by John Pellegrini
What exactly is communication? More to the point, what exactly is the role of language? To convey a message from one source to another in a form that is recognized by both. Well, it's the recognition part that we're going to deal with. From time to time, we've all heard the complaint about advertising: poor grammar, nearly illiterate writing, loaded with cliché, incorrect usage of nouns, verbs, etc..
The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language contains so many words that they now publish 20 volumes. Think about that. To get every word known in the English language, they have to publish 20 books from A to Z. That's nearly a full volume per letter! But why does most of the ad copy I get from agencies tend to use less than 100 of those words? Are we slowly turning ourselves into a nation of morons, not able to read or speak, such as some of our politicians would have us believe? In the words of that great communicator, Linda Lovelace, "it ain't the meat, it's the motion." What you say is only important as long as you're understood. Keep it simple, stupid is one of those favorite expressions around the copy writing offices. But, by the same token, how effective is your message if you say the same thing every single time?
Walk up to any person at your station and repeat the phrase, "save like never before" as many times as you can. By the 5th time, that person will have walked away. Keep after them. By the 10th time, they'll start screaming at you to shut up. By the 20th time, the courts will call it justifiable homicide. So why the hell do we keep using that phrase for every sale, and think that it's effective? Familiarity breeds contempt. Repetition breeds boredom and disinterest.
In his book, Rivithead, Ben Hamper describes the mind-killing daily grind and repetition on the assembly line at General Motors, and the insanity and anarchy that the dullness created. Think of your copywriting as an assembly line. Do you want to turn out Chevettes, or Corvettes? Do you want to turn out a long continuing series of little, dull, grey cars that look the same, or would you rather build customs, specially made to order, each one better than the previous? Unlike the guy on the assembly line, you have a choice as to what you want to make. If your answer is the custom stuff, then you may have a follow up question: how do I expand my vocabulary to accomplish this?
A few years ago, out of sheer boredom, I skipped through my copy of Roget's Thesaurus and pieced together the following. It is now framed in my office: ATTEND THIS CAVEAT! When Endeavoring To Confabulate To A More Potent Expedience, Recall Intelligible Vernacular, Syntax, And Jargon For The Salutary Dispositions Of The Auscultating Rank-and-file, Promulgation-wise.
Sure, it's cute, but it's incorrect. It's my attempt at saying, "If You Want To Be Understood By Everyone, Use A Language Everyone Can Understand." The thing is, my usage of these big words is in an incorrect manner.
Linguistics purists scream about grammar and proper usage. To some, a misplaced noun, verb, or incorrect use of structure is a cause for imprisonment. A gentleman was walking the grounds of Harvard when he approached an underclassman. "This is my first visit to this university," he explained. "Could you tell me where the library is at?" "Sir," the underclassman frowned, "this is Harvard. We do not end our sentences with prepositions." "I beg your pardon," replied the gentleman. "Allow me to correct myself. Could you tell me where the library is at, asshole?"
The rules of language are important, and a valuable tool, but like all rules they are made to be broken. If, for example, every single composer strictly adhered to the rules of music, then nothing would have been accomplished since Bach. Now there's a composer who is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.
Bach's music is perfection. He composed perfect fugues, sonatas, concertos, solos, quartets, toccatas.... Every possible form that was known in his time was his to master. But, any competent student of music theory will tell you that, in terms of innovation or style, Bach is certainly the most boring composer. He changed nothing. He broke no ground. Musically, Bach was a machine, grinding out one perfect repetitive formula after another.
Where do I stand on this question of form versus style? Should we break the rules of communication or order to gain enhancement and at the same time risk being misunderstood? Of course not. But, neither should we turn into a one-size-fits-all machine that keeps the same catalog of slogans. Rearrange and reword your slogans and catch phrases. And by all means, look for new sources of material and information.
Newspapers (big city ones like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune) are an excellent source of new phrases, terminology, and wordplay. Unfortunately, many newspapers tend to read like a coloring book. Time Magazine, Newsweek, and other weekly news or entertainment magazines always describe the newest catch-phrases and buzz words. The most fun I have is not only incorporating them in my writing, but also corrupting them, changing them, and even parodying them. "That's slicker than two eels f***ing in a bucket of snot." Sure, you can't use that in advertising or anywhere in the broadcast media, but allowing the freedom and the silliness to come up with a line like that lets you discover others that you can. Puns, word games, anagrams, palindromes, even pig Latin can all be used effectively as new sources of creativity. Go to your public library and look up reference books on language skills and wordplay. Ask the librarian to suggest texts, because not all books on language will contain this type of information. Tell the librarian that you are interested in books that deal with the creative use of language.
Many distinguished editors and writers have contributed volumes on language, its uses and misuses -- George Bernard Shaw, H.L. Menken, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, Edwin Newman, to name but five. Their works are still widely available. To see just how expanded and exaggerated your descriptions can become, try reading some of the comic essays by S.J. Perelman.
I'll close this article with a quote from Cecil Adams, who was once asked to supply in his column, The Straight Dope, a list of two letter words for scrabble players. His reply: "Oh, me no do it. If so, it do me in."