Why is "win" often implicitly considered a conditional verb?
October 5, 2009 6:46 AM   Subscribe

Grammarians: Is it OK to take liberties with the word "win" when publicizing a contest or draw?

I see a lot of competitions that use phrases like these to get people's attention:

- Leave a comment on our blog and win an Amazon gift voucher.
- Design a logo and win $500
- Tell your friends about [store name] and win $100 in store credit

This "and win" wording bugs me because the "win" is speculative or conditional, but no words are stating this (for example, "Design a logo to be in with a chance to win $500" or "Leave a comment on our blog, you could win an Amazon gift voucher" make the speculation pretty clear). If you changed "and win" to "and get" in the above examples, people would be rightly peeved if they didn't get X for doing Y - so why is "win" implicitly considered conditional where "get" would not be?

I understand why in something like "Win $100" it's conditional because "win" is imperative, but when you say "do X and win Y," there's a "do X" and then "win Y" cause and effect (in my mind).

My interest in this is two fold. First, I'd like to run some contests and use this sort of snappy wording, but I'm worried about the ethics of it. Is this sort of wording ethical/legal? Second, I love the English language and am intrigued if this sort of implied conditionality is actually popular with other verbs (or has a name) and I'm just being obtuse! :-)
posted by wackybrit to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
All bets are off in adverts, especially when everyone knows the real meaning.

Think different.
posted by caddis at 6:57 AM on October 5, 2009

The use of the word win implies that some people will lose, so saying "could win" is redundant. To have a winner, you must also have losers.
posted by dortmunder at 7:03 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Actually, when I've offered incentives for participating in contests or surveys, we've always used the following, because there's always some dumbass who will sue you.

Answer a question and you could win $100
Answer a question and enter to win $100
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:07 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

This looks like a use of the present simple for the future, as in, for example, "The conference begins at 9:00." This translates into, "The conference will begin at 9:00." But the examples you're taking about are different, as you noted, in that they do not imply certainty. But that's why the advertisers do it, I'm sure. Advertising is all about capturing your attention, and misleading sentences like these do that.

On the other hand, the fact that you have to win these prizes seems to imply the existence of a contest, which everyone understands involves winners and losers. Everyone has a rough idea of what a contest is, so everyone understands what the sentence means. That's what I'd argue in the advertisers' favor, if I were so inclined. Still, the intent seems deceptive, at least.

You'll need a lawyer to answer the legality of it, though.
posted by smorange at 7:08 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's partially psychology. "And win" is far more positive, personal and immediate than "chance to win." It's subtle, but real. I'm not saying it works. I'm just saying.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:09 AM on October 5, 2009

I feel your pain, and I agree it's deceptive.

I suspect that if anyone decided to raise a stink, you'd see the next version of each contest amended the way Chesty suggests.

"Leave a comment. You could win $500!" is more honest, and not much longer.
posted by rokusan at 8:03 AM on October 5, 2009

Response by poster: As an aside, I just noticed I got the "title" for this question totally wrong - sorry for anyone reading via feed, etc ;-)
posted by wackybrit at 8:13 AM on October 5, 2009

The use of the word win implies that some people will lose

But but - that carny guy said that everyone was a winner!
posted by IndigoJones at 9:25 AM on October 5, 2009

Best answer: This is a neat observation! Exactly the kind of thing that semanticists love. You might be interested in what the linguist Ben Russell calls "conditional conjunction", as in:

Everyone drink another can of beer and we’ll set a record.
if everyone drinks another can of beer, we’ll set a record.

These constructions are interesting because they "hide" a conditional (an "if-then" statement) and they seem to also function as imperatives, at least sometimes. Ben's paper, which is somewhat technical for a general audience but does contain interesting examples, is here:


It does seem that if the analysis of the example you gave is correct and it is a conditional, then it is at the very least misleading, as it implicates that the conclusion (winning) follows as long as the antecedent (you leave a comment, or whatever) is true.
posted by tractorfeed at 11:23 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Definitely check with a lawyer regarding language for sweepstakes or contests. Regardless of how things are perceived, there are really strict rules for the language you can use and how you can run contests or sweepstakes. If your language is confusing and you don't follow the letter of the law and some curmudgeon enters and doesn't win, they can rake you over the coals in court. We have a legal person on staff JUST for dealing with contests and sweepstakes.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:29 AM on October 5, 2009

The fact that you are using the word 'win' in your advertising makes the distinction for you. You are not saying "Design a logo and RECEIVE $500". The fact that you use the word "WIN" refers to the fact that it's not an automatic payout. As others have said, if there's a winner, there must be losers of said contest, as stated it presents only the possibility of winning.
posted by albertagirl at 1:28 PM on October 5, 2009

I have to disagree that "win" means that someone else loses. It might implicate that there are losers, but it does not entail that there are losers -- this is not part of the meaning of the verb 'to win'. You can win at solitaire, and no one else loses. You could set up a contest where everyone who enters wins. It's not standard usage, but I think that the implicature of someone losing wouldn't save your bacon if you were sued.
posted by tractorfeed at 4:18 PM on October 5, 2009

I agree with peanut_mcgillicuty. I don't remember seeing this kind of language in Australia and that could be because maybe it's regarded as misleading and deceptive here (although it might not be, it could just be that I don't have a very good memory). I'd certainly read the examples you gave as saying that if you design any old crappy logo etc., you win - otherwise it would say "design the best logo and win". Think about how you'd interpret it if it was "Design a logo and win 50c" - you'd assume that any logo would get you 50c. Relying on people to disregard one interpretation of your tagline just because the amount of money on offer makes it absurd probably isn't going to work. At the very least it will annoy people. Especially pedants.

Ethical I'd say no, legal is something that only a lawyer in your jurisdication can tell you.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 12:31 AM on October 6, 2009

Not sure if anyone's still reading this thread, but I've been thinking about this since I last posted in it, and finally the answer struck me: although the construction "post a comment and win" implies (or in linguist-speak implicates) causation, the actual grammatical construction is of the form "A and B" where both A and B are imperatives. The imperative form has no truth value (in this way it's much like a question) so there's no causation at all, and there's no way an advertiser could be challenged on this.

And as the word "and" is a symmetrical connective (with respect to truth value, that is), then there's no difference between saying "post a comment and win" and saying "win and post a comment!" although most of the time humans follow the Gricean Maxims, and present information in an orderly manner, so a connection between A and B is implied. The advertisers are telling you to "Win!" just like they tell you to "Buy this toothpaste!" or "Order this magazine!" or whatever, and there's no way you could sue them for false advertising based on an imperative. It's very sneaky, but at least those of us that study the semantics/pragmatics divide get lots of fodder from advertising.
posted by tractorfeed at 5:07 PM on October 11, 2009

Response by poster: I'm still keeping an eye on this thread :) Very interesting thinking there. I see comparisons with:

"Post a comment and buy our toothpaste"

Where posting a comment does not necessarily result in the buying of toothpaste. Sneaky though, as you say.
posted by wackybrit at 8:54 AM on October 12, 2009

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