…and when is a quote not a quote?

It’s been a while since I let pictures take the place of words, so here we go again with Copycam. It’s my occasional series on copy that’s caught my eye and addled my brain, captured with my trusty Nokia (still in my Top 40, by the way). First up is this, which I saw at Marks & Spencer: Found the mistake? Or should I say mistakes? First the glaring one: the apostrophe. It’s such a tiny little thing, but it causes endless confusion. The general rule is that it’s before the s if the word is singular, but after the s if it’s plural. So that gives us:
  • The boy’s coat.
  • The boys’ coats.
So far so good. The trouble arises when that boy grows up to become a man and is looking for something to wear in the evening. Irregular plurals are treated just like the singular. So you get:
  • The man’s coat.
  • The men’s coats.
So hats off (evening hats, of course) to M&S for effort. They got the general rule right, but in this specific instance, it’s wrong. And what’s more, wrong in 600 stores up and down the land. Oops. Still, at least they tried. Unlike Sainsbury’s, who opted for the maxim if in doubt, leave it out. This time, we’re talking 500 stores throughout the UK. It’s only an apostrophe, you might say. Does it really matter? Well yes and no. The meaning is clear, but the mistake still niggles. Small things suggest bigger things: if organisations don’t care about apostrophes, what else flies under their radar? It may not even be a conscious thought, but it affects people’s perceptions. And somebody somewhere will notice (especially here in Cambridge, where every other person you bump into has a PhD.) It’s an image thing. It’s a brand thing. It’s an attention-to-detail thing. And it’s something that’s worth getting right. Speaking of which, what else is wrong with the M&S example? Well first, eveningwear isn’t one word – it’s two. Whoever wrote it was thrown off-track by menswear, which (a) is one word and (b) doesn’t have an apostrophe. And the last thing that’s wrong isn’t related to grammar, spelling or punctuation. It’s the small print, which reads:
* Applies to products with mens’ eveningwear stickers only. Excludes cufflinks. Savings are applied to total price when items are purchased individually. Items in this promotion cannot be refunded or exchanged individually. All items must be refunded or exchanged together in order for a refund or exchange to be processed although you may be entitled to a refund on individual items in accordance with your legal rights.
Come again? Here’s what I got from this mumbo jumbo:
  • You have to buy these items individually to qualify.
  • But if you do, you can’t refund/exchange them.
  • Even if you don’t qualify for a refund/exchange, you probably do under law.
Oh dear. I feel a little bit grubby after reading that. I think I’ll head for the gents (note: no apostrophe) to freshen up.

Don’t quote me on that

If apostrophes bamboozle us, then quotation marks (also known as inverted commas) are double trouble. And recently, they’ve been proliferating. Again, the rule is simple. Quotation marks go around something that somebody actually said. It’s a quote (the clue’s in the name). Here’s an example:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
And another:
“I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Easy, isn’t it? And yet quotation marks are everywhere these days, often with entirely unintended consequences. A couple of weeks ago, I saw this in the window of a shop in Cambridge: Really? Who said that? The answer, of course, is nobody. The quotation marks are being used for emphasis – which is not what they’re intended for. For emphasis, we have bold, underline, italic or a combination of all three. Plus CAPITALS, colours and fonts. There’s no shortage of choice. Go ahead – knock yourself out. But save quotation marks for quotes. It could have been worse. Quotation marks are often used with sniper-like precision to home in on one particular word or phrase, which immediately makes you think of the opposite. “Now open!” So it’s not really open? It’s a joke? The door sticks? It’s not open when you think it is? It’s open but the entrance is elsewhere? The possibilities are endless, but all undermine the intended meaning. And this insincere, does-it/doesn’t-it quote is everywhere nowadays. Somebody’s even set up a website called The Blog of Unnecessary Quotes. Or to give it its proper title, The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotes. Hilarious examples include:
  • We value “you” as our special patient
  • “Deal” of the week
  • “Wet” paint
  • “Special” Mongolian beef $5.95
Check it out, and you’ll never, ever use quotation marks again without asking yourself whether you really need them. I “promise”.

The wheel of fortune

To add insult to injury, the bicycle shop was closed. It was 3pm on a Thursday afternoon, but the lights were off and the door locked. I checked the opening hours, and they were indeed supposed to be open. But instead, they were “open” (i.e. closed). Outside, several prospective customers peered into the gloom, saw the sign, and looked puzzled. And went elsewhere, probably never to return. Find out more: