When is an adjective not an adjective? Crime (against English) of the year.

Just because I have a blog called Crimes against English doesn’t mean I’m a pedant. In fact – if we’re discussing the English language – pedants are my least favourite people after retailers and marketing copywriters. But everyone has their breaking point and I think I’ve found mine.

Earlier this year, I did one of those ‘how good are you at English?’ quizzes. It involved identifying parts of speech. It’s a long time since my grammar lessons at grammar school, so I had to think about it. And I wondered: does knowing what adjectives and nouns are called actually matter?

Well, maybe it does. Because if people knew the difference between adjectives and nouns, you wouldn’t get this.

Hyundai advert: Get ready for happy.

Or this.

Itsu shopfront: Eat beautiful.

I’ve been noticing this sort of thing for a while, but it’s getting worse. In this season of advertising overdrive, I have been shouting at the television a lot.

Sky TV’s ‘Believe in better’ was an early example. Copywriter Tom Albrighton discussed this in his blog when it first appeared, concluding that the copywriters had deliberately chosen an unusual and jarring construction to make people sit up and take notice.

The problem is, it’s not unusual any more. But it still jars. And there’s a lot of it around.

Itsu almost get away with ‘Eat beautiful’, because it sounds as if it’s been translated. (It hasn’t: it’s a UK business.)

Weight Watchers don’t get away with ‘Awaken your incredible’. This just makes me think it’s a mistake. Shouldn’t it be ‘Awaken! You’re incredible’?

(‘Incredible’ has, of course, been used as a noun before, but in a long-established usage that most people would recognise as grammatical. It’s called ellipsis.)

And there’s more: read this article from Rightmove and weep.

There’s a lot of  ‘happy’ about and I’m most unhappy about it.

Happy is not, except in very specific circumstances, a noun.

Leaving aside some variations like Virgin Trains’ grotesque ‘Arrive awesome’ and Expedia’s ‘Travel me interesting’, the formula is, well, pretty formulaic by now. You get transitive verb plus adjective, when you would expect transitive verb plus noun.

So, perhaps it’s been going on long enough that we have to accept it as a new usage?

Branding specialist Nancy Friedman says in her blog: ‘nouning – turning a modifier into a noun – is increasingly popular in commerce, and it’s also changing our perceptions about what language “should” be.’

She describes this trend as ‘a functional shift, also known as anthimeria’.  (For more on this, see this nicely grumpy post.)

I don’t think this is a real shift, though. Friedman came up with a lot of examples of nouning in brand slogans, but none from anywhere else. This makes me think it’s not an example of real language change, just an example of laziness: copywriters copying. (Maybe it’s the time of year, but does that sound like a line out of The Twelve Days of Christmas?)

Blogger Lucy Ferriss also gives these uses the ‘anthimeria’ route to respectability, describing verbing, nouning and so on as ‘language play’. I like language play if it’s genuinely about fun and creativity, but I don’t see those qualities in these slogans. I see “Emulate identical”.

PS. It doesn’t have to be like this. Here’s an example of an organisation inserting a few small changes to make the slogans into real sentences. Happy Christmas.

CSMA ad: Save on the everyday, experience the extraordinary.


2 thoughts on “When is an adjective not an adjective? Crime (against English) of the year.

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