Subbing the world

Righting copywriting wrongs, one word at a time

Wagamama slips up on the pavement

Wagamama pavement ad

What is it with restaurant brands and question marks?

This ad, applied to the pavement near the Westfield Shopping Centre in London (or to give it its official title, The Howling White Desert of The Soul) is one of those examples where punctuation really does alter meaning.

Imagine someone pointing out a hairstyle and saying, ‘Fancy having your hair done like that?’ That sounds fairly positive. It sounds like they’ve spotted something they think might work quite well for you.

‘Fancy having your hair done like that,’ sounds a bit different. Not quite so positive now. Like Mary Whitehouse spotting a mohawk.

Fancy a big brand like Wagamama making such a basic mistake.


Filed under: Punctuation

I’d like some fresh punctuation, if that’s not too much trouble.

Dominos header

(Click to see it bigger if it’s a bit weeny.)

I shan’t insult your intelligence by explaining what’s missing.

I mean, honestly.

Filed under: Punctuation

Commas save lives

Thanks to my design colleagues at Zerofee, who tweeted me this little gem, illustrating the potentially life-saving properties of the comma:

Let's eat Grandpa

It’s from the Dweebist blog. Which seems a rather good thing in itself.

Filed under: Contributions, Punctuation

Ploughman’s missing appendage

Ploughmans Pickle

I know I said I wouldn’t be doing apostrophes – but come on.

I suppose one could argue that ‘Ploughmans’ has, through usage, become a noun in itself, as in, ‘I’ll have a Ploughmans.’

But one would be wrong.

Filed under: Punctuation, ,

Enhancing, red eyes removal

art shop sign

Danny Gray has sent me another doozie, via Twitter.

It’s hard to know where to begin, really. ‘Spotted in window of a photo-“art” shop in Manchester,’ Danny says, which is at least a clue to what on earth they’re going on about. (In Comic Sans, no less.)

It’s so bad, I wonder if it was written by someone for whom English is a second (or quite possibly third) language. If not, it’s simply scary.

It may be that I’m now officially middle-aged, but I can’t help feeling there’s more of this sort of writing around. I don’t know as much about current English education as I should, but it does make you wonder (in a disturbingly Daily Mail sort of way) about the standards being applied.

RSA pic

Last year I went along to a fascinating debate at the RSA. Jeremy Paxman and Anne Atkins debated the state of English, and whether it was ‘on the skids’. (Listen to the audio recording here. It’s very good.)

There was much talk (especially from Atkins) about the diversity and creativity of English, and the folly of assuming it could ever be defined in a set of ‘rules’.

A lot of it made a lot of sense. But then, Atkins (like Paxman) is highly educated, and fluent enough in ‘standard’ or ‘traditional’ English to enjoy the delights of mucking about with it. My worry is that too much concern about letting people feel ‘free’ can leave our understanding – and therefore use – of language so vague and ill-formed as to be next to worthless.

As in cooking, creativity and play can lead to all sorts of wonderful innovations. But unless you have enough mastery of the basics, you just end up in a mess, like the sign above, and feeling distinctly undernourished.

Filed under: Confusing, Grammar, Punctuation

A microcopy disaster zone

Pizza Express receipt

Sorry, I haven’t got it in for Pizza Express. In fact, I love it there. I’ve always liked it, but now I’ve discovered the effect it has on children (‘If you behave, we’ll go to Pizza Express’), I positively adore it.

But personal prejudice must count for nought in the clear-eyed pursuit of horrible copy.

Look at this recent receipt. (I know it’s bleary, sorry. iPhone shot. Ah. How do you begin a sentence with ‘iPhone’? ‘IPhone’? Surely not. Okay, let’s file that.)

Pointless quotation marks, or inverted commas, are the subject of at least one other blog. But they’re worth noting again here. “Service Charge not included.” The quote marks suggest this is unconfirmed, or perhaps disputed – as when a newspaper headline reads, GORDON BROWN “EATS SMALL BIRDS”.

Alternatively, the quotes might mean this is an actual quotation. Well, it’s certainly something I’ve heard before. But I’m pretty sure it’s not Churchill, or Wordsworth. In fact, we’d probably have a hard time pinning down the originator of that deathless phrase.

But I’m being silly, right? We all know there’s no dispute about the service charge line. And we know it’s not from Milton’s Thoughts Upon The Remuneration for a Sloppy Guiseppe. Okay, but that’s not the point. The point is, the quote marks are pointless. So why are they there? If you’re going to go to the trouble of making a keystroke (or two), shouldn’t there be a reason?

Then we get: ‘How did we do. we’ll reward you for your feedback on your experience today.’

Deep breath, gang.

The obvious: no question mark at the end of the first sentence. And no capital at the beginning of the second.

Okay. But also: ‘We’ll reward you for your feedback on your experience today.’ Horrible. ‘We’ll reward you’ just sounds vague, dry and dull. I’m thinking of a £1 voucher download, valid until tomorrow, to be used between 3pm and 4.30pm.

And ‘feedback’. We all get feedback these days, don’t we? People used to laugh at phrases like, ‘I’d value your input’. Now they say, ‘I look forward to your feedback,’ without a trace of irony.

And ‘your experience’. Ugh. Why is everything an experience these days? You can’t have a pizza, you have to have an Italian dining experience. (Probably an authentic one.) You can’t go to a shop, you have to have a retail experience. If I kiss my wife, it’s probably a marital bond reaffirmation experience.

How about this:

‘How did we do? Let us know and we’ll give you a special treat.’ Or reveal the treat: ‘Let us know and we’ll give you some free doughballs.’

Isn’t that nicer? More personal? Warmer? More inviting? These are all good qualities when you want someone to visit your website, as Pizza Express do.

Oh, and ‘Thank You’ doesn’t need that cap Y, does it?


(Think I’ll send this link to and see what happens.)

UPDATE: Thanks to copywriter John Fountain for correcting me: PizzaExpress is apparently a single word. That seems very silly to me, but a glance at their website proves John correct. (See the comments.)

Filed under: Confusing, microcopy, Punctuation, Tone of voice, ,

Another apostrophe – but that’s just the start.

I said I was going to leave the apostrophe collection to others, but Jill Theobald from New Start magazine sent me a very nice email with this picture, so I’ve softened. (Flattery gets you everywhere with me.) And in any case, there’s more wrong with this sign, which Jill spotted outside Ipswich railway station, than just that apostrophe.


Let’s deal with the apostrophe first. Examples like this are so much worse than the poor, much-maligned grocers’. If an individual makes a mistake, it feels pretty mean-spirited to go on about it. But when a number of people create public signage, and it’s this blatantly wrong, I do get annoyed.

It’s not just me rolling my eyes at stupidity. (Promise.) It’s the lack of care that’s upsetting – nobody bothered to check. Surely someone looked at this and went, ‘Erm…’ at some point?

But there’s more. There’s the random capitalisation too, of course. Why that cap P on ‘please’? Same problem: nobody cares. I can well imagine this will be a subject I’ll return to.

And lastly, there’s the brevity issue. This is a sign to show you where to wait for taxis. As we’re in the subbing business, I’d suggest we remove the words customers, for, please, wait, and here. (And that bloody apostrophe, obviously.)

The typography’s horrible, too, but let’s stay on remit. Okay, next.

Filed under: Punctuation, Random caps, Typos, ,

I’ll see the first patient now, nurse.

Daniel Gray, aka @binkythedoormat, tweeted to see if I’d mind subbing this little beauty:


(Click the pic to see it on Daniel's Flickr)

Sadly, it’s hard to see it as anything but a lost cause. You’re firing away with hyphens, when suddenly out pops an underscore. It could happen to the best of us, I suppose.

But surely only the very worst would look at it it, shrug, and print it on the side of the car.

The treatment is simple: a reprint, using only hyphens. Unfortunately, I suspect the patient would refuse it.

(Thanks for being my first contributor though, Danny.)

Filed under: Contributions, Downright ugly, Punctuation, , ,

The Apostrophe Post

I’ll try not to go on about apostrophes in this blog, tempting as it is. Grocers get a lot of stick about mis-using them, but they’re hardly alone in that.

Sainsburys Mens

Big, trusted brands like Sainsburys (above) and Pizza Express (below) do it too.

Pizza Express

As do celebrity chefs (look at the windows):


Whether they’re out when they should be in, or in when they should be out, they’re a constant, grinding annoyance. But lots of people have addressed this issue elsewhere, usually by collecting shocking examples. (I’ve put some in the Blogroll.) I also horde my own examples in a set on Flickr. So I’ll try to ignore the problem here. But know this: it drives me nuts.

Okay, let’s move on.

Filed under: Punctuation

Obviously not.

sandwich label

I’m not sure who Brian Turner is, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know me. I bought this sandwich at Belfast Airport, from among many other, remarkably similar sandwiches. So my guess is that it wasn’t ‘specially created for [me]!’ This is the sort of language that gets automatically screened out by most people’s brains. So why bother?

That squealy little exclamation mark pisses me off too. Of course.

Filed under: Punctuation, 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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