Mixed cardboard only: a subtle case of nerdview

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On a recycling dumpster outside an office building in Edinburgh: MIXED CARDBOARD ONLY. That, although it's subtle, is a case of the phenomenon for which I have been using the (not exactly ideal) term nerdview. It is an example of a linguistically misleading communication in which the failure is not of grammar or meaning but of failing to keep in mind the viewpoint of the reader rather than the specialist (possibly nerdy) view of the writer. Do you see why?

Are you permitted to put cardboard in there only if it is mixed? Would a single piece, or a pair of pieces of cardboard of exactly the same type, be forbidden goods for that dumpster? No, of course not. That is the potential misreading. You might not even notice it (though you should, because more serious instances of nerdview could cause airline disasters or fires, and probably have, in cases we don't even know about). The point is that it is not us, the public throwing away packaging, who need to be told that the contents should only be mixed cardboard. All we need to know is that we should put cardboard in there. Putting in several pieces of exactly the same kind is fine; we do not have to ensure that it is mixed in any sense. It may or may not turn out at the end of the day that there are mixed sorts in there. If so, it is likely to be an unintended result of the collective actions of many of us not all throwing out the same kind of cardboard. It is just a mistake to tell us we should put only mixed cardboard in there. It signals a confusion about viewpoints.

The view of the contents as "mixed cardboard" is the recycling company's view. To the people who place the dumpster and collect from it it might be relevant that the contents cannot be guaranteed to be all of one type — clean brown corrugated, white unwaxed, glossy printed, double-thick stiff packing, fat-contaminated pizza-box, or whatever types might concern them.

The "ONLY" in the sign indicates that the message is supposed to be for us (we should our individual little item in there if and only if it is made of cardboard); the "MIXED" indicates a confusion with the entirely different view taken by the recycler who deals with the stuff in bulk and should regard this as mixed cardboard materials. Yes, it's a tiny point, and no harm done. But it is illustratively useful. If you can see what I mean, you have begun to grasp the concept of nerdview. As I said before, the problem is that

people with any kind of technical knowledge of a domain tend to get hopelessly (and unwittingly) stuck in a frame of reference that relates to their view of the issue, and their trade's technical parlance, not that of the ordinary humans with whom they so signally fail to engage.

They start out trying to write for us, and drift through inattention into unwittingly writing partly for themselves or their colleagues. The case noted above is fairly harmless (we can just ignore the word "MIXED"). But it betrays the viewpoint confusion that was there. Some cases of nerdview have much worse consequences, as in due course I will explain here in another post. But that will be another day.

[P.S.: I classify my nerdview posts under "Lost In Translation" simply because I cannot see any other category that we use as more appropriate. But the translation here is between thought and its linguistic expression.]

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77 Comments »

  1. John Lawler said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 5:08 am

    Something Paul Postal pointed out to me long ago….

    How do you obey those US freeway signs that say
    Use Both Lanes?

    Alas, English does not have a plural imperative.
    A grammatical (rather than phrasal or lexical) nerdview, perhaps?

    [GKP: Highly relevant. Since each reader of the sign is an individual driver (it really isn't a driver's business whether other drivers are reading particular signs or not), no driver who sees this sign is capable of obeying it. Setting aside lane straddling, we can assume each driver is in a given lane. What is the sign telling her to do? Switch to the other lane? Merely be aware that she could have chosen the other lane? What purpose does that serve? The authors of the sign have lost sight of the difference between their view of the scene (they would like traffic to be moving smoothly with 50% of the cars in each lane) and the individual driver's view (I've chosen this lane; is that permitted?). That's a nice case of nerdview. You note that English had an unambiguously plural imperative form, as if that would fix it; but I'm not sure it would. It would rule out the implication that the individual driver was being told to use both lanes, but it would not help the individual driver to know how to respond to the imperative. We can note that (if, say, I'm in lane 2 and you're in lane 1) we seem to be in compliance collectively. But suppose we're both in lane 2. Which of us is supposed to change lanes? Is this some kind of action-coordination game? Normally imperatives are supposed to direct you to do something that you are capable of doing. What would that be in this case, for either of us?]

  2. Robert M Maier said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 6:06 am

    I think it is quite appropriate to have this under "Lost in Translation": the degree to which a good translation should be oriented on the reader/recipient has been a serious issue in the history of translation theories. (Not to mention the question *which* reader we are actually talking about.)

  3. Nigel Greenwood said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 6:41 am

    Airline nerdview: for years cabin staff on BA would instruct you to tie the tapes on the lifejacks "securely in a double bow" … & that means you, panicking non-English speaker exiting the aircraft!

    UK motorway (freeway) nerdview: the signs exhorting drivers to "Keep apart two chevrons" (note the Martian grammar). Translation: ensure that there are at least two arrowhead road markings between you & the car ahead.

  4. Nik Berry said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 7:10 am

    I love the London Underground's "Use all doors when boarding the train." As I'm not a sub-atomic particle, that's tricky.

  5. SK said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 7:19 am

    Nigel Greenwood: I'm not sure where the nerdview is supposed to lie in an instruction like 'Tie the tapes on your lifejacket securely in a double bow'. I doubt passengers would have been happier if the instruction had been 'You'll all be panicking anyway, so just sling on your lifejacket any way you like and let's hope it stays attached.' The problem with nerdview is that it wrongly treats a lay person as a specialist in some area; in this case, on the other hand, the whole point of the instruction was to turn lay people into specialists (in the art of putting on lifejackets) in case it ever came in useful.

    Of course, if your point is that people who don't know a language won't understand an instruction given in that language, I suppose that's true enough, but no amount of vigilance to the perils of nerdview is going to do much about it.

  6. Brett said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 7:21 am

    New Scientists's Feedback column regularly publishes examples of this phenomenon. Examples include: "Camden Town station is closed due to a localised event taking place," "Use all doors to exit," "Please use existing road signs," "Restroom closes 15 minutes before closing," & "Please Use Both Letterboxes."

  7. Orange said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 7:25 am

    It may be that "mixed cardboard" means a cardboard other than corrugated cardboard, as suggested by this page. Would it kill them to specify that if that's what they mean?

  8. John Roth said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 7:38 am

    I suspect some of this is simply space. For example, I can't come up with an anything that says what's intended by "use both lanes" in three words. In this case we're not only talking about signage, we're talking about signage that has to be read – and understood – at high speed.

    However, there's a common issue in several of the examples: when there are multiple facilities (two lanes, several doors, several letterboxes, etc), you frequently see people bunching up in one and not distributing the load.

    Point of view is, of course, important, but sometimes there are other constraints. Newspaper headlines come to mind as another topic with its own rules.

    John Roth

  9. Faldone said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 7:45 am

    While I've chuckled quietly to my self about signs such as the "USE BOTH LANES" ones, I've never had any problem understanding what they meant. Likewise with those of the "MIXED CARBOARD ONLY" sort except I've never chuckled over those. In the case of the signs explaining what this recycling container is to be used for there is generally a list of acceptable items and a list of unacceptable ones but this needs to be in a smaller print than that required for the part of the sign that advertises the main purpose of the container. That information must be legible from some distance and needs to have relatively few characters. "MIXED CARBOARD ONLY" serves this purpose better than "ANY OF VARIOUS TYPES OF CARDBOARD AS LISTED BELOW".

    [GKP: Faldone has not understood the point. CARDBOARD would be much shorter, and more appropriate, since the nerdview involved in calling it mixed would be gone.]

  10. Cephi said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 8:13 am

    John Roth said,

    I suspect some of this is simply space. For example, I can't come up with an anything that says what's intended by "use both lanes" in three words.

    use either lane

    Although I would agree the original seems to direct the reader to avoid being one of a set of drivers clogging a single lane, whereas "use either lane" perhaps does not manage this.
    But that consideration would seem to be accounted for by the drivers' desires for speed and aversion to traffic, and would therefore not need to be included in the command.

  11. Nicholas Waller said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 8:35 am

    "Use both lanes" and "Use all doors" are addressed to the Borg nature of a crowd hyper-mind, not to any one individual – the signwriters want the mass as a whole to spread itself out and flow as quickly and smoothly as possible, and as parts of a mass we get it… it's only a bit silly if we are out at 3am and are the only car on the roads.

    I'd say "Mixed Cardboard Only" is different. Why isn't "Cardboard" alone enough, with more detailed instructions regarding any forbidden types in smaller print?

  12. John N. said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 8:35 am

    "Nerdview" seems an adequate label for these things. But it's funny that after reading the first two sentences of this post, which includes only the example and the term, but not a definition for the term, was that Geoff is the nerd (and so am I). Any average literate person would interpret these phrases without trouble. It's nerdy to think them odd. It takes a nerd to know a nerd I guess.

    [GKP: Let me carefully clarify this: I admire nerdery, and hope I can be considered a nerd myself. I am a Unix fanatic, and a LaTeX brown belt. I love technical arcana. In no way is it my intention to denigrate nerds. The phenomenon I am pointing to involves a failure to perceive when one is looking through one's own nerdy glasses instead of empathizing with the (possibly) non-nerdy reader or user of a sign or other communication.]

  13. Chris said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 8:53 am

    It seems to me that anyone who drives down that road for a significant distance probably *will* use both lanes – by changing back and forth – because they use the road continuously over a period of time. Of course, this view can't be applied to "use all doors when boarding the train", since you board the train only once at a particular time. (I suppose you could see it as some sort of Bridges of Konigsberg problem, but if the train is bilaterally symmetric it has an even number of doors, which means you would end up off the train, probably not what you intended.)

    I'm particularly fond of "Please use existing road signs" – it seems rather unnecessary, since the nonexisting signs are far more difficult to use. Oh, and if I'm supposed to "Use all doors to exit", how do I enter?

    But ultimately these "misinterpretations" are deliberate for humor effect, not a genuine ambiguity. I hope you have better examples of something genuinely misunderstandable for the next post.

    [GKP: What on earth does Chris think ambiguity has to do with all this? People are not paying attention. I couldn't care less about ambiguity in the present context. I was talking about nerdview.]

  14. Rick S said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 9:03 am

    I thought of "use either lane" too, but it's not a solution. It depends on whether the reader imagines the command being addressed to him individually, to all drivers individually, or to all drivers collectively. "Use both lanes" addressed to drivers individually is the case Geoff talked about, and is impossible. "Use either lane" addressed to drivers collectively instructs them to all crowd into one lane or the other, but not both—exactly the opposite of what is desired. It's the middle case that is desired, but that may be the least likely default interpretation people use since it mixes singular and plural aspects.

    The problem isn't just the lack of a plural imperative, it's the lack of coordination of between the audience intended by the writer/speaker and the audience imagined by the reader/listener. This can lead to ambiguity and confusion even in declarative sentences, e.g. "The passengers were boarding the liner via ramps fore and aft." (Did they board by one, then debark and board by the other?) And this confusion is an entirely separate problem from nerdview, which may have nothing to do with either imperatives or plurals.

  15. recycler said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 9:17 am

    I saw some recycling bins in a U.S. airport several years ago that were labeled "Glass," "Plastic," and "Commingled Refuse" or some similar phrase using "commingled."

    Indeed the word "commingled" seems to be entering the mainstream these days through the context of recycling. I still do not see how it is better than merely "mingled" (which could be replaced by "mixed"), and I am still thrown by the paired M characters.

  16. Cliff Crawford said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 9:20 am

    Once in a cafe I saw a sign posted above a recycling bin that said:
    PLEASE
    DUMP RECYCLE
    CANS
    THANK YOU !!
    – STAFF

    So should I recycle my cans? Or throw away the cans I would normally recycle? Or what? I have no idea.

  17. John Cowan said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 9:25 am

    The real problem with the USE BOTH LANES sign is that it represents nerdview in a broader sense: it represents the traffic engineer's assumption that drivers are idiots. (I am neither, so I can be impartial on this point.) Given a situation where there are two lanes that a priori are equally good, and one lane is busy but the other is clear, surely no sign is required to ensure that drivers move from the busy lane to the clear one — they'll do that on their own initiative. At most, if a driver might reasonably doubt that a different lane would reach the same destination, USE EITHER LANE would suffice.

    Sometimes less explicit instructions, as in this case, work better. The sign CHECK LIGHTS or ADJUST LIGHTS at the exit to a tunnel is far superior to four signs reading:

    1) IF YOUR LIGHTS ARE ON, AND IT IS DAYTIME, TURN THEM OFF.
    2) IF YOUR LIGHTS ARE OFF, AND IT IS DAYTIME, LEAVE THEM OFF.
    3) IF YOUR LIGHTS ARE ON, AND IT IS NIGHTTIME, LEAVE THEM ON.
    4) IF YOUR LIGHTS ARE OFF, AND IT IS NIGHTTIME, TURN THEM ON.

  18. Trevor Barrie said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 9:53 am

    Chris, "Use existing roadsigns" strikes me as a fairly clear instruction to drivers not to provide their own.

  19. Grep Agni said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:07 am

    I think the "USE BOTH LANES" signs are used where people have historically not spread themselves among the available lanes. I don't think highway engineers are insulting drivers without purpose.

  20. Robert said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:07 am

    'Use any lane' would work for the road sign. Since it's automatically obeyed, the standard implication is that 'You can use any lane', and hence, given he normal assumption that the sign writers are trying to convey information', that the intention is for all lanes to be in use.

    However, for road signs there's a simpler alternative. Don't use words at all. Just add another sign to the highway code.

  21. Carrie S. said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:34 am

    So should I recycle my cans? Or throw away the cans I would normally recycle? Or what? I have no idea.

    It means "Pour out any remaining soda before putting the can in the recycle bin". Half-full cans in the bin can cause issues (extra weight, greater chance of causing a mess if dropped, etc).

  22. Mark F. said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:36 am

    Until recently where I live in North Carolina, "mixed paper" was a specific category that included copy paper and some cardboard, but not newsprint. The term *did* make sense from the reader's point of view, since a fairly large variety of paper was permissible. The fact that a mixture of newsprint and copy paper didn't count as "mixed paper" was unfortunate, though, but now technology has changed and the bins are pretty omnivorous.

    As for "Use both lanes", the problem with "Use either lane" is that it seems merely to grant permission, rather than to exhort. I suspect where it happens is where one lane goes away further down stream and drivers know it. They all get in line in the lane that doesn't disappear, and fume at the drivers who use the more empty lane to race to the front. The sign means "make two lines and take turns at the merge".

  23. Andy J said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:37 am

    I think there is a distinction between nerdview – the inappropriate use of technical jargon in a wider environement (the mixed cardboard example) – and what might be termed 'not-properly-thought-through' signage such as Use Both Lanes. There is no nerd speak in the latter, just some muddled thinking on the part of the author.
    As for Use All Doors (and its variants) I am much more familiar with this as a public address announcement, when of course it makes absolute sense because it is obvious more than one person is being addressed. I would suggest that the signs came about from these spoken annoucements.

    [GKP: Nerdview is closer to the latter than the former. It is not merely the use of jargon; it is a failure of empathy betrayed in an inappropriate assumption of viewpoint. Is that clearer?]

  24. Peter said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 11:10 am

    The topic of roadsigns allows me to cite my all-time favourite UK motorway sign, which I have now seen several times on stretches of new or upgraded motorway, the wonderful, self-denying,

    "SIGN NOT IN USE"

  25. Sky Onosson said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 11:14 am

    I would consider the possibility that the "cardboard" signage was meant not only for the public in general, but also for the staff of the recycling company.

    The discussion above would seem to indicate that the distinctive viewpoints of the writer vs. the reader can be aligned with the company vs. the public, but I would suggest that such types of signage are often directed at individuals within an organization while at the same time being aimed at the public, as well. So there are multiple viewpoints to consider, and perhaps the chosen wording is an attempt at conveying multiple messages in as efficient a way as possible.

    [GKP: Not plausible. Still no explanation of why the label should not just say "CARDBOARD", or "CARDBOARD ONLY". It is only mixed for them — and they already know that.]

  26. ajay said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    The common warning "the value of your investments may go down as well as up"

    Of course, not true. The value of your investments may go down instead of up, but it logically can't go down as well as up – A' cannot be simultaneously greater than and less than A.

  27. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

    "Use any lane" doesn't work on roadways where driving in the breakdown lane is prohibited.

  28. Chris said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

    ajay – Like "use both lanes", it can make sense if interpreted over time. Your investments may go up, then down, then up again – in fact this is normal behavior for investments, which is what the warning is intended to convey.

  29. bianca steele said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

    Funny, when I first looked at this post, I thought “nerdview” referred to the habit of over-reading signs that a normal person would understand immediately. Your extended explanation helped a lot (but labeling it as taking “the writer’s” view also might refer simply to “overthinking,” as an ordinary person would intuit what was meant without the hard thinking that would have been required of the person responsible for creating the text in the first place).

    There is also the possibility that the person responsible for the sign did not know what “mixed cardboard” refers to. It seems odd to refer to his or her writing style as “nerdy” if that’s the case. Someone else — some expert — said a bin was needed for mixed cardboard and a sign was required over the bin, and whoever made up the sign for the public trusted what he or she was told and expected the public to know the meanings of words.

  30. gribley said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

    I think that "USE BOTH LANES" is perfectly correct if we assume that the sign is speaking to the population as a whole, and not to the individual drivers. That is clearly the intention of the sign. Of course, we don't distinguish between singular and plural imperative here, but consider if the sign said, "You there, use both lanes" versus "Y'all use both lanes now". The latter is clearly the message.

    For a similar phrase, consider telling a group of people to "go home". If they don't live together, that suffers from the same logical problem as "use both lanes" — "go to your respective homes or lanes" — but it's crystal clear. I see no problem, grammatical or logical, with either.

  31. Peter said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 4:20 pm

    Well, contrary to gribley, an imperative directed to "the population as a whole" cannot be enacted, since there is no such entity in this case, there are only individual drivers. By what joint & collective action could "the population as a whole" demonstrate its existence in response to this command?

    Such an imperative may be grammatical. But because it is directed at a non-existential entity it is both illogical and devoid of pragmatic force.

  32. Rich B. said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

    "Use both lanes" is no more problematic than saying "Spread Out" to a group of people clumped on one side of the room. No individual person can "spread out" (become less dense), but the group can.

    In addition, many consider the left lane to be a "passing lane," rather than a "driving lane" — use it to pass, but then get right again. The sign instructs them otherwise.

  33. Troy S. said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

    Is nerdview the English version of the French "Déformation professionnelle" ? A cognitive bias, it's the tendency to see everything from the narrow perspective of one's own professional training.

    [GKP: Wow! So there is a human language that already has a term for nerdview. Thanks, Troy. That is wonderful. When in France I will refer to nerdview thus — unless, of course, they pick up my term from Language Log and start calling it le nerdview.]

  34. Martyn Cornell said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

    What would be wrong with a sign saying "Don't bunch in one lane", in the roads example, and "don't bunch in one exit" in the trains example? The instruction is clear, the reason for the instruction implicit …

  35. Nick Lamb said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

    I have to agree with the "Spread out" type of reading of "Use both lanes". The sign addresses a group, and the group can carry out the instruction correctly despite consisting of individuals with no central authority. Basically, each individual has a good approximation of a correct algorithm for determining what to do without communicating with their neighbours, and the algorithm converges on a "good enough" solution for everyone. For example in "spread out" everyone individually just moves to increase the distance to their nearest neighbour, and voilà – the whole group spreads out.

    I don't dispute that "nerdview" is a problem – computer software is littered with it, but the label deserves to get stuck on things that are actually confusing, rather than (per many recent LL posts about prescriptivism) pet peeves that don't amount to any legitimate confusion.

  36. diam diam said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

    John Roth said,
    October 23, 2008 @ 7:38 am

    I suspect some of this is simply space.
    ===
    In the original example ("Mixed cardboard only"), the problem (or rather, the easy solution, ironically) isn't space. From the point of view of the person going to the bin to put his/her cardboard, it would be clearer and less confusing to just say "Cardboard only", which requires less space. If it were really necessary for the recycling collector to affix some information on the bin about the mixedness of the cardboard, then surely it'd be possible to indicate that differently and, crucially, separately from the information intended primarily for the depositor. This would avoid the problem of mixing viewpoints.

  37. Will said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

    My thought it that there is a type of cardboard that is classified as "mixed" and that the dumpster is to be used for that type of cardboard only.

    There are bins at the recycling center here (Austin, TX, USA) that say "Clear Glass Only."

    Granted, there can be confusion if the sign is taken out of context. And there is the assumption that the user knows how to distinguish "mixed" cardboard from other types of cardboard.

  38. Douglas Dee said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

    I think John Cowan is too harsh when he says traffic engineers are making an "assumption that drivers are idiots." It seems to be generally agreed by many people who study traffic that when a lane is to be closed, many drivers merge too soon (partly out of fear of being considered selfish jerks if they remain in the lane to be closed and merge at the last moment). Traffic engineers seem to believe that (under most circumstances) drivers should "USE BOTH LANES TO MERGE POINT " (as the signs often say).

    So, drivers aren't idiots, but left to their own devices they will make suboptimal decisions to merge too soon & bunch up in one lane, unless signs give them explicit encouragement to keep using the lane that is to be closed.

    Some discussion of this:
    http://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/wz/workshops/accessible/McCoy.htm

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/notesandqueries/query/0,,-197042,00.html

    "Use either lane" strikes me as inferior phrasing, because (to me) it seems to lack the same degree of encouragement to use the lane that people are inclined to get out of.

  39. misterfricative said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 1:37 am

    This isn't an example of a misleading communication, but it does, I think, result from a failure to consider the situation from the viewpoint of the end user. This is verbatim from a Sony battery charger –

    "Full charge will complete in approximately one hour after charge lamp goes out."

  40. JakeT said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 2:01 am

    This is one of the most difficult problems in technical writing: how to concisely explain something with which your intimately familiar in a way that almost anyone will understand, and the subproblem: figuring out how much of what you're explaining is accessible to everyone, and how much is opaque.

  41. Nigel Greenwood said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 6:49 am

    @ Nick Lamb: Good explanation of emergent spreading out. Can you now please explain exactly how soldiers break step when crossing that proverbial bridge? At worst, it seems to me, they might end up marching LRL instead of RLR. Is there a standard procedure, in fact? (Eg files 1& 2 maintain LRL while files 3 & 4 switch to RLR.) Or does everyone just sort of shuffle?

    @ Douglas De: Here in the UK my impression is that many drivers couldn't (= US could) care less if people think they're selfish jerks! A substantial minority of drivers overtake the good citizens & merge at the last moment — amazingly, without suffering any delay to speak of: the GCs just meekly let them barge in. I suppose the reasoning of the leading GC is that s/he is only being delayed by a couple of seconds; whereas the total delay may be several person-minutes.

  42. Ellen K. said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 7:45 am

    @Will: It seems to me that if your suggestion (and that of Orange earlier) is right, but seems to me that's still nerdview, because it expects the people reading the signs to know what "mixed cardboard" is.

  43. Peter said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 8:34 am

    I have to disagree with the comparison of "Spread out", an imperative issued to a group of standing people, and "Use both lanes", issued to a ongoing stream of vehicle drivers. Unlike the former case, the drivers are not present in one spatial location at one temporal moment. As I asked above, what joint action could the collectivity of drivers undertake to demonstrate that they are anything more than a set of individuals? I think commentors here are conflating a sum of parts with a whole: there is no whole entity in this case to which the command "Use both lanes" could sensibly be issued, and thus the pre-conditions for the felicitous issuance of this command do not exist.

  44. ajay said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 10:28 am

    Can you now please explain exactly how soldiers break step when crossing that proverbial bridge? At worst, it seems to me, they might end up marching LRL instead of RLR. Is there a standard procedure, in fact? (Eg files 1& 2 maintain LRL while files 3 & 4 switch to RLR.)

    That wouldn't do any good – the problem is resonance. An object like a bridge or a violin string or a wine glass has a natural resonating frequency, and if the object is shaken at that frequency it will resonate (keep vibrating) after the external force is removed. Say it's 5 Hz. (five times a second). If you drive it at 4 Hz (by shaking it, hitting it, playing 4 Hz sound at it) then the vibration will die away quickly. But if you drive it at the resonant frequency, the vibration will build up and up until it's too much for the object to take.

    The problem with the Angers Bridge – as far as I know the only bridge to collapse because of resonance from marching troops – was that the resonant frequency was the same as the frequency of the footfalls of marching men. It wouldn't make any difference which foot it was – if they were all hopping at the right speed, the effect would be the same. The bridge was driven at the resonant frequency and vibrated more and more strongly until it gave way.

    In answer to your question: they shuffle.

  45. gribley said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 11:27 am

    Peter, why is it that we can only address well-defined "entities"? I don't see the point. If upon Election Day a continuous stream of people is pouring in through the front door of the local elementary school to vote, and the cop near the door says, "Spread out!" as they enter, he's not talking to any well-defined "entity" but a changing group of people. But it's perfectly logical and absolutely unmistakable, whether the individuals addressed can "spread out" on their own or not. Or, if we must think about it in an "entity" way (and I can't imagine why), we could say that the entity addressed is the group of people in earshot, just as the entity addressed by USE BOTH LANES is the set of drivers who are close enough to see the sign. Your claim seems tantamount to saying that we can only use the imperative form to address singular objects, which is silly.

    Incidentally, are you at MPE?

  46. Peter said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 11:57 am

    Gribley — You began by saying this command ("Use both lanes") was grammatical and logical. For an imperative, as with many other speech acts, I believe the relevant criteria for assessment are pragmatic, not syntactical or semantic. In other words, for a command, we should ask questions such as: Is it addressed to an entity or entities which are capable of executing it? Is it feasible? Is it lawful? (ie, does the issuer of the command have the legal or moral right to issue commands to this or these entities at this time to do this action?), Is it ethical? etc.

    I am contesting the pragmatics of "use both lanes" when I say that this command is not addressed to any entity which could actually execute it. An individual driver could not execute this command by his or her own, individual decision. A group of drivers, if they were able to somehow co-ordinate their actions beforehand, could conceivably execute it. This is where "use both lanes" differs from "spread out" as a command issued to a group of standing people. The standing people are able to co-ordinate their actions as a group — they stand in one spatial location at one temporal moment, and can see what each other is doing doing, and can then modify their own individual behaviour in accordance with that. I don't believe this is the case for the drivers, except perhaps for short periods of time.

    It is always possible for commands to be issued, whether to individuals or collectives even if the entities references do not exist. What I am arguing (in the spirit of the philosophy of language) is that certain pre-conditions need to exist if those commands are to be executed felicitously. One of the pre-conditions is that an entity actually exists capable of executing the action referenced in the command.

    Perhaps I am being too pedantic for a linguistics blog. These issues of co-ordination and command have been studied at length in computer science, where aspects of co-location, co-temporality and felicitous execution become important to clarify for machine-to-machine communications (as when one machine commands another to cease executing some process).

    What is MPE?

  47. Andy J said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    As far as the mixed cardboard example is concerned, maybe GKP is being a little hasty in calling this nerdview. Think about the dumpster. Once it is full it will be taken to the recylcing plant where, no doubt, it will will become one of dozens or maybe hundreds of similar dumpsters gathered from a variety of locations. Some will contain old newsprint, some normal higher grade paper, others, shredded paper and so on, and they will have signs on them describing their respective contents. The signs on the exterior of these dumpsters are no longer information for the public, but are now there to assist the depot staff in correctly processing the material therein. One sign; two purposes. The omission of the word ‘mixed’ removes the important information as far as the second (the ‘nerd’?) purpose is concerned, whereas having the the seemingly redundant word presented to the lay public does not actually cause confusion or distress. The wording is in fact the simplest means of accomplishing two tasks. Only a hypothesis I know, but at least it’s a reasonable alternative to the instinctive reaction that this is unthinking nerdview. Maybe the author of this sign thought more deeply about this than the linguist.

  48. Brandon K said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

    Nerdview is virulent among librarians, as you'll see if you try doing anything other than the most basic search in a library catalog or database. Many of my colleagues believe our users should have to learn how we look at and describe information, and then they wonder why those users are deserting us for easier-to-use resources like Google Scholar.

  49. mgh said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

    GKP, I'm a little confused whether "nerdview" relates to any information that is unnecessary for the user, or only information that is actively confusing. Are you bringing in a bias about how instructions should be written — that they should tell the user only what the user needs to know to operate the device at hand? In some ways this is becoming unfashionable, as it is considered healthy for users to think about where their food comes from, where their trash goes, what kinds of workers make their discount clothing — in short, to see themselves not just as a "user" but as part of a system, and to understand the larger system. I'm wondering if instructions written with this mind would sometimes overlap with "nerdview"?

    For example, the elevators in my building unhelpfully tell me that they are "Elevator Bank A" (there is only one bank of elevators in the building), along with a floorplan showing me which staircase is "Stair A" and which is "Stair B", and inside each elevator car I'm instructed whether I'm in Car 1, 2, 3 or 4. I don't really need to know any of that to use the elevators or the stairs. On the other hand, if I'm calling the fire department, and that is the nerdy language they speak when trying to navigate a burning building, then maybe it helps for me to know it. Short version: is there a bias in your post that "userview" is inherently better than "nerdview"? why?

  50. Ann said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

    Mr. Greenwood,

    While it may indeed be irksome when some drivers take advantage of a relatively empty lane to merge into the full lane at the last minute, it would actually be more efficient for everyone if the two lanes were equally full, and drivers alternated at the merge point. That your "good drivers" decide to stay in a needlessly slow lane is not the fault of the other, rational drivers.

  51. Achim said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

    I think that MIXED CARDBOARD ONLY and USE ALL DOORS FOR BOARDING are two quite different cases.

    Let's start with the ALL DOORS example (which is, in its German version, often being heard from announcers in Berlin underground stations). It addresses a collective agent, and all the individuals that form the agent do not have problems in understanding it. The desired action is that a subgroup of the people waiting on the platform and clustering around but a few of all the train's doors will go to some other door which is not being used at all. As we are social beings, we are quite capable to understand this announcement. That it never causes the desired effect is a non-linguistic problem: Why should it be me of all the people here who has to run for the next door (and see it closing just a fraction of a second before I reach it)?

    MIXED CARDBOARD is another case. The word mixed – as it has been pointed out – is a piece of information for the people who collect the contents of the dumpster, telling them that it contains cardboard of lesser quality. Would it not be an idea to label the dumpster CARDBOARD (ANY KIND)?

  52. Peter said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

    JakeT said:

    "This is one of the most difficult problems in technical writing: how to concisely explain something with which your intimately familiar in a way that almost anyone will understand, and the subproblem: figuring out how much of what you're explaining is accessible to everyone, and how much is opaque."

    I am reminded of that old joke that a computer manual is a document written by someone who knows all the answers, but who, unfortunately, knows none of the questions.

  53. Craig Russell said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 8:58 pm

    I must admit that the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am to 'Mixed Cardboard Only'.

    Would a sign reading just 'Mixed Cardboard' raise the 'nerdview' objection? Because so many different recycling systems have so many different rules about the degree to which you have to separate them, it seems to me that it would be helpful to have your sign specify that it's okay to put any kind of cardboard in the bin. (The cardboard recycling at my work, for example, will take big corrugated boxes, but I can't put the boxes from my frozen dinners in it). So I think "Mixed Cardboard" is okay.

    Now, imagine that you've got your bin labeled "Mixed Cardboard", but you run into the problem of people putting in other things (cans, glass, food, etc.). So you want to admonish people not to put any non-cardboard items in the bin. How do you add this information, but still make the sign short and easily readable?

    MIXED CARDBOARD ONLY might be stylistically inelegant, but I can't think of anything else nearly as succinct that relays these two pieces of information:

    1. You may put any kind of cardboard in this bin.
    2. Don't put non-cardboard in this bin.

    The suggestions of "CARDBOARD" or "CARDBOARD ONLY" leave it unclear whether all kinds of cardboard are acceptable. "MIXED CARDBOARD" doesn't include the warning about not putting in other things (and I suspect that a good part of the purposes of these signs is to tell people not to do things that the regularly do).

    I would raise a similar defense about "USE BOTH LANES". I imagine that reason someone decided to put a sign up at all is to solve the problem of all the traffic tending to get caught in one lane or another, when both are available.

    "USE EITHER LANE" lets people know that they have the *option* of using either lane, but it doesn't give them the COMMAND to spread the traffic out between the lanes. "USE BOTH LANES" is a succinct (if inelegant) way of telling people "Every individual should do his own part towards creating a situation where there is an even amount of traffic in both lanes".

    I think for both of these examples, the "Nerdview" relates information or instructions that a non-nerdview sign wouldn't give as clearly.

  54. Kristin said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

    Assuming that "mixed cardboard" is not a particular variety of cardboard, I think the problem with "Mixed Cardboard Only" is with the "only," not the "mixed." The "mixed" makes clear that the user should not be deterred from depositing his or her own cardboard into the bin, even if it is already filled with cardboard of an entirely different kind.

    Or it may be that there are separate bins for pre-sorted cardboard. In that case, "Mixed Cardboard Only" would make perfect sense from the point of view of the user. It would be shorthand for, "We don't expect you to sort your cardboard, but if your cardboard is of a single type only, please use the specially designated bins."

  55. Troy S. said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 9:21 pm

    As to the question of whether it actually is dangerous, I found one newspaper articlehas ascribed Princess Diana's death to the nerdview of the paparazzi.

  56. Troy S said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 9:41 am

    Also, just this morning I noticed on my bottle of pepper sauce that sodium benzoate is included "as a preservative." It's always listed as such. Why do I need to know that? What other nefarious purpose does sodium benzoate have that I need to feel safe from?

  57. Nigel Greenwood said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 11:03 am

    @ Craig Russell:

    "USE EITHER LANE" lets people know that they have the *option* of using either lane, but it doesn't give them the COMMAND to spread the traffic out between the lanes.

    OK, how about USE EMPTIER LANE? Mind you, that may cause a few collisions while people scratch their heads working it out …

  58. bianca steele said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

    Does “deformation professionelle” really imply the same meaning as “nerdview”? I have seen the French term used, and I would have thought GP’s coinage has a narrower extension. For example, you could refer to the “deformation professionelle” of a technical writer (from the point of view of the techies she works with or the managers she works for), or to that of the techies, but “nerdview” seems to go in only one direction. In fact, the primary practical use of the term “nerdview” would seem to be in the education of technical writers, who will need to recognize this problem and to combat it in their future work. (It might also turn up, I guess, in the occasional “adult-education” column in a professional journal — perhaps penned by a person who had attended a communications seminar run by a technical writer.) “Nerdview,” as defined, refers only to technical knowledge, not to humanistic, common-sense, or business knowledge, or to verbal ability and similar kinds of generalist expertise.

    The use of the terms "nerd" and "geek" by young academics and other aficionados to describe themselves is, I think, restricted to their own communities.

    I agree with Kristin that the problem seems to be the word “only.” I would have no problem with “mixed cardboard” (describes what’s in the bin), or with “cardboard only” (describes what’s in the bin and adds the information that the purpose of the sign is to restrict what people throw in there). If everyone had been mailed a flyer defining “mixed cardboard,” maybe by comparison to “corrugated cardboard and boxes,” or if a sign with this information were posted nearby, “mixed cardboard only” might also seem reasonable (though “assorted,” “unclassified,” or “other” might be more accurate).

  59. Ivan said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

    SK:

    I'm notsure where the nerdview is supposed to lie in an instruction like 'Tie the tapes on your lifejacket securely in a double bow'.

    One problem is that "tie it in a double bow" is one of those expressions that will baffle just about any non-native English speaker, even highly proficient ones. I had no idea what it means until I looked it up a minute ago, except for a vague association with "bow-tie" – and I've been living in an English-speaking city and doing research and teaching in English for half a decade, so realistically, I probably speak English better than 99% of non-native-Anglophone airline passengers. I can guarantee that nearly all of my non-native colleagues from work would be equally stumped by this expression.

    Of course, if your point is that people who don't know a language won't understand an instruction given in that language, I suppose that's true enough, but no amount of vigilance to the perils of nerdview is going to do much about it.

    Yes, but in a place where instructions will be read by many non-native speakers, it's nerdviewish (or in any case irresponsible) to neglect to check that the expressions used are not of the sort described above. For native English speakers, it's sometimes hard to understand that there are words and expressions normally familiar to native 10-year-old kids that may easily baffle even the most proficient and experienced non-native speakers. Unfortunately, this category includes many expressions related to trivial gadgets and actions involving fixing and moving stuff around, which a learner will probably never pick up unless they live for an extended period of time in an English-speaking household.

  60. Craig Russell said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 4:00 pm

    @bianca steel

    You say that your issue is with the 'only'. My counter to that (as I said above) is that the purpose of the 'only', it seems quite clear to me, is to deter people from putting things other than cardboard in the bin.

    Even though we can joke around about a literal interpretation of this sign ("So it's okay if I put two kinds of cardboard in, but not if I only put one?") I feel that it is perfectly clear to most people that 'mixed cardboard' means 'any kind of cardboard'.

    Despite the fact that this English formulation is inelegant, and would not do in spoken English or any sort of published writing, it makes perfectly clear in a way that other similar signs would not the answer to these two questions:

    1. Can I put any kind of cardboard in this bin?
    2. Can I put things other than cardboard in this bin?

    What other sign of such a short length would make the answers to both of these questions equally clear?

  61. bianca steele said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

    Craig,
    I’m not sure what your point is. Obviously, the sign is there to tell people what they are permitted to throw into the bin. But “mixed X” is an unusual expression and is generally for the benefit of those taking things out of a bin or lot. So that expression seems out of place on this sign — especially when used together with “only,” for the benefit of those who are putting things into the bin.

  62. misterfricative said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 12:15 am

    Here's another example of a grammatically correct command where the viewpoint of the driver is literally not being taken into account. In this case, by the time the command needs to be heeded, it's no longer visible.

    On the other hand, it's better than the alternative.

    It also occurs to me that 'stop' may not be an injunction, but merely a label.

  63. Nigel Greenwood said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 8:17 am

    @ Ivan. Thanks for your support! Actually I wasn't too sure what a double bow was either, & I'm a native speaker of BrEng. I've known what a bow (knot) is ever since I learned to tie my shoelaces; but a double bow? Is it just another name for a bow? Or do you tie the loops into another bow?

    I think my main grumble at the BA cabin announcement, however, was that a lifejacket really ought to have a much simpler method of securing it.

    Another classic nerdview sign from British roads is ADVERSE CAMBER.

  64. misterfricative said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 9:01 am

    @ Nigel Greenwood — Regarding the double bow, fwiw I've always taken it to mean that you tie the loops into another bow. However, the top Google hit gives this, and although they claim that 'the techniques for this bow could not be simpler', I'm not so sure that 'an elegant and vibrant look' is really such a high priority during a 'water landing'.

    Incidentally, it's curious, but I don't actually recall ever hearing the 'double bow' instruction. If memory serves, it's usually something about putting the vest over your head and then pulling the straps tight. But presumably different airlines use different life-vests?

    As for 'Adverse Camber' though, I'd say that's the opposite of nerdview because the camber is only adverse from the point of view of the driver who's reading the sign.

  65. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 11:29 am

    Yeah, I am a native speaker of (North American) English, and the names of knots (such as "double bow") are not really part of my everyday vocabulary. I think I can make an educated guess as to what sort of knot they're talking about, but I consider it far from an unambiguous instruction.

    As pointed out by Ivan above, names of knots are an excellent example of something that you often learn as a kid but don't really think about much as an adult. Hence they can sometimes lead to interesting gaps in the vocabulary of somebody who's a reasonably competent speaker but who learned the language as an adult.

  66. Nigel Greenwood said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    @ SQB:
    names of knots are an excellent example of something that you often learn as a kid but don't really think about much as an adult. Hence they can sometimes lead to interesting gaps in the vocabulary of somebody who's a reasonably competent speaker but who learned the language as an adult.

    They're also (in many cases) good examples of the difference between recognition vocabulary & active vocabulary. Eg most native speakers will know that "sheet bends" & "bowlines" are both types of knots, but may be completely incapable of either tying or recognizing them (& possibly even pronouncing "bowline"). Similarly with birds & trees: to my shame there was a time when, as a studious schoolboy, I knew the French words for various trees that I would have been hard put to identify in the wild.

  67. James Wimberley said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    It's just as well BA doesn't instruct panicky passengers to tie their lifejacket tapes in a double Matthew Walker.

  68. Nigel Greenwood said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

    @ James W: I don't know: some passengers might not mind being "layed [sic] up again and then finished, preferably with an elegant whipping".

  69. Andra said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 12:00 am

    I discovered this blog tonight and am wholly delighted to read some of my own thoughts and experiences so eloquently explained by GKP. Some of y'all's comments are equally entertaining. What a jewel.

    I remember riding in the car, years and years ago, with my three siblings while my single, overworked mother drove us home from school. We took a different route than usual, traveling through a construction zone. My mother read a sign outloud as we passed it, "MEN WORKING AHEAD." "Hmm," she quipped, "I wish I could work ahead."

  70. Andra said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 12:08 am

    Children are sometimes the best resources for reminding us of the oddities in our language that we have long since taken for granted. My daughter asked me once why I stopped at an intersection, and I explained to her that all red, octagonal signs posted at street corners say "STOP," and that all drivers are to stop there. She immediately asked, "So why did you go again?"

  71. Andra said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 12:26 am

    Nigel Greenwood~ "Use emptier lane" is nerdview, for, if I were driving and read this, I would have trouble answering the many questions this would create for me. I would understand the words emptier and lane to be purposefully positioned together to create a term, a type of lane that I previously had not heard of because I took my driving test so many years ago. "Does this road have a lane that is an 'exit only' lane? Which lane is the Emptier Lane? If I am in the Emptier Lane and forced to exit, will I be able to reenter soon or at all? And, why is there a sign for it? Is it because, at this juncture, the Emptier Lane is not being used as it usually would be, like for emptying the road? Do I use the Emptier Lane to remain on course or to leave the road, or maybe all cars are to use Emptier Lane because the other lane is temporarily unsafe?"

  72. Nicholas Waller said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 7:30 am

    Perhaps MIXED CARDBOARD ONLY is simply large-print shorthand for an all-encompassing statement like the "I swear to tell the Truth &c" assertion in courts – "Place in here cardboard, all kinds of cardboard, and nothing but cardboard".

    People are aware that the different kinds of plastics should not be recycled together; perhaps this reminds them that no such problem exists for cardboard.

  73. Nigel Greenwood said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 7:31 am

    @ Andra: Thanks for your expanded version of my 2nd sentence.

  74. G.L. Dryfoos said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 11:12 pm

    "Use Both Lanes"

    A single driver could not do that, but the individual electron certainly could. Perhaps it is an exhortation to attempt to emulate quantum-scale behavior in the macro-scale world?

  75. Walter said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

    With regards to "deformation professionelle", Dutch has the very similar term "beroepsdeformatie" ("beroep" meaning profession), which refers to the tendency of people to view things through the "glasses" of their profession.

    For example, I work in information security, and I am completely unable to see any security mechanism and not think about how to bypass it.

    To my mind, the difference between this and nerdview is that one can be perfectly aware of it, and it need not be an impediment to communication with people outside one's own group.

  76. Tony Clifton said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

    "MIXED CARDBOARD ONLY" is a simple enough and short enough statement. There are other options, for example "CORRUGATED FIBREBOARD ONLY" this is the correct term for the type of cardboard they are asking for. However, who is really going to understand the Corrugated Fibreboard term ? Often people start to think of the word "Corrugated" and come up with all sorts of materials – generally not cardboard related !
    How about "CORRUGATED BOXES ONLY" ? Unfortunately this only relates to boxes, as there are many different products made from the same materials as CORRUGATED BOXES, like trays, fitments, sheets or scored boards.
    As an industry insider I would advise sticking with MIXED CARDBOARD ONLY, it works and people are understanding of the message.

  77. Uffe Hellum said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

    The traffic signs advising me on what lane to take is an excellent example of nerd view.

    "Left lane exit OK" and "Right lane exit only" are really bad signs, from the viewpoint of a non-local driver.

    The most efficient is to have exactly one sign over each lane indicating where that lane goes.
    - Straight arrow to "exit 13a".
    - Split arrow left to "Exit 14 West" with a straight pointing to "I5 North".
    - "Right curving arrow pointing to Madison".
    - Split arrow with tips curving left and right, pointing to I5 and I405.
    - Split arrow with first right curve pointing to James, and the second to Olive, and straight to "downtown exits".

    The solution with exactly one sign over each lane may be slightly more expensive, but all questions of whether I'm supposed to line up in one or two lanes are solved by each driver himself. And I frequently find that I simply cannot guess which of the three lanes is not assigned to any of the two signs.

    With really complex multi lane changes and merges and splits, it makes sense with a pre-junction board. Same as before, each lane has a segment of the sign, but the diagram continues "up", with more splits and joins.

    A pre-junction board is obviously required before a roundabout, but even some freeway constructs would benefit from this end-user-viewpoint. Almost any dedicated artist can effectively visualize even a complex two-lane roundabout with multiple incoming and outgoing ramps.

    Whenever drivers get impatient with me, I take solace in the fact that traffic signs have already been invented, and I have no responsibility for my lack of skill (I really do my best), or the local lack of efficient traffic signs :-)

    /Uffe

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