Grammar Details: Articles and Prepositions

I was recently entertained by a fellow blogger’s deconstruction of the craft of writing movie synopses (blurbs, really) for a popular online DVD rental giant. He was compelled by the description on the mailer sleeve for a Cassavetes classic, only to find out that it had been lifted from a book about the director’s contribution to modern cinema.

It’s fascinating, the diversity of the wordsmithing skill present in the (non-plagiarized) plot summaries on these mailers, as well as on the web site. What a fun copy writing job that must be here in the twenty-first century. Editorial digression aside, my point is that the blogger mis-recorded the title of the film, omitting the initial article. It was written erroneously in the headline and text of his piece, and I initially noticed it in the title bar on the browser window. It’s common enough in speech, enunciating only the important words in a book, film, or movie title. Chatting over coffee, a friend might point out, “Maggie Gyllenhaal can’t be in Dark Knight Rises, she was blown up in Dark Knight.” Your nerdy chum has just omitted “The” twice. Not a big deal, but if her diatribe were converted to a written piece, she’d want to display the titles whole.

In the case of the blog post, the article in question was “A.” More often than not, when someone mentions Hemingway’s 1929 novel of doomed romance in the Italian Army during WWI, they often cite Farewell to Arms, leaving off a small but important word. Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own rarely suffers this fate.

Similarly, one of Oscar Wilde’s plays—The Importance of Being Earnest—usually manages to retain its article when spoken or written of. Like Marshall’s, it would just sound goofy any other way. But Wilde’s only novel may find itself even more severely truncated since it’s effortless to scuttle the entire subject clause. The Picture of Dorian Gray is sometimes referred to simply as “Dorian Gray,” to my reliable consternation.

The Picture of Dorian Gray Book Cover

Proposed Artwork for a Publication of Oscar Wilde’s Only Novel

Placement of tiny words in a frugal arrangement is the key to nuance. The English language’s connectors do the heavy lifting where brevity is king. Likewise, it’s good form to beware of swapping articles and prepositions. Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City resulted in a series with a dual subject; relationships and cosmopolitanism. If she’d titled her semi-autobiographical anthology “Sex in the City,” a whole level of sophistication would have been lost. And it probably would have ended up a cable reality show.

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