Subbing the world

Righting copywriting wrongs, one word at a time

Not the world’s greatest offer

Barratts offer sticker

Passing Barratts in the Westfield Centre yesterday, I spotted this poorly worded sticker.

It doesn’t sound all that amazing, really: two shoes would appear to be, to quote one of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s finest moments, ‘the minimum requirement’.

But at least that’s an excuse to remind us all of some truly masterful writing, here performed live at some indeterminate point in the Seventies:


Filed under: Confusing

And the prize for Most Bizarre And Misplaced Dirty Harry Reference goes to…

"Go ahead, make their day"

…my local Esso garage. Quite how you get from Clint Eastwood blowing away a gang of stick-up men in Sudden Impact to the impulse purchase of a cheap bouquet is rather beyond me.

(Don’t you also love the weasliness of ‘make their day’? Some bright spark in a meeting somewhere said, ‘Isn’t “her” a bit limiting? And possibly sexist?’)

Filed under: Confusing

Sleeping comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Coleman sleeping bag label

Not content with upsetting celebrity food writers via this blog, reader Stephen Green (of Greenfisher) has sent me this label from the Coleman sleeping bag his wife bought recently.

If you can’t read the notes on the label, Stephen’s kindly supplied a transcript:

The temperature ratings of our sleeping bags are based on tests which comply to the temperature rating protocols of the European Standard (EN 13537-4.3.3 Manikin* Methodology only).

The definitions, provided according to the European Standard, are:

Comfort: Lower limit of comfort range down to which a sleeping bag used with a relaxed posture, such as lying on the back, is globally in thermal equilibrium and just not feeling cold. Related to a standard woman and in standard conditions of use.

Limit: Lower limit at which a sleeping bag user with a rolled-up body posture is globally in thermal equilibrium and just not feeling cold. Related to a standard man and in standard conditions of use.

Extreme: Lower extreme temperature where the risks of health damage by hypothermia occurs. Related to a standard woman and in standard conditions of use.

Coleman® suggests to follow the “Comfort” temperature.

*Note: during the tests, the manikin is dressed with jacket, trousers and long socks, lying on an insulating mattress – sleeping bag fully closed.

So that’s all clear then. As long as you’re a ‘standard man’ or a ‘standard woman’, of course. Or possibly a ‘manikin.’

Filed under: Confusing, Contributions, Jargon, microcopy, Verbiage

So that’s where all the money comes from

Natwest ATM message

Spotted at a NatWest cash machine on my way in to London this morning.

Filed under: Confusing, microcopy

Organic, free-range tautology

Tesco: recommended for use in recipe dishes

Spotted this at the weekend. Can anyone explain what a ‘recipe dish’ is? How many dishes are recipe-free, exactly?

More to the point, why bother even printing something so utterly vapid and pointless? How does this line help me in any way at all? (Apart from giving me something to blog about, of course.)

As ever, I’m conscious that numerous people wrote, designed, managed, approved and printed this label before it fell beneath my cynical eye. What did any of them think was being said here?

Sidebar: why capitalise ‘pork’? Capitalise ‘pork’ and ‘mince’, or neither. But not one or the other.

That’s serious nit-picking, I know. But if you don’t go for serious nit-picking I can’t imagine why you’re reading this blog.

Filed under: Confusing, microcopy, Verbiage

Righting wrongs: writing on another writer’s wrong ‘write off’

Visit Cornwall email

Thanks to fellow copywriter Jim Davies for this one. It’s an email he got from Visit Cornwall. Looks quite smart, doesn’t it? But there is dumbness here, alas.

Jim directed my attention, as I now direct yours, to the copy under STAY. There: that first sentence.

Yes, it is really long, isn’t it? Really long.

But that’s not the major crime that Jim’s reporting. The sentence, if you’re having trouble reading it, says:

‘Travelling on a budget in Cornwall doesn’t mean you have to wistfully right-off thoughts of quality because Cornwall is home to the best caravan holiday park in the country.’

For one thing, it’s crying out for a comma after ‘quality’. (Without it, it implies you might dismiss thoughts of quality because Cornwall is home to the best caravan holiday park in the country. Which doesn’t make much sense.)

But that’s not the major crime either, unless I’ve mistaken Jim’s purpose. The glaring problem is that hyphenated phrase in the middle.


This is one of those Rumsfeldian problems, I think: an unknown unknown.

Whoever wrote this email (and, God help us, all those who read and approved it) presumably just thought the phrase was correct. They didn’t know that they didn’t know the real phrase.

What they thought ‘right-off’ might actually mean is anyone’s guess. And why would it be hyphenated, anyway?

These things, to follow the Rumsfeldian theme, must remain known unknowns. (Unless someone from Visit Cornwall fancies piercing this dense fog of sarcasm to let me know.)

The correct phrase? Well, of course it should be ‘write off’.

But you already knew that. (And I knew you knew it.)


Filed under: Confusing, Contributions

Splashing about in language

Graduate100 website

Someone who I’m guessing would rather not be named has sent me a link to Graduate100: ‘the largest initiative of its kind that profiles and promotes Britain’s highest achieving graduates and undergraduates across all academic areas.’

As you can tell, they haven’t scrimped on the copy for their splash page (above).

‘Don’t hold back,’ they presumably told the writer. ‘We’d like as many words in here as you can manage. Go for broke.’

Just check out that second sentence. Not only is it a whopper, filling most of the paragraph, it’s also bewilderingly elaborate:

However, throughout our involvement in the Graduate 100 initiative, we were exposed, on a day-to-day basis, to an almost inexhaustible unveiling of the identities of Britain’s highest achieving and most talented university students.

There’s a part of me that almost admires this sort of thing.

‘…exposed, on a day-to-day basis, to an almost inexhaustible unveiling…’

It’s wantonly, unashamedly meaningless. It even sounds a bit saucy. And it positively wallows in language.

Words for this writer are not precious gems, to be selected and combined with care. They’re a plastic ball pool at the kids’ playcentre. He (or she) hurls himself (or herself) into them and thrashes wildly about, sending multi-coloured verbs, adjectives and nouns cascading in all directions.

It doesn’t do anything for communication, but you have to admit it is kind of fun.

Filed under: Confusing, Contributions, Verbiage

Spot the message

The sign David sent me over the winter showed just how often the people writing signs forget what they’re saying in their haste to sound important.

There’s another one up at the moment at Clapham Junction station:

Clapham Junction Osborne sign

You’d think it was pretty hard to cock up a sign like this. After all, it basically has one message: you need to use the opposite stairs. That’s it. Everything else is contextual explanation. But where is that message?

Clapham Junction Osborne sign highlighted

Right: it’s down at the bottom. (And written in needlessly elaborate English.)

The big letters at the top, which you’d assume were the primary message, tell you what you can see for yourself: STAIRCASE CLOSURE.

Really? And there’s me thinking the metal frame and plastic sheeting around the stairs were an intriguing art installation, or a maze provided to entertain children waiting for their trains.

I had a crack at the sign myself. Ropey amateur Photoshopping (and jokey additions) aside, I think mine is better:

Clapham Junction Osborne sign revised

This doesn’t seem like advanced copywriting to me. And yet, and yet…


Filed under: Confusing, Verbiage

Pill makes women 12% more immortal?

This scrap of Metro popped up on Twitter the other day, thanks to Sophie Ballinger:

Metro story

It’s a great subbing spot: does Metro really believe women who take Pill are less likely to die than others? Clearly not.

The full story is actually about the Pill apparently reducing a woman’s chances of dying from certain serious diseases. Not her chances of dying at all.

Meaning is a slippery thing. When you see a relatively harmless fumbling like this one, it’s a useful reminder to keep an eye out for subtler, perhaps less benign and even, God forbid, less accidental twists of the facts in our daily press.

Filed under: Confusing

At last: an alternative to imaginary crisps!

Richard has sent me a note about Walkers Sensations (with this image nicked from The Dieline):

Sensations packs

Quite rightly, he highlights that line on the pack, ‘Made with real ingredients‘, as deserving of our scorn.

It would be tricky, after all, to create crisps from unreal ingredients. What would you do, mix the dream of a potato with a painting of some chilli, and a memory of salt?

Yes, all right, of course we know what they mean. They mean they’ve used actual produce to achieve the flavour, rather than artifical flavouring number E4506/B. Which is a nice thing to know.

(Although if you look the ingredients up, you find that in amongst the ‘real ingredients’ is the somewhat vague ‘Flavouring’.)

Nobody really thinks Walkers are offering us an alternative to imaginary crisps. I understand that. But it’s nice to know someone other than me looks at language like this and does a little roll of the eyes. Thanks, Richard.

Filed under: Confusing, Contributions, microcopy

Let's start with this blog. The name's just not right, is it? It's much wider than sub-editing. It's just as often about words that are technically correct, but tonally all over the place. Oh well. Anyway, please feel free to send me your own examples of horrible copy (but please, no more erroneous apostrophes): mike[at]


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