First Impressions are Crucial


When writing goes wrong

“First impressions are cruical.”

This was the text for a link to… a resume writing service. Yes, ironic. And not in the Alanis Morissette sense of ironic.

But perhaps this resume writing service was being run by the person on LinkedIn who recently listed her occupation as “Professional Resume Writer, Competency Based Interveiw Coach, and Career Strategist.” She might be the grown-up version of the student whose theatre program bio indicated that she was “obtaining a duel Honours degree in English and Film.”

Sure, those are just typos. But they’re typos from people who ostensibly should know better. And this writer can’t leave things like that alone.

I love words. I especially love how they come together to make sentences, and sense, when I’m doing a good job. I’ve been a writer since I was about four; my first illustrated story, The Sun is Shining, The Flowers are Happy, made the bestseller list on my family fridge. Despite other plans and various vocational detours, including earning a degree in geology, I ended up becoming a writer. I know I’m one of the very lucky ones: I get paid for doing this. (And my screenplay will be finished eventually.) That said, I’ve created text so tangled that I’m amazed that I do get paid for doing this. So when I find some of these mistakes, I think of how adept I am with cooking (“Laurie, what’s that smell??!!”) or home repairs (“You fixed the toilet with dental floss??!!?”) or anything requiring hand-eye coordination (“Tell that story about the time you hit yourself in the face with a tennis racquet!”), and find myself feeling a lot less obnoxiously smug. And when I can, I try to help out. I’ll often e-mail webmasters about typos on their sites. Once I got this automated response: “We will act on it as soon as posible.” Ow.

Restaurant menus are a particular favourite of mine. For instance, the Indian restaurant that offered “[y]our choice of vegetable curses.” Curses on the vegetables? Curses from the vegetables? Either way, I was entirely entertained.

I also loved the restaurant window sign that advertised a “prefix” dinner. I assume they meant “prix fixe.” Unless it was an offering of only appetizers. In which case, reserve me a spot for the all-dessert “suffix” dinner.

Sometimes the words are all spelled correctly — and are the correct words — and the syntax is correct, and still the message goes awry. One of my “that’s not what I meant” all-stars is from a mall that was undergoing some renovations. “Washrooms closed due to construction. Please use food court.” “…and that’s why I’ve been banned from the mall…”

Occasionally, what you thought you were saying is different from what the reader sees. I was editing a magazine article about financial planning after a divorce. But that’s not what I thought it was about when I read the title. “You’ve Decided To End It — Now What?” Until I pointed it out, no one else had seen what appeared to be an article about suicide.

Not that writers will always spot the problems in a sentence. Sometimes it’s understanding simple human biology. The ad promoting “Father’s Day deals for the man who gave birth to you” gave me pause. I don’t recall my biological father being a seahorse, but I was really young when I was born, and don’t remember the details.

However, once in a while, yes, sentence structure will trip you up. From an eyeglass website: “From pretty princess glasses to super hero models, these frames will help your children see clearly while sitting comfortably on their face.” First off, those kids would have to be very flexible to sit on their faces, never mind “comfortably.” And to my thinking, no matter how good those glasses are, they won’t help you see clearly if you’re sitting on your face.

Mistakes like these happen all the time. Despite the intervention of teachers and parents and librarians and all the other people who love language, not all of us become adept with it. I was fortunate: I had one grammar drill mistress in Grade 5, but most of my language lessons came from the thousands of books I’ve read since I first unlocked the secrets of the black marks.

But I still know there are gonna be days when I’m not going to get it right, so I should just hush up when I see that signboard that advertises “ice-cold frozen drinks.”