Posted tagged ‘redundancy’

“Like a cigarette should”

July 28, 2013

Dissecting the grammar in advertising is like shooting fish in a barrel, as the saying goes (though I’ve never understood why one would shoot fish in a barrel). From an edited publication, you should expect editing. From a bunch of Mad Men, maybe you shouldn’t even expect writing. Creativity, of a specialized sort, yes. But not necessarily writing.

Poorly written ads have been around far longer than I have. The first such controversy I remember was over a brand of cigarettes, which at the time were advertised in print publications and maybe even on TV. “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” the slogan went. I was incredulous: Those things taste good? But adults were taking sides over “like” versus “as.” The “like” people said the ad sounded like people talk, and “as” would sound stilted. The “as” people said proper grammar was worth something, and standards were going to hell in a handbasket (whatever that meant), and if we didn’t use the language properly, who knew what atrocities would follow. (Must be something about cigarettes — there were also magazine ads with the line “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!”)

This was my first exposure to prescriptivists and descriptivists — or, to put it in legal terms, strict constructionists and loose constructionists. Should we do things they way they’ve always been done because it’s “right”? Or should we change the rules to reflect the reality of how people use language, even if they’re “wrong”? I tend to lean prescriptivist, but it’s only a lean; both sides have a point, and though enforcing rules is often the role of an editor, so is making things readable and clear. So an editor has ample opportunity to experience everyone’s wrath.

But back to ads. Every once in a while one or more lines will jump out at me. On the radio, they’re like a dog whistle that most people don’t notice or don’t find bothersome. On paper, they make me want to get out the red pen. Here are some examples.

•     “If you need to lose up to 30 pounds or more ….” Okay, I sort of get why Madison Avenue wrote it that way. It’s still stupid. Do you need to lose up to 30 pounds? Or do you need to lose 30 pounds or more? It’s not both. I’d like the makers of this weight-loss product to lose this sentence.

•     “The detail and beauty is amazing.“The number-one issue in patents are patent trolls.” The first example is from a jewelry chain. As for the second, I am delighted to imagine what a patent troll looks like. Not so delighted to imagine how the educated people at this law firm managed to forget one of the most elementary(-school) rules of English grammar: The verb can’t be plural when the noun is singular. And vice versa, jewelry chain.

•     “See everything — like restaurants, shopping, and more.” My colleagues know I find redundancy annoying, irritating, aggravating, vexing, and exasperating. This line from an ad for a vacation destination is just the sort to which I’d take the red pen. It’s similar to the “30 pounds” line: If you must give an example of “everything,” say either “like [or ‘such as’] X and Y” or “X, Y, and more.” Not both. (Same with “et al.,” by the way, which is a Latin abbreviation for “and others” or “and other things.”)

•     “Dentures are very different to real teeth.” What? If you’ve seen this ad for a dental product, you know that some dentist supposedly says this, though he may well be an actor saying lines. But who would say or write that? Every time I hear it, I talk back to the TV: “From! From real teeth!”

“Your audience has grammar snobs and regular people. Whichever way you write your slogan it’s going to look natural to one group and un-natural to the other,” according to a writer for a blog called Cheap Talk. The writer sides with offending the “grammar snobs” because that’s the slogan that will get at least part of the audience “to turn it over, diagram it and correct it…. There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Is anyone surprised?

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Going Forward, Part 1

June 17, 2012

Otherwise known as the Department of Redundancy Bureau.

It’s rare that this pointless phrase is ever useful. Ninety-some percent of the time, you can slice it out of a sentence and never know it was there. To prove this, let’s take some random headlines and other lines from the Internet:

“Greek economy faces challenges going forward”

“Biggest positional needs going forward for Steelers”

“Sony reveals business plan going forward for 2012”

“We recently announced that, going forward, Windows Phone will be ….”

“Celtics going forward with a familiar core”

Okay, that last one is a legitimate use. The others? Well, I could cross my eyes every time I heard such nonsense, but as Mom used to warn, “Your face will freeze like that.”

An editor risks frostbite at all the redundancies in newspapers, on billboards, in junk mail, on TV, on radio, online, on banners behind small airplanes, etc. etc. For example:

* free gift                                                                                  * 9 am in the morning

* added bonus                                                                         * continue on

* unexpected surprise                                                           * true fact

* PIN number, VIN number, ATM machine,                   * armed gunman

SAT test, HIV virus                                                               * unconfirmed rumor

* surrounded on all sides                                                     * past history

Piece of cake, as they say, to edit such phrases as “a variety of different things” and “a potential hazard.” That’s why I can pretty much promise an ability to shorten any piece of prose — there are always cliches, redundancies, multiple words and phrases where one or two will do, and so on.

In most cases, I guess, people just aren’t paying attention. Most people don’t give any more thought to language than they do to their route to work or what they had for breakfast Monday. More important, they never learned grammar in the first place, never had the benefit of reading literature, didn’t learn a foreign language and analyze the differences with English, didn’t do crosswords, or didn’t have teachers who pointed out illogic with red pens and led class discussions on, say, “9 am in the morning,” a term I keep hearing on WTOP around 7 am. In the morning.

I expect that of Everyman at this point. I don’t expect it from President Obama and his speechwriters, who allowed “going forward” a few days ago. Ugh! Speaking only about grammar and language, we had eight years of an inane president. This one was a constitutional law professor known for his erudite speeches and a couple of well-reviewed bestsellers he wrote himself. Et tu?

Of course, spoken language has something of an excuse for redundancy. You need to be understood both literally and figuratively. Advertisers want to get that magic word “free” into your head. “PIN” is one syllable, so “PIN number” is clearer on the phone and in recorded instructions. Presidents, perhaps, want to sounds like your average Joe (Biden? Plumber?), though the wisdom of that varies by what they say. If studies show that people need to hear a message eight times before it sticks, maybe a bit of redundancy is forgivable when life has so many distractions.

But there’s no excuse for “future plans” or “true fact” (do people really say that unironically?). Aggravating as it is to hear terms like this, the best approach may be a dual one: as an editor, to strike them whenever possible, and as a listener, to laugh. It’s better than raising my blood pressure or crossing my eyes. But more on that in the next chapter — Going Forward, Part 2 — about cliches.

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.