Saturday, June 21, 2008

Cereals in the hands of an angry blog

Attention, shoppers: Post is marketing "Vintage Package Editions" of Grape-Nuts, Raisin Bran, and Spoon Size Shredded Wheat, three of its dowdier cereals. The boxes are pretty graceless objects, heavy on drab brown-yellow-pinks that recall the Formica surfaces found in mid-20th-century school lunchrooms. As far as I can tell, these boxes correspond to no Post designs of the past. But it's not the fake-vintage look that appalls me; it's the shoddy work on the backs of the Grape-Nuts and Spoon Size Shredded Wheat boxes. (Raisin Bran, for some reason, went its own way, free of error.)

Consider the back of the Grape-Nuts box:



[Click for larger versions.]
The word its at the top right should be it's.

Two dates (!) are given for the invention of Grape-Nuts: 1897 and 1898.

The word man (in the 1978 sentence) takes us back to the language of an old textbook. The word is also oddly used: it's not the several-thousand-year-old "man" who made bread into a cereal but C.W. Post.

The word compliment (in the 1995 sentence) should be complement: "Grape-Nuts is a nutritious complement to a healthy lifestyle." The sentence needs work though in larger ways:
Approaching the millennium, the 90's were all about taking stock — and rediscovering that Grape-Nuts is a nutritious complement to a healthy lifestyle.
Approaching is a dangling participle, and a silly one: the decade wasn't approaching the millennium, no more than Saturday is approaching Sunday. It seems silly too to associate Grape-Nuts with a thousand-year mark on a calendar. The words "taking stock" and "healthy lifestyle" suggest that people were giving up their 1980s (no apostrophe) lives of excess (cocaine and Studio 54) for Grape-Nuts. And cereal is, logically, not a complement to a way of life but a part of it. Better:
In the 1990s, Grape-Nuts gained even greater popularity as a nutritious part of healthy living.
This box is further distinguished by typographical blunders and oddities. There is no discernible logic to the use of red and blue text. Grape-Nuts is sometimes red, sometimes blue, sometimes in italics, sometimes not. Why (in the 1955 sentence) is for energy in red and an explorer in blue-bold? Note too how clumsy the design is: the words in red often fall below the baseline, and their spacing is often off:
The back of the Spoon Size Shredded Wheat box is another mess:


[Click for larger versions.]
The 1892 sentence is a wreck of punctuation and syntax:
Lawyer and inventor, Henry Drushel Perky's, experiments in Watertown, New York with business partner, William Henry Ford, prove fruitful when they finally succeed in making a machine that shreds whole wheat.
This sentence is cluttered and ungainly, and it carries the goofy implication that Perky was, err, experimenting with his partner. Note too that if one succeeds in making something, one has made it. Better:
In Watertown, New York, inventor Henry Drushel Perky and business partner William Henry Ford make a machine that shreds whole wheat.
In the 1928 sentence, aquires should be acquires. Sheesh!

The 1961 sentence is awkward:
The size of the Shredded Wheat Juniors biscuit is made even smaller and relaunched as Spoon Size Shredded Wheat cereal.
It's not the size that's relaunched. Better:
The Shredded Wheat Juniors biscuit is made smaller and relaunched as Spoon Size Shredded Wheat.
On this box too the design is a mess, with the words in red sometimes in bold, sometimes not. And here, the red text sometimes floats above the baseline.

Carelessness and lack of consistency in design reach a low point in the 1997 sentence:


[Red, black italic bold, black — all in the name of a single cereal.]
One can browse issues of Life and Time from the 1930s and 1940s and find text-heavy advertisements in impeccable prose, not a word misplaced. How many eyes looked upon these cereal-box designs and saw nothing wrong? These sorts of mistakes in the work of a major American corporation suggest that, yes, we're slipping.

[This post is no. 21 in a very occasional series, "How to improve writing," dedicated to improving stray bits of published prose. Title with apologies to Jonathan Edwards, who never tasted Post cereals.]

Related posts
Everything I always wanted to ask about Grape-Nuts
All "How to improve writing" posts (via del.icio.us)

comments: 4

j said...

Well, now I'm afraid to comment...I know I'll embarrass myself with poor grammar and sad sentence construction. But here I go. Forgive me.

I agree with you- they made silly mistakes. Shouldn't let work go out like that. Somebody should care.

Has the rule about using an apostrophe with decade in number form (1960s, 1960's) changed? I can't remember how I was taught to write it. I see it in print both ways.

Just scanned back over your posts for this past week. You bring up so many interesting ideas, so much to think about and mull over. I'm so happy I stumbled onto your blog. Doing a search for Alvin's Secret Code...isn't that funny? Proust, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, your experiences in New York, art and what's important to life...cuzza Alvin.(And, by the way, my daughter thoroughly enjoyed Alvin's Secret Code. We read it aloud together. I had to sum up the plot for my husband who came into the room during the last chapters. A nice family read.)

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, J. Alvin's Secret Code is in some way the reason I became an English teacher — it's what taught me to love books and language.

9.37 in the Chicago Manual of Style says no apostrophe with decades. Yes, dates do appear in print with and without. The Post box should really have an apostrophe before the decade: the '90s.

Anyone who wants to see the work of a fine photographer should take a look at J's blog, nearby the sea.

Thom said...

I am continually amazed with the poor quality of writing that ends up in print.

These cereal boxes are really something special, though!

Michael Leddy said...

And they're limited editions — destined to become collectors' items. : )