Linguistic hygiene in Sling Blade

Last night I watched the film Sling Blade (1996) for the first time in years decades and liked it all over again. It has linguistic appeal too: the characters speak in strong dialects with idiomatic expressions.

More than once the main characters say how much they like how the other one talks, as a way of conveying their mutual fondness and friendship:

sling blade - i like the way you talk

sling blade - he likes the way i talk - billy bob thornton + james hampton

There are two items in particular I want to note here. The first is a moment of mild prescriptivism at a family table.

The household below has taken in Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton’s character, above left) for the night, and the adult son, Bubba Woolridge, is anxious on account of Karl’s history of mental illness and one extremely violent outburst. His is the first line in the subtitles:

sling blade - he's a nut, ain't he

Mrs Woolridge (we don’t learn her first name) corrects her son’s speech, but look at how. Non-standard ain’t is proscribed, presumably as an ‘improper’ or ‘low’ form of expression, while the (to my ears) far more objectionable nut goes unremarked. I’m sure it was deliberate, to give us a sense of place and character and local norms, and perhaps a touch of un-PC humour.

For a good discussion of the stigma of mental illness and the lack of a mainstream word to describe the discrimination that arises from it, see Iva Cheung’s post ‘Sanism and the language of mental illness’.


Item two is my own bit of linguistic hygiene, and it concerns not the film but the Sling Blade DVD packaging. The first paragraph on the back cover blurb reads as follows:

Add to your collection the Special Edition release of the powerful motion picture applauded by critics and moviegoers alike…written, directed and starring Billy Bob Thornton (Bad Santa, The Alamo).

Leaving aside the rather strange overall syntax and the omission of the film’s name, I want to focus on the phrase written, directed and starring Billy Bob Thornton. Though there’s no threat to clarity, the verbs written and directed both need the preposition by for grammatical correctness. The lack of parallelism also pushed my editorial buttons.

The challenge is to fix it without rearranging the whole thing to make it simpler or more logical. I had my own ideas about how best to do this but wanted to see how others felt. So I asked Twitter, and got these suggestions, in order of reply:

1. written, directed, and populated by (@egabbert)

2. I’d add two ‘by’s. It’s that or one ‘by’ and an ‘and’, which would make the structure more complex. (@SnoozeInBrief)

3. starring, written and directed by; written, directed by and starring. (@Halceon)

4. written by, directed by, and starring. Unless context allows ‘writer, director, and star of’ (@pseudomonas)

5. Billy Bob Thornton writes, directs, and stars in? (@anindita_basu)

6. ‘written/directed by and starring…’ Not great for flow, I guess. (@CWWilkie)

7. A Billy Bob Thornton Joint (@jonmeyerswg)

8. written & directed by, and starring BBT (I’m ok with switching the ‘&’ for ‘and’ btw) (@millymelon)

9. Simply ‘written, directed and starred in by’ isn’t wrong IMO, but e.g. ‘featuring BBT as writer, director and star’ is punchier. (@GoldHoarder)

10. writes shoots & leads (@RichGreenhill)

The asymmetry of the verb phrases in question makes a perfect solution elusive within the parameters of the existing syntax. So a line beginning Billy Bob Thornton writes, directs and stars in… would flow better, but I’m interested in what can be done without disturbing the current structure.

My preferred option this evening is: written and directed by and starring Billy Bob Thornton; but my brain is tired and I may change my mind tomorrow. I can see good arguments for other solutions (esp. 2–4), and I’m suitably amused by 1, 7 and 10. What’s your preference?

17 Responses to Linguistic hygiene in Sling Blade

  1. Virginia Simmon says:

    I just love questions like this. My inner editor heartily agrees with “written by, directed by, and starring …” as probably the simplest, non-awkward way of saying it.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I like that option too, Virginia. In a formal press release it might be my preferred style. The careful commas elevate it in tone, whereas the DVD blurb is more colloquial – there’s an exclamation mark in the next paragraph, for example.

  2. Singledust says:

    No. 5 to me seems total ownership.

  3. empirialist says:

    from writer, director, and actor Billy Bob Thornton

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s another possibility, but it doesn’t imply that BBT did those things for this film. The “from Person X” formula is often used to attach a big name to a project in a producing or executive-producing capacity.

  4. SlideSF says:

    I like “written and directed by, and starring… – – -” but what I really feel is “Let the poor copy editors alone and allow them to do whatever they like. It’s a thankless job anyway so leave the linguistics to linguists. Isn’t Descriptivism about allowing common “parlance” {or in this case perhaps “escrtiance(?)”}, or perhaps even the exigensies of print/typography to decide what is “proper”, anyway?

    • Um… I agree with SlideSF. Don’t know what ‘escrtiance’ means but I like it. So I’ll go with that.

      Kidding aside, I love this stuff. Keep doing this stuff. This stuff is great.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’m sure the people responsible for the text – writers, editors, proofreaders – were thanked for it and paid for it. Text intended for public consumption should be subject to comment, whether it’s a blog post or a promotional blurb from a major film studio. The line is of grammatical interest, and I’ve been polite and constructive. Descriptivism doesn’t mean criticism is forbidden, and allowing copy editors to do ‘whatever they like’ without oversight or analysis is inadvisable, to say the least.

  5. Peter Morgan says:

    Written and directed by, as well as staring in the movie: BBT.

  6. astraya says:

    I sent a comment from my work computer, but it seems to have failed. I said that as an editor, I would amend to ‘written and directed by, and starring’. As a writer, I would choose some other way of saying it, but I can’t decide what.

    Years ago, at high school, a social studies teacher presented us with a scenario in which someone with limited mental capacity killed someone: is it murder, is it manslaughter, it is something else, what should the penalty (if any) be? Soon after the class finished, I started getting the feeling that the real point of the lesson was to find out how we would refer someone with limited mental capacity – did I or my classmates say ‘nut’ or any other equivalent term? If so, the teacher didn’t explicitly make that point at the end of the lesson. (I remember saying ‘loony bin’. I can’t remember what my classmates said. This is one of the few social studies lessons I can remember.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Like mine, then, but with a comma. I’d also be inclined to rewrite, if I were starting from scratch, but I think it made a good exercise to impose the syntactic restriction.

      Thanks for sharing the social studies story – sounds like a useful and instructive lesson. I still associate loony with this scene from Stand By Me, which has an array of insulting terms on that theme (nsfw):

  7. phil795 says:

    I prefer 5. Keep the verbs active and ergo powerful. Never use the passive unless there is no way around it.

  8. Given your self-imposed parameters of keeping the same general structure, I would start where you did — written and directed by and starring — but would add commas and an “also” for better clarity flow:

    written and directed by, and also starring, BBT.

    The commas help readers parse that the object of the preposition “by” is coming up a little later if they’ll just hang on, and the “also” helps with the potential confusion readers sometimes have with a double “and.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      You make a good case for that approach, Elizabeth. I still favour my initial choice, but not strongly; I’d be happy enough with several of the alternatives.

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