Thursday, May 2, 2013

Grammatical shysterism (3) – McDonald’s

Most writers who make mistakes in grammar do it unintentionally. But some writers do it intentionally, in order to trick people. I call this behavior grammatical shysterism: abusing grammar as a shyster lawyer would abuse it.*

An example of grammatical shysterism
If you stop at the drive-through window at McDonald’s and ask for a Honey Mustard Snack Wrap, the cashier will ask, “grilled or crispy?” Every time, every cashier will ask it the same way: “grilled or crispy?”

And in writing, McDonald’s carefully uses the exact same language: “grilled or crispy.” Such diligent consistency in marketing is one characteristic of large, successful marketers.

However, there is an odd inconsistency within the phrase itself. It is grammatically non-parallel.** Grilled is a past participle referring to a specific method of cooking food. Crispy is an adjective describing food after it has been prepared by an unspecified method of cooking.

In short, McDonald’s uses the word crispy as a way to avoid saying the word fried. But why? 

Don’t speak of the devil

McDonald’s probably knows, from its extensive market research and concept testing, that many customers who believe fried food is unhealthy will buy it if the seller doesn’t actively remind them that the food has been fried. So McDonald’s, by consistently refusing to write or utter the word fried, is cheerfully helping these customers pretend that the chicken has not been fried.

Think I’m making this up? Look at the Honey Mustard Snack Wrap (Crispy) page on the web site. You will see the more-general words cooked and prepared. But not the more-specific word fried. Not even once.

This is egregious, malignant shysterism, reminiscent of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s infamous discussion of what the meaning of is is.

I could be wrong

Of course, I could be wrong in my assumptions. It is possible that the product is not fried. And is possible that all the creative directors, copywriters, editors, proofreaders, supervisors, marketing directors and marketing vice presidents at McDonald’s, the immensely successful global marketer, are just careless writers. Possible but improbable.

The Takeaway: It’s understandable and forgivable to make inadvertent mistakes in grammar; we all do it. But we should always avoid grammatical shysterism. If you’re an honest person, never talk or write like a shyster; people may assume that you are a shyster.

See disclaimer.

*Thanks to Janice L. Brown, a colleague and a clear writer, for coining the term grammatical shysterism.

**A famous example of non-parallelism is the question, “Do you like it better in the city or in the summer?”

1 comment:

  1. So sneaky! And really, it's a double-whammy of shysterism, because not only does "crispy" probably disguise fried, but humans are programmed (from our primitive days in the jungle) to associate crispness with freshness--or so I read somewhere recently. Think of apples: crispy, fresh; mealy, not so good.