Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fancy Spock

Driving 800 miles home one way, and that same 800 in return, I had a lot of time to kill. So, instead of just listening to music the whole way, I put on the new Star Trek film by Abrams to listen to.* While I was down home, I also showed the film to my mother (which was a really great bonding moment for us).
Hearing it all the way through twice so close together, and watching it with someone fairly new to the film, I noticed something that bothered me a great deal. This is not surprising to anyone I know, because I am a well known Star Trek purist. I grew up with the various films and shows, and it has meant a great deal to me over time.
However, I think the thing that bothered me would surprise most people I know. As is evidenced in this blog, and in many other places my writing occurs, I am not a grammar purist. I believe that grammar is a rhetorical function, not an absolute (and certainly not the moral pillar of civilization that many think it is, but that's a different blog rant altogether). The problem I encounter with the new Star Trek comes on a grammar level. Specifically, the way Orci and Kurtzman have written Spock's dialogue.
Before I go into my rant, I want to point out that if you watch the new film, you will find that none of the other Vulcans use anything but absolutely correct English, to the best of my knowledge. Go on, go watch the film so it'll be fresh in your mind. I'll wait.

Back? Okay.
So, here's an example from about a third of the way through the film. Nero shows himself and asks Captain Pike to come over to the Narada. The following exchange occurs:

- Captain Pike gives a few lines outlining his plan to subdue the drill and try to save Vulcan.
- Kirk says he doesn't agree and makes a counter plan.
- Spock says "I, too, agree; you should rethink your strategy."

Okay, so here's the problem (though you probably already see it). The the verb "to agree" means that there are 1 or more things being said, and the speaker is indicating his or her alignment with those things. However, the "too" there modifies that to mean that there has already been someone who agreed with those things, and the speaker is indicating that they are also agreeing. However, in that scene, no one has spoken but Kirk and Spock, and Kirk disagreed with Pike. What he means, though, is that he is agreeing with Kirk's disagreement. So that entire line is very poorly written, grammatically.
Another example comes from a time before that when Spock is talking with his mother and there is a bit of a pause. Then, Spock says "may I ask a personal query?" Here's why that's a problem--a query is a thing, a noun. It means a question, but it's a thing. Consider the usage "I have a query." It's a thing that one has. "I have a personal query" or "may I ask a personal question"...both those would work, but the way the line is written is awkward, and...frankly...shows a misunderstanding as far as I can see.
There are a few more places like that and I have to admit, they bug me. They bug me because this is what happens when people who are writers don't understand how the language works and yet are trying to make a character sound stilted or intelligent. Just adding extra words to someone's dialogue doesn't make that dialogue more intelligent. A writer has to understand why those extra words are there AND make them work correctly for whatever language. It's our job.
Trust me, the irony of me making a grammar rant is not lost on me. You can see from the clumsy way I did it that I'm not used to making them. However, to have one character making some quirky grammar choices when no other characters do means one of two things: either the character is quirky, and the choices are being made on purpose, or the writer just didn't bother to think the line through. Since no other characters attempt to use English in an odd way in the film, and specifically no other Vulcans, we have to assume that this isn't on purpose. How did it get by the writers? I'm tempted to lash out because I think Orci and Kurtzman were entrusted with something I dearly love. I won't go quite that far. I will say, however, that the choices seem really odd to me, and that they bother me a great deal. They pull me out of the film, and even if a writer is trying to make a quirky character or narrator by using the language in strange ways, I can't imagine that the goal is to pull the reader out of the story and make them feel strongly enough about those choices to write a blog on the subject.

* = to be clear, I put it on and then put the pod in a console shelf so I wouldn't be tempted to look at the screen. I don't want state troopers to read this and send me a ticket for distracted driving somewhere down the road. I was listening to the movie, not watching.

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