Tuesday, January 26, 2010

St. Jude’s Gives No Thanks to Parallel Structure

While out Christmas shopping last month I noticed a small, green card at my local Ann Taylor store. It was from the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and it featured a beaming but bald child as part of its admirable outreach to raise money for children with cancer. I picked it up and read, “Give thanks for the healthy kids in your life, and give to those who are not.”

Hmmmm. Another case of some institution verbally mangling an ad campaign (see Language Lady’s “Citibank,” 12/31/09).

Of course, I knew what the card was TRYING to say, but there was something about the wording that was not quite natural – something amiss; speaking of which, a few days later I saw a youthful- if not exactly natural-looking, 72-year-old Marlo Thomas, deliver this same message on TV: “Give thanks for the healthy children in your life,” the St. Jude spokesperson said, adding in her vaguely croaky, “That Girl”-ish voice, “and give to those who are not.”

Oh, Marlo – can’t you hear that awkward syntax?

Apparently not. This was the sixth year of the research hospital’s “Thanks and Giving” campaign – big posters, small cards, TV ads, all asking us holiday shoppers to give, in effect, to ‘the HEALTHY kids who are NOT in our lives.’

I realize that is not what Marlo Thomas meant, and that most people understand the message: that we should be grateful for the healthy kids in our life, and to give money (via St. Jude) to sick kids.

Given that St. Jude’s foremost goal is to find a cure for childhood cancer, this is an understandable, and well-intentioned request. But the message is a mess.

The copywriter attempted to use a parallel construction, like Julius Caesar’s, “I came; I saw; I conquered.” See how each part repeats the structure of the one before? Julius is clear, strong, and concise – nice!

Twenty-year-old songstress Taylor Swift uses parallel construction in her current hit, “You Belong to Me,” when she sings: “She wears short shorts -- I wear T-shirts … She wears high heels – I wear sneakers.” Such parallel construction provides clear contrast between two statements.

St. Jude’s attempted contrasting statements, loosely interpreted, are: “Give thanks for healthy kids; give money to sick kids.” The trouble is, actually writing that sounds too crass. So the copywriter softened it up – but in doing so, he came up with two statements that have different grammatical structures – thus misaligning the key contrast between “healthy” and “sick”.

Tweaking for parallel structure (not meaning) would render the phrase as:

“Give thanks for the healthy kids in your life, and give to those unhealthy kids who are not in your life.” This makes no sense – but it’s at least parallel.

When taken apart bit by bit, the slogan’s flaws become clear:

• “Give thanks for the healthy kids in your life,”

The structure is Subject (an understood “you,” who should be giving), Verb (Give), Direct Object (thanks), Indirect Object (Kids – technically, object of the preposition “for” but in the bigger scheme, “kids” are the indirect object of someone’s giving), and the adjective phrase, “in your life,” modifying kids.

• “… and give to those who are not.”

Subject (understood “you”), Verb (“give”) --- and there the symmetry stops.

There is no direct object, and the indirect object, ”those,” refers to the “healthy kids” mentioned in the first part; and “who are not” corresponds to “in your life.”

But given that this campaign has been going since 2004 and I seem to be the only one whining in the syntactical wilderness, St Jude’s should give thanks to grammatically forgiving (or unaware) donors.

Still – why not try to say it right:

“Give thanks to the children in your life who are healthy, and give to those who are not.”