioned Slate piece, I’d prefer to see a demonstration of why the lack of a hyphen in “Grown Ups” is an error, and why it’s harmful.
How does Copy-Editing Culture do? Well, it called “to grow up” a verb intensified with a preposition — the commenters jump to point out that it is a phrasal verb. That’s also a strike against Copy-Editing Culture, according to dictionaries and The Lousy Linguist (who, incidentally, both derides using dictionaries as authorities and confuses this Slate blog post with an actual review of the film).
So, not so great with the description of why it’s wrong. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a great argument for it being acceptable outside of “I think it’s fine that way.” That’s fine, too, I guess, but only if you never need to work with a style as part of your job, and aren’t so imaginative that people can’t understand anything you’ve written.
What’s the harm? It’s tougher to say. There’s some anecdotal evidence in the comments to suggest that teachers and professors have little or no regard for the intelligence and grammar of today’s students, and for those teachers in the comments, “Grown Ups” appears to be both not surprising and a great excuse to stop teaching finer points of the English language. That buoyed attitude seems to have some threat of harm, right? Though how widespread, we can’t tell.
Maybe it’s just worth talking about because it indicates, in the tiniest way, what type of culture we want to be? Do we, in an effort to not be nit-picky, obsessive and snobbish, go so far the other way as to be indifferent (and maybe ignorant)? Or do we say, hey, maybe we can’t change the studio’s mind, but we know better.
A vibrant language will always have exceptions, creations and shifts, but we can at least be active in determining them rather than be molded by asleep-at-the-switch Hollywood.