The delightful delusion of shopping TV

I love shopping TV – I confess to the odd purchase or three, mainly to feed a hard-to-control paper crafting habit.  I can be easily persuaded that I cannot live a moment longer without the latest paper cutting gadget or the newest, fanciest embossing powder, and that I must rush to buy before stocks are exhausted.

What I love most about shopping TV however, is the way the concept of spending money on the purchase of a product is re-moulded into the seductive language of demand and delight, temptation and treat.

So just for fun, here are a few of my special shopping TV language favourites:

  • It isn’t cheap, it’s affordable
  • You aren’t buying, you’re investing
  • You aren’t spending money, you’re going for it. Woo hoo!!!
  • It isn’t absurdly expensive, it’s a considered purchase
  • It’s all about praise and reward:  Well done if you got yours!
  • Nearly ten percent of the stock has gone! Really, and that makes us all anxious, why?
  • It’s not tasteless and trashy, it’s making a statement
  • Spending running out of control? No, you’re adding to your collection
  • Why stop at one?  Buy two and give one away.  But why?
  • We can’t get it back in stock.  Then what, pray, are you doing in the selling game?
  • A set of six – great value. Not if I only want one, it isn’t
  • We’re giving you. . . No!  It’s not a gift. You’re spending your hard-earned cash money for real

More is More

As a professional copywriter, I’m often required to write to a word count to fit a defined space in a  web site, brochure or e-communication. I find the best approach is to write what feels necessary to convey the message and then sharpen and sharpen, finding more powerful words to replace flabby phrases, cutting out unnecessary ones and so on, until I arrive back at the designated word count.

I hear it’s not that different when editing your novel’s first draft. Some people say you should expect to cut at least 10% of your word count simply by eliminating superfluous adverbs, finding more concise phrasing and crossing through all the redundant and’s, but’s, that’s and was-ings. That’s never mind what you do to improve the narrative itself.

I look forward to it – mainly because it will feel like an amazing achievement simply to have reached the second-draft stage. For the time being, I’m still on my first draft. And here, encouraged by my esteemed mentor, the job is very different. ‘What else?’ she asks. What else? What can I ADD to enhance the scene, show another facet of my character’s state of mind, deepen the experience and immerse the reader more thoroughly in the time and place and space? ‘Stay here for longer,’ she says. ‘Let the reader into this scene,’ and ‘I want more of this’. I think, I must be doing something right – and that’s encouraging – but it’s not quite right enough.

It’s a challenge to this neophyte, would-be novelist, still flexing and connecting creative synapses and discovering what it means to move beyond fact and marketing-speak into storytelling and imagination. I’ve written WHAT ELSE? on a card and fixed it to my PC monitor. From now on, every scene, every piece of dialogue, every paragraph will get the question, WHAT ELSE? That is, until it comes time for the second draft massacre, when I guess the question will be what else can I delete. . . ?

Not-so-perfect tenses

Another month, another mentoring session.  This time, it was all about verb tenses – and the tension and immediacy they either deliver or dilute.

I last had to think about tenses a very long time ago, when I occupied a grainy and much carved-upon school desk. That was back in the day when, if you weren’t concentrating, the teacher could still get away with firing a blackboard rubber or a piece of chalk at your skull.  Even then, when called upon to ‘parse the following sentence’ I could rarely get beyond locating nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. Ask me which tense the sentence was written in, and with anything beyond simple present and simple past, my otherwise capable brain would throw its metaphorical hands in the air and surrender.

My mentor cast a spotlight on three tenses which weaken my narrative.    Until she showed me what I’d been doing, I hadn’t seen it.  In case you’re hobbled by the same grammatical blind-spot as I am, here they are:

Past perfect:

  • Examples – he had studied in London; she had waited for some time

Past continuous:

  • Examples – he was browsing the internet when I rang; she was waiting for me when I got off the plane

Past perfect continuous:

  • They had been chatting for several minutes before I arrived; he had been standing at the bar for the last hour when the police arrived

I’m not going to blather on about how and why each tense is used – there are numerous resources on the internet for that.  The point my mentor was making was that for my narrative to have the most impact, the reader has to be there for the action.  They don’t need to be held at arm’s length, or told what has happened backstage, as it were; they need to see the story unfolding in front of them.

Thus:

The girl’s hands were trembling becomes The girl’s hands trembled

Most of the guests had come down for dinner becomes One by one the guests came down for dinner

And what about this clunker:

Henry had hung back. Whilst everybody else had crowded the table, anxious to be in the centre of things, he had taken up a position on a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered himself a beer.

Modified only slightly, it has a more immediate feel:

Henry hung back.  Whilst everybody else crowded the table, anxious to be in the centre of things, he took up a position on a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered himself a beer. 

The impact that choice of tense has on a narrative seems obvious once it’s pointed  out; but I guess that’s what being a neophyte is about – and I love the learning.  Now the burden is on me to go back through my 45,000 or so words and make sure she doesn’t catch me out again.

It’s a struggle

I think it’s time for another linguistic grumble. I’m struggling to come to terms with…. the way this particular cliché sends me into orbit.  It’s lazy, unimaginative writing and it pops up all over newspapers and especially in news bulletins on the TV. On any given day, millions of people all over the world are struggling to come to terms with stuff.  Most of it is quite serious stuff – deaths, natural disasters, redundancies and other horrible crises and tragedies. They deserve better than to be bagged-and-tagged with this overblown and over-used phrase.

A dilemma

What do you do when a client corrects something you know is right and in doing so, makes it wrong?  Do you put it right, because it needs to be right to make them look good?  And if so, how do you do it without embarrassing your client?  Or do you leave it, because “the customer is always right”, even though they aren’t.

I tend to take a view.  If something is a whopping blooper, I re-correct it.  If it’s a spelling mistake, I re-correct it.  If it is some odd thing that’s more about being technically accurate than creating clear, understandable copy; if the copy is just as articulate and the error doesn’t stop the reader in his or her tracks, then I leave it.  Sometimes that goes against my perfectionist streak, but hey, that’s my problem.

The advent of social networking and text-speak has spearheaded a far greater informality in language and many of the more formal grammatical rules and structures seem to have become almost optional.  There’s a right way, but then there’s often another way or several other ways, which are just as clearly understood, even if they are grammatically less than perfect.  As time goes on, the alternative usages cease to be wrong and become tomorrow’s norm and since language is always on the move, why is there anything wrong with this?

Language today is less formal and more rapidly changing than at any time in the past. So, is the job of a humble copy writer to cling perilously to the vestiges of yesterday’s terminology and style, or acknowledge that change happens for a reason and it isn’t always bad and embrace the brave informal new world?

Agnostic? I don’t know

Since when has the word agnostic changed its meaning?

I write often for companies in the technology sector and you see this phrase everywhere these days: platform agnostic. It’s used to mean that it doesn’t matter which hardware or telephony platform you own, the solution in question will work with it. Go back a few years, and the accepted phrase was platform independent – used for software that is independent of any platform constraint, therefore can run on any platform.

Look up agnostic in the dictionary and you’ll see it means unknown or unknowable and  it relates specifically to the existence, or otherwise, of God. What  these misguided corporate marketers are actually saying, is we don’t know, not it doesn’t matter. And I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

So why reinvent the word agnostic to replace a perfectly acceptable term which everybody understood?

I found this article which describes the take-up of the term platform agnostic in recent years. It says what’s happened, but it doesn’t explain why. So I offer this as a thought; every marketer seeks to differentiate. Somewhere, a few years ago perhaps, in a shiny air-conditioned unit on a landscaped Silicon Valley campus, in a 6 foot square cubicle decorated with a thousand colourful giveaway gadgets, gismos and graphics designed to show what a quirky, creative individual the occupant is – a quirky, creative individual without a full grasp of the English language coined what he determined was a new and different way of describing an old and well established concept. His colleagues, none apparently in possession of an English dictionary, congratulated said quirky, creative individual on his quirky creation, and the phrase was launched on the techno-marketing universe.

And I don’t know, but somewhere, in a damp crypt in deepest rural England perhaps, an ancient scholar, a teacher of Latin, a lover of language, from the first or second century, turned silently in his grave.

The thing is…

….. is….. there is no second ‘is’. One ‘is’ is enough!

I’m a bit of a linguistic fusspot and there are one or two little clunkers that really get to me.  The thing is, is this is one of them…. the way people make a big thing out of the word ‘is’…. One ‘is’ really is enough! Unless, of course, we’re in the process of creating a new word….. thingis, as in: The thingis, is we’re mucking up our beautiful language, one little word at a time.

Now I’ve probably spoiled it for you. That little extra ‘is’ will be jumping out at you from every radio interview and TV vox-pop you encounter, from friends and family, colleagues and customers, maybe even from your own lips….

The thing is, it might just make a few people do away with that little surplus-to-requirements word.