Grape Raisins


I turn around, wondering who is pssting me in the produce department.

Psst! Wanna buy some grape raisins?

What? And huh?

Ah, there they are: GRAPE RAISINS.

Odd label on grape tomato container Not just any old grape raisins, mind you: SWEET”¢SUCRÉES GRAPE RAISINS. I sigh. Oh, that pesky subconscious.

I have to squint to find the actual, you know, product designator. There it is, in the smallest print (Shh!):

Tomatoes “¢ Tomates

It’s a puzzle. Should I be outraged more by the need to search for the product name, or by the syntax?

the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language

Read as I might, I can find no well-formed sentences (or noun phrases) here in any language:

  • Reading straight through? Sweet sucrées grape tomatoes tomates raisins.
  • Reading only the English? Sweet grape tomatoes raisins.
  • Reading only the French? Sucrées tomates raisins. I’m unilingual, but I hunch that the sucrées belongs after the raisins.

Sigh. Even these un-well-formed phrases require me to jump words, lines, and font sizes arbitrarily to achieve coherence: the “Automatic Caution Door” phenomenon, but on steroids.

Sign with poor syntax

And yet, with so much here that is wrong, some label designer has nevertheless decided that this is the right thing to do: the right way to communicate what matters in this case.

So I consider again where and how I normally buy grape tomatoes. If I weren’t already standing “where,” my mind’s eye would offer me a fair facsimile of this bin crowded with similar see-through plastic containers. And now this labelling begins to make sense. Because as I consider the see-throughness of the containers, I realize that there is never any question that there are tomatoes/tomates inside. What is in grave question is, “What kind of tomatoes?”

Incoherent label that nevertheless communicatesMy buying “how” is to make sure I don’t end up with burst-open-squirtily-in-your-mouth cherry tomatoes, sweet or otherwise. (Is there an otherwise? There are sour cherries and very good they are for pies, too, but I don’t think there are sour cherry tomatoes. But I digress.) And so this apparently incoherent label could be made just for me: It’s clear at a glance that these are grape tomatoes. No real reading required or, indeed, desired.

Well, all right then. I shelve my outrage where I can retrieve it quickly if needed.

A shopping trip to another store a few days later allows me to test my new theory of label communication: TELL THEM WHAT MATTERS! TELL THEM FAST! DON’T MAKE THEM LOOK FOR IT! And I discover that not every label designer subscribes to this theory.

Syntactical label that's hard to readWell, there you go. Communication in any language is, after all, an ART, not a SCIENCE. Even in Labelese.


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16 Responses to Grape Raisins

  1. Tom Watson says:

    “Grape raisins” reminds me of something my girls tell about Janice. She used to send them to the village store. One of the items on the list would be ham. She’d say, “Get the Jambon kind!”

  2. Judith Umbach says:

    Very generous of you to call it art.

  3. Barry says:

    I like the road signs – “Caution Slow Children”
    Tanya & Amanda did not think it funny

  4. Isabel, I am stealing this:
    ” I shelve my outrage where I can retrieve it quickly if needed.”

    I can think of so many applications where it may be needed at a moment’s notice.
    I love the idea that I might be able to not … quite … snatch it … from the shelf

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – 🙂 Delighted you like it well enough to nab it. Use it in good health and high dudgeon.

  5. I’ll raise a glass to that!

  6. Marilyn Smith says:

    Some years ago when I was back home visiting family in Winnipeg, I was grocery shopping with my American sister-in-law who is from Connecticut and she asked me to grab a package of cheddar cheese from the cheese display. I asked her if there was a particular brand she wanted and she told me to get the “Old Fort”. I was a bit confused until I realized she thought “Fort” was part of the name, not the French version for strong cheddar. Apparently this is not an uncommon faux pas. Hysterical laughter ensued right there in the aisle.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marilyn – Oh, that *is* funny. Canadians take a minimal knowledge/awareness of French for granted, I think — although I am often confused by the Best Before date, which is often shown as BB MA and so on. I read that MA as an abbreviation for May, instead of “meilleur avant,” and then struggle to make sense of the rest of the date before it finally clicks again. I do sometimes wonder if, given enough time, we will generate a creole of French and English with exactly this sort of hodgepodge. Old Fort indeed.

  7. Marilyn Smith says:

    Isabel, you’ve educated me on “MA” — didn’t know that one!! Plus, this is how people working in government, down here at least, talk all the time! Apparently it is called “bilingualism”. I think it is more accurately described as “Franclish”. M

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marilyn – I’m all for borrowing cool words and interesting usages to incorporate into my native tongue. I’m not so big on going back and forth, but folks will be folks.

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