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Cures for sick syntax

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  May 2, 2007 07:32 PM

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Though I'm occasionally willing to poke fun at ad language, I'm not really annoyed by the slogans that purposely take liberties with "proper" usage. From "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" to "Think different," taglines have always been formulated to get our attention, by fair means or foul.

But language accidents are a different story. How does an obvious blooper make its way into a giant company's print ad, an ad that is surely rewritten, designed, tested, and proofread for months, at vast expense? Right now I'm wondering about a splashy Merck newspaper ad that urges people over 60 to hotfoot it to the doctor's office for a shot of the company's new shingles vaccine. Among the bold red reasons:

The older you get, your risk for Shingles increases.

We'll give them the silly capital S; the writers want to make shingles look scarier and, perhaps, to distinguish the disease from the roofing material. But can there be one native speaker of English, either at Merck or its ad agency, who thinks that is normal English syntax? One who would say to a co-worker, for instance, "The more I write, my grasp of grammar declines"?

Well, maybe there is -- the construction is common enough on the Web -- but there shouldn't be. This is not one of those linguistic tight spots where "correct" grammar sounds overformal ("Whom do you trust?") or wordy ("Each patient should ask his or her doctor"). Some casual yet correct alternatives come to mind:

The older you get, the more you're at risk for shingles. (This one actually appears on the Merck website.)

The older you get, the higher your risk of shingles.

As you get older, your risk of shingles increases.

The risk of shingles increases with age.

Older adults are more at risk for shingles.

"Ask about the facts," the ad concludes. OK, I'm asking: who signed off on this sad excuse for a sentence?

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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