Rich Halloween Moviemakers Hire Cheap Copywriters

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This is a guest post by Kevin Craner. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

What’s the scariest thing about Halloween II?  The chilling music?  The gore?  The sight of Michael Myers raising his blood-soaked knife to yet another helpless victim?  Well, if you care about grammar, the scariest thing is the blurb on the back of the DVD box. 

Read it, and you’ll learn that Halloween Uncut grossed $80 million worldwide.  That’s plenty of money with which to hire the best copywriters, the best proofreaders, the best—well, the best everyone and everything.  So how did the error in the sentence below make it in to print?

But the town’s got an unlikely new hero, if they can only stay alive long enough to stop the unstoppable.

If you’re not sure what the error is, ask yourself this: which word does the pronoun they replace?  You might think it replaces hero.  And on the face of it, that makes sense—after all, the hero is the one who will “stop the unstoppable.”  But there’s a problem: it can’t replace hero, because hero is singular whereas they is plural.

O.K, so if it doesn’t replace hero, it must replace town.  But there’s another problem: it can’t replace town, because town is also singular.  You know it’s singular because the writer used a singular verb (has rather than have).  Remove the contraction and this becomes clear:

But the town has got an unlikely new hero…

The sentence is, therefore, a meaningless mess.  They refers to neither the town nor the hero.  The reader has to guess what the writer meant.  (If you’re wondering, there’s nothing in the preceding blurb to which the they could refer.)

Remember: Whenever you use a pronoun, check that it agrees in number with the word that it replaces—that is, unless it’s Halloween and you want to scare an English teacher.

U.K. resident Kevin Craner is a lawyer and writer.  He has written comedy for the BBC, and is a regular contributor to “Humor Press”—winning first place in its June/July 2009 competition.  He also writes a humor blog.   

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12 thoughts on “Rich Halloween Moviemakers Hire Cheap Copywriters”

  1. This is ridiculous. The word town is a singular collective noun and, as such, will take a singular or plural pronoun. The word they obvously refers to the townspeople.

  2. Very interesting lesson! But may I ask if “they” could possibly refer to both the town and the hero? Would that be grammatically correct? Thanks 🙂

  3. We must choose between logic and grammar.
    My choice is for the first. Why?

    Town means community, like family for example, and it is singular. Yet when we refer to the people, which form that community, we should use plural, n’est pas?

    The most important thing in every language is the logical thought.
    Grammar comes only after that, or better said, it is its child.
    English is an excellent example for good logic and grammar.

    Knowing and using only a few words, one can tell a lot.
    That is the reason why the English language is so easy to learn and widespread.


  4. Though not grammatically sound, the sentence is coherent.
    Why would anyone feel the need to read the synopsis on the back the Halloween II DVD case?

  5. Kevin Craner erroneously states that movie makers hire copywriters. Not so. Those who write for the movies, TV and some other electronic forms are scriptwriters and/or screenwriters. The term copywriter is only applicable to those who produce advertisements, press or public relations releases, manuals, brochures and other collateral print material BTW: I’ve been both having long ago learned the difference.

  6. The word “they” is, of course, a plural pronoun. However, I’m willing to give the writer a colloquial pass on this one. If for whatever reason the identity of the hero should be obscured, the writer wouldn’t want to use the proper gender pronoun; but the whole post-Political Correctness construct of he/she gets amazingly tedious. One could make a case for rewording the sentence to where it’s a moot point. But as someone else pointed out, who is likely to rent a slasher flick and grammar-check the DVD case? So while this may not technically be correct grammar in writing, it is not at all uncommon to hear (in the Southwest, anyway) someone use the word “they” as a singular pronoun when the alternative is an endless klutzy parade of he/she, his/her, him/her, etc., etc.

  7. There’s a huge difference between spoken language and written language. I agree that is should have been he/she, if only for the sheer value of gently remind the consumer that grammar is important. I make the “they or he/she” mistake quite often, and sometimes I need that little reminder.

    On the other hand, it is on the back of a movie. I doubt very many people would notice it, let alone care, even though they should.

  8. Writers produce copy with the implication that it is original. BTW, “oxymoron” is the correct spelling.

  9. Hi There,
    You all guys been tough and correct. Fierce as the criticism itself.

    One couldn’t be straighter :

    THEY, being plural, is being used for BOTH the HERO and the TOWN.
    Thus plural. Ok, so far.
    I Don’t think the writter had that in mind, it might’ve been more likely an oral-like writting style. Por supuesto.
    ‘Lucy has got a new boyfriend. If they could only imagine what was to…’
    It’s reasonable to state that They refers to both Lucy and the new boyfriend’. N’est ce pas?

    I thank you all guys for the class!
    But I must disagree with Emeric about logic not meeting grammar.
    I see no problem at all in taking THEY as refering to both the Town and the Hero. Does anybody else see?
    I do admit the text is not well written. But huh, as you guys said, it’s not supposed to be so anyway. I agree.

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