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Commercial Grammar

By posted at 6:00 am on January 7, 2014 46

570_Burger King

The other night I saw a commercial for Polident denture cream. There’s a guy in a lab coat, a pretend dentist, who’s saying that a lot of people treat dentures like teeth even though dentures are much softer and more porous than teeth. Dentures, the guy tells us, are different to teeth. But why should I listen to him? Why should I even be able to stand him? Different to? This makes me nuts. Okay, so in England — the British Isles — it is acceptable to pair these words together, but we’re not in England. We spell realize with a z and not an s. We don’t have a monarchy. We are more discreet about our prejudices. In sum: we are different from the British. We might even be different than the British. But we are certainly not different to the British. What we are, I fear, is dumber than the British. Or getting dumb thanks to media that institutionalizes bad grammar. Ever seen that commercial for Burger King’s new line of fries? Forget what gross measures BK has taken to modulate its fry-frying technique, and focus on the message: Forty percent less fat, thirty percent less calories. If you want to get into it, there’s reason to argue that less in some contexts can be applied to countable plural nouns. Just not this one. Why couldn’t they have said: Less fat, fewer calories? Why? Because it’s not as punchy, not as advertisy, and not as indifferent to proper grammar, which is fast becoming a hallmark — even a badge of honor — for people trying to woo each other. Want to sell me something? Great, just be sure to put on your idiot face, first.

I have read a lot of dating profiles. A lot. Infer from this what you will while I make the following observation: no one equates proper grammar with sex appeal. On the contrary, the worse your punctuation, the more confident you seem that strangers will want to have sex with you. Does anyone on these websites know the difference between you’re and your? There and their? I teach creative writing to undergraduates and am frequently — daily — appalled by how bad their command is of basic language skills. Fast forward twenty years and I am seeing these same people advertise themselves on OkCupid. I love to travel. Its just my thing.  Reluctant non-conformist, verging on the anarchist. AKA, “a prick”. Aka a truant, since this guy obviously skipped that class on punctuation and its placement. Here’s one I like: I’m “well educated”. It’s gotten so bad that one guy, in the “what are you looking for” section, writes: “A woman who knows the difference between its and it’s.” To me that’s like saying I want to date a person who knows the alphabet. When did the bar drop so low? And, really, why do I care? On the spectrum of world problems that need bemoaning, is bad grammar really one of them?

Yes. Yes it is.

For a lot of people, good grammar is like the opera — elitist and snobby. Never mind that opera tickets cost less than the nose-bleeders at almost any sporting event in the country or that the stories in opera are as Everyman as it gets: boy meets girl, boy loses girl. It’s all about perception. And if you say less fat, fewer calories, maybe people get the idea you are pretentious, and if pretentious, unpalatable. This is why so many of us don’t use capital letters when we email — because it looks stuffy. Which would all be fine were it not the case that bad grammar falls into the same category as bad prose writing, which heralds the depredation of our culture and the exaltation of fascism. Seems like a bold statement, and it is, until you reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” which seems every bit as urgent today as it must have in ’46 despite fascism’s being less potent now than it was then. In the essay, Orwell contends that imprecision (and what is poor grammar but the handmaid of imprecision?) allows propaganda to thrive. Imprecision allows you to say one thing when you really mean another, or at least to obfuscate whatever it is that you do mean. Imprecision favors political conformity by relieving all of us of the burden to think. When’s the last you heard a politician who made you think? All you heard were the same hackneyed phrases and idioms that say, in essence, go to sleep now, the machine’s well-oiled. As Charles Baxter writes in his wonderful essay “On Defamiliarization,” the kingdom is running smoothly because no one is learning anything.

Orwell was not actually all that big on grammar, though his grammar was impeccable. His bugbear was the debasement of the language thanks to dead metaphors, familiar phrases, euphemism, and vagueness. But I think bad grammar is equally dangerous. A commercial for Hill’s Ideal Balance dog food fear-mongers by telling me that my dog’s diet has too little vitamins. Gah, mini vitamins in my lab’s bowl! Guess I should run to the pet store right now. Similarly, next time a hurricane rolls into town and the government fails to provide adequate remuneration for people whose lives have been destroyed, I will be well pacified by the language coming out of Capitol Hill. Why worry? We’re stronger to the storm.





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46 Responses to “Commercial Grammar”

  1. Frits
    at 10:33 am on January 7, 2014

    And here I thought sex appeal was predicated on noun antecedent agreement.

  2. Moe Murph (AKA "The Toast" Fan No. 1)
    at 11:41 am on January 7, 2014

    Some quick (hopefully grammatical) thoughts:

    a.) Have noticed a steep decline in accuracy over the last ten years in books, magazines, etc. I find it sad, and imagine a flotilla of laid-off proofreaders, fact checkers, and editors all sailing into the Bermuda Triangle, arguing passionately about the proper use of “shall” vs. “may.”

    b.) I’ve worked with some folks who aren’t primarily writers, but are stuck having to write something anyway. I think there’s something to be said for “rigor,” taking the time to obey the basics of grammar and checking your spelling. It sends a message under the radar to the person receiving your communication.

    c.) There’s nothing wrong with a stylistic decision to “break the rules” when you think it improves your flow. The problem is laying an egg with deliberate goofs such as “Cease” the Day, “Caviar Emptor,” etc.

    d.) Orwell’s essay is wonderful and well-worth reading. Very ironic to be afraid of appearing elitist or snobby if you take an interest in good grammar and verbal precision. That’s much too simplistic. The danger Orwell warns of is the risk of being bamboozled by messages created by a power “elite” (who are very aware of the tools they are using) to keep the masses under control.

  3. Nathaniel Tower
    at 12:01 pm on January 7, 2014

    I agree with Moe. There are far too many errors in all kinds of published material released today. Whether it is a Burger King ad, a magazine article, a newspaper website, or even a novel released by major publisher, almost everything seems to have mistakes these days. It’s almost like no one cares anymore. Too many writers/editors are rushing to get things published that there is not enough quality control.

  4. Moe Murph (AKA "The Toast" Fan No. 1)
    at 12:08 pm on January 7, 2014

    One very quick response, related to Mr. Tower’s comment that “no one care anymore.”

    About ten years ago, there was a group of “official” condolence letters sent out to families of soldiers killed in Iraq. They were cheap copies, with a computer-generated signature by some high-level mucky-muck, and contained several proofing errors. The “message” these letters conveyed was primarily one of indifference and contempt. It would have been better not to have sent them at all. I often use this as an example with students of what “not” to do.

  5. Moe Murph (AKA "The Toast" Fan No. 1)
    at 12:12 pm on January 7, 2014

    [My comment, last two lines: "often use this as an example with students of what “not” to do.]

    I think this might be a little “off” but I like the sound it makes. If it was a quart of milk, it would likely have a January 6 “use by” date.

  6. gladly
    at 1:23 pm on January 7, 2014

    I thought about writing a longer reply, but the writers at the Language Log have said it better and more thoroughly than I ever could. Read everything under the tag “Prescriptivist Poppycock.” I think you’ll find that in several places in your essay, you’re complaining about “usage” rather than grammar.

  7. Moe Murph (AKA "The Toast" Fan No. 1)
    at 1:38 pm on January 7, 2014

    Uh oh. That sounds like the home turf of the linguistics folk. They scoff at grammarians and flay, slice, and dine on the tender flesh of the novelists and playwrights. God forbid what would happen to a poet who made a wrong left turn and ended up over there!

    Moe Murph
    (Secretly Fears She’ll Never Figure Out the Difference Between Grammar and Usage)

  8. Lee Knapp
    at 2:12 pm on January 7, 2014

    I’ve translated my frustration into cash. A surprising number of people have purchased the mugs, plates, and greeting cards to affirm their superiority or to passive-aggressively correct a friend with a grammar gift.
    http://www.grammarstuff.com

  9. Moe Murph (AKA "The Toast" Fan No. 1)
    at 2:30 pm on January 7, 2014

    [Re: On the spectrum of world problems that need bemoaning, is bad grammar really one of them? Yes. Yes it is.]

    “Grammar is not a time of waste.”
    Bart Simpson
    Stateless Springfield Resident/
    US Envoy to
    Canadian National Grammar Rodeo (1996)

  10. Victoria
    at 3:36 pm on January 7, 2014

    “Fast forward twenty years and I am seeing these same people advertise themselves on OkCupid. I love to travel. Its just my thing. Reluctant non-conformist, verging on the anarchist. AKA, “a prick”. Aka a truant, since this guy obviously skipped that class on punctuation and its placement.”

    Are you sure these people aren’t Canadian or British, though? Not to defend people who call themselves non-conformists because personally I find that insufferable, but in most British-influenced schools, punctuation is more likely to go outside of quotation marks if it isn’t an actual part of what you’re quoting.

    The lack of apostrophe in “its” I have no excuse for, of course.

  11. James Cappio
    at 3:43 pm on January 7, 2014

    It’s not clear to me whether Ms. Maazel actually means “degradation of our culture” when she writes “depredation of our culture,” though I rather suspect she does. If so, she confirms the maxim that every article or comment decrying errors in spelling, usage, grammar, or semantics itself contains an error in spelling, usage, grammar, or semantics.

  12. Chris
    at 5:43 pm on January 7, 2014

    For me, the worst offender right now is Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia. Their advertising slogan is:

    LIVE FEARLESS.

    In the words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up: http://www.ibx.com/htdocs/custom/advertising/2013.html

    With radio ads proclaiming the “Faces of Fearless,” all this is doing is teaching Philadelphians (who were never rocket scientists to start) that it is all right to sound like an ignorant nut.

  13. Nate
    at 6:24 pm on January 7, 2014

    @Cappio — Maazel isn’t decrying accidental typos. She’s decrying what she observes to be a systematic decline in communicative precision presenting itself with deplorable frequency. But you probably knew that.

  14. skiki
    at 6:48 pm on January 7, 2014

    I’ve learned to quash most of my rage about bad grammar or usage or spelling OR WHATEVER since typos are inevitable and so much of what is “right” is in fact arbitrary. Grammar, after all, is supposed to be descriptive, not prescriptive. Or so my linguistic anthropology classes would have us believe.

    However, aggressively bad copy-editing is a whole different animal. Movie titles that eschew hyphens, the Fatburger sign that is selling some item for “$5 dollars,” newspapers and blogs that don’t proof themselves, the Burger King ad you show above–that’s ad agencies telling us that the language they use isn’t worth their time to perfect, or it’s copywriters being paid to suck. And that’s just frigging offensive.

  15. Moe Murph (AKA "The Toast" Fan No. 1)
    at 6:55 pm on January 7, 2014

    Excellent synthesis (grammar, linguistics, and plain common sense)! Love your comment, Skiki!

    People who frequent the Millions site are word-people. Slovenly drafting would rightly be as irritating to them as badly poured beer to a great bartender or sloppy joints to a master carpenter.

  16. timble
    at 9:12 pm on January 7, 2014

    Depredation or degradation? Let’s compare!

    “Bad prose writing heralds the [plundering/ravaging of|attack on] our culture.”

    “Bad prose writing heralds the [contempt for|disrespect/humiliation of] our culture.”

    They both work!

  17. Erik
    at 10:17 pm on January 7, 2014

    Both “less” and “fewer” calories are wrong, but fewer is more wrong. Saying something has fewer (or less) calories is akin to saying it is fewer (less) degrees outside. The correct phrase would be less energy or less caloric.

  18. Erik
    at 11:13 pm on January 7, 2014

    Comma, quotation marks. Dammit.

  19. Mark Olague
    at 11:48 pm on January 7, 2014

    No two ways about it: grammar policing is class policing. I think it’s a bit paranoid the grammatical mistakes by corporations is an attempt to “institionalize” bad grammar. Much more agregious is the content of corporate messages–the corrosive deployment of euphemism to sell an unhealthy product. But please stop equating the correct use of SEV as an arbiter of intelligence. I have no patience for SNOOTS.

  20. Ross
    at 1:25 am on January 8, 2014

    I am awesome. I’m like Gary-mother-fuckin’-Oak.

  21. phil
    at 2:46 am on January 8, 2014

    “We are more discreet about our prejudices. In sum: we are different from the British.”
    As a british person who gets to observe the US via tv shows, film and reddit, I found that comment so ironic I laughed out loud.

  22. Alix Sharkey
    at 3:25 am on January 8, 2014

    This is a very enjoyable and well-argued piece. There’s just one sentence that I’d really disagree with, and that’s the contention that, “We don’t have a monarchy.”

    Ah, but you do. And a bigger monarchy than our own.

    American is governed by an ultra-wealthy elite — about one per cent of your population — that considers itself divinely appointed to run the country almost exclusively to its advantage. It doesn’t pay its fair share of taxes, and its wealth and privilege is handed down to its descendants, again without being fairly taxed, thus perpetuating this monstrous tyranny.

    The only difference is that the members of the British monarchy are not so hypocritical as to describe themselves as “Libertarians” or better still, “Republicans.”

    So yes, language really does influence thought, and corrupted language lends itself to propoganda.

  23. dig dug
    at 4:17 am on January 8, 2014

    Erik, I must disagree.

    In the same way that a yard consists of fewer inches than does a meter, a stalk of celery consists of fewer calories than a hamburger.

    No?

    As for degrees, well, compare two thermometers which show a discrepancy. Can’t one read 3 degrees fewer than the other?

  24. Billy Wood
    at 8:05 am on January 8, 2014

    I was surprised to see a grammar zealot use so many incomplete sentences in one short article!

  25. Sally
    at 9:06 am on January 8, 2014

    I was just about to point out the hypocrisy of a professional writer ranting about bad grammar while propagating the use of fragments, and then I came to the end of the comments and saw that Mr. Wood beat me to it.

    “Physician, heal thyself?”

  26. Joey
    at 9:37 am on January 8, 2014

    This isn’t a very good argument. The “different to” example, for one, is just an arbitrary style choice and its use isn’t a sign of imprecision. Saying ‘different than’ or ‘different from’ instead (besides sounding clunky to my British ears) would clarify nothing. The reluctant non-conformist’s dating profile is a little unclear, but that’s more due to his word choices: is he reluctant about not conforming, or is he a non-conformist who is also reluctant about other things?

  27. Maggie
    at 12:06 pm on January 8, 2014

    Stephen Fry’s contribution to the less vs. fewer debate:

  28. Andrew
    at 3:01 pm on January 8, 2014

    So, as others have, I won’t belabor the fact that all language is mutable and to rail about its mutability is futile, precious, and just a bit silly.
    But I think its worth noting that if the point is precision of word choice, the author has made a really horrible choice by conflating “England” and “the British Isles” together. In no sense does the one equate the other.

  29. BillG
    at 3:37 pm on January 8, 2014

    Here’s more fuel to add to the plea for good grammar.

    Language is the very method with which we structure our thinking. Sloppy grammar is indicative of sloppy THINKING.

    It’s as simple as that.

    There’s a *reason* why grammar was taught so strenuously in school. It was to foster better thinking processes. It’s no wonder so many sound so dumb, good grammar is considered a luxury rather than a necessity.

    And we are all the poorer for it.

  30. Eileen
    at 5:01 pm on January 8, 2014

    I try to hold myself to higher standards, but I have worked for supposedly qualified editors who employed “set” instead of “sit” and used “between you and I” rather than “between you and me.” It drove me nuts! I’m sure I’ve made mistakes but would prefer they were brought to my attention, especially in a professional setting. (Or sitting.)

    ; )

  31. Roger Bridgman
    at 11:38 am on January 9, 2014

    So “media that institutionalizes bad grammar” is right but “30% less calories” is wrong? Let’s call the whole thing off.
    Seriously though, the tendency of English to singularise* plurals is of long standing. Queen Victoria wrote “are there any news?” but “news” is now firmly singular. “Media” has become singular except to a few oldies like me. And “calories” is still plural although it is a measure of a continuous quantity, energy, and a clear candidate for becoming singular.
    On the other hand, I agree that anything other than “different from” jars horribly because we always says a “differs from” b, not “differs to” or “differs than”.
    But a lot of this stuff is a matter of dialect, and we wouldn’t want to suppress anyone’s native dialect, would we?

    *Posting from UK and preserving my native dialect.

  32. reddysteadygo
    at 1:15 am on January 10, 2014

    It’s hard for me to support this argument, especially when it has been taken to such extremes. Proper grammar and usage IS important, it should be taught and it should be stressed but living in a world where many people are still illiterate seems a much more urgent problem for me.

    I am just very afraid that if we take up arms for grammar then it will alienate and ostracize people who are not allowed access to resources or don’t have the luxury of good grammar.

  33. kate48045
    at 5:57 am on January 10, 2014

    I appreciated most of the points the author made in this article. I did not like the statement, “we are, I fear, dumber than the British.” It wasn’t necessary and actually, I think our 200 plus year old country, got its language from the British. We changed our spelling of certain words and “dumbed down” the language. Otherwise, I agree. I think we, in the United States, have lowered the bar considerably overall.

  34. Moe Murph (AKA "The Toast" Fan No. 1)
    at 11:28 am on January 10, 2014

    I have trouble understanding some of the reactions here to what is (at least to me) the accurate observation that proofing standards ( word usage, grammar, etc.) have been sliding for quite a while now. I think it’s more of a matter of greedy cost-cutting of editors and proofreaders than anything else.

    I think the knee-jerk name calling (snobby, elitist) and the referral to a whole separate problem (high illiteracy rates) are missing the point. One issue does not negate the other.

    I also think that the fear that this will “alienate and ostracize” those who “who are not allowed access to resources or don’t have the luxury of good grammar” is misplaced and patronizing. I happened to grow up in a loving working-class home with a strong “Boston” accent that could cut glass, sloppy diction, and a flamboyantly profane and slatternly manner of comporting myself. I made a decision to modulate my own accent and style when I moved to Washington DC (I loved languages and was blessed with a good ear) not because of any shame about my accent or “people”, but out of a decision that some modulation would make my spoken message easier to deliver to a diverse and multi-national audience. Many of these people did not speak English as a first language. I love my English, and love to study and know the correct word to use. Why is this drive “snooty?” I think it is a positive force.

    I’m especially irritated by the phrase “the luxury of good grammar.” While I believe the writer means well by this, why the heck is grammar a “luxury?” Is the stolid worker such a mute animal that he has no time for such frippery? Go back again to Orwell’s article! Any tool for effective communication can only help the worker. And remember the quotes of Emma Goldman. Workers need roses, not just bread. I won’t come to your Revolution if you won’t let me dance!

    Finally, I remember visiting Astoria in Queens during Christmas Week 2002. The streets were teaming with people come there from all over the world, from Ethiopia, Pakistan, Korea. I looked into the street-level children’s reading room of the public library and found it absolutely packed with people. When I went in, one of the librarians remarked that the children’s books were absolutely read to shreds, their pages thin at the edges from turning. She said these people crowd the reading room because “They want their children to learn.” Rather than dismiss grammar and usage as frippery and any discussion of it as dismissive of “the anonymous poor,” how about push for more library hours? How about volunteering with people “without resources?” Come on, Millions people, get to it!

    Moe Murph
    (Still Sometimes Slatternly But 59% Less/Fewer Profanities)

  35. Peni
    at 5:28 pm on January 10, 2014

    How bizarre! Here we have a “grammarian” bemoaning a silly rule for US English and Ms. Maazel doesn’t know that periods go inside the quotation marks in US English even when the period refers to the sentence overall, not the quotation! (Do a search on “prick” and “well educated” to find the problems.)

    If she really wants to get after bad writing, she needs to refer back to the ninth century and criticize that schlum of a writer, King Alfred the Great, who broke the fewer vs. less rule, probably because it wasn’t invented for another eight hundred years or so after he died.

    Also, why abbreviate “also known as” with small letters. Is it acceptable to not write “AKA” because nobody bothers to do so on Facebook? I don’t have a problem with it either way, but that’s just me….

    Finally, who in their right mind thinks that “too little vitamins” means vitamins that are too small? That’s an interpretation even more ungrammatical than King Alfred’s grammatical felony.

  36. Weekly Round-Up: Hibernation Edition
    at 8:02 pm on January 10, 2014

    […] 3. Novelist Fiona Maazel on the grammar of commercial language. […]

  37. Sage Thrasher
    at 1:29 pm on January 12, 2014

    Only 1 local supermarket has a lane for “12 items or fewer,” the all designate the lane for “12 items or less.” The worst part is nobody notices.

  38. akp
    at 2:05 pm on January 12, 2014

    Compound adjectives are only hyphenated before, not after, the nouns they modify.
    “The machine is well oiled.” but
    “It is a well-oiled machine.”
    “I am well educated.” but
    “She is a well-educated person.”

  39. Jeanne
    at 4:18 pm on January 12, 2014

    Correction to original essay, first paragraph: the word “media” is plural (singular is “medium”, so it will institutionalize, not institutionalizes.

    That aside, poor grammar and punctuation drive me crazy. My pet peeve is poor apostrophe use before an s suffix.

    I know a grade school teacher whose spelling and punctuation is poor and pronounces “jaguar” as “jagwire”. How can we expect much of the kids?

  40. C.V.
    at 12:15 am on January 13, 2014

    Today at work I saw a hand-written sign on the coffee maker that read “I know you here me in your dreams, but make sure to wait until the green light is on”.

  41. Shelley
    at 3:01 pm on January 14, 2014

    Grammar also makes you crazy because it makes you worry that you’re crazy to think about it. However, correct grammar is a happy club: I thought I was the only one who heard “different to teeth” and gritted my teeth every time.

    Grammar is community.

  42. Harriet Meadow
    at 9:11 am on January 15, 2014

    Jeanne, I volunteered in a public 8th grade English classroom for a little while, and I was astounded to find that the English teacher spelled grammar “grammer.”

  43. Ken
    at 8:58 am on January 16, 2014

    “Big Taste” instead of “Strong Flavor” may not be ungrammatical, but it’s bad English.

    Billy Wood, occasional incomplete sentences are perfectly acceptable in well-written prose. What grates is when you can tell the writer doesn’t know any better.

  44. Dave
    at 10:10 am on January 16, 2014

    Funny to me because the Ad Men usually have the best grasp of how our language is used in the living day. They don’t always stick to the rules because the language is always changing. Perhaps we should follow them. Ours is a living language. Efficiency over all.

  45. sam
    at 2:55 pm on January 18, 2014

    so the final paragraph finally attempts to arrive at what the problem is with bad grammar, and offers ‘little vitamins’ and ‘stronger to the storm’ as perniciously ambiguous phrases that will lead us to a more brain-dead society. so disappointing. nobody is concerned about the size of the vitamins in their dogs’ bowls, and ‘stronger to the storm’ seems to be an irrelevant extrapolation of what might happen, god FORBID, if british usage invades this side of the pond. please don’t use orwell’s work in vain.

  46. Against Grammar  | Full Stop
    at 5:01 am on January 30, 2014

    […] reading her most recent post on The Millions, I’d like to send Fiona Maazel to my Linguistics 101 class. Maazel has written two fantastic […]

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