I once came across a fishmonger in the high street (in a bygone age when we had fishmongers and we had high streets).
He was proudly displaying a large message board on which he had chalked:
I stopped to look at the board and, as he had no customers at that moment, I engaged him in conversation.
“Do you find that sign brings in business?”, I asked.
“Well, maybe, it do and maybe it don’t”, he said elliptically. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s just that I would have thought your customers should be able to assume your fish is fresh. After all, if it was going off, you wouldn’t want your customers to think you had deceived them by saying it was fresh and, if it was fresh, why introduce any doubt in their minds?”, I replied.
“Well, you might just have a point there, young fellow-me-lad”, the fishmonger responded, and he rubbed out the word FRESH.
“And you’re open every day, the Sabbath excluded, aren’t you? If your shop were shut one day, your sign would look pretty silly, wouldn’t it?”
The fishmonger scratched his chin and said, “It looks like you’re right there, too.” And he rubbed out DAILY.
By this time, I was warming to the task and suggested that the sign would hardly be outside a place which didn’t sell fish, the fishmonger being a hundred yards down the road. And, again, the shopkeeper rubbed out a word: HERE.
By this time, the sign read:
“Do you, perchance, give the fish away?” I asked.
“Of course not, I have my overheads to meet!”, said the fishmonger, visibly becoming annoyed, “I sell my fish like any other self-respecting merchant”.
Nevertheless, another word came off the board.
Finally, I pointed out the lack of need of a sign saying FISH above a large quantity of fish laid out for purchase…
Most advertising copy is poorly thought through and redundant.
If you want to sell your fish, you engage with passersby and ask them if they are interested in eating healthily; or eating cheaply? Or, have they thought of cooking herrings in such and such a way—it’s delicious and nutritious; and so on.
In other words, you make it about the prospective customer, not about your need to get rid of the fish before it goes off. Nor, indeed, about your need to be right that, to sell fish, you put up certain notices.
I am grateful to my father, David Marchant, who told me this story when I was a child. (Why he told me this story will remain an eternal mystery.)
Steven Pinker addresses the problem of deleting redundant words only to find you have too few left in The sense of style, starting on p103
by Jeremy Marchant . © 2014 Jeremy Marchant Limited . uploaded 1 november 2014, last updated 20 february 2016 . image Free images