by Josie Kafka
The Atlantic Wire has taken a provocative stance on T.H.E. G.R.E.A.T. S.H.I.E.L.D. P.E.R.I.O.D. D.E.B.A.T.E. The online news magazine will not be including periods when naming the upcoming Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. According to the article, Gawker, Salon, and the A.V. Club will continue to use the periods. As A.V. Club TV editor Todd VanDerWerff explained, “We use the asterisks in M*A*S*H.” His choice of example made me laugh, since I spent a week trying to convince the world we should use MASh as the abbreviation for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I convinced no one.
Entertainment Weekly's Darren Franich told The Atlantic Wire that the magazine will continue to use the periods, but will omit them in online headlines to increase search engine optimization. (As Google appears to disregard punctuation of common acronyms and initialisms, I am declaring that decision officially S.I.L.L.Y.) TVLine uses the periods in both headlines and articles.
So why not use periods for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Marvel itself has been inconsistent, switching between S.H.I.E.L.D. and SHIELD throughout the comics’ run. The Atlantic Wire defended their choice on the additional grounds that it’s darn hard to insert all those periods. Our ringfingers can only take so much. Plus, their style guide dictates the removal of periods from similar acronyms, like NATO, and many initialisms (in which you say all the letters separately) like FBI.
How to deal with acronyms and initialisms is a controversial topic in copy-editing. The New Yorker (which is known for strict copy-editing rules and only recently omitted the accent circonflexe from words like "role") and the New York Times use periods in F.B.I., the U.N., and the E.U., but not in acronyms that are pronounced like words, such as NATO. The Guardian omits periods in FBI, the US, and the UN, and prints NATO as Nato, but is inconsistent on how to deal with NASA, switching between Nasa and NASA. All of humanity has transformed “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation” into the quotidian laser.
S.H.I.E.L.D., obviously, qualifies as a NATO- and NASA-like situation, not an FBI-style initialism. We say “shield,” not each letter individually. For that reason, The New York Times omits the periods in SHIELD. The Guardian found a use for all the extra periods they’ve omitted from NATO and NASA, and writes the title S.H.I.E.L.D.. The New Yorker hasn’t written about it yet, because they’re all busy reading literary fiction and looking down on the rest of us.
Whether or not to include the first part of the title—“Marvel's”—is a debate most people seem to be ignoring, even though the promotional material is inconsistent. Abc.com lists the show as Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but Billie pointed out that in the show’s advertisements (see the picture at the top of this article) the first word is not possessive: “the word 'Marvel' [is] above the title, but it's in a red box and not placed so that it looks like part of the title.” That means if a librarian were to catalogue the show they would list it under Agents of… rather than Marvel’s Agents of…. (Think of films that begin with something like “Walt Disney presents The Little Mermaid”. The real title doesn’t begin with the word “Walt.”)
This isn’t the first time that the show’s title has caused problems. As Billie reported back in April, the original title was S.H.I.E.L.D., then Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. to avoid confusion with the Shawn Ryan cop show The Shield (which no one talks about anymore, sadly). [Marvel’s] Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the latest—and hopefully, last—iteration.
Our official policy here at Doux Reviews is to title the show index Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’ll be shortened to “Agents of SHIELD” for our left sidebar of “Featured Shows,” because of space constraints. Reviewer Mark Greig has used SHIELD so far, which I endorse as a useful short-form abbreviation, on grounds of laziness.
But are laziness and an underdeveloped right ring-finger good enough reasons? After all, “oh, that’s so hard!” is a stupid complaint. If laziness were the be-all and end-all, why write at all? There are easier jobs and hobbies. I might as well say, “Why not just make Doux News a list of links?” It’d be easier, but it would give me less pleasure to write, and (I hope) be less fun to read.
We could rip a page from Strunk and White’s “Omit needless words” and transform it into “Omit needless periods.” In the Twitter age, selective omission is a skill. And this is a debate specific to written media, since in speech the distinction between SHIELD and The Shield would be difficult to discern, but in writing the difference is clear.
Moreover, shortening TV shows is de rigueur these days. If I type PoI chances are you—a reader of this site—know I don't mean the Polynesian food. Billie and I once got an entire poll out of the VD and TB puns of our two favorite currently-running vampire shows. Consistency seems to take care of itself, as when the internet decided that Once is the best shortening of Once Upon a Time, rather than the awkward OUaT. Some consistency issues remain unresolved (LOST instead of Lost, for example), but no one seems to care.
If you’ve made it this far into the article, though, you probably care a little. (Or you’re really, really bored at work, in which case you should check out this creepy video.) Debates about something as small as a period raise interesting questions. The big one is simple: why did they give the show such a maladroit title? But also: who decides? Crowd-sourcing seems to dictate most of our choices these days, as the examples I gave above indicate. Old authorities and style manuals hold less sway; easiness leads to use which leads to recognizability. The brevity demanded by Twitter and the searchability demanded by Google determine how we use language.
Is that a bad thing? No. Language changes, and there’s just as much beauty to be found in something brief as in something long. Google, the twitterati, and everyday people from all over the globe are the English language’s equivalent of the Real Academia Española or the Académie française. Put more simply—and in terms Captain America himself would love—there’s a fascination to the way that we the people have become the Agents of C.O.P.Y.E.D.I.T.I.N.G.
And with that, I’m done. Typing all those periods exhausted my poor fingers.