Crimes against the English language

Driving into the city last week I passed a building which housed a kitchen renovation company. Biggest range!! said one sign. DIY or we instal! said another. Then there was the sign, in really big lettering, which they clearly felt was their greatest selling point.

I could picture the brainstorming that must have gone on for the creation of that slogan.

“How about we make it easy?” says the first advertising guy.

“Nah,” says the other one, “too simple.”

“Well, what about we make it simple then?”

“Hmmm. I’m not feeling it. We need something, I dunno, that combines ‘simple’ and ‘easy’.”

Deep thought for a moment.

“I know!” cries the first guy. “We simply make it easy!!”

“Better. It’s just … it’s just …”

We just make it easy?”

“I’ve got it! We just simply make it easy!!”

Talk about diluting your message. “We make it easy” isn’t the most original slogan but at least it has punch. “We just simply make it easy” – not so much. My editor’s soul was itching to rip the useless weasel words right out of there. Lucky I didn’t have a red pen with me, or who knows what might have happened.

It was a day for noticing signs. Further along the road was a branch of a shop that has me shaking my head every time I see it. I can’t decide whether the people who named it have no imagination or they’re deliberately making a very gross pun to make their shop memorable. Maybe there’s just something wrong with my imagination, and other people don’t start thinking about the wrong kind of stools the minute they see a perfectly innocent sign.

What do you think? Would you call your shop The Stool Shop? Even if you were selling stools?

Then there’s Baby Duck. He’s making great progress with his reading this year, but his spelling is still in that adorable phonetic stage little kids go through. His seems more extreme than I remember the girls’ being, though. Often I have to ask him to translate for me.

For instance, he wrote and illustrated a new story this week. The title was “A Gient Giniypig”. Easy enough with the picture of a King Kong-sized guinea pig standing on top of a building fighting off planes. But I needed help with the writing on the bottom of the front cover:

“oftld and ilstchidt dy [Baby Duck]”

Even with his name there I couldn’t pick it. Apparently it says “authored and illustrated by [Baby Duck]”. Silly me.

At Easter he gave me a present he’d made at school. There was a tag attached with my name written on it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a misspelling of “Marina” before. You spell it just like it sounds, and most people are familiar with it anyway from boat parking lots.

This is so cute I think I’ll laminate it and keep it forever as a bookmark. Every time I look at it it makes me smile.

Now I shall take off my editor hat and show you what I’m working on sewing-wise at the moment. Hey, it’s Wednesday, and I’ve always wanted to do a “Work-in-Progress Wednesday” post, but selections of my deathless prose from the interminable Man Bites Dog revision just don’t seem interesting enough.

Can you guess what it’s going to be?

How about now?

No? Hopefully next week I can show you the finished thing. I promised my quilting group I’d have it finished by our next meeting, so that will give me some motivation to get on with it. I’m also working on another sock monkey. I got a bit carried away with the stuffing, though, so he’s turning out to be a very chunky monkey. Baby Duck insists I give this one googly eyes, so he could also be a rather scary-looking monkey.

Or as Baby Duck would say, “a scerey looking muker”.

Beware crispation and distance creepage

I love the instruction manual for my laminator. I read it every time I use the laminator, because the expressions in it always make me smile. “In order to avoid crispation, please don’t insert the open side of the pouch into the laminator first”. “Crispation” is such an evocative word, it should be a real one. “Please re-laminate if the lamination is not very well for the first time”. After “accomplishment of lamination”, “book, file or other heavy things can make it more flat and good-looking”.

“As to the smutch on the covers of machine, please wipe them off by wet cloth.” “To avoid the danger of distance creepage, please don’t place the machine in wet conditions”. That last one’s got me. I wonder what they mean by “distance creepage”? I picture some poor guy sitting there with his Chinese-English dictionary scratching his head as he searches for the right word.

I take my hat off to him. His English is a hell of a lot better than my Chinese. I still find it amusing, though.

Picking the right word is often difficult, even in your native language. Roget would have been out of a job otherwise. I bet I’d be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time a writer agonised over a word choice. Creep or sneak? Blue or azure?

So many words mean almost the same thing – but not quite. If you call a talkative character garrulous you project a very different image than if you say they’re chatty. And is she a female or a girl, broad, sheila, gal, lady, chick or woman?

The nuances of word choice are a great tool for a writer. I’m still learning to adapt my word choices to my point of view character. Clearly a Harvard professor has a different vocabulary to a five-year-old, or an old lady or a migrant fruit-picker. In direct speech I’ve always tried to show such differences. But until a year ago or so my brain hadn’t quite cottoned on to the fact that the rest of the narration should also show these differences if I was really deeply in the character’s point of view. My general narration tended to sound like me.

You’d think with all the books I’ve read that this would have been a no-brainer, but no. Finally someone hit me with the clue stick, and it’s improved my writing, though it’s still something I have to work at. Particularly when the differences between characters are not so obvious as Harvard professor versus five-year-old. It’s a bit harder to show the differences between three career women of similar age, say, or a group of kids who go to the same school. Or, in my case, a group of blood mages. I keep trying, though, because those books where all the characters sound exactly the same annoy me, and I don’t want to write one myself!

Of course it’s easier if one or more characters has a distinctive way of speaking. Maybe I need a character who sounds like my laminator manual.

“Caution, when dragon is in nearness – avoid crispation!”

Slippery little suckers

Words can be such slippery little suckers. Tonight at dinner we were talking about the game MindTrap, which is an old favourite of ours. You play by answering questions using logic and deductive reasoning. I love the “lateral thinking” type ones, where you can ask questions to work out the answer to the puzzle. (You know, like the classic “Joe and Fred are lying dead on the floor, which is covered in broken glass and water. How did they die?” The answer: Joe and Fred are goldfish and their bowl has been smashed.) My beloved, not surprisingly for an accountant, likes the maths-based ones, most of which make my brain hurt.

The ducklings were curious so we got it out and read them some questions. One was:

“There are six ears of corn in a hollow tree. If a squirrel can take out three ears per day, how many days will it take to remove all the corn?”

Easy, huh?

Did you say “two days”? Yeah, me too. I knew there had to be a catch, but I never saw it coming. The correct answer is “six days”. The squirrel can only carry out “three ears” per day – but he already has two ears stuck on his head.

Slippery, all right.