Dallas, TX –
Why are product labels and instructions so bewildering? It's true that sometimes such material is written by people who don't speak English as a mother tongue, and that's bound to cause problems. But even native English speakers write baffling - and sometimes hilarious - product instructions.
A consumer query posted on a "Plain English" website, for example, notes that a certain coffee package reads: "Product of Central America, Colombia, and Tanzania. Packed in Belgium."
"Why," the consumer asks, "is this product called 'Italian Blend'?"
A bag of snack chips carries the proclamation: "You could be a winner! No purchase necessary! Details inside!" Details inside but no purchase necessary? In other words: Steal this bag!
Or consider this information printed on a shower cap container: "Contents: Shower cap. Fits one head." Just in case you two thought you were going to get in there together.
You have to wonder what the maker of a string of Christmas lights was thinking when it provided this label: "For indoor or outdoor use only." I mean, is there something else?
Especially entertaining are product warnings. A Michigan group, the Lawsuit Abuse Watch, annually chooses the wackiest warning labels of the year. Here are some recent winners:
A caution from a five-inch fishing device with three steel hooks: "Harmful if swallowed."
A warning on a 12-inch-high storage rack for compact discs: "Do not use as a ladder."
Advice on a sled label: "Beware: Sled may develop high speed under certain snow conditions."
A message on a bottle of drain cleaner: "If you do not understand, or cannot read, all directions, cautions, and warnings, do not use this product."
And here are some other product warnings, gleaned from the Internet, which must have come from equally overprotective legal departments:
An iron: "Do not iron clothes on body."
A hairdryer: "Do not use while sleeping."
A sleep aid: "Warning: May cause drowsiness."
A Superman costume: "The wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly."
A jar of peanuts: "Warning: Contains nuts."
Some label instructions are just plain silly. For example, a package of airline nuts reads: "Instructions: Open packet, eat nuts." A frozen food advises: "Serving suggestion: Defrost." And a frozen dessert has this caution printed on the bottom of the box: "Do not turn upside down." Too late!
Those are all entertaining, but if I were on that committee to pick the wackiest warning labels of the year, my money would be on this one, accompanying a chainsaw: "Warning: Do not attempt to stop chain with your hands or genitals."
I'm Paula LaRocque.
Paula LaRocque is a former writing coach and editor for the Dallas Morning News.
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