I Lost 15 Pounds!
Posted by Neal on December 8, 2008
The Monday after Thanksgiving, I saw a full-page ad for a weight-loss system in the newspaper. The headline read:
I lost 15 pounds!
A typical testimonial from a satisfied customer. But then I read the next line:
And kept it off for three years!
That surprised me. As I understood it, the usual goal was not to regain weight you had lost. But here was a woman admitting that she had gained back her 15 pounds three years after losing it, and admitting it not in the fine print or “results may vary” disclaimer, but right at the top of the ad in 72-point type.
Then it occurred to me: Maybe she lost the weight three years ago, and therefore keeping it off for three years would put us at the present. All things considered, that made a lot more sense. But why did I gravitate to the commercially ridiculous reading, since she never actually said she had regained the weight?
It was the poor choice of verb tense she (or the copywriters) used. In English, if you’re talking about something that was true in the past and is still true now, you have the option of using the present perfect tense. If you kept 15 pounds from creeping back onto your frame for three years, and you are still doing so, saying I have kept it off for three years says this more specifically than I kept it off for three years. And by the principle of being as informative as you can while still being relevant, since the woman in the ad could have said that, she should have said that. That’s the rule her audience assumes she’s following, and as a result, when she said something that didn’t say specifically that those three years take us up to the present, the natural interpretation is that the keeping-off of the lost 15 pounds ended some time ago. So why would she have made such a personally unflattering statement?
Here’s what I think happened. The company probably had the ad all planned and laid out. They’d made sure to put in “And have kept it off for three years”, because they knew the perception among potential clientele was that people on this weight-loss program tended to lose weight for a little while but then gain it back. But at the last minute, there was a complication. Their satisfied customer had suddenly gained back the weight she’d lost. What could they do? They already had her “after” picture, and even if they had time to take a picture of and get a testimonial from another customer, none of their other customers had actually kept the weight off longer than a few months. So they made do with what they had, making a slight change in wording from have kept to just kept. They hoped the readers of the ad would not notice the odd choice of tense, or if they did notice it, would dismiss it, because why would they advertise that a customer had regained the weight she’d lost? That would be ridiculous!