"I Row Crew" — Rowing in 'The Social Network'

Like many of the rowing faithful, I've been keeping up with the saga penned by Dan Boyne about the filming of the rowing scenes in David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, and I must say I had high hopes going into the film. The first problem I encountered: the phrase, "I row crew." It was uttered so many times before anyone "rowed crew" on the water that I had trouble buying any of it later. It's understandable that the character of Mark Zuckerberg makes that mistake, since he has no idea about the sport. But when the Winklevoss twins themselves utter the phrase several times, one begins to wonder where Boyne was when these lines were not being chopped or changed. Seriously, who says that?

As far as the actual rowing goes, the first scene, which has the twins out training in a pair along with the rest of the Harvard squad, is not all bad. It just ends that way. The line, "Those guys are freakin' fast" is certainly every bit as cringe-worthy as Boyne indicated, and it's followed by a sudden, dramatic increase in stroke-rating by the Winklevi, which lasts until they are off camera (it's almost as if they too are embarrassed).

The heart of the matter is the Henley scene, where Harvard is pitted against the Dutch in a reenactment of the final of the Grand Challenge Cup in 2004. The rowing is not terrible, and they shot this scene at the actual venue during the HRR in 2009, so no complaints there. The trouble is, it is shot with an edge-blur, and in slow motion. The slow-motion is supposed to disguise the fact that the two crews are at impossibly low stroke-rates coming through the enclosures, and, coupled with the edge-blur (which makes the rate of motion of the environs -- close-to-normal -- less obvious), it almost works. To a rower's eye, however, it looks like they are doing a piece at a 22 in the Henley Final. Also, it's paired with close-ups of the Dutch making 'pain faces' and looking nervously over at the competition -- they are ever-so-scared of those dynamic Harvard boys!

The outcome, of course, follows history. However, the half-a-length loss is subsequently discussed as one of the closest races ever. Really? What about the Boat Race from 2003 (which takes place on the Thames and covers just over 4 miles), which came down to 1 foot? I suppose it's just a bit of fluff to make the twins look good in losing (actually, much of the movie is that way).

I know that the amount of people who actually know anything about the sport makes up quite a small percentage of the population, so ultimately, it's up to the Hollywood execs, who know what sells to the everyday moviegoer. However, given the amount of hype this movie has gotten in the rowing community, I expected more rowing than most people would be interested in seeing, and more accuracy (if not in the rowing itself, then at least in the dialogue about it). Still, it's probably the most accurate depiction of rowing in a major motion picture to date, and for that, Boyne and the gang are to be commended. And hey -- at the very least, it's better than Take That's new video, featuring a 'quintuple.'


  1. What do you say if you don't say, "I row crew?"

  2. "I row." Or, "I'm on crew."

    "I row crew" is redundant, like saying something multiple times when you already said it once already.

  3. More people row than "row crew".

  4. If you row crew you're simply stating you row with a crew (other people), not alone. So yes, saying "one rows crew" is perfectly normal.

    1. Technically, if you say, "I row crew," you are stating that you are rowing a crew (i.e. no one else is rowing–crew is the direct object of the verb, giving it the meaning of 'I am rowing a crew of people up a river'). In other words, simply using 'crew' on its own forces 'row' to be transitive. This is different from saying, "I row with a crew," which implies that the other members of the crew are active participants, and would be perfectly acceptable. 'I row with a crew' allows the verb 'to row' to be intransitive alongside the prepositional phrase.

      For more on the rowing/crew debate, allow me to refer you to Hear The Boat Sing:


      Thanks for your comment!



  5. Having thought about this more, I find that my first response doesn't get at the real issue. The problem with saying 'I row crew' is that it is an attempt to parallel 'I play basketball.' The difference is, 'crew' is not a sport. A crew is a group, or team, of people, typically engaged in maneuvering a vessel of some kind. (This is why it is redundant to say 'crew team.')

    So, 'crew' is not parallel to 'basketball,' it is parallel to 'basketball team.' The sport is called rowing. Sports with names that are gerunds (swimming, cycling,etc.) do not follow the same 'I play x' format to which people are so accustomed. A swimmer would say, 'I swim.' A rower should say,'I row.' Again using swimming as an example, saying 'I row crew' would be like a swimmer saying 'I swim swimming team.'

  6. Bryan, your comments about the phrase 'I row crew', insofar as they are aimed at the grammar of the phrase, are just pedantry. Sure, 'row' is generally used intransitively as in 'I row' or transitively as in 'I row a boat', and on either of those simple models, 'I row crew' doesn't work. But it's obviously an idiomatic phrase, of which every language has thousands. There's no reason at all to think that it's an 'attempt' to parallel any other phrase.

    In the phrase 'I row crew','crew' is not parallel to 'basketball' or 'basketball team'. It's being used as a colloquial contraction of the adverbial phrase 'in a crew' (or rather 'in the crew', since the implication is that one is on a specific - e.g. university - crew).

    If no one in US university rowing actually uses the phrase then clearly it's bizarre that it's used in The Social Network. But there's nothing at all wrong with the grammar of it.

  7. It occurs to me now that maybe you didn't get from the use of the phrase in the film that it is supposed to indicate more than just that they row (so 'I row' would be inadequate) - it's supposed to indicate that they row for a proper team.

    1. Hi Bernard,

      Thanks for the comments. I like your argument, but in my experience the phrase is not in common usage nor would it be commonly accepted in rowing circles. I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone involved in rowing at Harvard who would say, "I row crew," and it certainly wasn't lost on me that the phrase in the film was meant to indicate that the twins rowed for Harvard Crew. The only way that it makes sense grammatically is to excuse it based on the assumption that it is an idiomatic, colloquially contracted phrase, as per your remarks.

      Also, while it is theoretically possible that it is a contraction of "I row for the crew," or "I row in a crew," etc., I disagree that that is the origin of the phrase. Many people outside the sport think that the sport is called 'crew,' leading to the common usage of 'crew team' (which is, obviously, redundant). It seems to me that, given the prevalence of 'crew team,' the phrase 'I row crew' is more likely to stem from crew being perceived to be parallel to 'basketball.' Even the Wikipedia entry for rowing indicates that the sport is alternately called 'crew' (see link below, end of first paragraph) in the United States:


      However, I'm not a believer in prescriptive grammar, as language is constantly in flux. There will always be sufficient vagueness to make more than one argument about language and usage. Perhaps we just ain't going to agree, but thanks for giving it some thought!

  8. Neil RubensteinFebruary 02, 2015

    Kind of like saying, "saying something multiple times," when you've already used the word redundant?


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