T.H.E. G.R.E.A.T. S.H.I.E.L.D. D.E.B.A.T.E.

A copy-editing controversy is a-brewin’ in anticipation of Joss Whedon’s upcoming superhero show, officially titled Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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.

17 comments:

Mark Greig said...

I think of it more as compressive orthography. Lazy just sounds far too accurate.

sunbunny said...

Josie, you're pretty much a perfect person. Frickity frack I love this site. We review shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek. Plus we talk about the philosophy behind abbreviation.

PS. Buffy is another interestingly shortened show title. Both Buffy and BtVS are used interchangeably. Oh and I still use Ouat, because it's fun to say. ooooohahhht.

Jess Lynde said...

I've actually seen a fair amount of chatter about The Shield of late. Mostly because as Breaking Bad ticks down its final hours, lots of people are talking about the art of ending shows. The Shield is often used as an example of a show that got it right.

And with Sons of Anarchy coming back last night, apparently with a hell of a lot of horrifying violence --- I was even more glad I quit this show last year after reading all about the season premiere --- I've also been seeing a lot of chatter about Kurt Sutter's contributions to The Shield. So people are still talking about it, Josie. No worries!

Billie Doux said...

OMG, I love this article. I laughed out loud when I saw the title.

I think it would have been smart if they just gone with SHIELD. No periods, no "agents of" no "Marvel" -- just SHIELD. The possibility of confusing it with the earlier cop show just doesn't seem that critical to me, because anyone clicking on anything is going to know immediately which is which.

Good to hear about Sons of Anarchy, Jess. I've thought about giving it a try, but have since reconsidered.

Jess Lynde said...

Honestly, I liked Sons of Anarchy for a good while. The performances are good, and sometimes the character stuff is quite compelling. Season 2 was very good. There are lots of interesting relationships on the show. But it has this weird balance, where it doesn't always seem to recognize that the central characters are terrible people most of the time. After five years, I found it increasingly difficult to be invested in their struggles and in all the club shenanigans, and to generally be on board with all the self-inflicted damage. By mid-S5, I had no one left to root for. No one. So I was out. And it sounds like the things that drove me away continue to be issues in the new season.

At least on Breaking Bad, the show clearly recognizes that the central character is a monster and gives you other people you can root for or sympathize with.

Patrick said...

The fact that a full-length article can be written about this that isn't just some silly fanboy rant is why I love the kind of people who watch these shows. :)

As for how the title should be spelled, the simplest answer is simply to ask, "How is it spelled in the opening credits?" and go from there. So it looks like the official spelling will be S.H.I.E.L.D. Yes, it's kinda clunky to type. And in this age, it's not insignificant that it eats up an additional 6 out of 140 characters. So I would say removing the periods, like with FBI, CIA, etc. is perfectly acceptable, provided the word remain in all caps. "Agents of Shield" is RIGHT OUT.

Oh, and I love the idea of acronymizing(I think I just invented that word) it to MASH! Though the H has gotta stay capital, since it's capitalized in the full word. :)

Brett said...

S.H.I.E.L.D. looks more awesome, but SHIELD is acceptable. Lowercase "shield" is not (why? I don't know, but it isn't). AoS may even work.

Also, first comment on the site. Yay for me!

Billie Doux said...

We've got to come up with a "first comment" award. What should we call it?

Josie Kafka said...

Billie, we should call it a FCA.

That's the singular. The plural is ficus.


Jess, good to know that The Shield is still getting talked about. I didn't love the ending, though. I wished for a bit more closure on some things, and a bit less closure on others. (Is that vague enough not to be a spoiler?)

Sunbunny, BtVS is a great example. Especially since the choice between Buffy and BtVS seems to be a relic of people having difficulty with html tags to create italics back in the message-board days, so it would be hard to distinguish between Buffy the show and Buffy the character.

Plus, the BtVS abbreviation led to the abbreviation AtS for "Angel, the series" (instead of Angel the character). How cool is that?

Welcome to the site, Brett!

VampsWitches&EverythinginBetween said...

Hysterical article! S.H.I.E.L.D. - it is annoying to type but I agree it should be caps with the periods. Keep up the great work, you are all wonderful writers and I enjoy reading your reviews everyday!

Sooze said...

...bored at work is my answer...but I loved this article. Ya'll are just too damn smart.

Jane said...

Ok, so I am a little bored with work (didn't watch the creepy video yet though) but I love this article too.

I am beginning to get interested in this show. I'm not a Marvel fan and didn't care much for the Avengers, but I love Joss Whedon's writing so very much. Plus I also enjoyed Ming Na on Stargate Universe, so I'm gonna give it a try. And, I know myself, there is no way I'm going to type all those periods in order to discuss the show. You could call it laziness, but I prefer pragmatism.

Patrick's argument about tweeting character count is enough for me to predict that those periods don't last for most. I also agree that all caps are a must. Plus points to Patrick for what I assume is a Python reference.

CrazyCris said...

I never thought I could laugh this hard over whether or not to include periods in a word!

Just another reason why I love you guys! :D

Suzie_B said...

So, it might be because I'm super bored at work (did watch the video, it was weird) but I enjoyed this article more than I probably should have. I just keep thinking of the TARDIS. Most often it's in all caps, but minus the period. I agree with SHIELD in the same way as NATO and such. My sister refers to it as Agents of SHIELD. Loved the article, Josie!

Jane said...

I thought of you this morning Josie when I read a Gawker article on the new fall season.

"SHOW: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
MOST LIKELY TO: Make You Hate Punctuation Marks"

Patrick said...

Jane, if you mean the line about something being "RIGHT OUT", yes that's a reference to the Holy Hand Grenade scene from Monty Python And The Holy Grail. :)

Patrick said...

So, during the series premiere tonight, the hashtag ABC was promoting had it spelled "Shield". Someone at Marvel needs to go smack the New Media guys over at ABC upside the head. It's SHIELD, you morons! It's a freaking acronym, like FBI! They even said what it stands for in the episode. Hell, they said so the first full-length trailer!! smh....