On the Many Grammatical Sins of Starbucks

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 30 2011 2:42 PM

Copy-Editing the Culture: The Holiday Horrors of Starbucks, Wendy’s, and a Foreign Film

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Customers queue for coffee at Starbucks Coffee inside the Dulles International Airport in August.

Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Recently, Copy-Editing the Culture spent some time in the woods, looking for a tree with which to decorate his modest living room. The search took time: Copy-Editing the Culture, a believer in woodland nonaggression, sought a fir that had been felled by natural causes. He also sought a tree with few pine needles. (An unfortunate incident, some years back, left Copy-Editing the Culture’s floorboards littered with bits of dry pine foliage that—like so many misplaced commas—nearly ruined his New Year.) Eventually, he found the ideal specimen, a long, erect branch protruding from the trunk of a fir that had tumbled over, perhaps in a storm. The branch had lost its needles, except for a small and elegant tuft on one end. Copy-Editing the Culture wielded his modest handsaw with delight. At home, he perched the miniature tree in a bowl of water and decorated it with a single, lovely ornament (shaped like a period). There is nothing like a handsome, denuded fir to help conjure the holiday mood.  

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

The coming month marks one of Copy-Editing the Culture’s favorite times of year. Although he considers himself agnostic in pure matters of faith—he was raised to be a Chicagoan but recently converted to Associated Pressbyterianism for reasons of love and career—he enjoys the holidays’ exuberant spirit and convivial trappings. Each year, to mark the season, he undertakes charity work in his community, tutoring small and ignorant children in the art of sentence diagramming. He prepares stylish greeting cards for his friends and family, using pages from the old, outdated MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing for collage effects. He builds snowmen in the form of Samuel Johnson. Certain dreamy Yuletide evenings, he even enjoys his nightly mug of boiling water with a wedge of orange rind and a modest curl of cinnamon. The holidays may be a sacred time, but they also mark, he thinks, a period for quiet indulgence.

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Indulgence, though, is not the same as dangerous leniency. This week, Copy-Editing the Culture stumbled on a misuse of the printed language so gross and offensive that his festive mood was ruined at once. The horrific event took place when he ducked into a Starbucks coffee shop to warm himself with a cup of the darkest brew. Starbucks, being a large, commercial enterprise, carries slogans. The new one this season: “Let’s merry.

Copy-Editing the Culture had already been put on edge by the coffee shop’s grammatically dubious customer-summoning language. (Quoth the cashier, “Can I help the following guest?”—a hideous phrase that’s off-mark from its first word to its last, particularly as it raises the question “Following what?”) He had been shaken by the coffee shop’s stylistic inconsistency, too. (The shop’s drink-size appellations shift, inexplicably, from general descriptions to specific numerals—and, what’s more, from English to Italian.) On seeing the terrible slogan, he could barely contain himself. He stood frozen. His mouth fell open. He may, in fact, have cried out.

“Merry” is an adjective. “Let’s,” as in “let us,” as in “permit us to,” demands a verb. Presumably, this slogan represents some effort to make a pun. The effort fails. Would Starbucks write, “Let’s funny” or “Let’s delicious”? Apparently, Starbucks would. Customers ought to be concerned: Word play at the expense of grammar is not play at all. It’s antisocial.

Stumbling out into the late-autumn day, desperate for something to take his mind off this effrontery, Copy-Editing the Culture checked the movie listings. What an error! The first film that he noticed was Goodbye First Love, a French-German romance going into limited release just in time for the holidays. Copy-Editing the Culture fell back into a nearby bench and felt a “venti”-size serving of joy drain from his soul. This unpunctuated mess of a title—a travesty, given the perfection of the original, Un amour de jeunesse—raises nothing but questions. Is it attempting to say “Goodbye first, love” (and hello later)? Or is it a case of direct address to one’s first love—“Goodbye, first love”? Or, more bafflingly still, is it a random compilation of three words—“Goodbye, first, love”—that might carry some box-office appeal? Copy-Editing the Culture would not put such desperate efforts past the movie-making business.

Everywhere, bad-grammar forces seem to be conspiring to ruin his holidays. A reader recently reported on a curious Wendy’s notice: “Nothing says ‘Happy Holidays’ like something hot ’n juicy.” If that’s true, it is only because nothing but Wendy’s says “hot ’n juicy.” If “and” is to be contracted—a measure that Copy-Editing the Culture does not entirely approve of—it must be done with two apostrophes, “’n’,” reflecting the absence not merely of the A but of the D. Otherwise, the contraction is, like so much this holiday season, a grim disappointment.

Spot a grammar clunker in the cultural limelight? Send it to copyeditingtheculture@gmail.com.

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