Sunday, July 11, 2004

Carb Wild


The food industry and advertising writers are on the national band wagon with lower carbohydrate foods. Since that often means less sugar, it’s really a good thing.

But, most important to our minds now is that the advertising writers still need a dose of English grammar in their writing.

Years ago, there was an advertisement for Winston cigarettes stating that “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” Now most intelligent people knew that “like” was the wrong word, “as” being the correct one. And in later Winston commercials, there was an actor playing a college professor who corrected the jingle language as part of a commercial. I suppose the controversy gave the original commercials added life and product name recognition, and that's what an ad should do. I just think a similar result could have been attained with imaginative correct English. And anyway, most of us now wish that past cigarette advertising hadn't been so effective.

I don’t mean to single out Winston; it’s past commercials are just examples of the pervading poor grammar in advertising. “Damn the grammarians! Full ads ahead!” These words may not have been said, but the writers certainly embraced the concept. They have always been more interested in catchy phrases than in proper English grammar.

“Take Beano before, and there’ll be no gas.” The ad copy is correct, but the speaker on TV elides over the “r” in “there’ll” to make it sound like “they’ll.” The pronunciation isn’t correct, but apparently the powers-that-be believe it sounds better in the ad.

I remember a recent beauty product ad with the background of a released song. It’s also used in a restaurant ad. What I’ve heard is "I believe in mail call!" Only later, was I told the singer was saying "I believe in miracles.!" Every time I hear that commercial, I hear "mail call" and not "miracles." And this is so even after I was told the correct word.

Now, a perennial mistake in commercials is to parrot language incorrectly used in the mainstream---usually to shy away from being called sexist. The word “they” is not singular. When you’re referring to one person you should use he, she, it, one, etc.---and not “they.”-

In the past, the singular pronoun “he” was generally used to denote an unknown or undefined person. That’s no longer the case. Now people lazily and incorrectly use the plural pronoun “they.” Of course, simply rephrasing the sentence can generally avoid the problem, but apparently that’s too much work.

“Yes, your child is at risk. They will be….” “They” is simply wrong. A better phrase could be: “Yes, your children are at risk.. They will be…” See how easy that was. And the meaning remains true to the original idea. I mean, how many only children are there in American families anyway? The constant misuse of “they” really grates in my ears.

“Kevin Harvick’s pit crew trust one brand of battery…” says the announcer in a commercial. Of course, in the rush to misuse the parts of speech, there is no correlation between the singular subject and plural verb. “Crew” is a catchall word, like class, team, gang etc. It demands a singular verb. “Pit crew…trusts…” Just think about how it sounds.

Now to carbs. “Less carbs” may sound good at first, but it is wrong, and I think the writers should know it.

“Less” is a word that is applied to things that are measured by amount, and not by size, quality, or number: less butter; less courage; less flavor… These are “mass” nouns, in that you can’t really define or count their values easily. In the past, we used the word “fungible,” in that one part of the mass noun could be replaced by another with no problem. One wheat berry is the same as another in “grain.” One gallon of oil is pretty much the same as the next, and we count them in barrels of 55 gallons each. And in most cases, we don’t normally count the individual units, preferring the larger mass noun of “grain” or “oil,” counted in different forms such as bushels, barrels, or tons.

“Fewer” on the other hand, is used before a plural noun, such as cars, books, reasons, etc. These can normally be individually counted.

Thus you can have “less tonnage,” but “fewer tons;” “less shipping,” but “fewer ships;” “less oil,” but “fewer barrels;” “less manpower,” but fewer men;” “less fat,” but “fewer carbs.”

Don’t get me wrong. Some advertising writers do use correct grammar. My favorite salad dressing states it has “60% less fat, 50% fewer calories.” See, it isn’t hard to be correct.

I certainly don’t expect advertisers to suddenly sprout grammarian wings or the actors to speak with perfect diction, but it seems to me that a better handle on the English language in advertising could actually improve a message’s understanding. In that case, the listener doesn’t have to question his or her ears. A message in simple, everyday, correct English could reach the listener more quickly and effectively.

The English language is one of America’s unifying factors. When we all use it correctly, there can be less misunderstanding (or fewer misunderstandings) among (not between) our fellow citizens.

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