June 05, 2006

The Old Navy style sheet

Among the "message tees" that Old Navy offers for newborns is one announcing:

SPINACH AND <drawing of a carrot>

(This is a white cotton tee, with the lettering in a color Old Navy labels "guacamole", though the carrot is, fortunately, orange.)

The accompanying ad copy moves towards standard spelling and punctuation, though the Old Navy style sheet continues to be resolutely comma-averse:

Sweet envelope-neck tees come with playful messages and appliques. Choose from "Cranky But Precious," "Shhhh Baby Sleeping," I Don't Like Potatoes Spinach and Carrots," I Want Lots of Hugs Kisses and a Teddy Bear," or "I Love Candies Chocolate and Cupcakes."

(Interestingly, though clothing for newborns is highly gendered, via choices of color, styling, and topics of drawings and slogans -- you really can't shop for clothing for a generic newborn, only for a girl or for a boy -- in this case the message tees are offered for girls and boys.)

Where to start?  Well, the subtlest point is the use of and rather than or under the scope of a negative.  There's nothing wrong with that (in this sentence); this variant conveys something like 'Here's a list of things I don't like: potatoes, spinach, and carrots' (where or would be odd), with its suggestion that the list is complete.

Then there's the spelling "potatos".  In the world in general, "potatos" is astonishingly common (I just got 913,000 raw Google webhits on it -- vs. 45,200,000 for the correct "potatoes", but still, nearly a million ain't small potatoes), often right in the neighborhood of a correct spelling, as here:

Idaho potatos from Sun Valley Potatoes, supplying high quality Idaho potatos all the way from their field to your table.

Spelling the plurals of nouns ending in o is a well-known minefield, with all sorts of nasty details to trap the unwary speller.

On the Windsor Peak child-care site, where this tee-shirt has recently been under discussion (my thanks to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky, for pointing me to the photo on this site and then to the Old Navy original), the general opinion seems to be that "potatos" and the missing apostrophe in "dont" were intentional, a move on the part of the designer to present the wearer of the shirt as babyishly cute, making learner's errors -- though someone who goes around in clothes size 5T or smaller isn't going to be spelling ANYTHING, or for that matter drawing a recognizable carrot.  I'm not so sure;  "potatos" might just be an error, as with those "Idaho potatos", and the missing apostrophe might be a style sheet thing.

Tee-shirts serve as signs of a kind, like billboards or highway signs.  For some time now, highway signs have been moving towards a clean, modern, punctuation-free (and diacritic-free) style.  Colons and commas mostly disappeared long ago.  That's surely the source of the comma-free style at Old Navy.

Apostrophes in possessives were the next to go.  And now the apostrophe of negated inflection (a.k.a. negative contractions) may be threatened.  My impression is that "don't" and the like are not at all common on road signs -- instead, you get uncontracted DO NOT or other kinds of negatives, as in NO TURNS -- but now I'll be on the lookout for them.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 5, 2006 03:55 PM