Subbing the world

Righting copywriting wrongs, one word at a time

Experience Corner: No 1

For a long time, Private Eye ran a ‘Solutions’ column, collecting all those ridiculous uses of ‘solutions’, like describing cardboard boxes as Christmas Ornament Storage Solutions. They seem to have got bored of that now, and I can’t say I blame them. But it was fun while it lasted.

In similar spirit, I thought it was time I started ‘Experience Corner’. As I sat chewing my muesli this morning, my eye fell on the back of the Alpen bag, where I read this:

Alpen breakfast experience

And this:

Alpen taste experience

In both cases, you could drop the word experience without any loss of meaning. (Or perhaps, without compromising your reading experience.)

So why is it there? And why in God’s name is everything an ‘experience’ these days? I can’t go to a shop, I have to have a retail experience. I can’t eat at a restaurant, I have to have a dining experience.

I know what it means when people use it internally, as part of their business-speak. They mean the complete package: not just the food, for example, but the service, décor and ambience.

Fine. Use it internally. But don’t inflict it on the public. They’re happy enough to enjoy ‘that unique Alpen taste’, or ‘a deliciously creamy breakfast’, without unnecessary words floating about in it.

I’d be very grateful if you could send me your own examples of this silly and annoying copywriting habit. Thanks, and have a nice day experience.


Filed under: Experience Corner, Jargon, Verbiage

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

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

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

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

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

Wake up to rape?

Wake up to rape

I saw this on the Tube recently. It feels almost as if I’m making a joke of it to say this, but I’m really not: isn’t WAKE UP TO RAPE a pretty ill-judged line? For reasons too obvious to require elaboration?

So once again, how did that problem escape everyone involved in this poster?

There are other things to say too, I think. For a start, the picture looks too modelly and posed to be believable. But our focus is on words. And there are too many of them competing on this poster.

It is a poster after all – one that most people march past on their way to the Northern Line. And look at all those competing messages. First we have WAKE UP TO RAPE on the t-shirt, being all disconcerting and weird. (Although to be honest, if it hadn’t caught my eye, I’m not sure I’d have noticed the poster.)

Then we also have that muddle of lines down the bottom, where body copy, call to action and another strapline – Rape happens. Don’t cope with it alone – all rather battle for supremacy.

A shame, because the latter line is quite good: clear, direct, sympathetic. A poster with that line on, maybe a line of supporting copy and a call to action, would probably have had a lot more impact.

Nevertheless, let’s hope this one helps somebody, my belligerent carping notwithstanding.

Filed under: Confusing, Verbiage,

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, , ,

Death by loquacity

Snow warning

David Hyde has sent me this glorious (and topical) bit of verbiage. As he says, it highlights a common problem: that when ordinary, sensible people are given the task of creating public communications, they often feel a pressure to speak in this sort of highly complex, formal language.

Rather than begin with the real warning, the author kicks off with a rather redundant bit of background. ‘As a result of the prevailing weather conditions…’ The fact that this sign is outside, and that everyone in the country is well up to speed on the prevailing weather conditions, is not apparently an issue.

Buried in the middle of the sentence is the important information that everything’s very slippery. And then, right at the end (albeit in red), is the actual imperative. And even that’s several words too long.

This sort of writing is bad at any time. It’s especially unwelcome in a warning.

Imagine being a soldier at war, and one of your comrades yelling, ‘In these uncertain times of conflict and violence, you may encounter men ready and willing to take your life by means of a firearm. And there’s one right behind you.’

In your final moments, it would be difficult not to feel a twinge of resentment.

Alternatives? There would be a few ways to do this, I imagine, but the one thing it ought to be is short.

There are two things to say: Everything’s slippery, and Take care. We can do it in so few words that the order becomes almost irrelevant. BEWARE: ICY SURFACES, perhaps. Or, SLIPPERY SURFACES: TAKE CARE. It’s so short, you take it in all at once. And you’ve got time to read it before stepping onto the sheet of black ice just beyond it.

Filed under: Contributions, Verbiage

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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