Monday, September 26, 2011

Punctilious about Punctuation

I’ve just been informed that September 24 was National Punctuation Day. Who knew? When I got the word, it was too late to throw a party, so I’m celebrating belatedly. Though I write about movies and moviemaking, I started out as an English major. And, as fans of Garrison Keillor are well aware, we English majors are a sensitive breed. (We may not be employable, but -- when it comes to English usage -- we never swerve from the path of linguistic correctness. What, never? Well, hardly ever.) So here’s my tribute to the role played by punctuation, and proofreading in general, within Hollywood.

It was my good fortune, as a UCLA doctoral candidate in English, to be hired by Roger Corman to assist in the making of exploitation films. Needless to say, Corman’s subject matter was rather different from what I encountered in graduate seminars on Macbeth and Moby Dick. (Or maybe not so different. Sex, violence . . . it’s just that Shakespeare and Melville used much fancier language.) My job as story editor included readying scripts for production. That’s when the English major in me took over. Of course I understood about dialogue: that characters need to speak colloquially, even idiosyncratically, to convey their essence to the audience. But I insisted that, when it came to stage directions and descriptive passages, everything be grammatically impeccable. And, of course, correctly spelled and punctuated.

Some of the writers with whom I worked balked at my insistence that their scripts be error-free. Writer-director Jim Wynorski (responsible for Chopping Mall and such later masterpieces as The Bare Wench Project) griped that since “you don’t shoot punctuation,” there was really no need to stress out about verbal correctness. Maybe so. But I would remind Jim that scripts (even Roger Corman scripts) are widely circulated. They are read by actors, agents, managers, directors, producers, and distributors. At least some of these folks were English majors too, once upon a time. Several Hollywood players have told me that when they spot a language error in a script submission, it’s like a red flag. When they come across two or three, they stop reading.

Punctuation exists in the first place to promote clarity. Otherwise, a phrase like “Let’s eat Grandma” is easily misunderstood. It’s especially counterproductive when a gaffe involving punctuation or spelling gives a reader the giggles. I still recall a letter in which a prospective Corman writer tried to interest me in a Vietnam War drama that climaxed in “a scene of wonton destruction.” All I could picture was American grunts and Viet Cong on the field of battle, pelting one another with Chinese dumplings. Ooops! And a spell-checker would never have caught that error. Nor, of course, the misplaced apostrophe in the slippery homophones its and it’s.

I urge my readers to check out the National Punctuation Day site, which offers many entertaining features. Meanwhile, I’ll just contemplate my secret desire to slip into a mask and tights, then -- as the Apostrophe Avenger -- invade shopping malls at midnight to correct badly-punctuated signage. I’ll admit, though, that while serving as Concorde’s resident intellectual, I once deliberately wrote an apostrophe error into a script. It involved a scene description: two salt-of-the-earth characters were living in a cozy mountain cabin decorated with one of those little wooden signs proclaiming “The Daltons.” I added an apostrophe before the “s,” shocking the author, who knew this was incorrect. Yes, I said, but these characters were exactly the type who would make that egregious goof.


  1. With the advent of social media, the Apostrophe Avenger will never be out of work!

  2. Would you like to be my sidekick, Hilary? You can be the Punctuation Phantom!

  3. Ah, superheroes after my own heart - if not my fingers, which have made several typos in these comments over the past weeks. D'oh! <---correctly apostrophe-ed!