Thursday, January 1, 2009

Who's To Blame?

The first installment of Crotchets has to explore the issue of responsibility, or perhaps culpability. Language errors abound in material of all sorts: advertisements in magazines and on TV; menus in restaurants exclusive and chain; newsletters put out by sole proprietors and multitudinous organizations; labels on products from peanuts to Playstations. The question is not just who writes this stuff and makes the errors that make me flinch. No, the question I find myself asking again and again is who gives this stuff the thumbs-up.

How many hands does a piece of copy go through before it's actually printed up and distributed to the public? A major manufacturer devises an ad campaign, or a big retail chain plans a sale event. (Not a sale; a sale event. But I digress.) No doubt an advertising agency or PR firm is involved, is given the task of writing copy and creating images that will please and entice. Perhaps the creative team has a team leader, who no doubt reports to a project manager, who himself answers to a director as well as to the client. Surely the client is given multiple opportunities to see and critique both copy and images, and surely the approval process involves multiple levels, from specific manager to VP for promotion, or whatever her title might be. At least two to four and probably as many as 10 to 20 people look at the material before it is finally approved and sent off for publication. It becomes clear that the responsibility for a stupid error lies on more shoulders than just the perpetrator's.

A culling of recent ads will illustrate my point. In the first sentence of its full-page, four-color ad in a glossy magazine for the Leeds Castle Collection of elegant furniture, Laneventure claims "The mere mention of the word castle congers up images of Henry VIII." Unfortunately, the word congers spoils those images entirely and instead conjures up a picture of writhing eels. It's bad enough that the person who wrote it went with phonetics and didn't bother to check a dictionary. But not a single person involved in the creation of this ad recognized that conjures had been laughably misspelled?? There is a second, less obvious error involving punctuation later in the ad, but the first error has already made me question the quality of the furnishings.

Let's move on to a sale catalog produced by Pier 1 Imports, a catalog presumably mailed out by the millions across the country. There are a few routine errors in punctuation and usage, and then on page 10 we are invited to "marvel at an amazing fete of pricing." Now, I could understand confusion between feet and feat, which are at least pronounced alike (understand, but not forgive). But fete is of French origin and is given the French pronunciation. (There should be a circumflex over the first e, but that's a different problem.) I doubt very much the writer intended a pun, with fete given its actual meaning of festival or party; "a festival of pricing" isn't wordplay of any kind, not even a bad pun. Clearly the writer realized that feet was not correct and could not plumb the dim recesses of memory deeply enough to come up with feat, settling for a simple transposition that would, he assumed, rhyme with Pete, not with pet. This is another example of phonetic spelling without a dictionary check. And again I have to ask: How did this idiotic error escape the notice of everyone responsible for the creation of this catalog?

Please don't tell me someone noticed but didn't speak up, didn't think it was important enough to correct. Please don't tell me politics made it imprudent to point out the error. And please don't tell me no one bothered to actually read the copy once it had been written. I would have to hang my head and heave a sigh so deep it would reach my toes. Ignorance is bad. Indifference is worse.

It's important to note that neither of these examples is the work of uneducated people, or even your average Joe. This is the work of people who are paid to write and should be judged against the highest standards for that reason. Dictionaries and style manuals should be at their elbow and in daily use.

Finally, we have an ad for a small business that appeared in a local advertising publication. At the top of this full-page ad for a health club, in 20-point letters, appears "Give you family the gift of fitness." This wince-inducing error has nothing to do with confusion between homophones or uncertainty about pronoun case. This is an out-and-out mistake, a typo, in letters so big nobody actually looked at them. It's a shame, too, because there isn't a single error in spelling, punctuation, or grammar anywhere else in this ad. The unit modifier "24-hour" is correctly hyphenated; the possessive, both singular and plural, has been used correctly in the information about "Frederick's first kids' fitness center," which is exceedingly rare and even praiseworthy. However, there is a second error. In the map at the bottom showing how to get to this health club, the circled number indicating Route 355 has been confusingly truncated to 35, more evidence of failure to proofread.

No fair blaming the printer or typesetter. As they say in the printing business, "Follow your copy even if it goes out the window." It isn't the printer's job to point out errors; I bet printers get a lot of blank stares or angry glares if they try that. Even if the copy was correct and the typo was the printer's error, it's still the job of those paying for the ad to proofread it before approving it for publication, which obviously didn't happen.

Let us note that none of these risible mistakes would have been questioned by a spelling check program; congers, fete, and you are all correctly spelled (although fete is, to my eye, orthographically incomplete). They are simply not correct in their contexts. It frightens me to think that not one of the people responsible for them knew that, or noticed, or cared.

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