Friday, October 9, 2009

Bait and Switch

All the self-styled language experts have been publicly wailing about the decay of American English for decades now, but,obviously it hasn't decayed. We can still talk and understand each other, except, perhaps people over 30 who do not understand rap. So, as a linguist, I have to pooh pooh those experts. English is not doomed. Spoken English, that is.

However, literacy is another matter. The written language is not the same as the spoken. In fact, every normal person learns to speak without being taught, but everyone has to learn to read and write. The standards for reading and writing, including spelling and punctuation, are largely arbitrary and don't match the spoken language completely. In English, as it happens, the fit between writing and speaking is especially poor, so that people need intensive training to learn the orthography.

As a professor of linguistics for the past 37 years, I saw for myself how literacy skills have been steadily declining. Even my brightest students would use site when they meant sight or cite, for instance. One student wrote me that she was "nurodic," which I finally figured out meant neurotic. Such errors are, woefully, not unusual.

As I discovered last week, this can have severe real world consequences. In the story I am about to tell, I almost became a victim of bait and switch because the company's advertisers didn't know how to spell or how to understand what they had themselves written.

In early September, I received an envelope with a handwritten address from a local gym equipment store from which I had bought a $4,500 treadmill some years ago. There was a handwritten note inside, asking me to correct all the misspellings in an enclosed printed article, a promo piece for a new piece of equipment. The article promised a $100 discount for each error, to be applied to an expensive cross-trainer, which I had no interest in. But, the article went on to say, and I quote:

'What if I want something else?

Don't worry. We know we need to be fair to everyone, so we'll
let you apply your spelling sale discount to many of the other
products that we sell... In fact, we will even allow you to apply
your spelling sale discount to many of the home gyms that we sell
.' (italics mine)

It also said that if you found 35 errors, you'd get the $3,500 cross-trainer for nothing. Sounded like a good deal for me, and I did want a home gym, so I sat down to try to find the 35 errors. Try as I might, I could only find 24, but this still gave me a $2,400 spelling discount.

I bopped over to the store, whipped out my copy of the article with the errors circled. The sales manager blanched. "Oh," he said. "There are actually only 12 errors!" and showed me the answer key with which he had been provided. Indeed, only 12 words were highlighted as being erroneous. I carefully showed him that whoever wrote this promo piece had missed even the most egregious errors. For proof, I whipped out my iPhone which has a dictionary app (the Random House Unabridged, which is reliable), and showed him each word. Chagrined, he said that the misspellings discount could only be applied to the cross-trainers.

However, when I showed him the promo article, he then agreed to show me home gyms that would be eligible. He suggested one for $2,500, which meant I'd have to pay another $100 plus delivery, installation, and sales tax, a total of $368.00. He sent me home to measure my ceilings to make sure the gym would fit into our basement rec room. But he did say that he'd have to check with his manager. The manager must've been very upset. He thought they'd fixed it so that the largest discount the store would have to give was $1,2000, having no idea how many spelling errors there really were.

Later on, when the salesman phoned to set up delivery, I suddenly got an urge to ask,

"And it's for the agreed upon price?"

"What was the agreed on price," he countered.

When I answered, "$368," he waffled and said, "Oh, the best I can do for you is to let you have it for $1,500 + delivery and taxes."

My response was, "Huh?"

His answer was that the manager said the spelling discount was only for the cross-trainer. I referred him to the promo piece, quoted above. He became clearly confused.

"Oh, be reasonable. They have a tag on them for a 20% discount" he said.

To this I responded, "What? I didn't come into this store for a 20% off discount. And you showed me the invoice price of $2,500, not a discounted price. Besides, I was lured in by the misspelling promo, and, if you showed me home gyms that weren't eligible for that promo, then you deliberately misled me!"

In fact, there was a lie in the promo piece itself. Recall, it said, "If you find 35 errors, you'll get $3,500..." Yet, by their reckoning there were only 12 errors. However, the implication was clear that there were 35 errors. To make matters worse, by denying that that a home gym was eligible, they were contradicting their own words. Since the salesman himself told me which home gym I should get, so, if that one was not "one of the many" the article deemed as eligible, then that was a clear case of bait and switch.

Do I think the company set out to deceive? I don't know for sure, but I think what probably really happened was (1)they don't know how to spell, (2) thus, they didn't know how many errors they had made, and (3) that they didn't realize that implication is as much a part of meaning as the actual words used, so that by saying "If you find 35" the implication is that there are 35.

I'm placing a complaint with the Attorney General's Office of Consumer Affairs. Meanwhile, businesses should be scrambling to teach their employees how to spell, how to write, and how to read.

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