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Copy Corner: Analyzing ‘Mother!’ and Other Weird Movie-Title Punctuations

Airplane!,’ ‘Everybody Wants Some!!,’ ‘(500) Days of Summer’—we got them all

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Mother!, the newest film from Darren Aronofsky, makes a number of unexpected decisions—but none has vexed The Ringer’s copy desk more than the choice to use a lowercase m and an exclamation point in the title. Under the direction of our copy chief, Craig Gaines, The Ringer has opted to style the film Mother! (We will be lowercasing the title in this article so that people can understand what on earth we are talking about.) In a wide-ranging conversation below, Gaines explains that decision and his philosophy on film titles, em dashes, and Star Wars.

Amanda Dobbins: Craig, we’re here to discuss the Darren Aronofsky film mother! and specifically the grammatical choices in its title. As the copy chief of The Ringer, you have exercised your authority to override the given style of the title on our website. So, let’s start with a simple question: What are the problems with the title of the Darren Aronofsky film mother!?

Craig Gaines: It’s really the capitalization more than the exclamation point. Capitalization is one of the few things as an editor that I’m very conservative, very doctrinaire on. And here’s why: Our job, and especially my job as a copy editor, is to ensure clarity and an easy reading experience for the reader. When you see something that’s a composition title, you expect it to be capitalized; capitalization matters because it’s communicating something to the reader. But the thing that you don’t want to do, really anytime—you don’t ever want the reader to pause. You don’t ever want the reader to be thinking, “Why is this lowercase? Why is this capitalized?” You don’t want the reader to be thinking about the actual words on the screen.

Dobbins: You’re working for Darren Aronofsky. Darren Aronofsky comes to you, and he says, “I would like you to copy edit my script and also my poster and all these things.” What is the note that you give to Darren Aronofsky about the title?

Gaines: In that context, because I’m not working for The Ringer, I would say, “Just making sure: Are we lowercasing the title and adding an exclamation point?” And he would say, “Yes.” And I would say, “OK.” Because that’s basically a work of art, and I think there’s a difference. I give him lots of leeway. I give The Ringer much less leeway.

Dobbins: So if you’re copy editing for him, you don’t have any concerns about the ability to communicate it, brand it?

Gaines: I guess I would interrogate it a little bit. I would point out that this is the title of the film, and this is a place where you’re honestly turning down the volume on it. If he comes back to me and he says, “Well, I’m actually intentionally subverting the idea of the mother,” or “Yes, in this film she’s being subjugated in some way, and I’m communicating that through the lowercase,” I would buy it. If he said, “I just don’t like capitalizing things,” I would call bullshit. He’s the director, he can do whatever he wants, but I would say, “We can’t do things just because we want to.” There has to be some framework here, or else at some point we’re just not saying anything to each other at all.

Dobbins: Is there any situation in which a lowercase title is acceptable?

Gaines: For a film itself, no. For a person’s name, that’s a little bit different, because it’s about how they’re presenting themselves in the world. I’ll be really honest, there is a gradient. The exclamation point—we allow it. But let’s say it was lowercase mother with 17 exclamation points. We wouldn’t do that. No way.

Dobbins: What’s your limit on exclamation points?

Gaines: Three? Maybe? Part of it is an eye test, and part of it is, is this visually distracting? If it’s visually distracting, we’re not going to do it. Because we’re not there to visually distract the reader. We’re there to inform and tell a story and entertain and things like that.

Dobbins: How about two? As in, Everybody Wants Some!! Two exclamation points.

Gaines: Oh, right. I didn’t like that. I thought it was showy. I actually want to see this film—people seemed to really enjoy this film.

Dobbins: Very charming.

Gaines: And, you know, I get that it was about the same sort of universe that [director Richard Linklater] did in his first film, so I get that maybe that communicates the loopiness of the world or the characters or something. But it was just distracting enough that I was sitting there—and I realize I think about this more than most other people—but I was sitting there thinking about the double exclamation point more than the title of the film. And you know, we went with the double exclamation point. I wasn’t happy about it, but we did it. It was on the line.

Dobbins: Is there a form of punctuation that is less offensive to you than the exclamation point in the title of a movie? As a copy editor of the world, not for The Ringer.

Gaines: Sure, of course. A question mark. Sometimes a question is a question.

Dobbins: Please rank the following punctuation forms from most annoying to least annoying in a movie title: exclamation point, period, colon, ellipsis, and semicolon.

Gaines: I think an ellipsis is the most annoying. If it’s at the beginning or end of a sentence, you’re mentally thinking, OK, the sentence is done, or this is a pause in a thought and now we’re skipping over some material that isn’t there. And that’s not what’s happening. It’s just the sentence, but there’s an ellipsis there. Another problem: We use italics for our composition titles. You can see that an exclamation point is leaning to the side, so you can see that it’s part of the title. No one can see that an ellipsis is italicized. It is. We still italicize it, because we’re obsessed editors. But no one knows that. And so it’s another thing where it’s taking me out of the read.

Dobbins: So we’ve done ellipses. We’ve got exclamation point, period, colon, and semicolon.

Gaines: I think that period is next, just based on recent experience editing pieces about the Kendrick Lamar album Damn. But here’s what I’ll say about that title: Even though it sort of subverts my very doctrinaire rules in the world, it succeeded in making you pause for a second on the title. Because that’s what you do when you come to a period: You stop for a second, and you go on. So I actually admired that. But I still find it incredibly distracting to just put them places willy nilly, because a period has such a defined purpose.

Dobbins: What’s next?

Gaines: Then exclamation point. As long as it’s one. If it’s multiple, then, all of the sudden, I’m gonna re-order the list.

Dobbins: Noted.

Gaines: A colon depends on how it’s being used. In a title, it’s usually to separate your primary title from your secondary portion. It shows up a lot in books; for The Ringer’s purposes, it’s basically the difference between a headline and a subhead. But in movie titles, especially with the serialization of films—you know, we’re all creating universes these days—the naming conventions do get loopy. Like Star Wars. Star Wars!

Dobbins: I’m so glad we got here. [Here being Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones, and Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith.]

Gaines: Those motherfuckers! They’ll have a colon and an em dash! This is too much.

Dobbins: I forgot about the em dash! I didn’t even throw the em dash in.

Gaines: Way too much. Double punctuation—get out of here, no way. It’s so Star Wars. It’s so “This is a sprawling, beautiful, but foreboding universe and to capture each portion of the universe, we have to give you this title that just goes on and on and on.” I can’t. Edit your shit.

Dobbins: So one punctuation mark, max?

Gaines: One. And I would probably put the em dash after the ellipsis, but before the others.

Dobbins: Ellipsis, em dash, period, exclamation point, colon, and we didn’t rank semicolon because no one uses semicolons.

Gaines: Yeah, that’d be kind of weird.

Dobbins: Would you respect it if someone figured out how to use a semicolon appropriately?

Gaines: Yeah.

Dobbins: Oh, I didn’t even use a comma, either. This is why I’m not a copy editor.

Gaines: A comma’s great.

Dobbins: So comma’s number one?

Gaines: Yes, commas have function.

Dobbins: Let’s do a lightning round for you. What is the most annoyingly punctuated movie title in history?

Gaines: It might be one of the Star Wars films. It’s actually not punctuated incorrectly. They’re just so full of themselves.

Dobbins: Great. Now I’m going to show you some examples, and you’ll tell me how you feel about their styling choices. You can say “Stet” or “No stet.”

Gaines: OK.

Dobbins: Oklahoma!, a classic film.

Gaines: I actually don’t mind that. Stet.

Dobbins: Hello, Dolly! That’s two punctuation marks.

Gaines: But stet, because that is a really classic use of the introductory comma. I actually really like that.

Dobbins: Great. All right. Airplane!

Gaines: [chuckles] OK, I’m gonna stet as well. Here’s where I claim some bias. It’s a top-15 film for me. If there is any film that is both good and dumb enough to earn its exclamation point, it’s Airplane!

Dobbins: This is why we’re doing this. Next: (500) Days of Summer.

Gaines: Absolutely not. No stet.

Dobbins: Can you explain why? We didn’t even talk about parentheses.

Gaines: That’s pure graphic design in text. Don’t do that. There are certain places it’s cool to visually communicate with text. In poetry, do that. I’m not gonna tell a poet who actually knows what they’re doing to not do that. But this is something different, and I don’t even know what that would be communicating, that it’s optional to say the “500”? No one has ever said “Days of Summer.” It’s 500 Days of Summer. It has no function that I can find.

Dobbins: Next: How Do You Know, without a question mark.

Gaines: No stet, don’t do that. This is like people on Twitter and Slack who pose questions but without a question mark.

Dobbins: OK, last one. Face/Off.

Gaines: I should say “no stet,” but I’m gonna stet it.

Dobbins: Tell me why!

Gaines: It’s a similar thing to Airplane! where that movie is so gonzo. And actually, it’s a really smart use because maybe it communicates it too much, but it’s communicating the double entendre in the title. I bet when they were kicking around ideas at one point, they thought about doing Face:Off, which I would’ve hated. The slash ... I actually really like that. Stet it.