The art of advertising is, at least to some extent, the art of deception, and language is the tool of that deception. Let me illustrate that with this label I found on the back of a cider bottle I bought recently. It says:
The traditional type of cider press was called a rack & cloth press. This was used to crush the pomace and extract the apple juices. These cider juices were then left to ferment in their own wild yeast.
An ordinary Joe Public will probably think ‘ah that’s nice’ and enjoy his cider in the knowledge that what he’s drinking has been made in the good old traditional way. A linguist, however, will ask: why is this worded in the past tense? Surely, if they did actually make the cider in this way, they would have worded it in the present tense? So what, then, is the purpose of the past tense here?
Its only purpose is to deceive Joe Public. More specifically, it is to make him believe something that isn’t true. Notice that the label never actually says this is how we make (or even used to make) our cider. They are merely stating how cider used to be made in general. But in spite of that, it is easy to make the unconscious (and false) assumption that the message on the label somehow describes the cider inside. You may have fallen into the same trap yourself. I certainly did on the first reading.
As to why this false assumption is made, a bit of linguistics is necessary, or more precisely, a bit of pragmatics. All human interaction normally follows a set of conversational maxims, that is rules from which participants don’t deviate without good reason. One of them is the ‘maxim of relevance’. It stipulates that what you say must be relevant to the conversation, to what has been said before and to the surroundings in which the interaction happens. This is why, if somebody asks you how are you doing in school? you are expected to say something that comments on your school progress, such as not too well actually, and not something completely irrelevant such as what a nice day we have today. The maxim also says that whatever your interlocutor says, you will attempt to interpret is as something relevant: if your buddy answers what a nice day we have today to a question about his school progress, you will probably try and think what he means by that (and likely come to the conclusion that he doesn’t want to talk about school).
The people who wrote the cider message are abusing the maxim of relevance. They know you will assume that the message must be somehow related to what’s inside the bottle. Notice that they are not explicitly stating anything that isn’t true (there are laws against that), they are merely tricking you into jumping to false conclusions (against which there are no laws). The false conclusion here is ‘this cider was made in the traditional way’ and, by extension, ‘this cider is honest and wholesome’. For all I know, the truth could be the complete opposite. They probably make the cider in a dark, dirty factory with exploited minimum-wage workers and a bad safety record. Or that’s what I’m inclined to think, given that they’ve already demonstrated they have no qualms about using dirty tricks. Which is a shame because the cider is actually quite good.
You might think that that’s not all so bad because the worst that can happen is that you end up drinking more cider than you should. Well, in this case, you’d be right. But the exact same techniques can be used – and often are used – to deceive people to far more sinister ends: by political propagandists to lure voters, by corporate ‘communicators’ to fudge about issues they want hushed up, and so on. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that this is how Nazi Germany came about. Remember that rhetoric and public speaking were Adolf Hitler’s only skill. It’s all about using language to trick you into believing something that isn’t true without actually saying it. No matter whether the goal is to sell more cider or to exterminate Jews, the methods are the same. You, me and Joe Public need to be aware of them and recognize them when we see them.
And this, if nothing else, is why we need more linguistics in schools, kids.