or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A La Mode

You know what a modal verb is, right? The people at Lexus don't.

Just in case you don't, here's a quick refresher. A modal is sort of a supplemental verb (it's also known as an auxiliary) that conveys a sense of intentionality, possibility, or obligation. "Ought to", "must", "might", "could", "will", and "should" are all modal verbs that alter the main verb in subtle but important ways. "I might go", "I ought to go", and "I will go" all express different meanings. (Lots more here.)

The crucial thing about a modal, though, is that it doesn't stand on its own: it's latched to another verb, and the two together are what form the whole verb. As usual, in English you can under the right circumstances delete the verb itself, as long as that verb is understood or implicit. As here:

"Are you going to tell her?"
"I ought to."

The "tell her" is implicit in the second sentence, so the modal can seem to stand on its own; it's still invisibly tethered to the verb and its object, though.

So have a look at that ad up there, from the back cover of the latest New Yorker. Click on it to blow it up, if you need to. Do you see the problem? It's a list of modals, followed by a verb in a different typeface, and this would not bother me except that lower down, the same verb, in the same contrasting typeface, is inserted into a sentence. The thrust of the ad is clear: the company isn't just going to try to do something new, it's actually doing it. The problem is that you can't substitute the verb in the sentence with any of the modals, because they've all been stripped of their main verb, which is "to be". For the ad to make sense as it was clearly intended, you would have had to add the active verb to each of the modals in turn: "could be", "might be", "will be", "should be".

It seems clear that the ad's designer was going for punch rather than any kind of grammatical meaning, hoping that we would fill in the active verb ourselves. It doesn't work that way.

It's probably futile to insist that advertisers write grammatically correct copy, but I can still gripe about it.


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