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.