Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hey! You with the stained sink!

This one’s about TV adverts and grammar.

There's plenty to irritate in TV adverts and I'll mention one irritation in particular, presumptuous injunctions such as “Organize that messy closet” or “Get rid of those unsightly stains in your sink.”  Where the copy writer pretends to be on such familiar terms with you that they have peered into your home.  Why they do it, and why it irritates, is easy enough to see; but exactly how do they do it?

A tidy closet, or should I say wardrobe

It's the word “that” and its plural, “those”, the grammatical name for which is demonstrative adjectives.  In the foregoing slogans “that” and “those” modify a noun, in effect pointing at it; thereby indicating, from amongst all the possible closets and sinks, which one (or ones) the speaker is referring to - yours.

A stained sink - or it was when the photo was taken, but please be assured, not now!

Putting advertising aside for a minute, let me take this sentence spoken by a normal person: “Sam misses that dog.”

Or this:  “These sneakers belong to Janet.”

The demonstrative adjectives demonstrate which dog Sam misses, which sneakers belong to Janet.  “That” and “these” refer to nouns that actually exist—dog, sneakers.  The speaker and the audience both take for granted that the dog and sneakers indicated are known and exist.

Now back to the advertising slogans, with an anonymous voice telling you to “organize that messy closet” or “get rid of those unsightly stains”. The voice isn’t pointing to an actual condition in your house - but instead is presupposing its existence and treating it as a fact.  It seems linguists have a name for this, and  the slogans are examples of “presupposition.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “The information contained in a presupposition is backgrounded, taken for granted, presented as something that is not currently at issue.”  In the cases in point,  the presupposed information is that you have a messy closet and a sink with unsightly stains.

In a study entitled “Presupposition, Persuasion and Mag Food Advertising” (2012), Tamara Bouso uses the example “Do you expect to fit into that beach bikini in the New Year?”  This sales pitch presupposes not only that the consumer has such a bikini but that she’s probably too fat to wear it.

In this way, demonstrative adjectives are employed to create a false sense of familiarity, of intimacy with the consumer. It's a forced intimacy that can strike listeners as intrusive or annoying, but whether it's more intrusive and annoying to those with tidy closets and spotless sinks, or messy closets and stained sinks, is hard to say.

Two names have been proposed by linguists for demonstrative adjectives used in this presumptuous way: “affective demonstratives” and  “emotive demonstratives.”  “Emotive” because such terms convey a sense that both speaker and listener share some relevant knowledge or emotion about the referent of the demonstrative—that is, the closet or sink it points to.  And “affective” to imply an emotional element—in this case familiarity and a shared experience of a closet or a sink.

How do I know all this?  Well yesterday I didn't, but today I've read my daily email from the Grammarphobia Blog and it's all there, with links and references. I've used the word closet because they do, it's an American blog.