Rumination 64: Tautological Torture

Over the years, something that has stood out to me in advertising and business is the excessive use of tautology. If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘tautology’, Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition: ‘The saying of the same thing twice over in different words, generally considered to be a fault of style (e.g. they arrived one after the other in succession)‘.

Consider, for example, the phrases ‘safe haven’ and ‘pre-prepared plan’: havens are safe by definition and plans are always prepared, not to mention the word ‘prepared’ already contains the prefix ‘pre-’, which denotes the idea of occurring beforehand anyway.

In advertising for retail businesses, you’ll often see numerous tautologies included just to make it sound like you’re about to receive much more value as a customer. You see, companies want you to believe that you’re getting the best deal. Here are some examples:

  • ‘Plus a bonus item’ — ‘plus’ and ‘bonus’ both mean ‘additional’;
  • ‘Added extras’ — extras can only be added;
  • ‘Further accessories’ — accessories are never the main event; and
  • ‘Free gift’ — have you ever paid to receive your own gift?

Whenever I encounter this kind of useless language in television advertisements or on signage, I find it annoying and perplexing. First, the language is clumsy and unnecessary; why not just reduce the wording to communicate clearly and efficiently? Second, I fear that many people really do fall for this stuff. Third—and this is the big one—it concerns me that the people who are employed to write such advertising copy don’t realise that their use of language sounds stupid, therefore continuing to think that it is professional, elegant and proper.

One unexpected example of retail tautology struck me this week, consequently arousing the third point in my mind from the above paragraph. You can see it in the image below, which was taken at our local Woolworths.

In case you can’t read it properly, this overhead sign in an aisle is advertising packs of reusable food containers for two dollars. Under the large (main) price, however, it notes the price for separate food containers, which is 40 cents. The smaller text says ‘40¢ per ea’.

40¢ per ea

I stopped in the aisle and stared at this, confused by what I was reading. Was this sign actually displaying a slightly shorter way of saying ‘per each’? If that was true, one might as well have written ‘per per’ or ‘each each’! Surely ‘40¢ each’ would have been sufficient and correct for the sign.

After taking the photo and walking away, I reconsidered things and thought to myself, ‘Aha, the part that only says ”ea” must be an abbreviation or contraction of something, like “item” or “unit” instead’.

Well, after some basic searching on the Web, I confirmed this to be the case. When writing ‘per ea’, the ‘ea’ part indeed means one unit—it’s just a way that businesses tend to shorten it. Still, I wasn’t satisfied without knowing what ‘ea’ was actually shortening… then I found this, which confirms that ‘ea’ really does shorten the word ‘each’!

Thinking about this, although ‘ea’ stands for an individual unit, some bright spark in the business world decided to invent the phrase ‘per ea’, knowing full well that the latter part simply stood for the word ‘each’ and doubled things up, when words such as ‘item’, ‘product’, ‘unit’, ‘object’, ‘goods’, ‘wares’, ‘merchandise’, ‘article’ and ‘produce’ were already available in the English language.

Let’s not forget that the main price in larger font also contains the letters ‘ea’, which in this context refers to each package, rather than each unit. Each ‘ea’ for ‘each’ technically means something different. What a mess!

In the typical style of overused initialisms like ‘ROI’, ambiguous terms like ‘synergy’ and ‘learnings’ and empty phrases such as ‘touch base’, ‘circle back’ and ‘take offline’, businesspeople have invented a useless, confusing, tautological phrase to refer back to an item in an abbreviated form that could have been noted simply with the word ‘each’ next to a price.

Ultimately in closing the end of this rumination to achieve a result, I’d like to finish finally with this culminating conclusion on broader linguistic habits (including and beyond tautology): people in business simply like to complicate things to appear specialised and intelligent, then need to shorten things to make them easier and quicker to say, which then leads those who follow them to accept such constructions blindly with little idea of what they mean and why they came to be.

The End


Rumination 63: Sole of an Adult

A term that I’ve read repeatedly online over the years is ‘adulting’. Generally, twenty-somethings carry on painfully about how they feel like they’re ‘adulting’, just because they managed to open a savings account, go shopping for groceries or choose to stay home on a Friday night (rather than head out with friends to embarrass themselves while intoxicated at a slimy late-night venue with an entrance fee and toilet cubicles sans doors).

In case you haven’t got the vibe, I find the term ‘adulting’ to be tiresome and an Insta-shriek for attention.

Yet this week, I noticed a change in myself that could be categorised as ‘adulting’. As background, for some time I have been wearing shoes to work that could best be described as—in my own ignorant parlance—low-cut, matte, suede-ish dress boots. They are comfortable, easily paired with both formal and smart-casual outfits and quick to slip on and lace up. Unfortunately, they have faded heavily and the soles have become warped. It’s not the best look to turn up to work this way but I have been unable to decide which other pair of shoes in my cupboard would be appropriate; you see, they’re all more expensive, more formal and more fragile.

On the weekend, while shopping and out for lunch with Natasha and her mum, it occurred to me that I should buy new shoes. I needed a pair that was, as I have already stated, appropriate for smart-casual and more formal situations but also more durable than my current boots.

Natasha was pleased to hear that we were going to a visit a shoe shop; she then helped me to pick out a comfortable leather shoe with more of a sneaker sole: comfier, more durable and inconspicuous in black. Perfect!

As I stood at the counter, making inane conversation with the shop attendant about the security of Apple Pay, it hit me: while already an adult for years, I was in the process of ‘adulting’. Natasha was happy to visit the shoe shop because I avoided shoe-shopping for so long. I was wearing my shoes into the ground because that’s what I did as a kid. Shoe-shopping is boring.

There I was, as an adult, standing in a shop to buy work shoes because they were a necessary and sensible purchase, all the while discussing the necessity of a secure enclave on a wrist-worn device for tap payments.

In 2020, with these new, totally unremarkable yet comfortable shoes, I am fully adult.

Rumination 62: Carelessness

As a lifelong Mac user and general Apple fan, I believe strongly in caring for what are quite expensive, well-designed devices.

As a sign of my commitment to keeping products as close to their original condition as possible, I once took my then seven-year old unibody MacBook for a trackpad repair (where I worked at the time) and was told by the technician that it was the most pristine item that he had ever seen brought into the shop.

Not everyone, however, is as careful as this. I was reminded of just how unusual and careless some computer use can be during my recent flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. Across the aisle from me, a young man had a 13-inch MacBook Pro in the pouch of the seat in front of him and was using an iPhone 11 Pro. When he wasn’t sleeping, he watched consecutive instalments of the Fast and Furious franchise on his iPhone. First, this was the unusual part: rather than preload his movie files (from iTunes in the TV app) to watch on the Mac’s larger display, he held the iPhone in his lap, hunching forwards and looking down. It’s odd not to want to use a larger display for movies but fair enough.

Then came the careless part, which made this choice seem stranger: tired of holding the iPhone and straining his neck to look down, he removed his Mac from the pouch, put it on the folding tray table and opened the lid slightly, in order to sandwich the iPhone between the trackpad and the top of the lid. He was using his pricey, current-generation MacBook Pro as an iPhone stand.

Eventually, he became tired of this too, as his iPhone repeatedly slipped out from underneath the display, hitting his Mac’s trackpad with a frustrating crunch. What was the solution? He closed his Mac’s lid and propped up the iPhone against the back of the seat in front of him, probably hoping that the person in front would not recline. Fortunately, they didn’t. Still, his iPhone slipped more than once.

I understand that not every Apple product user is going to be as much of a fan as I am. Damage happens and my own devices aren’t in perfect condition. What baffles me is that people who can afford such products are generally ungrateful for them and treat them poorly. Casting my mind back to when I worked for an authorised Apple reseller, I can recall people who brought in desktop Mac’s with heavily dinted edges, iPods that had been dropped in toilets, iPhones with smashed and missing bezels and laptops full of dog hair. I also remember my wife Natasha mentioning how she once distributed new staff iPads during a meeting, with one staff member deciding to place soy crisps on the her new iPad’s display like a plate, while it sat flat on the table in front of her.

More and more, we see people buying products that they perhaps don’t even need, just to fulfil their own personal desires or aspiration for fashion and status. Not once did this guy turn on his laptop during the entire 14-hour flight. This is the true mark of consumerism: not just lots of unnecessary stuff, but also treating it as disposable.

There are people all over the world who would love to be able to afford such devices. As those who are privileged, being careful with and grateful for what we have is the least that we can do to justify what we buy.

Rumination 61: Automation Visualised

Something that we hear about frequently these days is how we need to prepare for the future of work. With the growing use of automation, artificial intelligence and online services, many different jobs that are currently performed by humans will continue to be taken over by efficient machines.

People will apparently have to focus on developing soft skills and creativity—the very things that make them human and superior to a machine. That is, at least until machines are so advanced that they can replicate or outperform humans in creative endeavours. Really, nothing is safe.

We’re already in the midst of this seismic societal shift and for those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, it’s generally referred to as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or ‘Industry 4.0’ (I cringe at the second moniker).

As far as I’m concerned, although many of the technologies that are replacing (and will continue to replace) humans are new, the trend of replacing humans in general is not. There’s a reason that it’s referred to as the fourth revolution: this has all happened before. Humanity survived the earlier march of mechanisation.

Still, while I try to retain some optimism for the future and remember that history does tend to repeat itself, it does feel strange and somewhat unsettling to see tangible examples of this societal shift in person. This isn’t just a future thing; it’s happening now.

One instance of such human replacement presented itself when my wife and I went to see a movie on the weekend. Upon entering the cinema with our tickets in Apple Wallet, already booked online, we expected to go to a counter to have a human scan our barcodes and let us through the foyer. This was not the case; we were confronted by a normal counter, which one would expect to see manned, but instead had automatic scanners and printers ready to receive us in front of where a person would normally be standing.

To be clear, we are accustomed to seeing automatic checkouts at supermarkets; the difference there is that it is a new kind of space in the supermarket, with a series of computers and scanners arranged appropriately with a human stationed nearby to provide assistance. In the case of the cinema ticket counter, machines had been installed into the very place where a human being would traditionally stand. This was not the creation of a new interface or service context; it was the presentation of pure human replacement, an awkward transition into what the company clearly envisages to be the future.

All in all, the movie was most enjoyable and we had a great evening. That being said, there was something strange and lacking about going into a cinema, which is fundamentally a public place, and not having to deal with a person in receiving a ticket. There was no one there to rip a ticket, scan a digital equivalent or simply say, ‘Enjoy the movie’.

Yes, this is one small example of automation out of many possible situations, however it is a noticeable change that can affect how you understand and move through such a space. It alters the experience. Cinemas should be competing with automated alternatives in the home like Netflix by providing a human-service experience, not falling into the trap of dehumanising their service offerings and ultimately losing their point of differentiation.

We should ask ourselves: in the quest for incredible efficiency over ‘slow’ human interaction, what are we losing in the long run?

Rumination 60: CAPITALISEm

Perhaps the simplest of all grammatical concepts is the noun. If you went to an Australian public school, as I did, teachers often gave a very clear and concise explanation for what constitutes a noun: it is either a person, place or thing (notice that each explanatory word is a noun itself!).

Of course, it’s much more interesting than this. You can have general nouns, concrete nouns, abstract nouns, gerunds, collective nouns… the list goes on.

What I find confuses people most however, is the difference between common and proper nouns in English. Oxford English Dictionary defines them as follows:

Common noun: a noun denoting a class of objects or a concept as opposed to a particular individual; and

Proper noun: a name used for an individual person, place or organisation, spelled with an initial capital letter, e.g. Jane, London and Oxfam.

Quite simply, the difference is whether the noun deserves a capital letter or not. A place name, such as ‘Melbourne’, deserves one, but a general word like ‘milk’ does not.

In languages like German, it’s different—all nouns are assigned a capital letter, regardless of their significance or what they represent. A proper noun like Otto, the abstract noun Fröhlichkeit (cheerfulness) and the common noun Milch (milk) all have capitals in German.

Back to English, you just have to learn to understand the difference and deal with what seems to be (but isn’t) inconsistent. Unfortunately, too many people fail to understand this distinction and include capital letters in common nouns. To give you an example, consider the qualification ‘Master of Business Administration’. In this particular name, all the nouns ‘master’, ‘business’ and ‘administration’ are common, but combined they form the official title of a qualification, which earns them the right to have a capital letter. The title is a proper noun in the form of a group.

I have noticed increasingly, however, that people see such titles and do not realise that they are in title case; instead, they believe that all fields—whether business administration, science, engineering or law—are all official things that require a capital letter.

It has become such a visual scourge online (at least for me), that I have chosen to classify it with a new term: CAPITALISEm.

The growing phenomenon of CAPITALISEm is not confined to professional spheres; it’s also prevalent on retail signage. This week, I spotted this puzzling example at a Myer shop, which looks like it was written by someone who thinks that Everything on the Sign is really important.

Over 60 Security Cameras, together with trained Security Personnel and Merchandise Tagging Systems are used in this store This provides even greater Safety, Security and Merchandise Protection for our valued customers

After reading this sign, one could assume that there are 60 people called ‘Security Camera’, one person by the name of ‘Security Personnel’ and an indeterminable number of people called ‘Merchandise Tagging Systems’. Furthermore, they are all being ‘used’ in some way, which I don’t wish to imagine.

Moving to the next sentence, the writer has switched to the German tradition of capitalising the abstract nouns ‘Safety’, ‘Security’ and ‘Merchandise Protection’—all undoubtedly significant elements of the human condition. Finally, the beneficiaries of these abstract nouns are ‘Valued Customers’. I can only assume that Myer believes that all visitors to its shops are called ‘Valued Customer’.

The icing on the cake is that neither of the two sentences end with a full stop and only one noun on the entire sign has not been granted the privilege of CAPITALISEm: ‘store’. With the capitalisation of this common noun, someone at Myer could have convinced me that they were going for some sort of super-innovative retail title case, however this reveals that it was in fact only foolish inconsistency. Someone wrote this poorly, someone ordered it to be made, someone made it and then someone put it on the wall. Nowhere along the line did someone look at this and say, ‘This looks ridiculous’.

Moreover, it is possible that with a logo in all capital letters, MYER is Australia’s leading advocate for the new wave of CAPITALISEm. The company clearly cannot envisage a world in which the capital letter does not reign SUPREME.

The next time that you read a Post online about the growing Importance of measurable Data in effective Brand Storytelling or browse a Menu and choose to order roast Lamb with a red Wine Jus on a bed of mashed Potato, grilled Asparagus and Cherry Tomatoes, point out these rogue, nonsensical capital letters and ensure that you do not fall into the same habit in your writing.