Subbing the world

Righting copywriting wrongs, one word at a time

Twelfth Night, Section 4, Paragraph 3a

Music be the food of love Southwark

Some time ago, I put this horrible sign on my Flickr. I should have remembered it for this blog, but I didn’t.

Now fellow copywriter Tim Rich has used it for his blog. And said all the right things. So you might as well just read him.


Filed under: Downright ugly, Tone of voice, Verbiage

A rubbish tone of voice

Hammersmith & Fulham recycling poster

As I walked along Wood Lane this morning, this truck rumbled past and shouted at me.

Suddenly I’m picturing ranks of blank-eyed Hammersmith & Fulham schoolchildren lined up at their desks, pledging their commitment to a sustainable lifestyle. Black-visored Recycling Enforcement Units frogmarching down the Talgarth Road, barking savagely at any citizens who forget themselves sufficiently to drop their copies of Metro into the normal street bins.

And somewhere, a dank, windowless room (101, perhaps?) where serial non-recyclers are beaten with bulging ring-binders labelled Council Environment and Waste Policy Initiatives Working Group Priority Management Programme (Q3).

Is this the way to encourage positive behaviour? Does this sort of tone have any effect on people whatsoever – except perhaps to ignite a reflexive desire to kick back, and deliberately drop a prohibited Yellow Pages in the green wheeliebin? I suspect not.

Complete crap.

Filed under: Downright ugly, Tone of voice

What next? The Licensed Catering Outlet Quiz?

Harvester pub

Thanks to Twitter, and specifically fellow copywriter Andrew Arnold, I’ve found this admirably cross article in The Publican, by 2009 Beer Writer of the Year Pete Brown. (What a terrific job to have, by the way.)

Pete has been driven to distraction (and, presumably, to drink) by the trend for pub chain companies to avoid the name ‘pub’ in favour of some hideous euphemistic banality like licensed catering outlet or kitchen & eating rooms.

In the article, he resists ‘a sentimental, pub-loving position [to explain] why this campaign to erase pubs is a Bad Thing.’ Which is kind of a shame: I’d like to hear that position expressed.

Instead, he opts, pragmatically, for an argument ‘corporate types’ will understand, about the competitive advantage a ‘pub’ has over every other ‘licensed catering outlet’ in the world. And of course he’s absolutely right.

I suppose there’s a wider question about whether those anonymous, brightly lit monstrosities, gaudily badged with names like Harvester or Chef & Brewer, actually deserve the name of ‘pub’. These chains seem expressly intent on excising any atom of charm, warmth or individuality that might give them the right to that hallowed name. Licensed catering outlet often seems about as much as they deserve.

But then maybe if the companies involved could understand (or, in Whitbread‘s case, just remember) what makes the British pub such a beloved element of our culture, they might stand half a chance of creating environments that don’t induce a dizzying impulse towards violent suicide immediately upon entry.

Filed under: Downright ugly, Good words, Tone of voice

Will you tell them, or shall I?

Poolife screengrab

Here’s the full Poolife website.

Filed under: Downright ugly, Naming

Officious, verbose AND dumb. Oh my.

David dropped me a line with this, which needs no further comment from me:

Maybe sign

Filed under: Confusing, Downright ugly, Grammar, Jargon, Tone of voice, Verbiage

Passionate about exposing ludicrous language

If you’re reading this blog, and enjoying it at all, then you probably share my exasperated despair at the ceaseless tide of brands telling us they’re ‘passionate’ about whatever it is they do.

It’s one of those words that someone, somewhere, decided sounded great, and then the rest of the marketing world agreed. So now everyone uses it, and any value it may once have had has become so utterly diluted, the word is now worse than meaningless. It’s become actively irritating, suggesting nothing but cynical, bandwoggoning insincerity.

But I needn’t go on, because David Mitchell, that comedian off the telly, has said it much better on his (excellent) YouTube channel, David Mitchell’s Soapbox. It’s a channel I’ve become amorously obsessed with.

Filed under: Amusing tangents, Clichés, Downright ugly

Unrealise your potential?

Richard Weston, aka design blogger AceJet170, has been in touch about something that, he says, ‘makes [his] head hurt’.

As well it might. Richard had spotted this online:

If you can’t read that line top right, it says, Untap Your True Potential. This was the bit that gave Richard pause.

He’s also spotted this:

Untap headline


Random capitals aside, something weird is happening here. It’s one of those peculiar misunderstandings that leads people to say things that are the exact opposite of what they mean.

The problem may result from a confusion with phrases like, ‘Unleash your potential’.

Trouble is, ‘Un-‘ is a negative prefix. It means you’re doing the opposite of the verb concerned. Unleash means not to leash – a linguistic point of particular importance to dog handlers.

What the lines above mean, of course, is ‘tap your true potential’.

That sounds rather ugly, though. You’d probably say, ‘Realise your true potential’ or, indeed, ‘Unleash your true potential.’

Untap your true potential’ is not only the opposite of the intended meaning, it’s also pretty meaningless. You can’t ‘un–‘ something, unless it’s something already done. (Like ‘Untying the furious copywriter’.)

So you could only ‘untap your potential’ after having tapped it. Which wouldn’t make much sense.

Sadly, a Google of this phrase shows how rife it is. There’s even a Facebook group:

This is nothing new

Of course, there are other, accepted phrases that mean the opposite of what’s intended.

Famously, for example, our American cousins say, ‘I could care less’, when what they really mean is they couldn’t care less.

We also say that a man who’s quick to anger has a temper. But if he gives vent to that anger, he loses his temper.

That doesn’t make much sense. You don’t get angry by losing your anger.

Temper, it turns out, has a pretty interesting and complex history. But this isn’t an etymology blog, so if you’re interested, have a look at Wiktionary and this blog post. You start to see how this confusion might have come about.

The point is, we’ve ended up with phrases we all understand, but which contradict each other completely. Purely through usage.

This suggests that a nonsensical construction like Untap your true potential could quite easily become part of the language, simply because enough people use it incorrectly for it to come to mean the complete opposite of what it says.

Now my head’s hurting, along with Richard’s. And yours, probably.


PS: If you have any other examples of phrases that mean the opposite of what they say, do let me know. Thanks.

Filed under: Confusing, Contributions, Downright ugly, Grammar

It’s not ‘laying people off’, it’s ‘synergy-related headcount restructuring’

I’m afraid I’m recycling an old post from an old blog here, but I think it bears repeating.

Thanks to my friends at writing association 26, I was alerted to this quite extraordinary bit of corporate language-mangling by Nokia Siemens Networks.

Nokia nonsense

And that’s just the first paragraph.

I’m not sure what people feel is gained by this sort of language. We all know what they mean, so why not be straight about it?

They’ve merged, which means they don’t need so many people. It’s an unpleasant fact of corporate life, but it is a fact and we all know it.

Jargon like this makes the brand look silly – surely they don’t think anyone is fooled by it? It also makes them look pretty shifty and evasive, unprepared simply to stand by their actions.

Listen to this, from further down the release: ‘At the completion of the planned synergy-related headcount restructuring activities, Nokia Siemens Networks expects to have in the range of 7,000 employees in Finland, from an initial base of approximately 9,200.’

Seven stodgy paragraphs in, and they’re still not letting go of that enormous phrase, ‘synergy-related headcount restructuring’. In fact, they’ve added to it, tacking that entirely redundant ‘activities’ on the end. And they’ve also tied themselves in linguistic knots trying not to say, ‘We’re cutting about 2,200 jobs.’

We can all do the maths; we can all see through the smoke. So why bother?

All this reminds me of a News Quiz show on Radio 4, in which Jeremy Hardy ruminated that new jobs are always ‘created’, but cut jobs are simply ‘lost’, as if it was something that just happened. ‘Sorry, Bob, your job’s lost. We’ve looked everywhere – can’t understand it. Anyway, bye.’

Filed under: Downright ugly, Jargon, Tone of voice, Verbiage, , ,



Designer Gareth Hammond tweeted me with this picture from the Twitter settings page.

‘Is this even a word?’ asks Gareth.

Well, I suppose it’s a collection of letters you can (just about) vocalise, and you have a sense of what it means.

But the answer is, clearly, no.

Filed under: Confusing, Contributions, Downright ugly

I know, let’s use a rape victim’s screams!

Rape ad

There’s no doubting the importance of this message.

But I can’t believe this expression of it got past (presumably) quite a lot of people without anyone saying, ‘Hang on everyone, I know we’re trying to be clever but this is just a crass, exploitative idea that seems almost to make some sort of sick joke of the whole issue.’

Filed under: Downright ugly, Tone of voice

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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