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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.
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