Press Wrestles With Grammatically Incorrect ‘Virgin’

By: Lesley Messer

What happens when the title of a hit movie doesn’t conform to AP style?

That question was answered in recent days when newspapers started reviewing and writing about the new box office hit whose official name is “The 40 Year-Old Virgin.” Of course, as any reporter or editor worth his or her salt knows, there should be a hyphen between 40 and Year. As it reads now, it’s almost as if the movie is about 40 virgins who are still toddlers (not exactly unusual).

The movie’s title, as it appears on the screen, in ads, and on its official Web site, presents a problem for journalists: follow the studio lead or adhere to traditional newspaper style?

The Associated Press took the liberty of changing the title to ?The 40-Year-Old Virgin? in its widely published critique and box office reports. So did Reuters.

When publishing reviews by their own staffers, the majority of newspapers inserted the hyphen (without explanation to readers).

Those adding the hyphen included: The San Francisco Chronicle, New York Post, Seattle Times, Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Daily News, USA Today, The Boston Globe, San Diego Union-Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Newsday.

But many others went along with the movie-makers and left it out, including the the influential Los Angeles Times, both in its review by Carina Chocano, and a story today on its box office triumph. Others going along with the error include The Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Sacramento Bee, Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard, and Toronto Star, not to mention the magazines Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone.

Christy Lemire, AP movie critic, told E&P that she had spotted a promotional poster on imdb.com and rottentomatoes.com that did include the hyphen, suggesting that, perhaps, even the studio was confused. With two style options from which to choose, she just picked the version that looked right to her (and adhered to the AP style). There was no big debate within the AP about how to report the title.

Lemire added that the grammar discrepancy is especially ironic, in this case. “For a movie about a guy who’s so anal-retentive, it’s kind of funny that the title itself is out there two different ways,” she said.

Some papers expressed internal inconsistencies. While the Chicago Tribune “corrected” the title in its box office report, its staff-written review by Allison Benedikt reported the title as is. On the paper’s Web site, it also published a review from Zap2It.com that also omitted the hyphen.

Similarly, The Seattle Times published the AP’s box office report and its own review with the hyphen, as well as another article about the film written by Los Angeles Times reporter John Horn that reported the title sans hyphen.

It should be noted that newspapers, for years, have generally not corrected the title of the classic hit by The Who, “The Kids Are Alright.”

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