Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Blowing smoke

Reader Paul Berg wrote some weeks back to complain about a TV ad for a stop-smoking drug called Chantix. "During the commercial, the voice-over announcer proclaims: '40% of Chantix users were quit after 20 weeks' -- or words to that effect," he wrote. "'Were quit'? This drives me nuts!"

I'd never seen the commercial, but I dug one up, and the actual voiceover says, "44 percent of Chantix users were quit during weeks 9 to 12 of treatment, compared to 18 percent on sugar pill." Not normal English, I agree.  Not because "were quit" is incorrect -- you'll run across it often in Brit lit -- but the idiom is 'be quit of [i.e., finished with] something." The OED's examples span the years from c. 1200 to 1997, and include one from Jane Austen: "They ... seemed to think it as great an escape to be quit of the intrusion of Charles Maddox."

But "be quit of" doesn't work when the subject is smoking (unless you want to say, "At last I am quit of that nasty habit"). So why use it? Well, "44 percent had quit" would suggest to many listeners that those smokers had quit forever, not just stopped for weeks 9 to 12 -- something very unlikely to be true. "Forty-four percent were not smoking" would be standard English, but it lacks the victorious ring of "were quit." I don't know if "were quit" is researchers' jargon or just marketers' bafflegab, but I strongly suspect that it's meant to gloss over the question of how many people on Chantix "stayed quit" in weeks 13 and up. 

9 comments:

MelissaJane said...

OH, yes, I'm sure you're right - I had to think for a minute to get the right sense of were quit, but you are right on the money. Drug companies have had to pay some very serious fines for misleading advertising, and their legal departments are extraordinarily sensitive about the nuances of language. I did a little copywriting for a drug-company project, and oh my gosh, are they ever careful about their language. If they said "had quit," they'd have to back it up with research that I am sure does not support the claim.

Amerloc said...

Those Chantix ads tickle me as well.

I've actually tried it a couple times in an effort to be quit of my increasingly expensive habit. I regret reporting that I've remained in the majority.

MelissaJane is entirely correct in her assessment of adspeak: the side effects are within the parameters.

pdBerg said...

Were I not quit, which I was/have/were not, I wouldn't write about this. But I am not/have not/did not quit.

Still a smoking grammar geek at heart.

And i was among those who "were not quit" in the past 44 weeks, or whatever. "I weren't," seems only to add insult to injury!

jhm said...

"were quits" seems to me correct[ish], where "were quit" doesn't; albeit at the cost of acquiring a slangy tinge. It fails the assumption that the wording was intended to avoid suggestion of permanence, but I have to wonder at an explanation which assumes that ad-makers strive to avoid positive intimations in their copy.

tahnan said...

I looked into this when I heard the commercial, because I had the same reaction. As far as I could determine at the time, "were quit" seems to be extremely standard in the stop-smoking business (for whatever reason).

ros said...

Surely the correct form would be, '40% of users quit during weeks 9-12...'?

Terry said...

"Not because "were quit" is incorrect - you'll run across it often in Brit lit"

Not in any modern variety of Brit Lit from England, I suggest. "Be quit of" may be found still in Scots or Australian English, but it sould strange to me, a speaker of Southern England English.

Terry said...

"sould"? sounds …

Anonymous said...

I'm so happy that other people have noticed this! It's extremely annoying, no matter what the reasoning is behind it. Next, they'll be talking about people who were smoke?