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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Ad landing

It's kind of ingenious to ask a grammar question as the enticement for a click-through ad (that's the ad landing; it appears as just a grammar question sponsored by the Chicago Manual of Style in the first part of the advertisement):
My colleagues are divided in their opinions about “storing data in a computer” versus “storing data on a computer.” Which is correct? Thanks.

I'm more used to hearing the usage snarkily discouraged by the style guide, but I'm charmed by the ad anyway and look forward to clicking on more of them. When was the last time anyone praised a click-through ad rather than ignored it or felt manipulated? Manipulate away, grammarians!

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Anonymous Alice's mom on Fri Nov 07, 03:20:00 PM:
I clicked on the ad too, before I read your blog. And I never click on ads, so I guess I was charmed, too.

I didn't like their answer. They tried to give a 'natural' reason for their preferred usage of 'in' rather than 'on.' 'On a computer' is wrong, they say, because it implies that stuff is sitting on top of a surface. But the stuff is not 'in' a computer either. It's probably on a disk, just connected to a computer. No, wait--not "on" a disk, it's "in" tracks, it's an alignment of electrons (is it electrons? and are they "in" a line?)....

The computer gets the stuff "in" and "out." So we could store the stuff "by means of a computer." That sounds dumb, but it's no dumber than justifying an explanation of what is really a convention with an analogy that is now more false than true. Justifying, that is, without an admission that the preferred usage is more conventional than natural.

Which is more natural, to stand "in line," as you said in the pre-NYC years of your life, or "on line," as I think you say now?

Prepositions are odd. They are one of the most in-the-world parts of our language--what could be more real than in, on, over, beside, etc.? But as any non-native speaker could tell you, their use is not "natural" at all. In any but the most basic meanings, their usage is entirely conventional.

So I'm interested in clicking on the ads, too. But I'm also interested in whether all of the ads will be somehow geared to internet computer-users who are just technologically literate enough to reject one naive analogy in favor of another only slightly less naive. And whether the ads are somehow appealing (I wrote "pandering" first and decided that was harsh) to those users. Hoping to get them to feel that a manual of style can be cool.

As it can be. I recall that you gave me a manual of style as a Christmas gift once. The illustrated, gift-box version, to be sure.

Maybe this ad was pretty ad-like after all.

btw, I used "stuff" instead of "data" because of the is / are problem. I now think "data are" sounds ridiculous but am waiting for the forces of convention to completely overcome my Latin-trained guilt, just as the forces of everyday speech have now made me feel that the split infinitive in this sentence is ok.

It's good to know hat "conventional" doesn't mean "dead." And I guess it's good to know that language conventions can drive advertising dollars.