Archive for the ‘Brevity vs. Clarity’ Category

On the interview watch

September 28, 2022

From recent American broadcast news interviews, yielding notable examples of familiar phenomena: the 2pbfV (2-part back-formed V) family-plan ‘do family planning’; and the phrase-final truncation of a formulaic expression, not give a rat’s ass ‘not care at all’, in the truncated not give a rat’s.

Both phenomena illustrate a drive towards brevity of expression (which makes life easier for the speaker), balanced against the hearer’s need for clarity of expression: to work out what the speaker intended to convey, the hearer must be able to supply crucial background knowledge (they have to know the compound noun family planning, with its specialized sense; they have to know the negative-polarity idiom (not) give a rat’s ass ‘not care at all’ and appreciate the zing in its vulgar minimizer rat’s ass), so the speaker must assess those abilities and craft their speech to suit their audience. It’s a complex dance, and like social dancing, it happens in the moment, on the fly, using practiced patterns while collaborating to make something new.


The compounds of commerce and the comics

June 3, 2022

A little study in N + N compounds in English, their great utility and versatility (they pack a lot of content into two-word expressions), and their consequent massive potential ambiguity (so that divining the intended meaning can require vast amounts of background knowledge and appreciating details of the context in which the compound is used). You can have (great) brevity, or you can have (great) clarity, but you can’t have both at once.

From the world of commerce, the compound dog spot (which many of us will not have encountered before, or will take to be a reference to the coat pattern of Dalmatian dogs). From the comic strips, two compounds that have conventional interpretations but can also be understood in fresh and unconventional ways: from One Big Happy, dancing school; from Bizarro, cowboy.


The clown barber of Custard Street

July 12, 2019

Friday’s Wayno/Piraro collabo Bizarro strip (titled “Shaving Cream Pie”):

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

Ordinary barbers use shaving cream; clown barbers use cream pies. It’s just like spas: ordinary spas use facial creams (for moisturizing); clown spas use cream pies.

Bonus: the cartoon shows a clown barber twice over: a barber who is a clown, and also a barber for clowns.



May 21, 2019

A facebook exchange back on the 6th, between Andrew Carnie (professor of linguistics and dean of the Graduate College at the Univ. of Arizona) and Karen Chung (associate professor at National Taiwan University, teaching courses on linguistics and English).

Andrew: [Student], who only came to class less than 50% of the time, and turned in a bunch of assignments (really) late: These homeworks are way. too. hard. It’s unfair.

Karen: “Homework” as a countable noun? Is he/she a native speaker of English?

Academics will recognize Andrew’s note as the plangent lament of a professor facing the grading tasks at the end of a term, confronted with a self-entitled student who believes they are really smart, so preparation outside of class shouldn’t take much work (and they should be able to ace the final without much studying).

But what Karen picks up on is the use the noun homework as a C(ount) noun, clearly so because it occurs in the plural form homeworks here; for the M(ass) noun homework, the usage would be: This homework is way. too. hard. Or else: These homework assignments are way. too. hard.

Much as I sympathize deeply with Andrew’s lament — having had nearly 50 years of similar experiences (fortunately far outweighed by students who were a delight to teach) — what this posting is about is the C/M thing. There’s a fair amount to get clear about first, and then I’ll have some analysis, some data, and some reflections on larger matters (language use in particular communities of practice, the tension between brevity and clarity as factors in language use).


There oughta be a word

May 16, 2018

Darya Kavitskaya on Facebook yesteday:

This is sour cherry clafoutis. No more food for today.

I commented:

I think French needs a verb clafouter ‘to cook a clafoutis; to devour a clafoutis’.

Come to think of it, I could use an English verb clafoute /kla’fut/ with these senses:

I think I’ll clafoute for tonight’s dessert. Maybe plum.

Terry piggishly clafouted. Seven at a sitting!

To come: a reminder about what clafoutis is; about the forms of the invented French verb clafouter; on “having no word for” some concept; about needing — or at least wanting — a word for it; about the ambiguity of these invented verbs (both ‘to cook’ and ‘to eat’); about the source of such ambiguities in marker-poor combinations of elements (lacking explicit indicators of the semantic relationship between the elements — there’s nothing in French clafouter or English clafoute to indicate the semantic role of the referent of their subjects, as creator or consumer); and about the motivation for marker-poor combinations, in a drive for brevity (vs. clarity). French and English could be clearer, less ambiguous — I’ll illustrate with still more invented French verbs — but only at the cost of greater length and effort.

All this from (delicious) French sour cherry flan.