No Country for English

By Maeve Maddox

In preparing to write a review of No Country for Old Men, I glanced at some online discussions of the film to see what other people were saying.

The grammarian in me overcame the movie critic as I found myself paying more attention to the mode of expression than the thoughts being expressed.

In Dustin’s Review of the film I found three items that distracted me from the content.

1. Of the character Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the reviewer observes

just as he has previously laid witness to similar atrocities over the decades…

One lays claim to something, but one simply witnesses an atrocity.

2. Again speaking of the sheriff, the reviewer says

all he tragically finds in God’s place is an empty void

Since the word void means “empty” or “an empty place.” it seems a case of belt and suspenders to talk about an empty void.

3. Of the killer, played by Javier Bardem, the reviewer says

Whenever he comes in contact with someone, the viewer holds their breath, quite aware of the extent to which he is capable of.

In addition to the agreement problem of the viewer holds their breath (which some readers may wish to defend), there’s another problem: quite aware of the extent to which he is capable of.

Three separate idioms have been crammed into one convoluted sentence.

Let’s break it down.

This killer is a psychopath who kills human beings the way farmers slaughter beef. Very quickly the movie-goer knows that this person would as soon kill you as look at you.

The viewer, therefore, is aware of what the killer is capable of.
The viewer is aware of the extent of the killer’s depravity.
The viewer is aware of the extremes to which the killer will go.

A lot of work has gone into the site on which this review appears. It may contain some outstanding reviews. It’s a shame that the first article I’ve read contains such careless writing. I now hesitate to look at the others.

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14 Responses to “No Country for English”

  • Brad K.

    Quite a grisly picture. “way farmers slaughter beef.” This implies that farmers kill cows regularly, “would as soon kill you as look at you.”

    Farmers are usually quite conservative with livestock. It is the growing and reproducing that provides food and income – the slaughter (harvesting) is done when that is greater benefit that keeping the animal. Farmers that enjoy the killing part – well, in 56 years I haven’t met one.

    I think the image you were looking for was the way a responsible livestock owner would kill a stray dog or coyote with newborn animals around. Safeguarding assets and the animals we take responsibility for, comes first. Or perhaps the way rats, opposums, skunks, foxes, armadillos, or snakes are dispatched – when they intrude where poultry or livestock are kept. Where varmints keep to themselves they serve viable functions in the wild. Once they cross into domestic concerns, they are an active hazard.

  • Daniel Scocco

    Quite an extensive analysis of the sentence, Brad 🙂 . Thanks for commenting.

  • Maeve

    Brad,
    I should have said “the way meat packers slaughter beef.”

    The intended image is NOT the killing of varmints. It is the killing of cattle for human use.

  • Brad K.

    Maeve, sorry. I assumed you meant the killer made a judgement call on whether to kill each person he encountered. Farmers don’t kill all varmints – they decide if the varmint is an annoyance or threat, or worth letting go. The killer didn’t kill everyone he encountered.

    In the victim’s case, as with the varmint, there was no input, nothing they could do, to affect the killer’s decision. Other than making the fatal mistake of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Pretty much every cow going to slaughter dies. The workers are going to kill pretty much every cow that comes through – but they do it for a reason – for a paycheck, for the food value for themselves, their families, their neighbors.

    Like a farmer killing varmints, the killer decided which to kill and which not, for reasons of his own. It is the unknown, unguessed rationale that triggered the killings that makes the suspense, the dread part of the story.

  • Tom Connolly

    Is this thread about farmer philosophy or grammar? If the latter, I’ll weigh in in agreement with Maeve. Bad grammar and bad usage will almost always turn me away from what I’m reading, unless it’s a text message from someone with a phone where ordinary punctuation isn’t easily available. This is most painful when I wish to be engaged in the content. Even the most educated of us (I am not in that category) need the services of a copy editor. If about farmer philosophy, I think the posters make good sense.

  • michael

    He might be “aware of what the killer is capable,” or he may be “aware what the killer is capable of” (even though that seems a little rough since it ends with a preposition), but I don’t think he needs to be “aware of what the killer is capable of.”

  • Maeve

    Don’t know about farm philosophy, but anyone who wants to discuss interpretations of No Country for Old Men is welcome to start a thread in my movie forum.

  • Elijah

    I thoroughly enjoyed your picking apart the movie review. However, I have something to add. There’s another pronoun agreement problem in that last excerpt from the movie review:

    “Whenever he comes in contact with someone, the viewer holds their breath, quite aware of the extent to which he is capable of.”

    The pronoun “he” in the introductory clause has an ambivalent antecedent. Written this way, the sentence suggests that the viewer, not Javier Bardem’s character, is capable of murder. Scary!

  • Maeve

    Elijah,
    Good call.

  • Graham Strong

    The one that jumps out at me is in Number 2 – how do you “tragically find” something? Perhaps: “Tragically, all he finds…” instead.

    Great post! It feels good to correct some grammar and not be shunned like a leper.

    ~Graham

  • Richie de Almeida

    1. Was the author looking for: “paid witness to”?

    3. “…the viewer holds their breath, quite aware of the extent to which he is capable of…” — I believe this to be true, I am always aware when I hold my breath long enough I get dizzy and see spots.

  • Maeve

    Richie,
    1. Only the author can know.

    3. Do you also lose conrol of the English language?

  • Richie de Almeida

    Maeve

    3. Why yes… yes I do.

  • D

    Is it possible for anyone to “slaughter beef”? Beef is the meat of dead cows, right?

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