Sunday, December 11, 2016

Writing 101: Retail Rhetoric, or Who's Your Dictionary?

As we get closer to the Holidays and survive the "every day is Black Friday" sales period, I'm constantly amazed by one phrase which has become more and more common in advertising over the past few years: BOGO.

Technically, as I'm sure everyone knows, "BOGO" stands for "Buy One, Get One" - but what confuses me is: if you're buying one, then shouldn't you assume that you're getting one?

I won't lie: since what they really mean is "Buy One (at full price), Get Another (at some reduced rate)," I kind of wish they had to say that.

Okay. I realize that I'm being a bit pedantic in this, but in a world where TV ads frequently have huge, long disclaimers - and when store coupons frequently have more "not good for..." sections than "good for..." sections - doesn't it seem odd that advertisers can get away with this? 

Here's the thing, though: advertisers assume (mostly correctly) that their audience will understand exactly what they mean. In other words, their connotation (context-based understanding) of the word/phrase is more important than the denotation (dictionary defined meaning) of the actual word/phrase.

(Sorry. I know this is a nerdy bit. I'd apologize, but I put in a lot of hours in English classes and this is one of the strange bits that seems to have really stuck.)

How does this apply to writing (whether for advertising or a novel)? Because if you and your audience have the same points of view, then you'll probably have matching connotations (contextual meanings) for almost all words.

On the other hand, if you have different points of reference, although the words you're using may have the same denotations (dictionary meanings), they may not have the same connotations (contextual meanings).

Consider the meaning of "cool" and "hot." The denotative meanings would certainly label each of them as having to do with scales of temperature. But connotations are obviously different. A "cool" woman doesn't necessarily have a lower body temperature than a "hot" man.

Even so, if you're reader doesn't know that those words have secondary meanings he or she could be incredibly confused by what you mean. This gets even more confusing when you start working with technical jargon or language which is very specific to the genre you're writing in.

If you're not sure how to work explanations into your writing to make certain that you and your readers are all speaking the same language, it can often be as easy as adding a parenthetical comment (as I've done above), or by having a character (or the narrator) explain it. (And, of course, an editor can always help with this.)

All things being equal - which is seldom true when speaking of language - everyone will come out the other side with exactly what they expected. Much like when you buy one, and get ... well... whatever it is you're expecting to get.

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