On the error-riddled writing of The Hunger Games

Amidst the hype over Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, a trilogy of young-adult dystopian novels that one blogger hails as “the future of writing,” a subtle but crucial detail of the novels themselves – the writing – has gone largely unremarked (not just because the novels are now being eclipsed by the movie and the media juggernaut that lumbers around after any and every egg laid by Hollywood, golden or otherwise).

The writing in The Hunger Games isn’t going entirely unremarked: a perceptive Goodreads user has placed the novel on a shelf aptly titled “Gawd get a copy editor.” But given the pervasive extent of the trilogy’s basic composition errors, and the popularity of the books with young readers, more attention to these errors is warranted. They make for an eminently teachable moment.

Reading the trilogy, I first wondered whether maybe the author is deliberately trying to adopt the voice of a teenager. But I’m unsure about this hypothesis; the writing errors are both too technical and too numerous to represent any kind of stylistic strategy or symbolic substance. They’re just mistakes. And lots of them: misplaced or dangling modifiers; singular-plural errors; punctuation errors; awkward or simply misspelled words.

Take this sentence, from early in Chapter 1 of the first novel:

My bow is a rarity, crafted by my father along with a few others that I keep well hidden in the woods.

The sentence means to say that Katniss’ bow, made by her dad, is hidden with other weapons, presumably also bows, in the woods. What the sentence actually says, on account of the modifier error, is that her bow is a rarity, and that she keeps her father with “a few others” in the woods. (Who else is Katniss keeping in the woods?)

Shortly after this, in the same chapter, we read:

Being the mayor’s daughter, you’d expect her to be a snob, but she’s all right.

The sentence means to say that the mayor’s daughter might be expected to be a snob. But what it actually says, via the misplaced modifier, is that the reader – the “you” to whom Katniss addresses her story – is the mayor’s daughter.

In chapter 4, Katniss recounts a previous forest expedition:

But I retrieved the small bow and arrows he’d made me from a hollow tree.

Katniss’ father may have made the archery set from a hollow tree, but the sentence means to say that Katniss had hidden the set in the tree – a meaning lost in the distance between the predicate (retrieved) and its modifier (from a hollow tree).

Returning to chapter 1, in describing the Games, Katniss explains:

The last tribute alive receives a life of ease back home, and their district will be showered with prizes, largely consisting of food.

The use of the plural pronoun their to refer to the singular antecedent tribute arguably reads like everyday speech – but so would using the correct pronoun, her or his.

Similarly, in chapter 2, Katniss reflects:

I couldn’t go home. Because at home was my mother with her dead eyes and my little sister, with her hollow cheeks and cracked lips.

Here the singular verb conjugation was conflicts with its plural subject, the mother and sister. This singular-plural error reads much less like everyday speech than the prior example.

These and other technical but irritating grammar errors pervade the series:

To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope, and the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed.

A common enough error, the misuse of between to represent more than two entities needs correcting here (in the first book’s second chapter) as among. This error also recurs throughout the series, as in this sentence in the third book:

For the next sixty minutes, the Capitol feed alternates between the standard afternoon broadcast, Finnick, and attempts to black it all out.

Punctuation is also a pervasive problem. One of my students, a published author herself, points out the trilogy’s pervasive “crimes against commas.” For example:

In some districts, in which winning the reaping is such a great honor, people are eager to risk their lives, the volunteering is complicated.

Were the comma between honor and people replaced with the word that, the long clause that details the opening modifier would read more clearly as one sustained digression. Here’s another example of comma overload, from the start of chapter 4:

Obviously Haymitch isn’t much, but Effie trinket is right about one thing, once we’re in the arena he’s all we’ve got.

This sentence places the second comma where a colon should appear, and it omits a comma after arena, where it could mark a natural pause.

More egregious than comma splices, however, is the use of / in punctuation; the “slash,” as I have discussed in a previous post, almost always marks the spot where a firmer decision about wording needs to be made. It’s not a creative liberty being taken with punctuation; it’s just an occasion for closer editing.

The ride lasts about twenty minutes and ends up at the City Circle, where they will welcome us, play the anthem, and escort us into the Training Center, which will be our home/prison until the Games begin.

The slash returns in the second chapter of Mockingjay:

I linger in the doorway of Command, the high-tech meeting/war council room complete with computerized talking walls, electronic maps showing the troop movements in various districts, and a giant rectangular table with control panels I’m not supposed to touch.

As we read the story told to us by Katniss, how are we supposed to “hear” the slash in her voice? If the abundance of commas is ostensibly a means to simplify punctuation for young readers (whose heads would evidently explode on trying to parse a semicolon), why does the monstrosity of the slash get to stay?

Misused, misspelled, and awkwardly chosen words represent a third major pattern of composition errors.

Katniss calls the container for her arrows a “sheath.” What’s wrong with “quiver” (which is not nearly as often used)? Does she mean to make it sound like her arrows are stored in a condom?

There are a lot of references to microphones in the books, but the text spells the short form incorrectly, as “mike.” The correct abbreviation of “microphone” is “mic.” Four out of four Beastie Boys would agree with me about this (including Mixmaster Mike).

I know this may sound like pedantic nitpicking. But whether The Hunger Games either desperately needed a copy editor before reaching print or – worse – was deliberately edited this way according to assumptions about its young readership, the fact of its consistently error-riddled text is an insult to all readers. And it reflects rather poorly on a publisher that brands itself as an educational publisher for children and young readers, and as a corporate friend of public education. The fact that Scholastic sent The Hunger Games to press with such sloppy copy should concern young readers, and the parents and teachers who nurture their love of reading, as well as aspiring writers, to whom the success of such technically unpolished prose sends decidedly mixed signals. This fact is also a sizeable elephant in the room now rammed with fans, commentators, critics, and others party to the hype machine Hollywood has built up around the books.

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29 responses to “On the error-riddled writing of The Hunger Games

  1. I think it’s okay for people writing popular novels to write the way ordinary people write and speak–the real test of a modifier is whether the sentence containing it is intelligible and unambiguous. Academic prose is a distinct dialect. If an author wrote to please composition teachers, the prose could end up sounding stilted. ‘Mike’ for ‘mic’, though–that bothers me. What does the OED say?

    • “Proper grammar” is over rated. Most people don’t notice or even care. The book was amazing because it talked like an actual person. You could relate! Proof of what i said is true? The Hunger Games sold OVER 50 million copies. Not to mention a couple BILLION dollars from the movies.

  2. academicalism

    Thanks Mary.
    I don’t mean to suggest the writing should sacrifice everyday speech rhythms for the sake of technical correctness. (I certainly don’t mean to suggest the fiction should read like academic prose.) But I do find that the numerous errors are jarring, and that they often lead to confusion and unclear meaning (as in the first quoted example above).

    The OED lists the second definition for “mic” as “microphone.” Its definitions of “mike” do include that of microphone – as its sixth definition, and with cross-reference to “mic.”

  3. I’m also in favourite of colloquial speech patterns in novels–where appropriate and where they don’t sacrifice clarity. But that isn’t nearly as often as people think. And it bothers me that the advice to “read more so you can write better” is becoming increasingly less useful.

  4. Pingback: How to Avoid a Self-Pub Nightmare « How I'm Getting My First Novel Published

  5. I’m not really good at grammar. However, for some reason I’m relatively ok at finding sentences that sound a little odd. I haven’t read the hunger games but saw the movie (and thought it was crap, but that’s a side story) and decided to read the second book of the series since my sister had them.
    I’m really not liking her writing style even though it’s a thousand times better than Twilight. She uses ‘but’s and ‘and’s after full stops way too often, uses past and present tense confusingly and uses short sentences way too often. I still have no idea what “No, I can’t tell anyone I’m leaving behind in District 12” means 😦

  6. “The correct abbreviation of “microphone” is “mic.” Four out of four Beastie Boys would agree with me about this (including Mixmaster Mike).” Awesome!

    I, for one, don’t find the commentary pedantic at all. I haven’t read the books, but if those passages cited above are prevalent, I don’t think I could find enjoyment in reading them!

  7. Hi. Someone referred me to this blog in an attempt (probably doomed now) to make me cut down on my use of the comma. Well, I’m really sorry that my comments are going to sound negative, but with the exception of your points about the slash, which I agree with, I think all of your criticisms are not just pedantic to the point of obsessiveness, but are in fact wrong, and would strangle Suzanne Collins’ writing if applied.

    A few responses in detail:

    The “misplaced modifier”.
    “a few others” would never be taken to refer to “father” in this sentence – it obviously refers back to “bow”. The sense is very clear the way it’s written, and I’m struggling to see how your advice would come up with anything better.
    Similarly with the Mayor’s daughter example. I don’t think you can necessarily say that a phrase has to refer to another phrase just because it’s next to it – sentences have to be interpreted sometimes, and in this case, since the writer clearly isn’t assuming that I, the reader, am a Mayor’s daughter, there’s no ambiguity.

    The bow and arrows. “a meaning lost in the distance…” Good grief, how short do you think my attention span is?

    “The last tribute…” The point is, as you surely realise, if the author had used “his” or “her” she would have to choose one, and thereby assign a gender. This would add a meaning that clearly isn’t needed or appropriate. Using “their” to get round the problem is very common, and actually I don’t fully approve of it myself, but what else do you do? And anyway, the preceding sentences presumably were about the tributes – plural, so it’s not difficult to associate “their” back to them, as a group.

    “Mother…sister.” Personally I think “was” is better. It certainly reads better than “were” would. More lively. If she’s thinking of the two people individually, in that her attention moves from one to another rather than imagining them as a pair, then “was” is definitely better at conveying the meaning if not strictly better grammar.

    “Between” and “among”. Your pedantry is leading you astray here. “Between” is correct if you’re only ever linking pairs of objects, which is what the author is doing in both these examples. Your advice would completely wreck both of them. Did you try reading them to yourself, using “among” instead of “between”? They sound awful that way!

    As to the commas, which was what originally brought me here – I’ll just say that I’m not convinced. OK, the “honor…people” example is a bad sentence, and I agree with your correction of it – but I wouldn’t describe it as “comma overload”, I just think it’s a mistake. Or trying to be “stream of consciousness”, or something. (Sorry, I don’t know this author’s work at all so I’m not really qualified to criticise properly). And the second example – I agree that the comma is wrong and a colon would be better, but again, I would argue that wrong use of a comma (where it should be something else) isn’t the same as comma overload, which is just too many commas. You don’t give any examples of where a comma should simply be removed, so I’ve nothing to reply to about that.

    Right, I think that’s enough disagreeableness for one post! I’ll just say – thanks for an interesting blog, which I did seriously enjoy reading, even if I didn’t agree with it.

  8. There’s s threshold here. Ungrammatical use is fine if it is done for a purpose (and even better if it actually works). But we have here an argument that precise language just doesn’t matter any more. We’re riding on the slippery slope of significant language change; 150 years from now 20th century prose will be as accessible as Chaucer is now.
    My 11th book came out last month. But the same month, I was kicked out of a writers’ course for pointing out a website error in the use of ‘however’ — the infamous but all-too-familiar run-on sentence that splices two sentences with ‘however’. The explanation: my attitude was bad (the course had not yet started); and the use of ‘however’ was a matter of choice in this case.
    You be the judge:
    “We like the Isabel “pure soul” approach and the play with her muse, however, we must disagree with her belief that writers cannot be taught to become great writers.”
    If experienced writers, editors and agents accept it, we’re speeding down that slope. Expect to see much more.
    Bill Swan

  9. Thank God for someone who has noticed the absolutely appalling use of language. Suzanne Collins needs to learn basic English.

  10. Yes. It was jarring to me. I’m not obsessed with perfect grammar, but if the wording makes a sentence more difficult to understand, it needs an edit.

  11. You neglected to mention that the few others whom Katniss keeps in the woods helped her father craft her bow.
    The obvious response to all this is: if you can figure out what is actually meant, what difference does it make? The answer is that it’s irritating, it trips the reader up unnecessarily. Good writing isn’t any harder to read than bad writing.
    You are wrong that the “proper” abbreviation of “microphone” is “mic”. That’s only become common in the last 20 years – before then I never saw it – and “mike” is still common today. Nobody passed a law changing this, and descriptive usage is still mixed. Google Ngram is not a great help, because of homographs, but supplementary Google Books searches make that clear. “Mic” looks like it should be pronounced like “Mick”.

  12. And furthermore: we are going down the slippery slope ever since we stopped teaching grammar in grade school. Now, most teachers have never bad such instructions, so they cannot be expected either to teach it — or know an error other than “it doesn’t sound right”. This leads to acceptance of: “…it belongs to you and I…”. Try teaching first year journalism students about the need to avoid the passive voice. When they don’t know what a verb is they are a bit hamstrung to then discover if it is passive or not.
    The deletion of grammar studies was based, as far as I can tell, on one single one-year California study that compared two groups: one drilled in grammar and one that was not. At the end of the year, the architect of the study couldn’t find a difference in the writing skills of the group. The conclusion: if you can’t tell, then why study grammar? Besides, baby-boomers didn’t like it; too much effort.

    • Yes, but this isn’t new. I was taught – in first grade, and in California – that the past tense of “build” was “builded.”
      This was in 1962.

    • It would be well worth retrieving the history of curriculum policy decisions that led to the “deletion of grammar studies” because we see their ramifications everywhere now. I teach a course on academic writing – for graduate (MA) students: http://mais.athabascau.ca/Syllabi/mais606.php
      Virtually every student who enrolls in it admits to having no prior knowledge of parts of speech or grammar, on account of never yet having learned these subjects at any level of schooling. (Modifiers are a common challenge for many, but for some it is necessary to explain what a noun or verb is.) While it may seem scandalous to have to offer an academic writing course for graduate students, the students themselves and colleagues at my own and other universities acknowledge the need for a course like this (not to mention similar courses offered at the undergraduate level, and the student writing services now supplied by every university). I see this need in large part as a result of the deletion of study in parts of speech and grammar from primary and secondary school curriculum.

  13. Would we train serious musicians without teaching them the basic scales? But then again, many pop music “composers” do just that. Piet Hein said it best: Writers who can’t write write for readers who can’t read.

  14. I started reading The Hunger Games a few days ago. All of the grammatical errors have been KILLING me. I don’t understand what all the hype is about.

  15. Just one comment on the slash: irritating though it may be, it’s an argument in favour of Collins trying to produce the voice of a teenager. My fourteen-year-old actually talks like that – the / is pronounced as “slash”. So he would read the sample sentence as: “our home slash prison”. It wouldn’t slow him down for even a second; it’s a really common grammatical construction.
    Now whether the overuse of slashes in print is the cause or the effect of this peculiarity of teen speak is another question.

  16. There are factual/storyline errors that are equally irritating – such as the author’s inability to do simple math.

    In the first chapter of Hunger Games, as Katniss explains the reaping system, she states that names are entered once at twelve, twice at thirteen, and so forth.

    Then, she explains about tesserae. Each candidate can enter their name once for a “meager year’s supply of grain and oil for one person.” She then states that entries are cumulative, and that now, at sixteen, her name is in the drawing twenty times. Presumably this is because she has entered her name three extra times for each of the five years she has been eligible.

    Wait. What?

    12 years old = 1 entry + 3 tesserae entries.
    13 years old = 2 entries + 3 tesserae entries.
    14 years old = 3 entries + 3 tesserae entries.
    15 years old = 4 entries + 3 tesserae entries.
    16 years old = 5 entries + 3 tesserae entries.

    I come up with 30, not 20. Soooo… Is it cumulative or not? I can’t come up with any way to make her math work, by making the yearly entries cumulative but the tesserae not (15), or vice versa (still 15). The only way it “works” is if the author got up to get a cup of coffee and forgot what she was writing, and simply multiied Kat’s number of eligible years (5) by one entry and three tesserae (4).

    Things like this make me want to throw my Nook across the room. The only thing that makes less sense is how they came up with Gale’s supposed number as stated in the film (42).

    Assuming their fathers were killed between the reapings on Gale’s thirteenth and fourteenth birthdays, five years before the story begins (which seems a reasonable assumption as Katniss has been signing up for tesserae all five of her eligible years):

    Assuming that Gale did not have to sign up for tesserae when his father was alive –
    Age 12 = 1 entry + no tesserae
    Age 13 = 2 entries + no tesserae
    Age 14 = 3 entries + 5 tesserae entries
    Age 15 = 4 entries + 5 tesserae entries
    Age 16 = 5 entries + 5 tesserae entries
    Age 17 = 6 entries + 5 tesserae entries
    Age 18 = 7 entries + 5 tesserae entries
    53 entries.

    If Gale did also have to sign up for tesserae while his father was alive, then –
    Age 12 = 1 entry + 5 tesserae entries
    Age 13 = 2 entries + 5 tesserae entries
    (Gale’s father is killed, but his sister is born, leaving the number of family members the same)
    Age 14 = 3 entries + 5 tesserae entries
    Age 15 = 4 entries + 5 tesserae entries
    Age 16 = 5 entries + 5 tesserae entries
    Age 17 = 6 entries + 5 tesserae entries
    Age 18 = 7 entries + 5 tesserae entries
    63 entries.

    The only way I can arrive at 42 is to make the maximum number of Gale’s family members – two of whose lives did not overlap, tragically – at six, then multiply it times seven (his number of eligible years). Which, again, makes neither the standard entries nor the tesserae entries (much less both) cumulative.

    I have to go bang my head against a wall now.

  17. I’d like to point out that their is gender neutral. It’s useful for dealing with an unknown genderEd body or non cisgendered people. Your article does come off a bit pedantic but you acknowledge it with good reason. Could you explain some of your examples as what would be correct? Obviously I lack some grammar teachings

  18. I love the irony of how these books are highly criticized for grammatical problems, yet in the same tirade there is criticism of the movie culture around young people. Let go of your retentive approach and embrace the fact that more young people read because of books such as the hunger game novels. The grammatical problems in the novel make it no less approachable than your average Shakespearean text – and yet perhaps some of the readers of these novels may one day pick up a copy of Twelfth Night in the years ahead, just because they love reading. And yes, I thoroughly enjoyed all four of those books despite the grammar.

    • academicalism

      I actually think the movies are better than the books, largely by virtue of production values. (My complaint with the films is that the third novel has been turned into two films, a shameless studio cash grab that is not unique to this franchise, of course, as seen in the senselessly overblown Hobbit series.)
      As for the encouragement of reading for its own sake, the great British cultural critic Richard Hoggart questioned this received wisdom in The Uses Of Literacy: “there is no virtue in the habit of reading for itself; however unexceptionable its subjects and presentation may be, it can become as much and addiction, as separated from the reality of life, as the reading of some of the more occasional literature [eg tabloids, pulp fiction, etc.]” (271).
      So while I take your point about encouraging reading, we need to think about how to guide a young reader from The Hunger Games to Hamlet. What might those six degrees of separation be, whether in the classroom the book club, or some other institution of reading, teaching, or fandom?
      Lastly, in the teaching context in particular, the problem of grammar errors can be either a problem (by modelling bad grammar for students trying to master it), or, more hopefully, a teachable moment, by providing opportunities for students to detect and correct grammar, and to challenge the assumption of an author’s infallibility. In this context of teaching grammar, Collins is in fine company, since she is far from the only widely-read author to publish work riddled with grammar errors; another such author is Jane Austen. (But that’s a subject for another post, perhaps.)

  19. Well, I found this article because I noticed a lot of grammatical mistakes and typos, things like: a down instead of a gown, and switching between tenses. I didn’t read all your critiques, in fact I’ve only read a few so far, but I need to remind you that it isn’t a technical book. You can’t always look at it from a technical perspective, sometimes being strictly grammatically correct makes it sound boring, and too technical. You can write “His or her”, but it doesn’t always sound good in a casual book.

  20. Also, it’s kinda ironic that you’re being really strict on grammar, when the title of your own blog, academicalism, isn’t really grammatically correct either.

    • academicalism

      Thanks for your comments. On the word “academicalism” you are incorrect: academicalism is a word that may be old-fashioned but it is still real – you can find it in the dictionary. I prefer the Oxford, but it’s not free online, so here’s the Collins definition of academicalism instead: http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/academicalism
      The word can mean either: an adherence to tradition that verges on pedantry, or obsession with trivia; or a stereotypically “academic” writing style (obscure, wordy, full of jargon, etc.). I quite deliberately chose such a word as a title quite befitting the scholarly blog of an English professor.

  21. Enjoyed the article, but must take exception to this:
    “There are a lot of references to microphones in the books, but the text spells the short form incorrectly, as “mike.” The correct abbreviation of “microphone” is “mic.” Four out of four Beastie Boys would agree with me about this (including Mixmaster Mike).”

    The “abbreviation” of microphone may be “mic,” as seen on electronic devices, but the conventional and correctly pronounceable “short form” of microphone is “mike.” The spelling “mic” rhymes with “Bic.”
    http://bottomlineenglish.com/open-mic-for-open-mike-is-a-misspelling

  22. I think a little of Grammar can be sacrificed for the want of the expression an author uses to narrate the story. Grammatical and other errors is an altogether different aspect and the uniqueness of the story is different. I love the books! Afterall Colins must not be a robot for having written that!

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