Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Grammar Nazi Versus George Lucas

NOTE: These nine essays were originally published in my now defunct blog "Random Notes". As they were all cited in "Revisionism Strikes Again", I have decided to reproduce them, both to make them accessible for those reading that essay, and as a preliminary step toward reprinting most or all of the articles no long available at "Random Notes".

As is traditional on the internet I will preface this post with the following: Warning, the following essay contains spoilers. If you have not yet watched the animated Clone Wars series, and do not want the plot of various episodes revealed to you, stop reading now.
I believe I have mentioned before that mys on is absolutely obsessed with all things Star Wars. Not only does he play with my old Star Wars toys, but he has built up quite a collection of his own, as well as an army of Lego Star Wars kits. And, of course, he is also crazy about the new Clone Wars animated series.

I admit I was not very optimistic about the cartoon when I first found out it existed. Given the less than stellar prequels George Lucas had released1, I worried that the Clone Wars series would be just as bad2. So I was rather pleased to find the series not only passable, but actually entertaining. Of course there are times when it is a bit too clearly "inspired" by other movies or books, and some episodes are better than others, but overall it is much better than I had anticipated.

However, having seen my son's DVDs of the first two series, and the movie, more times than I can count, there are two small complaints I have about the use of certain terms in the Star Wars universe3. And, as I never tire of boring my readers with grammar and spelling complaints (cf "Ye Olde Grammar Nazi", "The Irony of Lax Internet Standards", "Grammar Nazi Comment on Greco-Latin Words",  "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "Why Worry About Grammar?", "Why Spelling Matters (Again)", "Why Spelling Matters, One More Time"), I figured the time had come to put them in writing.

First, the term "bounty hunter" is used indiscriminately in the recent series, seeming to have become almost a formal title rather than a description. Of course this came about about because of the inexplicable popularity of Boba Fett following the first three films, the same popularity which caused Lucas to turn him, or rather his father/genetic donor, into the ancestor of all the Clone Troopers, and later storm troopers. Still, the term "bounty hunter" was used properly in the first three films, and so I must assume the current usage does not designate some formal title, but instead is just a lazy usage trying to tie various characters to Boba Fett in hopes of making them seem more interesting.

To make this more clear, the term "bounty hunter" seems to be used in contexts where either the term "assassin" or even "mercenary" would make much more sense. Allow me to explain. "Bounty hunter" is a simple term, it indicates an individual who earns a living, in part or in whole, by collecting various rewards offered for the apprehension or killing of various individuals, normally criminals, with said rewards being offered by either a state or some governmental or quasi-governmental agency4

All of those elements are significant, as changing any one will change the proper term. For example, someone who earn a living by killing individuals for privately offered rewards is usually called an assassin or hit man, not "bounty hunter", though the second Star Wars prequel seemed to forget this, having Jengo Fett acting as an assassin (or even as a procurer of assassins", yet immediately having Obi-Wan Kenobi identify him incorrectly as a "bounty hunter."

Another error that seems to be made frequently is mistaking mercenaries for bounty hunters. Two examples immediately come to mind. First, in the Clone Wars episode which rips off The Seven Samurai, or The Magnificent Seven if you wish, the individuals hired by the farmers are called "bounty hunters", when in reality they are mercenaries, as they were hired to fight, not collect rewards on various individuals. Second, Cade Bane is called a bounty hunter, as are several of his associates, yet again and again they are hired by sinister forces to break into buildings and steal objects, abduct individuals, and commit a number of other acts more properly performed by mercenaries (or perhaps thieves or kidnappers), but certainly not bounty hunters5.

And that brings me to my other terminology complaint, Lucas does not seem to know what "pirates" are either. In modern times, piracy is pretty well defined, it involves the attacking of ships. We can ignore technical quibbles, such as whether or not it takes place in territorial waters or on the high seas, as such things are more legal than grammatical interest. Let us keep this as simple as possible and just say a pirate attacks ships. He may involve himself in other crimes as well, but he is a pirate because he attacks ships.

In the future, therefore, one would assume that pirates are those who attack spaceships. Again, we can ignore whether he attacks them in flight or on the ground, and just say that a pirate must attack a space craft.

And that is why I am complaining, as the Clone Wars series introduces us to "pirates" in several episodes, even depicts them involved in various crimes, and yet the one thing we never see them do is attack a single space ship. In their first appearance they are involved in scavenging loot from a wrecked spaceship, and later in kidnapping and ransoming off several individuals, even attacking the people paying the ransom to steal it, but never once do they come close to attacking a spaceship. Nor do they do so in their other appearances. They commit acts which could be described as extortion, kidnapping, looting, even murder, but never do they attack a spaceship. In other words, these might be bandits, or brigands, or simple thieves, but given what we see them do, it seems the term "pirate" is a bit of a stretch.

I would normally let such a trivial complaint as the latter pass without comment, assuming that they were known to attack space craft, and we simply did not see them do it in their on screen appearances. However, given the way that the term "bounty hunter" is abused mainly because it sounds better than the alternatives, I am not inclined to such generosity. Given the recent popularity of pirates, and the fact that "space pirate" sounds better than "space bandit", I have to think the term was chosen solely for the sound, and so I have to call foul.

I know most readers are not interested in such issues, and find my fascination with such matters endearingly quirky at best, neurotic at worst. However, I think there is a very good reason we should be concerned with such matters. As I argued in "In Defense of Standards", the erosion of our common vocabulary, which is the result of verbal laziness, results in the loss of yet one more building block of our culture. When we lose the advantages a common language, common assumptions, verbal shorthand and the rest of the benefits a common language brings, we end up spending much more time and effort on matters that were once handled automatically, unconsciously by assumptions built into our language. When our language ceases to be uniform, we must spend more and more time making ourselves understood, or, worse, dealing with the problems misunderstanding causes. And that is a shame, as the solution is so simple, and requires so little effort. If we just agree as a society to stress the proper use of language, we can easily stop the corruption of our common language and save ourselves so much wasted effort. Sadly, those who should be doing just that, the teachers and intellectuals, seem to contain an inordinate number of people dedicated to defending the elimination of standards. Which is why I feel the need to stress this issue whenever I can, as so few others seem interested in it.


1. One rather silly complaint is that the prequel series was "aimed at children". What those complaining forget is that the first series was no more mature than the second (prequel) series. The difference being that the person complaining was twenty some years younger when they saw the first series. 

2. I am rather amused by the site "78 Reasons to Hate Star Wars: Episode One". It lacks much of the snarky tone of most criticism sites (except for a little bit of snarkiness toward Jimmy Smitts), but still manages to point out absurdities, inconsistencies and plot holes of all six Star Wars films.

3. Actually, there are three, but I complained already in "An Off Topic Post on Star Wars" about the idiosyncratic use of the office of chancellor in a political system without a king or chancery. I think in that case, like Frank Herbert's puzzling use of "padishah-emperor" (which is either nonsensical or redundant, depending on whether you interpret emperor in the modern informal, formal medieval or the Roman sense), it was selected because it was both familiar and exotic at the same time, at least to American ears.

4. I am thinking here of bail bondsmen, who in many states have some governmental recognition of their right to use force in collecting those whose bond they have provided. In fact, they are one of the few modern sources of anything like a bounty in the US, the days of state offered rewards being long gone. There are still some private rewards offered for specific crimes, but in general those are for information leading to arrest, not for the actual apprehension of individuals. Which is probably why "bounty hunter" is today almost synonymous with "bail bondsman" or "bail enforcement agent."

5. In only one case could Cad Bane be even vaguely described as a bounty hunter, and that is when he is hired to capture Ziro the Hutt in season three. But, as far as I can tell, the Hutt Council is not a government, but rather a criminal organization, and so he is still more properly an assassin or hit man, not a bounty hunter. (The same applies to Aurra Sing's attempts to kill Mace Windu on behalf of Boba Fett in season two, she is not collecting a bounty but serving as an assassin -- that is, assuming Boba is paying her at all, in any form.)



Before anyone comments, I realize I do not use proper language at all times, I make mistakes and sometimes write a bit too informally. However, that does not make my argument any less valid. If your doctor tells you being overweight is dangerous, is that any less true if the doctor himself is a bit heavy? Does it make the message any less true if it is a smoker who warns of the dangers of smoking? Just because I fall short of my ideals does not mean those ideals are without value.

It is sad that I have to make such a point, but as personal attacks seem to have replaced logical argument in so much of our society, I feel the need to point out the obvious. (As I did before in "Poor Grasp of the Meaning of Hypocrisy", "Second Thoughts" and "Ad Hominem", as well as the postscript to "Unanswered Questions".)


There is one factual error in Star Wars I must mention, as it is shared by so many science fiction films. Asteroid belts, even the most dense, are very, very sparse by human standards. Asteroids in the belt occur once in every 10 million square kilometers or so. And that is counting everything from small rocks to huge asteroids, so, for the most part, the belt is empty space. And yet, in movies asteroid belts are shown as regions in which rocks pass by one another leaving barely enough space for a space ship to pass between.

Some might argue that, while our asteroid belt is sparse, there is no reason another belt could not exist which is much more dense, but I would contend there is. (A model similar to the argument I am about to make can be found here.) 

All planets begin as dust, gasses and larger chunks. The heavier object either either run into each other, or attract smaller objects. If they collide, they either pulverize into smaller objects, or they adhere to one another, gradually forming larger pieces, until planets begin to form. The greater the masses, and the closer together, the more rapidly planet formation occurs. Sometimes the mass is too small, the mass insufficient to form a planet, and something akin to the asteroid belt forms (or, in the case of failed moons, something akin to the outer planets' ring systems). And sometimes the mass is too great, and the planet begins to collapse into a star, at least with the correct composition. (But with the great amount of hydrogen present in the universe, it seems unlikely a heavy object could form without sufficient hydrogen to form some sort of star-like object.)

And that is the problem with movie asteroid belts, with that much mass packed close together there would be constant collisions, as well as strong gravitational attraction between the objects, and the belt would not last for long. Most likely, assuming it is located in a stable orbit, it would form a planet, and, given the mass seen in movie asteroid belts, a very, very large or dense one. If it is not in a stable orbit, or if the mass is insufficient, then it would likely form a few large asteroids separated by a handful of smaller objects. What most certainly would not happen is the continued existence of the type of asteroid belt seen in movies. 

Of course movies are notorious for getting the scope of space wrong, showing views of space suggesting planets are just a short distance away from one another. (Video games are equally guilty of failing to grasp the incredible distances involved.) However, these errors are forgivable. (Which is why I have failed to dwell on them before.) The size of space is simply too big for humans to truly grasp. But, if the facts are such that they make for uninteresting film making, then please let film makers simply avoid those topics, rather than using bad science. If the distance between planets is inconvenient, or looks uninteresting on film, then why not just gloss over travel times, rather than  present incorrect information. If asteroid belts are too empty to be interesting, then just leave them out, don't fabricate dense belts that simply could not exist.

But considering we are talking about an industry that rewrote history to restore the Roman republic sometime betwen 185 and 200 AD (in Gladiator - see "Glaring Anachronism" and "Way Off Topic".), or which presents The Da Vinci Code (or Holy Blood, Holy Grail, form which Mr. Brown appropriated most of his "facts") as historically accurate (cf "Isn't History Enough?"), I don't expect much improvement in this area either.

UPDATE (2011/02/05): As I mentioned the incorrect uses of "bounty hunter" allow me to say the use of the term on the term in the second and third movies of the original Star Wars trilogy were correct. Darth Vader was part of the legitimate government and so could offer a bounty on Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, and so Boba Fett was a bounty hunter when he tried to collect that bounty. That he was also collecting a paymnet from Jabba the Hutt probably also made him an assassin, hit man, mercenary, or something similar, but he was a bounty hunter when collecting the imperial bounty on Han and Luke.

Originally posted in Random Notes on  2011/02/06.  

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