Monday, 7 January 2013

Bad Language: Picking Punctuation Nits in the M&S Café

This is odd, isn't it?

It's unusual to see dashes used on signs in general; but here we have one hanging off the end of a compound noun to introduce a list.

This sign is almost entirely wrong in terms of punctuation and grammar, but let's start with what's right – which is very rarely right in such instances, or ever, nowadays – at least the dash isn't a hyphen.

Now before you get on your high horse and say I've done the same thing just there; I haven't. Those are en-dashes. I copied them from Wikipedia. That's how I roll. (Slowly.)

Yes, I spent most of my time in my only ever full-time corporate copywriting gig trying to prevent people from using free-standing hyphens, and encouraging them to copy-and-paste laboriously from Wikipedia or learn alt-codes. And I spent the rest of the time making tea. Because these are fights worth fighting and nobody else will fight them. Everyone else can have poverty, world hunger and child-abusing African warlords; I'll have free-standing hyphens. Now I'm unemployed freelance I do the same in my spare time.

Okay, now to what's wrong with it. First up: that's a freakin' em-dash. I know an em-dash when I see one. They're all the more conspicuous for almost never being seen outside eighteenth century novels; so, yep: that's definitely one.

But why?

An en-dash would suffice here. Much as the en-dash's bigger (or at least fatter) brother is a pleasing sight in print, the en-dash is really the only dash you can get away with in web use, ad copy or sign-writing. That dash, partly on account of its width, is as likely to introduce itself to the brain as a (pretty negative) mathematical symbol as a bit of punctuation introducing a list.

Also, em-dashes traditionally have no gaps on either side. This is one of the other reasons they rarely introduce clauses in the way en-dashes have done increasingly since the days of modernism, Joyce, Woolf, stream-of-consciousness, evenings spread out against skies like etherized patients, etc. I just checked that poem actually, and Eliot used em-dashes. Bit of trivia for you there. And a bit of a slap in the face for the point I was just making.

Either way, M&S ain't no T. S. Eliot and that em-dash needs to go on a diet or sidle up to the word "coffee" pronto.

Actually, no: it needs to bugger off entirely. Because you can't use a dash to introduce a list. Even if you can, you certainly shouldn't; that's what colons are for.

And while we're on the subject of lists, that list of items ain't too clever either. Aside from the indiscriminate capitalization (another 18th century quirk that's also occasionally used by US hip hop artists on Twitter for some reason, I've noticed), that list is punctuationally defunct. You need either bullet points, semicolons, or to put an "and" between the last two items out of the three. You can have the comma or not. You decide. Depends how much you like Oxford, I guess.

The final thing that annoys me about this inane piece of coffee-themed puffery on the M&S café wall in Haverfordwest that I have to stare at every time I drink my Chai latte while the baby stuffs ham sandwiches into its mouth or actually don't really have to stare at but seem to find that I usually end up staring at anyway is that "peace of mind" is a noun, while both the other listed virtues are adjectives.

If you ever write a list of three things (or any other number) and you're puzzling over it for hours and it still seems shit even though you've listed all the qualities (or defects) you meant to and you've no idea why and you're making a "duuuuuuh" sound and drooling a bit, I can guarantee you 100% of the time it's because the different listed items are different speech parts and do not therefore sit comfortably side-by-side in this manner.

You might say that by going adjective, adjective, compound noun there's a certain kind of adspeak copywritten poetry at work here. You might say that, but you'd be bang wrong.

And who even puts a full stop on a wall? After a 10-word non-sentence? And then not on other bits of wall where they've written stuff?

Whoever wrote this. (Or should that be "whomever"?)

As a closing note, the lack of punctuation in the below farewell incorrectly identifies the visited article as an uncapitalized noun (whether a place or person nobody knows) whose name is "see you again soon".

I'm pretty sure this is not what was meant; and you may think I'm being picky, but I think that if you're a corporate entity – as opposed to say just some dude writing an email, or a memo, or a pornographic missive on a public-toilet wall – then you ought to write your messages properly or else you may as well just poo in your hand and smear "BUY STUFF" on the glass panes of the sliding doors at the entrance to your shop.

Why even shell out on paint if your budget won't stretch to an education?

Or a copywriter?

Yours, invigorated,

A (but not The) Velky.


  1. If you want to be even more pedantic. You should never capitalise a word after a number. You wouldn’t write on a Family Fortunes question card: ‘we asked 100 People what grammar point they like best.’ You would write: ‘we asked 100 people how irrelevant their lives were.'

    Comme ca:

    Our coffee-
    100% organic
    100% fair-trade
    100% peace of mind

    …but it doesn’t look as good, does it?

    Our coffee-
    100% Organic
    100% Fair-trade
    100% Peace of mind

    PS. I think Nixon is copying you…

    PSS. I have time on my hands too.

  2. I did touch upon the "indiscriminate capitalization", and personally I think it looks better lowercase, but perhaps that's only because I - like you - know that there's no discernible reason for it to be upper.

    To be fair to Dave, he's been moaning about other people's copywriting for just as long as I have. We really are a bunch of saddos aren't we?

  3. Hey, hey, we're professionals who take our work seriously and care about getting things right. I get annoyed by mistakes, as much about my own as anybody else's, and when I f-up, which I do far too often, alas, I try to at least learn by it and never make the same mistake again.

    M&S, however, are just really appalling at copy checking and they never learn. You'd think they'd get better, but they don't. My favourite was when they were advertising the cost of their school uniforms and stated "£6.49 - that's the true value of M&S". I should've got on the phone to a stockbroker, if that's how much the company was going for at the time, I could've made a mint.