Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Gerund + Proper Noun = Title Cliche

Posted by Neal on September 8, 2010

Yesterday Glen tweeted:

“Saving Grace.” “Raising Hope.” “Running Wilde.” How about we have just one show called “Gerund plus Proper Noun w/ Double Meaning”?

Amen, brother! I’ve been noticing titles like these for about a dozen years. In the late 1990s, it seemed to me that there were a heck of a lot of titles fitting this pattern, like Chasing Amy or Saving Private Ryan. But when I thought back on it, I could remember seeing titles like Eating Raoul or Crossing Delancey on video store shelves back in the 1980s. Some titles that I’ve been recording in this draft entry for a couple of years, as well as others I’ve remembered:

  • Eating Raoul (1982)
  • Crossing Delancey (1988)
  • Driving Miss Daisy (1988)
  • Becoming Colette (1991)
  • Boxing Helena (1993)
  • Leaving Las Vegas (1997)
  • Chasing Amy (1997)
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998)
  • Becoming Mozart (1998)
  • Being John Malkovich (1999)
  • Finding Forrester (2000)
  • Saving Grace (2000)
  • Saving Silverman (2001)
  • Finding Nemo (2003)
  • Being Julia (2004)
  • Finding Neverland (2004)
  • Raising Helen (2004)
  • Taking Woodstock (2009)

If these aren’t enough for you, you can use this movie title generator to create more gerund+proper noun titles.

I’ve tried using IMDB to search for titles like these to see if this increase was just my imagination, or the Recency Illusion, but inconveniently, the database isn’t tagged with parts of speech. All I can do is search for “ing,” which brings up lots of irrelevant stuff like everything or sting, or search for actual gerunds that occur to me. For example, saving is pretty popular. Also, there are so many movies each year, even if you don’t include TV movies and foreign movies (which IMDB does) that the difficulty of doing such a search quickly exceeds the tolerance threshold for a blog post.

Now Glen also mentions “double meaning”, but this only happens with verbs that are both transitive and intransitive. Running Wilde could be interpreted as “Wilde, in a state of running” if you take running to be the present participle of the intransitive verb run, modifying Wilde. Or it could be taken as “the action of making Wilde run”, if you take running to be the gerund form of the transitive verb run, taking Wilde as a direct object. I can tell that title-writers think it’s unbelievably clever when they manage to do this, but most of the titles I listed above aren’t ambiguous. Saving Private Ryan can only mean “the action of saving Private Ryan” — unless you allow that it could mean “Private Ryan, who is frugal and saves his money”, but that wouldn’t be the same kind of ambiguity that Glen is talking about.

If anyone can enlighten us as to why these kinds of movie titles are so popular, and whether they truly are more popular than they used to be, I look forward to reading your comments. Additional gerund+proper name titles are, of course, welcome, too.


29 Responses to “Gerund + Proper Noun = Title Cliche”

  1. Julie said

    I figured he was referring to the Wilde=wild homophony.

  2. The Ridger said

    Me, too – as with “Saving Grace”, where it’s the “grace/Grace” that gives it a double meaning.

    But really, I was going to say, a couple of titles a year doesn’t seem like a real increase. And then I searched on “Being”. Wow. Virtually every “Being” title is post 1990. There was “Being There”, but “there” isn’t a noun.

    Running (Mates/Hollywood/lots of adverbials) predate it, but with nouns? After.

    I guess film names have fashions, too.

  3. Chris said

    Neal, I’d like to thank you for wasting my morning, haha, but I got some:

    Going Hollywood, 1933
    Brining Up baby, 1938.
    Coming Home, 1978
    Going in Style, 1979
    Starting Over, 1979

    • Neal said

      Sorry, man, but I can’t count any of these. Hollywood: proper noun, true enough, but used not as a direct object but as a predicate adjective. Bringing Up Baby would count, except that the gerund is a phrasal verb. Home: used adverbially. In Style, Over: prepositional phrases. (Taking the CGEL analysis, over is simply an intransitive preposition, so that all by itself it counts as a PP, just like sleeps counts as a VP.) That’s why I didn’t include Breaking Away!

      So there you are: You’ve now wasted your morning with nothing to show for it! Hahahahaha!

  4. iamkimiam said

    Oh, great topic! I remember that somebody asked about this a while back on “First movie to use the ‘Verbing Common Noun’ style of title?”

  5. Chris said

    I followed the site mentioned by Iamkimiam to another site that lists movies with this title convention going back as far as 1909. Oh my, gotta love the innerwebz:

  6. iamkimiam said

    (slight correction if I may…it was a MetaFilter site (Ask MetaFilter is a subsite of MetaFilter)… is totally different.)

    Isn’t that list fun? Who knew there were so many!

  7. Glen said

    I think what makes titles like these popular is that a gerund has the advantages of both a verb and a noun. It conveys action in the manner of the verb — with the progressive aspect indicating that the action is ongoing — yet the whole title is a noun phrase, which is easier for people to grasp as the name for a thing (such as a movie or TV show). There are some movies that have verb phrases as titles (“Do the Right Thing” and “Ran” come to mind), but they seem relatively rare. (And thinking about it further, I realize that “Do the Right Thing” can also be a whole imperative sentence; I’m betting most verb-phrase titles are like that.)

    However, I wasn’t really talking about every “Gerund + noun” title in my tweet. I was specifically talking about those that include some kind of pun — usually with the noun being a person’s name that has another interpretation.

  8. Fritinancy said

    I’ve noticed the same trend in book titles: “Loving Frank,” “Chasing Harry Winston,” “Stumbling on Happiness,” “Biting the Wax Tadpole,” “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” etc. I wonder whether there’s some influence from the Broadcast Gerund (“San Francisco police investigating a robbery…”).

  9. Fritinancy said

    OK, not all my examples include proper nouns. But the whole gerundial title trend is interesting.

  10. The McSweeney’s link that someone else gave mentions it, but my absolute favorite gerund + proper noun movie was missing from your list: Raising Arizona (1987) Swoon.

  11. McGarrett said

    I think this form of title is popular with writers and studios because it can encapsulate a plot, and often a protagonist’s state of mind or ongoing experience. It’s interesting that the protagonist is often the (unnamed) subject of the verb; the object’s name is there, but we don’t know who’s doing the chasing, finding and saving.

    I thought of a few more movies: Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), Hating Alison Ashley (2005) (adapted from a 1984 novel of the same name), Keeping Mum (2005) and Loving Annabelle (2006). And the television shows “Crossing Jordan” (2001–07) and “Being Erica” (2009–).

    I’m not sure whether Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) and Looking for Alibrandi (2000) meet your spec. (Note: these all took their names from earlier books.)

    There was even a band called Killing Heidi (1996–2006).

    • Neal said

      Thanks for these titles. I already threw out a few gerunds made of phrasal verbs, but I dunno, maybe they belong in this class. What does everyone else think? Another one that occurred to me was a book published in the early 1980s called Killing Mr. Griffin, which was made into a movie of (I believe) the same name, sometime in the 2000s.

  12. xpiala said

    Tru Calling, which, I think, is a television show about someone named Tru whose true calling is talking to ghosts or some such nonsense. But I haven’t ever seen it, so I don’t know for sure.

  13. McGarrett said

    Neal — I take your point that the phrasal verbs are different grammatically, but I think from the movie industry’s perspective the titling logic is the same: it’s a fuzzy snapshot of the whole scenario, telling the viewer that this is a movie about someone who is chasing/saving/hating/kissing/killing/looking for someone else… his/her trials and triumphs… it promises a quest, a conflict, and perhaps a resolution.

    • Neal said

      @McGarrett here and Glen above:
      OK, I can buy y’all’s reasoning about the logic behind the titling, so I guess phrasal verbs in, too. Come to think of it, if seek were as common a verb as the phrasal search/look for, the movies you mention probably would have been Seeking Mr. Goodbar/Bobby Fischer/Alibrandi and made it right onto the list. So Chris, I’ll count Bringing Up Baby after all!

      But as was pointed out on the MeFi thread, the more interesting question is not when the first such title appeared (something like 1896), but when the title that started the still-going bandwagon of gerund+proper name titles. Over there they suggested it was none other than the Eating Raoul that I mentioned here.

  14. @McGarret: Then how about Regarding Henry (1991) and Deconstructing Harry (1997)?

  15. punkadyne said

    This reminds me of something Chris Hardwick said he and a friend did for 3 hours in a hotel room out of boredom: “How many movie titles could be double entendre for pooping?”

    – The Green Mile
    – The Dark Knight
    – Hot Shots
    – Heavy Weights
    – While You Were Sleeping

    Etc… I don’t think this had much to do with gerunds, but I know the humor is shared by you and your whole family. More OT: There are no gerunds in Swedish, really. “I swim” is the exact same as “I am swimming.”

    – Grig

    • Neal said

      Actually, “I am swimming” doesn’t have a gerund; it has a present participle. “No swimming allowed” has a gerund, the noun form of the verb. (Some argue that since the gerund and the present participle are ALWAYS the same form, no matter how irregular the verb, it makes no sense to insist on a distinction. FWIW, though, the two were different in Old English. The gerund ended in “ing”, but the participle ended in “end”.)

      As for Swedish, it sounds like their present tense is like the one in French (and other languages). I’m almost perversely disappointed that Spanish DOES use the present participle the way English does. You don’t have to settle for “como” to mean either “I eat” or “I am eating”; for the latter, you can also say, “Estoy comiendo.” My reaction: Oh, come on! That’s too easy! That’s just like English! But what does Swedish have where English really does have a gerund? My guess is that they use their infinitive.

  16. alexdssf said

    I outright deplore gerunds in titles, especially titles of books, movies, and television productions done in the past ten years. Every time I see something titled “(verb)-ing (insert proper name for a play-on-words effect)”, I want to scream.

  17. I do believe all of the concepts you have presented on your post. They’re very convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are too quick for starters. May just you please extend them a little from next time? Thanks for the post.

  18. […] abstract concept. This combination gives a dynamic stability that is attractive in titles. See the discussion on Literal-Minded (whom I thank for the list of films) for more […]

  19. […] gave the movie the  incomprehensibly bland title of “Being Flynn,” falling prey to the execrable cliche that’s been dogging Hollywood for more than a decade? Please, no more gerunds — anything […]

  20. […] grammatical, just lazy and overdone,” I answered, and listed a few of the examples I’ve written about […]

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