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The Grammar Sins of Starbucks

The holiday season means it’s finally time to bust out the Ella Fitzgerald album, the awkward Christmas sweater, and the dubious stories to tell your family about how you’re “really enjoying” your job, your relationship is going “very well, thank you,” and you feel like your life is “definitely on the right track.” But for everyone from Seoul to San Francisco, the holidays also mean that the streets will be bathed in a blurred red, everyone trotting along through the cold and the snow, a trusty holiday-themed Starbucks cup in hand. Yet while the Seattle-based company is busy taking over the world, it’s also busy corroding the already battered English language. The classic grammatical complaint at Starbucks is in the sizing. The sizes — Tall, Grande, and Venti (and, in some cities, the Trenta) — make for a rather nonsensical scale, especially when you consider that it shifts not only from English to Italian, but also between vague sizes and actual measurements (“Venti” of course meaning “twenty” in Italian). This intentionally peculiar sizing scale has long been parodied, although my favorite example is in the film Role Models when Danny (the ever-charming and somehow never-aging Paul Rudd) has this exchange with a barista: Danny: Can I get a large black coffee? Barista: A what? Danny: Large black coffee. Barista: Do you mean a Venti? Danny: No, I mean a large. Barista: Venti is large. Danny: No, Venti is twenty. Large is large. In fact, Tall is large and Grande is Spanish for large. Venti is the only one that doesn’t mean large. It’s also the only one that’s Italian. Congratulations, you’re stupid in three languages. Barista: A Venti is a large coffee. Danny: Really? Says who? Fellini? Do you accept Lira or is it all Euros now? And yet it’s not just the silly sizing that many have complained about. Two years ago, Starbucks’ holiday slogan was “Let’s Merry.” As in “Let us merry” or “Permit us to merry.” It was an attempt at a pun, but it makes almost no sense. “Let us” requires a verb, and although the advertising executives behind the campaign surely thought that “merry” would conjure warm holiday thoughts, it really just makes one wonder, “Why is an adjective here and how does one exactly do ‘merry’?” According to a friend who works as a barista at Starbucks, employees are also required to say, “Can I help the following guest?” rather than “next guest.” Following what though? Why not just say “next”? Why must Howard Schultz inflict so much grammatical pain? Then there’s the catchy phrase the cashier exchanges with the barista when whipping cream is not desired: “no whip.” I understand that it saves time, but not only is it not a universally accepted abbreviation for whipping cream, it also sounds like a box one might check when first signing up for an S&M session. As in, “I’d like the 2 a.m. beginner’s session. I’ll take the paddle, but no whip please.” These linguistic transgressions have in fact been so frustrating to some that legal action has been necessary. A few years ago, Lynne Rosenthal, an English Ph.D., was kicked out of an Upper West Side Starbucks after she refused to cooperate with the cashier. According to the New York Post, she ordered a multigrain bagel, at which point the counterperson asked, “Do you want butter or cheese?” “I just wanted a multigrain bagel,” explained Rosenthal. “I refused to say ‘without butter or cheese.’ When you go to Burger King, you don’t have to list the six things you don’t want… Linguistically, it’s stupid, and I’m a stickler for correct English.” I suppose this is a little bit much — after all, would it have been so hard to say “no thank you”? — but it was nonetheless a valiant effort to regain the true meaning of the holidays: sensible grammar. A valiant, Venti-sized effort indeed.

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1 Comment

  1. In your experience do you gravitate towards the more satirical sense of grammar, where things are “ironical”?

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