2011-12-06 by . 7 comments

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I have a confession to make: I’m really a prescriptivist at heart. I have an idea in my head of how the English language ought to be used, and deviations from that ideal bother me. They especially bother me when I have to listen to them on a daily basis, courtesy of television commercials.

For example, one of my first questions on ELU was about the laundry detergent commercial tagline of “Style is an option. Clean is not.” As I noted, while it’s obvious what they meant, it’s also not quite what they said — if clean is out of the question, then why would anyone ever use this detergent? It would be such a simple fix, too: just replace “an option” with “optional”, and you’d have an unambiguous and grammatically correct tagline.

Another recent violator is the luxury car commercial that ends with (for example) “More power, more style, more technology, less doors”. (The list of more adjectives changes with different versions of the advertisement.) Every time that ad plays, I swear I can hear the collective moan of pain from English teachers and grammar nerds across the country. Again, the fix would be simple: fewer would contrast with more  just as well as less does,  with the added advantage of not hurting the ears of potential customers.

But oddly enough, other misuses of language don’t bother me. For example, the economy car ad tagline “unbig, uncar” elicits a grin, not a groan. I was wondering why this is, and I think I’ve hit on something: “unbig, uncar” doesn’t have an easy correction that would get the same idea across using more conventional grammar. “Small, not a car” just doesn’t have the same impact. So it’s obvious that this slogan is deliberately ungrammatical.

It turns out that even for a prescriptivist, a mistake made on purpose isn’t a mistake at all. (Warning: black hole, ahem, sorry, tv tropes link.)

Filed under Grammar


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  • hippietrail says:

    I would say not just deliberately ungrammatical but wordplay, and everybody loves wordplay, even prescriptivists. You can make poetry out of wordplay.

  • FX says:

    How about “five items or less”? Here a rather well made (and well known) argument against prescriptivism: (Language, Stephen Fry)

  • JPmiaou says:

    One that bugs me every time: “funding was made possible by…” Either you’re providing the funding, or you’re making the show possible. I don’t know when or why they started using this conflated version, but it’s everywhere on PBS now. Grrr.

  • Debby says:

    Love your insight about the laundry detergent commercial, but the lack of alignment between “style” (noun) and “clean” (adjective) also irritates me. I can understand that the slogan writers may have wanted both words to have a single syllable for crispness and punch, but I would have preferred “Style is optional. Cleanliness is not.”

  • Ben Lee says:

    To me it seems that “More power, more style, more technology, less doors” is also deliberate word-play. I’d wager they wanted it to be a bit incongruous for comic effect. That strikes me as an interesting and memorable tagline, where as if it said “fewer doors” it would barely strike me as a tagline at all, much less an interesting one.

    Also, “Style is an option. Clean is not.” isn’t even doing anything prescriptively incorrect. You are completely ignoring certain well-attested uses of the word “option” that make this statement completely correct.

    Of course, I am a descriptivist at heart, and even instances of language usage that are clearly incorrect, while I can identify them, don’t usually bother me.

    • I completely agree Ben – communication is EVERYTHING…

      Except when it comes to “different to…”!!!! It’s “different FROM…” people!

  • Interesting article but the biggest gripe I’d have with that particular tagline is the lack consistency between the two sentences.

    Why use the noun “style” and then follow it up with the adjective “clean”. Surely it should be “cleanliness”?? Ahhhhh, much better!!!

    Very interesting blog – I’ll definitely be coming back!

    EDIT: Ohhh, I’ve just read the comments above and I saw Debby’s – I couldn’t agree more Debby! 😉

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