Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

She Can Do It; She Can Help.

Posted by Neal on August 4, 2009

Unless there’s leftover pizza, Adam’s regular breakfast these days is Cheerios, bacon, and apple juice. Morning after morning I’ve read the weaselly claims on the Cheerios box about how it will can eliminate reduce help reduce your cholesterol levels, and Doug and I have had fun pointing out all the hedges that appear in the claims. Help in particular is one that I learned to watch for, back when we did the unit on advertising back in eighth grade language arts. Cheerios uses the word help a lot, but even so, I was more annoyed than usual to read it on the back of this box, where a woman is gushing:

I can help lower my cholesterol 10% in one month?

I'm so happy! This is like, the best news I've heard all year!

Part of my annoyance with this ad was the fake enthusiasm on this woman’s face, all because of this awesome news about her favorite cereal. More was from how the copywriters had finally crossed the line, entering territory where help ceases to mean anything. To be sure, help hasn’t meant anything for the non-savvy ad reader for years; it’s just the obligatory verb that introduces whatever more significant verb comes next: help fight, help reduce, help control, help increase, etc. Those who have been alerted to the tricky language, though, know that help means “we’ll do some of the work, but you have to work, too.” Wait, what am I talking about — doesn’t every English speaker know that’s what help means? Sure, but it’s just so common in advertisements, it tends to pass unnoticed.

However, the writers for this ad seem to have fallen for their own trick. This woman will can help lower her cholesterol. In other words: She can do it; she can help. Cheerios, I suppose, will can help her help herself.

This failure to take a change of point of view into account reminds me of people who record a message on their voice mailbox saying,

Leave a message and I will call you back at my earliest convenience.

To them, it apparently doesn’t sound like they’re saying, “I’ll call you back as soon as I can. Maybe. If I feel like it.” All they know is that people who leave them messages say, “Please call me at your earliest convenience,” so they’ll honor that request by calling at their earliest convenience.

There’s another failure to mark a shift in point of view in an episode of The Simpsons (thanks to Heidi Harley for documenting this one):

Movie mucky-mucks: Look, we wanna buy this movie and we’re prepared to offer you anything!
Skinner: We’re prepared to accept anything!

Is there a term for this thing I’ve been calling “failure to mark a shift in point of view”? Any pragmaticists care to weigh in?

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8 Responses to “She Can Do It; She Can Help.”

  1. hsgudnason said

    Isn’t this a variation on nerdspeak that Geoffrey Pullum and others discuss on Language Log?

    • Neal said

      I’ve read the posts on nerdspeak, but I don’t remember this topic coming up, and even now it doesn’t strike me as the same thing. But I’m open to being convinced.

  2. Viola said

    “Leave a message and I will call you back at my earliest convenience.” That pretty much says you’ll call back if you darn well feel like it, when you feel like it, or perhaps never, if it inconveniences you. It’s a polite, professional way of screening calls for those who bother to read (or rather listen) between the lines. It also tells the message leaver that the message taker prioritizes his/her calls.

  3. The Ridger said

    After all, “I’ll call you back as soon as I can” – even just “I’ll get back to you” – is a lie, unless you really intend to answer all those calls you’re (if you’re like me) are deliberately not answering. “At my earliest convenience” is not how I’d put it (“leave a message and I’ll get to it”), but it’s certainly honest (though, truthfully, I expect it’s really what you’re saying, just a pronoun substitution that fails to mark the distinction).

  4. Sagan said

    I’m always fascinated by the way advertisements work. Most of the word choices don’t really mean anything (like the word “help”)… they’re vague enough to capture attention without saying anything at all.

    I like your interpretation of the voice mailbox message.

  5. Neal, I am very happy to have found your blog. I was a linguistics minor and have just left soul-crushing cubicle land to pursue my TESL certification. I also am very literal-minded.🙂 I look forward to reading you regularly.

  6. dgm said

    I feel morally superior when I hear “Please leave me a message and I’ll return it as soon as I can.” You’ll return my message? That’s rude!

  7. Viola said

    @dgm:
    Kind of like returning a gift to the giver. That’s mighty literal of you!

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