December 10, 2008

The Truth About Seuss

In the world of classic children's literature, Dr. Seuss holds an elevated position, but some parents disapprove of his habit of making up words—wumbus, yuzz and diffendoofer, for starters. These critics argue that children's books should teach English, not nonsense, and they worry that their children will have difficulty distinguishing invented words from real vocabulary.

But the made-up words are much of the point. Even if it doesn't build SAT vocabulary, Dr. Seuss's nonsense verse helps teach children to focus on English sentence structures, pronunciation and rhythms. Ultimately, kids will figure out that oak trees exist and truffula trees don't. Some words, like nerd and grinch, have even leaped from Dr. Seuss's imagination into common usage and dictionaries. Not all non-standard English is substandard.

November 6, 2008

Numbered Days

Earlier this year, the clothing retailer Gap issued a limited collection of T-shirts designed by contemporary artists. The contribution of one Rirkrit Tiravanija (pictured in the middle) contains only the bleak, boldly printed sentiment: "The Days of This Society Is Numbered."

The sentence should be: "The Days of This Society Are Numbered." Days is the grammatical subject of the sentence. Since it's plural, it should take the verb are.

Was this error intentional? One message-board commenter insisted the shirt is meant as a joke, huffily adding, "We have reached a stage where irony no longer is possible. We have become that illiterate. The shirt is a last gasp of literacy."

The Awkward Adverb doesn't agree with this nonsense. Although we believe sloppy language degrades communication and hence society, not many others seem to share this conviction. (Just look at examples from our past issues for proof.) As Tiravanija is Thai, the error is most likely an understandable mistake by a non-native speaker and not an ironic critique of culture. For society's days that remain, Gap should employ a T-shirt proofreader.

October 5, 2008

New or Improved

"New and Improved!"—one of the most overused advertising claims, is so commonplace that it's easy to overlook the phrase's internal contradictions. By definition, only something that is already in existence can be made better. In other words, if a product is truly new, it can't be improved. Choose one or the other. You can't have both.

Sure, a product can have new improvements (the improvements of this year compared to the old improvements of last year, for example), but that's splitting hairs. Aside from to the logical contradiction it creates, the phrase's ubiquity has made it meaningless. Basically, no one believes it anymore. Let all companies banish it from their packaging. "New and Improved" is old and obsolete.