Is commercial spelling, punctuation going too far?

Posted by Katie Sheridan

One night, I lounged on my couch and watched “That 70’s Show” on Nickelodeon. Since it was later in the evening, the programming had changed over to Nick at Night… Or more accurately, Nick @ Nite. As I attempted to focus on the show’s plot, I was distracted by words flickering at the bottom corner of my screen. I surrendered to my curiosity and found the words to be a promo for Nick’s upcoming premiere of the television show “Friends.” The promo would pose questions to the viewer in an attempt to stir up nostalgia for the show.

In Working with Words by Brain S. Brooks, James L. Pinson and Jean Gaddy Wilson, the rule for possessive proper nouns ending in "s" is that they should only use an apostrophe. Applying this new rule still means that Nick @ Nite made a punctuation mistake on its website. "...Ross's New Girlfriend" would not be correct.

One of the questions faded in, asking, “Do you remember Ross’ sound?” and then faded back out.

I blinked. Was there a punctuation error in that small sentence? I waited for the promo to cycle through its questions and return to the quote of interest.

“Do you remember Ross’ sound?” I reviewed my English lessons and was certain that names ending in “s” still require ‘s when they are possessive. But maybe I was wrong. I snatched my computer and started researching. The website I found reported that including the “s” after the apostrophe for a name like Charles or Ross is not a universal rule. It stated that the key is to be consistent about one’s use of either an apostrophe or ‘s. Nick @ Nite had broken their consistency when they wrote “…Ross’s New Girlfriend” as one of the clips on the website.

I have always been interested in grammar, spelling and punctuation, and I’ve also always been good at using them correctly. When I was younger, I didn’t understand how other people could misspell words so often or disregard proper punctuation. But with so much distortion of language rules in our society, I realized the frustration of people without knacks for usage.

We see so much media writing during our daily lives that it can outweigh our education. Though there are many responsible media outlets that are meticulous about language rules, there are numerous media producers that aren’t as vigilant. Commercial writing can take more forms than educational writing can, especially when considering what the average person sees and reads each day. From books to television promos, the average person doesn’t stand a chance against the confusion of our language.

Instead of spelling the doughnut in the usual way, Krispy Kreme changes the normal spelling to differentiate themselves. The same goes for their "In-N-Out Burger" drive-thru. Photo by Thomas Hawk.

Many people learn about the rules of English when they are young, but rarely do people concern themselves strictly with these rules later in life. Many people forget the rules. And media like the Nick @ Nite promo or even the programming title of Nick @ Nite can cause their viewers to unconsciously lose their knowledge of language usage. Continuously seeing these little mistakes and inconsistencies makes grasping and retaining the elements of English that much harder.

There are so many misspellings in the commercial arena. Everyone is trying to be unique by spelling their product in an unconventional way. It gets to be too much. English is hard enough as is.

I think it is the media’s responsibility to deliver quality language to their audiences. That means not only double-checking but triple-checking for error, especially in short writing like promos. The media owes it to the audience that supports their business to help readers in their education instead of confusing them. Is innovative spelling affecting us? Are the mentioned punctuation errors too minute to affect viewers? Is it silly to worry about the media’s influence on our education and knowledge? Am I underestimating the common man’s daily interaction with education versus media or his ability to retain linguistic knowledge? Is it important for viewers, consumers and the average person to retain knowledge of English rules?

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12 responses to “Is commercial spelling, punctuation going too far?

  1. I am glad to know that I am not the only person who worries about this. Unfortunately enough though, some errors like that are too small for most people to notice or care about. I do not think it is silly for us to worry about how the media influences our education of writing and grammar. We just have to remember that most of the time commercial media is trying to get ahead of competitors, and sometimes that leaves them behind when it comes to the English language. Personally, it doesn’t change my retention of rules, but I do know that it has an effect on some of my peers.

    • I’m glad to see you don’t think I’m crazy for pointing this out. As for the small mistakes, I think you are largely correct that people don’t notice and maybe aren’t affected. The only thing that makes me nervous is that in one of my English classes, we talked about student usage errors. While my professor pointed out that correcting improper grammar and punctuation has always helped her expand her knowledge, seeing so much incorrect spelling messed with her ability to spell. Obviously, it wasn’t an extreme change from before she taught to after a few years of teaching; I’m just wary of commercial and media misspellings bombarding people so frequently that it does present a major change in their ability to spell.

  2. I just tweeted a story about this today (http://bbc.in/qX96Di). The main reason companies change the spelling of their brand is to stand out. In terms of remaining consistent, I would venture to guess Nick at Nite has a separate rule book for their TV promos than for their online site. But, I do understand that it would be beneficial if everything was consistent.

    • Oh, very good point! I didn’t think of a company having different rules for TV and the web, though I really should have. I just feel badly for the people who are already confused about usage. Thank you for the article. What a coincidence that you read it so recently.

  3. Commercial spelling/grammar errors drive me crazy – most companies pay people to check for such issues. It’s encouraging, though, that the majority of mistakes I see are written handwritten signs affixed to bathroom doors or trash cans. Unconventional spellings can be a pain, too: “NrGize,” the name of the smoothies from the Quad Creek Café, is just too much.

    I do think we have a responsibility to set an example for our readers. Even if the average American makes grammatical errors in their own writing, many of them notice it in the media: the media is supposed to set a standard for correct usage and writing.

    • I agree; “NrGize” is going way too far. I even read that as en-er-guys at first. I understand wanting to be unique, but I don’t want it to diminish readers’ ability to recognize incorrect grammar, punctuation and spelling. I especially don’t want their knowledge about language to be put on the back burner.

  4. While I agree with your view that spelling and grammar errors in everyday commercial language drives me absolutely nuts, I believe that Nick at Nite actually had this one right. Correct me if I’m wrong, but because Ross’ was followed by a word that started with another “s” (sound) it’s actually correct not to put the ‘s because the four multiple s’s may have confused the reader. As for your consistency thought, the second promo didn’t have Ross followed by a word that began with an “s” so it was correct to use the ‘s. I hate to be the one here to mess this whole rant up when normally I would agree with you, but I felt the need to point it out. I abhor spelling and grammar errors in commercials so I totally understand where you are coming from and that is a tricky rule to remember.

    • I was thrown by that as well. I had already written my whole blog already and was disappointed by my finding in Working with Words at first. But then I studied the multiple details about possessives. Thankfully, there was one that legitimized my argument: proper nouns, according to Working with Words, only use an apostrophe. Common nouns use only an apostrophe if an “s” or “s” sound follows. I found no such exception for proper nouns. Of course, I was very relieved to find this information but insanely frustrated at the disagreement among the usage authorities. I may even write about this frustration for my next blog. But very keen eye; I was wondering if anyone else would point out that part of my argument.

  5. It’s tough because people want their brands to stick out and be memorable. However, I see no reason why they can’t do that AND be grammatically correct. Our generation has grown up in an era that writing has become less and less formal. As journalists, it’s our job to do our best to use proper style, usage, and mechanics to give readers some consistency, anyway.

    • I’m so glad you see it that way. I hope that the majority of journalists, professional and otherwise, have the respect for language and usage that you do. Even in some songs, the lyrics would rhyme with proper grammar, yet artists still avoid it (“You and me could write a bad romance”-Bad Romance and “Watch how good I’ll fake it”-Tonight Tonight). I must be missing the appeal.

  6. I just noticed tonight while watching Nick at Nite that they have a commercial saying “Your Watching”. Everyone knows it should be “You’re Watching”. I don’t know if I can watch this channel if they don’t fix it. I don’t care if they are trying to stand out and be different.

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