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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[May 25, 2004]

Dot Commentary

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Editorial Director, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions™

Banning Bad Marketing-Speak

Did you know that William Shakespeare may have coined the word “advertising”? If it’s true, it makes for lovely irony in that I’m about to lambaste the marketing and advertising community for, among other things, inventing words.

What I plan to do is point out my five personal deadly sins in the misuse of the English language by the marketing and advertising community. Before I begin, however, let me point out that I do understand that, just as Shakespeare took liberties with history for the sake of art, it’s often necessary for marketers to take license with the English language for the sake of creative marketing. I don’t mind incomplete sentences or cleverly invented words. I’m not a big fan of poet e. e. cummings and his annoying lack of capital letters, but I do realize that many people value his artistry as a poet.

That settled, let’s move on to the sins that result from failure to use a dictionary, a lack of proofreading or not putting an iota of creative thought into the marketing process.

1. “Impactful” isn’t a real word.
It just isn’t…look in any dictionary you like. (In fact, many true grammarians don’t even like “impact” being used as a verb, particularly a transitive verb; i.e., “impacting.”) I first realized how rampant the use of this cringe-worthy pseudo-word was when I heard a car company use it in a television commercial. I’ve always wondered whether such a vocabulary error occurs because the advertising agency in question a) didn’t bother to check whether it’s a word; or b) don’t care that it’s not a word.

Getting back to the topic of the Great Bard, I do realize that the supremely literate William Shakespeare was one of the most flagrant practitioners of word invention (1,700 by some counts). Some of the words which were never seen in usage before Shakespeare began writing them include “amazement,” “hurried,” “obscene,” “eyeball,” “compromise” and “fashionable.” He coined some of the many phrases we use today, including “without rhyme or reason,” “vanished into thin air,” “too much of a good thing” and “the long and short of it,” to name a very few.

Shakespeare’s inventions were creative and artistic. “Impactful,” were it a word, sounds like it should refer to some horrible and uncomfortable inflammatory medical condition involving the wisdom teeth or the bowels.

2. It’s a travesty how often “its” gets used in its incorrect form, isn’t it?
Let me broaden the specifics of this peeve to point out the rampant disease that is the random incorrect use of apostrophes, present where they should not be, and missing from where they should be. I recently met some friends in a swanky restaurant’s cocktail lounge for a special green apple martini (the best in South Norwalk). I picked up the bar’s martini menu, printed and embossed on hideously expensive paper, and tucked into a pricey leather folder. There, in an elegant type font, at the top of a list of exotic drinks, was the word “Martini’s,” in all its possessive form glory.

The martini’s what? Alcohol content? The martini’s ability to make unattractive bar patrons appear to resemble Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie after two hours? The martini’s lovely green color? What concerned me most, however, was the martini’s $10 price tag. I’m sorry, but if I’m going to spend $10 on three ounces of liquid, is it too much to ask that someone proofread the drinks menu before it’s printed?

3. random Capitalization Annoys the Hell out of Many people.
English-speakers capitalize the first word in every sentence, and proper nouns. Germans capitalize all nouns. Advertisers capitalize the Words they Feel like Capitalizing. There’s a rule here: either keep it sentence style (just an initial capital letter on the first word in the sentence), or capitalize them all, as in: “We Offer The Best Bargains On Used Dentures In Town, See If We Don’t.” That way, you won’t make people who care about such things twitch.

4. Stop thinking outside the box and please just throw the box away.
It’s ironic that a phrase meant to imply individuality and creativity has become so trite and hackneyed. Every time a company tells me “We think outside the box,” I’m tempted to scream, “Then demonstrate it by ceasing to use that stupid, worn-out phrase!” I’m often reminded of the scene in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which a large crowd chants, in unison, “Yes! We are all individuals!” Immediately afterwards, one lonely voice in the back pipes up, “I’m not!”

While we’re on it, can we please dispense also with “best of breed,” “eating our own dog food,” the “sweet spot” and “comparing apples to oranges”? Apples and oranges are both fruit. Instead, try comparing tea pots to Bulgarian meter maids.

I was amused to notice, a few years ago, that there exists an office game called “Bullshit Bingo.” Players (employees) receive cards that are printed with certain phrases set up in bingo format. During a meeting, players listen for and mark off the overused words and phrases on their game cards. They include such chestnuts as “win-win situation,” “results-driven,” “24/7,” “value-added,” “touch base” and “game plan.” The first player to mark off five in a row either horizontally, vertically or diagonally jumps up yells “Bullshit!”

5. Please stop with all the exclamation points.
When someone tells me something calmly, I’m likely to listen. When someone screams information at me, I’m likely to a) call the police; b) wonder what I did to annoy that person; or c) assume that my mountain climbing adventure is about to go horribly wrong. Humans are naturally suspicious by nature. If you tell them something is FREE!!!!, they’ll know it’s not. If, on the other hand, you tell them it’s free, they might believe you.

These are my top five rules. Are you thinking, “No one else cares about grammar. She’s just a picky editor?” Check out the current New York Times Bestseller List (www.nytimes.com/pages/books/bestseller/), and you’ll find a quirky little book by a British author about today’s annoying abuses of the English language. The book is called “Eats, Shoots & Leaves (it takes its play-on-commas title from a joke about a hungry, angry panda going into a bar.) The book currently holds the number two position in the hardcover non-fiction category.

I assure you, your high school English teacher and I didn’t buy all those copies of the book.

The author may be contacted at [email protected].

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