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anne mikolay 2012 120What's in a word? Plenty! How well you use our English language determines the interpretation of your intended meaning. Case in point: an advertisement for a popular local market/garden center's annual sidewalk sale.

“These incredible savings are here for just four days so shop early for the best selection!” The flyer said. “Sidewalk sale hours follow store hours.”

How you interpret the phrase “sidewalk sale hours follow store hours” will determine whether or not you consider me an idiot. Let me explain.

The garden center closes at 7:00 pm Monday through Friday; the sale was to follow closing. Thus, my husband and I arrived at the garden center shortly after seven. There were a few people already there perusing the many planters, flowers, Christmas and gift items on sale. I made a bee-line for a charming, white birdhouse marked down to $45.00 from its original $99.00 price. Feeling quite lucky, I continued shopping. Imagine my surprise when the store's door opened, and a confused clerk informed me the garden center was closed. Equally perplexed, I told her I was there for the sidewalk sale. She replied the sale was the following day at 8:00. Feeling as though I was in the twilight zone, I had to put the pretty birdhouse back on the table and leave. Driving away, I wondered. Why did I think there was a sidewalk sale? I was certain I had read the flyer correctly! Why was the merchandise displayed if there was no sale? Once home, I checked the flyer I had left on the kitchen table. Sidewalk sale August 15th through August 18th; “sidewalk sale hours follow store hours”.

It took a few minutes, but my husband recognized the error (whether on the store's part or our part, again, depends upon your interpretation of the English language). Sidewalk sale hours follow store hours...sidewalk sale hours coincide with store hours. Apparently, my husband and I disagreed with the garden center's use of the word “follow”.

I laugh about my mistake (or the store's, depending upon how you look at it) now, but I didn't laugh then. Nor did my hubby, who grabbed the dictionary at home and read aloud the definition of the verb “follow”: “Go or come after (a person or thing proceeding ahead); move or travel behind. Go after.”) Proper use of the English language, then, required there to be a sidewalk sale after store hours. An impromptu poll of my family members showed half in support of my interpretation of the wording and half in agreement with the store's text. Though hardly an empirical survey, the results reveal the sentence “sidewalk sale hours follow store hours” to be vague enough for misinterpretation. (Thus, I am not an idiot.)

But I'm nit-picky, you say? A language snob? A literary elitist? Perhaps, but my affinity for the written word renders me super sensitive to such things. Error, especially on the part of teachers, administrators, or professionals irks me. Admittedly, I'm a type-A personality when it comes to written communication, but I also recognize there's a lot I don't know about the English language, grammar, and punctuation. Thus, I try my best to respect the written word and use it with care (and rely heavily upon my editor). Still think I'm making a mountain out of the garden center's literary mole hill? Allow me to present the following phrases (sentences coming after this statement, not during it) to support my position: 1) “Let's eat, Grandma!” 2) “Let's eat Grandma.” Same words. Very different meaning. (I saw these phrases on a t-shirt; I'm not witty enough to think them up myself!) You get my drift.

What's in a word? Plenty! Words pack a powerful punch, so mean what you say and say what you mean! When composing a narrative of any kind, read it aloud. Read it again. Let someone else read it, too. Exercise caution. Don't leave anything for misinterpretation.

Am I angry with the market/garden center? Nah! They sold me a great birdhouse for $45.00 (yes, I went back), and their pumpkin bread and apple cider donuts are to die for! But next year, you can be sure I will show up for the sidewalk sale during store hours...not the hours that follow.