Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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!

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7 Responses to “I Lost 15 Pounds!”

  1. Glen said

    Hmm. This assumes an unusually high degree of ethical concern on the company’s part. I would think that, in terms of legal obligation, they merely had to be quoting the woman correctly. At the time the “after” picture was taken, if she could correctly say, “I have kept it off for 3 years,” then it seems like it would be okay for them to include that in the ad.

  2. You are too generous to the weight-loss company, I think, Neal, implying that the wording of the ad was a damage-limitation tactic. I’m more of a cynic. I think the wording was probably deliberate, and is designed to bamboozle the readers of the newspaper. Copywriters are masters when it comes to tweaking grammar so that a phrase sounds as if it means one thing, until you stop and think about it, and realize it’s meaningless. One example is “fresh cut flowers” (not freshly cut, note). Another is “Up to 70% off”.

  3. The Ridger said

    Possibly, but I’d aim more for someone Omitting Needless Words as it’s more commonly done – misidentifying what’s needless.

  4. viola said

    @ The Ridger
    There’s a possibility that this advertisement may have started out innocently with Omitting Needless Words, but those advertising agents aren’t complete idiots. If this is the case, they caught on to that wording and used it to their advantage, simply because we’re a rather gullible species. Also, weight loss/gain comes with a lot of variations, depending on who’s participating (the yo-yo dieter). The weight-loss company is covering their bases in more ways than one with this particular wording.

  5. viola said

    And for goodness sakes, Neal, I thought you’d literally lost 15 pounds!

  6. […] about my confusion at an ad for a weight-loss system that had a satisfied customer saying, “I lost fifteen pounds! And kept it off for three years!” A commenter (regular reader Viola) wrote, “And for […]

  7. Jackson said

    I think it has more to do with the “break” or pause between the two phrases. They seem like they should be one sentence: “I lost 15 pounds, and have kept it off for 3 years.”
    Often when people separate clauses out, it seems as if they forget certain grammatical properties of the predicate clause, no? For instance, “His excitement for the cakes were overwhelming.” This sounds ridiculous and is probably not an error a native speaker would make, but there are real examples that have the same relevant sentence structure, but more complicated clauses.

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