Gricean bagel rage

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When Paul Grice drafted his maxims for cooperative conversation, he didn't have in mind that we should get upset when people violate them. On the contrary, the whole idea was to use apparent violations as the basis for reasoning about conversational implicatures, the things that people obviously mean but don't literally say.

Still, people do get upset about all aspects of other people's language use, and it's common to object to redundancy, as in "ATM machine" — though members of what William Safire used to call the Squad Squad rarely get as upset as the anonymous "pilotless drone" man did ("Is it sinking into your thick skull, you high school drop-out?", 2/7/2007).

It's even rarer for usage disputes to escalate to the point where police intervention is required. But I've now gotten a dozen emails drawing my attention to a recent linguistic fracas where the cops were asked to rule on a matter involving conversational implicature.

According to John Doyle, Rebecca Rosenberg and Annie Karni, "Grammar stickler: Starbucks booted me", N.Y. Post 8/16/2010:

Starbucks' strange vernacular finally drove a customer nuts.

Lynne Rosenthal, a college English professor from Manhattan, said three cops forcibly ejected her from an Upper West Side Starbucks yesterday morning after she got into a dispute with a counterperson — make that barista — for refusing to place her order by the coffee chain's rules.

Rosenthal, who is in her early 60s, asked for a toasted multigrain bagel — and became enraged when the barista at the franchise, on Columbus Avenue at 86th Street, followed up by inquiring, "Do you want butter or cheese?"

"I just wanted a multigrain bagel," Rosenthal told The Post. "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."

Let's stipulate that the question of when and how customers should have to specify what they don't want is not a matter of grammar, as such, and go on to learn more about what happened on that fateful West Side morning:

Yesterday's breakfast-bagel tussle heated up when the barista told the prickly prof that he wouldn't serve her unless she specified whether she wanted a schmear of butter or cheese — or neither.

"I yelled, 'I want my multigrain bagel!' " Rosenthal said.

"The barista said, 'You're not going to get anything unless you say butter or cheese!' "

But Rosenthal, on principle, refused to back down.

"I didn't even want the bagel anymore," she said.

The bagel brouhaha escalated until the manager called cops, and responding officers ordered her to leave, threatening to arrest her if she went back inside, she said.

"It was very humiliating to be thrown out, and all I did was ask for a bagel," recalled Rosenthal, who said she holds a Ph.D. from Columbia.

"If you don't use their language, they refuse to serve you. They don't understand what a plain multigrain bagel is."

There's some evidence in the story that possible violations of the maxims of quantity and manner were not the only points at issue:

A Starbucks employee who witnessed the incident blamed Rosenthal.

"She would not answer. It was a reasonable question," the worker said.

"She called [the barista] an a- -hole."

Most of those who have sent me links to this story have been disappointed that the dispute was not over the nomenclature of different coffee serving sizes, as featured in Paul Rudd's "Venti is twenty" rant from the movie Role Models:

Or Dave Barry's classic Ask Mister Language Person column ("Latte lingo: Raising a pint at Starbucks", 11/30/2004):

We begin today with a disturbing escalation in the trend of coffee retailers giving stupid names to cup sizes. As you know, this trend began several years ago when Starbucks (motto: "There's one opening right now in your basement") decided to call its cup sizes "Tall" (meaning "not tall," or "small"), "Grande" (meaning "medium") and "Venti" (meaning, for all we know, "weasel snot"). Unfortunately, we consumers, like moron sheep, started actually USING these names. Why? If Starbucks decided to call its toilets "AquaSwooshies," would we go along with THAT? Yes! Baaa!

Recently, at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and Death March, Mister Language Person noticed that a Starbuck's competitor, Seattle's Best Coffee (which also uses "Tall" for small and "Grande" for medium) is calling ITS large cup size — get ready — "Grande Supremo." Yes. And as Mister Language Person watched in horror, many customers — seemingly intelligent, briefcase-toting adults — actually used this term, as in, "I'll take a Grande Supremo."

Listen, people: You should never, ever have to utter the words "Grande Supremo" unless you are addressing a tribal warlord who is holding you captive and threatening to burn you at the stake. JUST SAY YOU WANT A LARGE COFFEE, PEOPLE. Because if we let the coffee people get away with this, they're not going to stop, and some day, just to get a lousy cup of coffee, you'll hear yourself saying, "I'll have a Mega Grandissimaximo Giganto de Humongo-Rama-Lama-Ding-Dong decaf." And then you will ask for the key to the AquaSwooshie. And when THAT happens, people, the terrorists will have won.

In a comment on that 2004 post, Stefano Taschini expressed the opinion that the whole thing is really beside the point, because

I believe there must have been a small mistype: technically, a warm liquid that you ingest in quantities exceeding half a liter is "stock" not "coffee".

In English, I think, the word infusion would also be appropriate (though I have to say that I myself am fond of the American-style coffee-bean-derived liquid, whatever you choose to call the substance and its various sizes).

[Update — more discussion at the Economist's Johnson blog, and LOTS more discussion at Metafilter. Current counts on Google News suggest that the Starbucks v. Rosenthal story is getting more uptake than (say) the Marc Hauser story.]


  1. Andrew Dowd said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    Elwood Blues would have just said, "no, ma'am; dry."

    Problem solved.

    [(myl) I've tried and failed to figure out why the exchange didn't go the way it generally does for me:

    Me: And a cinnamon raisin bagel, please.
    Barista: Do you want butter or cream cheese on that?
    Me: No thanks.
    Barista: You want it toasted?
    Me: Nope.

    Maybe Dr. Rosenthal refused on Gricean grounds to answer? Or maybe the barista insisted on some standard wording in the response? Neither seems especially plausible, but ,,,

    We tried to get our New York bureau to track down the participants and get their versions of the story in more linguistically-relevant detail, but this plan ran into the cold reality of the situation, which is that we don't actually have a New York bureau.]

  2. Mary Bull said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    "Shoot me the pot, now pour me a shot, a cuppa, cuppa, cuppa, cuppa cup" — the Inkspots did it better than Starbucks.

  3. D said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    Starbucks has just begun establishing itself in my country, thanks for the reminder to never ever set foot in one.

  4. Janice Byer said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    Wow. Grice's maxims are excellent, but there's a debater's principle of charity that says we owe it to our fellows to strive to understand what they mean in light of their interests not our own.

  5. Mark P said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    I can think of a lot of reasons to get mad about customer service these days, but I'm having a hard time with this one. Isn't in your best interest to make sure the person behind the counter knows exactly what you want? I suspect something else was going on. Or perhaps both customer and server are a–holes.

  6. Nate said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    The ice cream chain Cold Stone Creamery lists the following single-consumer ice cream sizes:

    Like It
    Love It
    Gotta Have It

    I would die before I actually ordered one of those. Give me a large, thank you, and let my death come via clogged arteries, like a real American.

  7. Terminologia etc. » » Trenta: quasi un litro in America said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    […] Language Log, che aveva discusso la terminologia dei formati di Starbucks […]

  8. Boris said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    I've heard that Starbuck's actually has an unadvertised "short" size which is, of course, smaller than "tall". I've noticed a strange disparity of ice cream portion sizes across different retailers. The standard, I imagine, is small, medium, and large. However, I've seen baby, small, and medium used instead (the opposite of the coffee situation), not to mention the seller just assuming medium without asking about size.

    [(myl) Yes, the "short" size is discussed at some length here.]

  9. NW said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    I'm trying to work out where 'correct English' comes in. This is stretching it, but if the barista insisted on the words 'butter' or 'cheese', the customer could protest that 'neither' was elliptically equivalent and she didn't have to say 'neither butter nor cheese'? Just a suggestion.

  10. Faldone said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    I ordered a single scoop cone at a Friendly's the other day and got three scoops.

    Actually, I ordered the same size as that ordered by my wife (a soft-serve that didn't come in scoops) but it was priced as a single scoop.

  11. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    I'm very sympathetic to the "small/medium/large coffee" point of view, but this woman is clearly being obnoxious. They do "understand what a plain multigrain bagel" is. By your own words, you did not ask for a "plain multigrain bagel". You asked for a "multigrain bagel".

  12. Richard said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    If she's such a stickler for correct English, "I want my multigrain bagel" would have been incorrect as she was at that time (and is likely still) not in possession of any multigrain bagels.

  13. MJ said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    Maybe she felt as though she was being confronted with a "Are you still beating your wife?"-type question.

  14. Alan Gunn said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    It took me several years to learn how to order a burger at McDonald's without getting cheese or that sauce of theirs. You have to say "plain" and "no cheese," because that's what the buttons on the machine say. If you say something like "without sauce," chances are you'll get sauce, because the machine doesn't have a "without sauce" button, though now and then you'll encounter an intelligent cashier who will translate for you. Best to use the exact words on the keys. But I have never found it hard to get a bagel without anything on it at Starbucks, or anywhere else.

  15. Patrick Byrne said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    Several years ago I witnessed a similar incident while waiting to be served at the railway station cafe in Cambridge, England. The gentleman in front of me, whom I guessed to be an academic type, asked for a coffee and received the reply "normal or decaf?". He refused to make a choice and insisted for several minutes that he just wanted "coffee".

  16. Ray Dillinger said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

    Wow. If someone asked me whether I wanted butter or cheese, and I didn't, I'd just say "No." I can imagine no reason for refusing to give at least that much information, unless just looking for a fight.

    This isn't a language issue; this is just someone tired and frustrated and looking to beat up on somebody on some pretext in order to make themselves feel less like a loser. It didn't work.

  17. TM said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

    New York Magazine's coverage of this incident actually used the headline "Lady Who Refuses to Say ‘Venti’ Gets Thrown Out of Starbucks." Factually correct, since the article establishes that this woman habitually refuses to use Starbucks' size terms, but entirely misleading.

    Her objection must have been based on the barista's intonation, which a newspaper article would be hard-pressed to convey, no? I assumed that the question was "Do you want BUTTER or CHEESE?" (rise-fall rise-fall), with the presupposition that one or the other is wanted. I don't think she would have flipped her lid at the innocuous "Do you want butter or cheese?" (straight rise, no presupposition).

  18. 4ndyman said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    I have to wonder whether she expresses similar outrage when she goes to Burger King, orders a cheeseburger, and discovers that it also contains un-asked-for onions, pickles, ketchup, and mustard. Or the opposite, ordering a plain cheeseburger and getting only meat and bread — no condiments and no cheese. (Sounds stupid, yes, but I've seen it happen.)

    The definition of "plain" is not universal in all restaurant situations. It's better that the barista aim for clarification of an order instead of risking getting the order wrong.

    [(myl) Right. In New England, at least when I was growing up, a "regular" coffee came with cream in it.]

  19. Dan K said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    Is it bad style to use this article as an excuse to post a coffee-sizing anecdote?

    At the coffee cart near where I work, they have three sizes listed: short, tall, and grande, corresponding to 12, 16, and 20 oz. They also have separate sizes for certain special drinks, called single, double, and triple, also corresponding to 12, 16, and 20 oz. While I was waiting in line on day, the person in front of me had this conversation with the coffee person:

    coffee person: what size?
    customer: what's a medium?
    coffee person: i think a large is like a regular
    customer: okay

    Both apparently felt quite satisfied that this settled matters.

    And it wasn't a Starbucks.

  20. Debbie said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    This is by far the funniest post I have read in a long time, thank you! Columbia eh, do they teach manners or is her ph.D. in being uptight? Clearly she missed the pickle removal class! How about two human beings treating each other decently and as for humiliation – I think she did that to herself.
    Oh as for sizing, I think this began way back with soft drink and popcorn sizes at burger franchises and cinemas.

  21. Yuval said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    "ATM machine" is nothing: this blogger I read keeps mentioning the "COCA corpus".

  22. Theodore said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    MJ said,

    Maybe she felt as though she was being confronted with a "Are you still beating your wife?"-type question.

    I think you're on to something.
    Ray Dillinger said,

    If someone asked me whether I wanted butter or cheese, and I didn't, I'd just say "No."

    TM said,

    I assumed that the question was "Do you want BUTTER or CHEESE?" (rise-fall rise-fall), with the presupposition that one or the other is wanted.

    That's what I thought too. So the polite answer is: "I'm sorry, but you've presented me with a false dichotomy."

  23. K Murri said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    Maybe I'm missing something, but I can't see how this story has anything to do with language, except that Rosenthal said it was about language. Good customer service – regardless of corporate speak – would dictate that the cashier translate what the customer wants and enter it thus with out demading the customer say something particular. When I go to Starbucks, I order a small, medium, or large drink and let them translate. They always have, so far.

  24. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    On the few occasions I go to Starbucks I ask for whatever most closely recreates what I would get at Denny's. Yes, the names of the various sizes are ridiculous, but they are far from the most pretentious feature of the Starbucks experience.

  25. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    In my youth, and the corresponding youth of many who post here I suspect, soft drinks came in regular, king, and family size bottles (about 12, 16 and 26 oz.). Some legislation must have been necessary to cause bottles to be relabeled by volume, but I remember the switchover. It certainly can't be a sustainable competitive advantage to have peculiar names for cup sizes in a restaurant. They would do well to label by volume, themselves, I would think.

    I don't know about others' experiences, but Dan K's anecdote is not much different from similar conversations I have had that include asking to be shown the actual cup before I order.

    Again, this is not so much a grammar issue as a quest to develop a pidgin that both customer and vendor can use to transact business.

  26. Mark P said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    I like my hamburgers with mustard and no mayonnaise. The Burger Kind Whopper comes with mayo but not mustard. It's possible in some stores to ask for a "mustard Whopper" and get a burger with mustard and all the rest but no mayo. But if you ask the wrong way in some stores, you get a bun, a patty and mustard – nothing else.

  27. Sili said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    We tried to get our New York bureau to track down the participants and get their versions of the story in more linguistically-relevant detail, but this plan ran into the cold reality of the situation, which is that we don't actually have a New York bureau.

    Of course you do. Just as Pharyngula has its horde to do the bidding of the CEO, LL has its LL Plaza irregulars all over the word. Say the word and your multitude readers shall do your bidding.

  28. John Lawler said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    … and the lesson we should take from this is
    Peeving and caffeine don't mix.

  29. Mary Bull said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    @John Lawler
    Brings on communication breakdown

  30. Sili said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

    I ordered a single scoop cone at a Friendly's the other day and got three scoops.

    Actually, I ordered the same size as that ordered by my wife (a soft-serve that didn't come in scoops) but it was priced as a single scoop.

    My icecream vendor(s) does the same thing. One 'scoop' is at least two scoopings with the scooper.

  31. Levi Montgomery said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    Only slightly off-topic:

    Take a potato and cut it into wedges. Deep-fry the wedges. Sell them at your grocery store's deli or your convenience store. Are those fried potatoes? No, not around here (Pacific Northwest USA). Are they French fries? Nope.

    Jo-jos. I refuse to say "jo-jos." I say "…and some of those potatoes, too." They usually give them to me. Sometimes they say "You mean the jo-jos?" and I say "Whatever." One memorable time, however, the clerk attempted to make me actually name them, and I send "Yeah, never mind. Just the chicken." She knew perfectly well what I meant.

    Theodore said: "I'm sorry, but you've presented me with a false dichotomy."

    I'm stealing that for the next time my son asks me if we're having A or B for dinner, and the answer is "No."

  32. Maneki Nekko said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    For a few weeks my local coffee shop called its three sizes the Sophisticate, the Taskmaster, and the Defibrillator.

  33. Kathleen said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    As a professor myself, can I just say that that professor sounds like a total jerk? How hard would it have been to say, "No thanks, I don't need butter or cheese. Just a bagel will do."

  34. John said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    I like TM's interpretation. She was probably asked "Do you want BUTTER, or [do you want] CHEESE?" (that is, which would you prefer) and replied "No thanks", to the barista's confusion. I say "barista", their official job title is advertised as "Starbucks partner", which makes me wonder what the stock options are like…

    What I never understand, having worked in a cafe myself, is – Are there people in the world who ask for "a medium coffee" and who would become frustrated and perplexed were their response to be met with a grande Americano rather than a series of clarificatory questions? Admittedly, I was once asked for "a coffee" by someone who sounded Italian, and checked if they meant an espresso (they did) – but the British default meaning of "coffee" is fairly clear, and that seems to be the case in America too.

    Final nitpick – "grande" means large in Italian too, so that barista in the clip is only being stupid in two languages…

  35. MJ said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    @Yuval But one might say that COCA is a name and "corpus" a description: it's a corpus whose name is Corpus of Contemporary American English.

  36. Uly said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    What really irks me is that as far as I know, "plain" when talking about bagels has nothing to do with whether or not you have butter or cream cheese. It has to do with whether or not the bagel itself is covered with onions, or poppyseeds, or everything.

  37. Dave said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

    Somewhat off-topic:

    Seems like most fast food places where I live have three sizes of drink: Medium, Large, and Extra Large. Totally nonsensical. I would expect that if there are three sizes and one is called "medium" it would be bigger than the small one and smaller than the big one rather than the smallest of the three. Luckily, I always want the small one, so I always order "Small". If I wanted the medium sized one and ordered a "Medium", would it be okay to be irritated when given the small one?

  38. Cliff Crawford said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    In college one semester I worked at the deli counter in one of the dining halls. After making a sandwich for someone, I was always supposed to ask, "Do you want chips, or a pickle?" (with intonation indicating an either-or choice, though of course "neither" was a valid answer too)

    You would not believe the number of people who would answer, "Yes."

  39. Troy S. said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    I have a similar problem with Moe's Southwestern Grill … no matter how appetizing the description reads, I cannot bring myself to order a "Joey bag of donuts." IHOP also has the infamous "Rootie Tootie Fresh 'n Fruity" which many people refuse to order on the same principle – it's just too embarrassing to say out loud.

  40. dwmacg said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    My first job (in New England) was at a Dunkin' Donuts. We had three sizes of coffee: small, medium, and a new gigantic size "The Big One". I think a small coffee at DD these days is the same size as "The Big One".

    A regular coffee was with cream and sugar if it was to go, cream only at the counter (customers put their own sugar in).

    I can understand peeving at the descriptions large corporations force upon their workers and customers, but taking it out on the person serving you is just plain rude. If you mix up the language, at worst you end up with the wrong product; if she doesn't use the prescribed language, she loses her job.

  41. Karen said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    I've never had a Starbucks person refuse to sell me a "large" or a "2o oz" (or even "a yellow cup"). Granted, I usually hand them my take-out cup and say "fill it up with bold with no room and nothing in it but the coffee" but when I don't have it with me, they don't really care what I ask for. Some of them will, if I say large, hold up the 20 oz cup (once the 16 oz cup) to verify. They're generally quite pleasant and reasonable people.

    A jerk in Germany once, when I was in the army (so he was an American jerk), messed up the Turkish cook by demanding an "egg omelet". I still can't understand why he wouldn't say "plain".

  42. Karen said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

    And Dave – try asking for "your middle sized one".

  43. jams said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    I was on a flight from Switzerland to the US once and when one of the flight attendants was getting our drink orders, he started talking about some cultural differences in how people order coffee and tea. He said said some people seem to assume when they order a coffee they will get milk and sugar (and therefore say something to the effect of hold the sugar and but still expect to get cream) where as some people (I think he was talking about Americans) assume they will get black coffee unless they ask for something specifically. But I hadn't gotten my coffee yet and was half asleep when this conversation took place so may not be remembering exactly what he was saying.

  44. ignoramus said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    1: I do not understand the attraction of Starbucks. Queue up [Yanks use to hate that] having the latest in microbes finding a new places to hide on thy back, answer a quiz, then stand in another line, wait, then hunt for the additives, real or fake, hunt for sweetener, then hunt for a place to rest ones tired and weary derrierre, and for that you pay premium prices.

    Need some ham and not a sandwiche in a cafe, hold the bread , hold the pickle, hold the mayo.

  45. Hershele Ostropoler said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    I say "barista", their official job title is advertised as "Starbucks partner", which makes me wonder what the stock options are like…

    Better than your sarcasm suggests, as I understand; I seem to recall reading that at Starbucks, compensation is or at least used to be partially in equity surprisingly far down the chain.

    ObTopic: I'm willing to use their terminology in the stores, but I refer to the sizes as small, medium, and large, like a person. I don't think, however, that they insist on the terminology, or are too stupid to understand anything else. And I noticed the misleading headline when I first saw the article. She was thrown out for being an entitled prat, not for using straightforward open-source English when ordering.

  46. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    I've frequently run into this sort of problem at Burger King. A few different interactions are possible. The one that works out well is:

    Me: I'd like a veggie burger combo.
    Person behind counter (PBC): Would you like cheese on that?
    Me: No, thank you.
    PBC: O.K., your total is . . .

    Another common interaction is:

    Me: I'd like a veggie burger combo.
    PBC: Would you like a medium, or a large?
    Me: A medium, please.
    PBC: O.K., your total is . . .

    which I don't like so much, because "medium" is bigger and more expensive than what they give me when they don't ask. Eventually I decided that the question must be intended as "Would you like to upgrade that from the default size to either 'medium' or 'large'?", but the last time I went, the interaction I had was this:

    Me: I'd like a veggie burger combo.
    PBC: Would you like a medium, or a large?
    Me: No, thanks.
    PBC: Wait, so you don't want a combo? You just want the sandwich?
    Me: Oh, um, I'll have a medium, please.

    Not all of us have graduate degrees in the pragmatics of fast-food ordering!

    (But fortunately, the only consequences I've borne for my cluelessness are not getting quite what I'd wanted. I have yet to be asked to leave; no one's ever called the cops on me; and I've always gotten something that was, at least, very similar to what I'd wanted. No news story has ever come out of it.)

  47. Eric said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    To take this thread a bit further off topic:

    Queue up [Yanks use to hate that]

    Yeah, I've noticed this, too. When did "queue up" become acceptable U.S. usage for getting in line? Am I suffering from Recency Illusion™ or is it perhaps influenced by "queues" in computing…?

  48. John said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    Lately I always order my coffee by the ounce — I know that when I want some coffee, I usually want 12 fluid ounces of it (or more rarely, 16 ounces). "Small," "medium," or "large" is pretty meaningless without context, and I refuse to memorize the sizing conventions at all the different coffeeshops I go to.

  49. Mark F. said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    I prefer zero-based ordering, since I'm a picky eater and don't want a lot of the defaults. But I'm less prickly about it than the Starbucks customer.

    And, as people have implied above, I don't know where she gets off saying that you don't have to tell BK the six things you don't want. Granted, that used to be part of their marketing, but I've still found that getting something with a proper subset of the default toppings requires some effort.

  50. Nathan Myers said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

    I have heard of coffee shops where if you ask for a "medium", you get it at the regular price; if you ask for a "venti", you pay the (higher) Starbuck's price. That strikes me as eminently fair to all concerned.

    4ndyman: Andy Bumatai, a comedian in Hawai'i, performed excellent skit involving a hotel guest and room service, containing the question, "And would you like that cheeseburger with or without cheese?", followed an order to the cook "One cheeseburger with one side order cheese".

  51. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    Back in the day, Paula Poundstone had a terrific rant about California-style pizza zeroing in on the fact that cheese had to be ordered like any other topping but that it came with nuts in the crust. (But it was all in jest and no charges were ever brought.)

  52. Mary Kuhner said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    A tired waitress once misheard my order, didn't blink at it at all, and delivered what she thought I wanted: a bacon chicken veggieburger! It had bacon and veggieburger, but no chicken. We theorize that if a veggieburger is a veggie version of the burger, it is equally a veggie version of the chickenburger, so can be called a veggie chickenburger. Or maybe it was a chicken-fried veggieburger?

    But the other linguistic issue here, besides fast food, might be differences in stridency level across the US. New York is famously on the upper end of the stridency spectrum. I play a boardgame with a heavy player/player negotiation component, and in tournaments it is very important to know where your opponents are from–a strategy that works with East Coast players may bomb with West Coast players. I've been amused to see high-ranked players slide effortlessly and without a lost syllable from screaming invective at their East Coast opponent to formal politeness with me–because they know that if they yell at me I'll assume they hate me.

    I am okay on the US distinctions but still, after several years of tournament play, don't handle European players very well.

  53. Mark P said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

    OK, so far every response from the person behind the counter is better than one I experienced at a gasoline/hamburger-chain stop in the middle of the night. I asked for a hamburger and was eventually told, "I found one!"

  54. Chris D said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    TM and others have hit on the intuition that there are two kinds of interpretation to yes-no questions involving the disjunctive particle "or":

    Her objection must have been based on the barista's intonation, which a newspaper article would be hard-pressed to convey, no? I assumed that the question was "Do you want BUTTER or CHEESE?" (rise-fall rise-fall), with the presupposition that one or the other is wanted. I don't think she would have flipped her lid at the innocuous "Do you want butter or cheese?" (straight rise, no presupposition).

    The version with "the presupposition that one or the other is wanted" is called an alternative question by semanticists, and it is indeed distinguished from the non-presuppositional yes-no question by intonation. A conference poster presenting some experimental results testing the nature of this intonational difference can be found here.

  55. Rubrick said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    I realize this is well beyond played out, but — "Gricean Bagel Rage" truly is a great band name.

  56. Arturj J. said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

    What I want to know is whether they make you order 'venteh' in Starbucks in the UK.

  57. Ellie said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

    Am I the only one who finds the "Butter or Cheese?" question to be extremely bizarre in an entirely different way? I've never heard of anyone referring to "Cream Cheese" as just "Cheese," especially in the context of a bagel spread. If someone asks me if I want cheese on my bagel, then they'd better have some Cheddar on hand.

  58. Danmcc said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

    I routinely get a kick out of the McDonalds script which insists on highlighting "incorrect" word usage when ordering, in an Australian context.

    Can I have a large chips please?
    Is that a large fries?

    This is in a situation where there is no ambiguity between fries and chips (in the absence of dry potato "crisps" available for sale), but the script consistently requires the clarification. I get a kick out of forcing them to go through the senseless little feedback loop every time I order.

  59. Sissy said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

    Whether or not the question was in fact toned as an alternative question, I think the correct response is "dry" or "with nothing on it, please and thank you." This may be a minor inconvenience to you, Lynne, but it is likely one of a string of snide customers to an underpaid barista.

    Anyhow, I've learned to be fairly precise in ordering coffee in strange places, since terminology tends to vary geographically as well as from store to store. I take my coffee with nothing in it, and generally "I'd like a large, dark, black coffee, please." works in pretty much any cafe with no confusion, or "A large, black coffee" in a less fancy place.
    My favourite coffee ordering experience came at a roadside coffee kiosk in Tucson, where for an additional 50 cents you can get a 'power coffee', which is to say a shot of espresso added to a regular coffee. One fine morning I wandered up and asked for a 'large, black, power coffee', to which the man replied deadpan, "Ok, one Eldridge Cleaver, that'll be 2.50." I fumbled in my pockets for an embarrassingly long time before I stopped and laughed my head off.

  60. Gordon Campbell said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    Well it’s been a good morning language-wise for me. I’ve discovered what a “schmear” is.

    I've had the experience of asking someone if they wanted milk and sugar in their tea and getting the frustrated response: "I asked for tea! Not milk or sugar". This was in my home, not a coffee shop, but I could understand their exasperation: they must have had the same conversation every single time someone offered them a cup of tea. I don't know if anyone ever offered them a second one.

    Which reminds me of another not-entirely-off-topic beverage experience. The cafe had iced coffee on the menu, but not iced tea. My wife asked if they could make an iced tea. No worries. This is in Australia, where iced tea is not really a standard item (at least not outside the big smoke). The waitress brought it out: cold, milky, sugary and decorated with whipped cream. She placed it on the table, looked at it doubtfully, then said "are you really going to drink that?"

  61. MJP said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    @richard: "my" isn't always possessive. OED A1b:

    Modifying a noun denoting something with which one has a less immediate or definite relation (such as a target or objective, a field of study, an honour or award, or an academic qualification)

    Examples include "I brought down my bird with one shot", etc. "I want my fifteen minutes of fame"? I'm guessing the genitive soaked up the datives: "the fifteen minutes due to me"…

  62. Peter said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

    @Mary Kuhner: Would the boardgame perhaps be Settlers?

  63. octopod said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

    I am glad to hear there are other people who absolutely refuse to order things with funny names or nonsensical sizes. Cold Stone, as mentioned above, is one of the most embarrassing examples, but I remember in my dissolute undergraduate days finding a number of things on the Denny's menu that I could absolutely not bring myself to say without the intonational equivalent of kid gloves. Luckily we soon figured out where the good 24-hour restaurants were, so it became a non-issue.

    Gordon Campbell: Sounds good — all it was missing was the boba!

  64. Philipp said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    No self-respecting New Yorker should ever order a "multigrain bagel"

  65. Ben said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

    As Ginger Yellow pointed out, Lynne Rosenthal ordered a "multigrain bagel," not a "plain multigrain bagel." Would ordering a "plain multigrain bagel" have done the trick? Perhaps not. As Uly pointed out, "a plain bagel" sometimes refers to a bagel lacking in sesame or poppy seeds rather than to a bagel lacking in cheese or butter. So what to do?

    After much to-ing and fro-ing, I have found that at some places the magic word for getting a bagel without cream cheese is "dry." I don't know if it works at Starbucks, though. And I can't imagine what would happen if you asked for your bagel "wet."

  66. Ben said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 10:18 pm

    Sissy already mooted the "dry" solution. My bad.

  67. J. Goard said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

    Looks like nobody has addressed the use of a bare "cheese" for cream cheese. I intuit that that is completely impossible for me to say, and would likely confuse me, such that to the question "butter or cheese?" I might very well answer, "uh…no thanks, but don't you have cream cheese?" This is to say that for me it's about the same as "sweet potatoes" or "root beer", technically endocentric compounds but without full projection of the semantics of the head.

  68. Matthew Kehrt said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

    As someone who has lived in Seattle for four years, I have to say, the "short"-"tall"-"grande" thing is completely standard around here for coffee sizes. It's been a while since Starbucks started, but I doubt they invented it.

    "venti", though, is madness.

  69. Mark F. said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

    I am actually astonished Rosenthal's lack of courtesy. She even admitted to yelling at the counterperson. Just because she was tired of saying "neither, thanks, just plain". She may not like living in a world where many people ask for a bagel, want cream cheese too, but forget to say so, but yelling at the barista doesn't help.

    Not that the barista was necessarily entirely professional, but we haven't heard their side of the story.

  70. Dan S said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 12:32 am

    @Gordon Campbell, did your guest (who "asked for tea! Not milk or sugar") think to ask for a cup? No? You missed quite an opportunity.

    RE embarrassing orders: If you love a bacon blue-cheese burger, and you find yourself at Mr. Bartley's in Harvard Square, how would you feel about asking for "The Viagra"? Honest.

    RE baffling size-metrics: Anybody else find themselves suffering a Gricean moment when, after asking "how big is your extra large pizza", the answer is "twelve slices"?

  71. Yuval said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 2:49 am

    @MJ: I don't know… would you mention the "American Airlines airline"?

  72. Ari said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 3:56 am

    She is a complete moron. She said, as if it proved her point, "When you go to Burger King, you don't have to list the six things you don't want."

    Oh really? If you order a soda and you don't want ice, you'll need to say so. If you order chicken tenders and don't mention which sauce you (don't) want, be it BBQ, Honey Mustard, Ranch, or Sweet & Sour, they'll ask you. Don't want tomato on your Whopper? You'll need to say "no tomato."

    She acts like nobody's ever asked her, "want fries with that?"

    You know what I don't want? Shitheads like her in front of me in line at Peet's.

  73. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 5:11 am


    He said said some people seem to assume when they order a coffee they will get milk and sugar (and therefore say something to the effect of hold the sugar and but still expect to get cream) where as some people (I think he was talking about Americans) assume they will get black coffee unless they ask for something specifically

    Can't speak for the pragmatics of coffee-ordering in English, but on moving from Latin America to Spain I found out, to my surprise, that coffeeshops in Spain normally understand bare "café" to mean café au lait, and an explicit mark ("café solo") is required to ensure one gets a plain espresso.

  74. Alan Palmer said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 6:25 am

    The staff restaurant in my office building, refreshingly, bucks the trend. They call their cup sizes "small" and "large". When I was there just now, a woman ordered a "regular" and a "large". The guy at the counter helpfully translated that as "One small, one large".

  75. Sili said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    I've had the experience of asking someone if they wanted milk and sugar in their tea and getting the frustrated response: "I asked for tea! Not milk or sugar". This was in my home, not a coffee shop, but I could understand their exasperation: they must have had the same conversation every single time someone offered them a cup of tea. I don't know if anyone ever offered them a second one.

    Surely you're joking, mr Campbell!

  76. MJ said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 9:17 am

    @Yuval No, I wouldn't, but I still wonder whether there is a distinction one can make between something like pragmatic redundancy and syntactic redundancy–one doesn't need the common noun "bank" to understand that Bank of America is a bank but it seems to me that the two tokens are not syntactically identical, that there's a difference between "I went to the Bank of America bank" and "I went to the bank bank."

  77. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    @ Alon Lischinsky: I have no idea where in Spain café is understood as café au lait (in French, yet!). I have never known it to mean anything other than an espresso, just as in France or Italy. If you want milk in it you ask for a cortado (sort of like a macchiato) or café con leche, which you can qualify further as largo de café or largo de leche. Unless, perhaps, the customer is a regular in the café who is known to like his coffee a certain way.

    I am also curious about where in Latin America Alon moved from. It's in cafés in Colombia where un café is normally short for un café con leche, just as un agua is short for un agua aromática (i.e. herb tea). If you want black coffee you ask for un tinto, which in Spain will get you a glass of red wine.

  78. Dan T. said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    Both the customer and the server were acting like jerks. This reminds me of the sort of idiotic standoffs that happen constantly in the show Curb your Enthusiasm, but apparently they do occasionally happen in the real world too.

  79. army1987 said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    In Italian "Grande Supremo" would sound like the highest position in some fictional religion from a fantasy fiction work. Starbucks is one of the few things I'm glad they haven't come to Italy yet.

  80. Bob Lieblich said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    More than once, before I broke the code, I'd call a pizza place I'd not previously patronized to place a take-out or delivery order. I'd ask what sizes were available, only to be told, of course, medium and large, or some such. So I'd ask HOW LARGE were those sizes, only to be told "six slices and eight slices," or some such. I now use the Internet to ascertain sizes — actually, I now mostly don't eat pizza — but I can recall calling up and asking for the diameter of the various pizza sizes in inches. Occasionally, the person on the other end would actually understand the question.

    There's a barbecue joint nearby where you have your choice of three different sauces, any one of which can be added to the ribs or whatever at some stage in the cooking. I am more or less compelled to eat my barbecue without sauce (fortunately, they smoke the meat, which adds all the flavor I need). After much discussion, we abandoned "plain" and even "no sauce" in favor of "naked." Just about everyone there now knows what it means. I haven't seen it yet on the menus yet, but I'm waiting.

  81. stephen said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    Reason Number Eighteen Bazillion why aliens haven't contacted us yet:

    We'd annoy the heck out of each other with our respective language weirdnesses.

    "Take me to your leader"
    "Liter? A liter of what?"
    "No! Leader! The person in charge!"
    "In charge? An electrician?"
    "A person who tells you what to do!"
    "Do you mean a deity, a minister, a parent, a bureaucrat, a politician, a weatherman, a pundit, a public service announcer, an advertiser, a media spokesman, a–"
    "Are you irritated, or are you singing? Are you threatening me or teasing me? What would you like–hey, wait, come back…!"

  82. Penelope said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    I wouldn't be entirely surprised if the barista did insist on some specific wording, as every single time I have gone in and ordered a cafe au lait, the barista primly corrects me to "misto," without fail.

  83. carla said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    The customer in that story is a complete toad.

    If you are asked whether you want butter or cream cheese on your bagel, and you want either, the civil response is "no, thank you" or "neither, thank you."

    Having a hissy fit just marks you as a nutjob, a pedant, a narcissist, or some unholy linear combination of the above.

    I don't know which aspect of this story more tiresome to me – that it's yet another tale of an entitled snob treating a person in a service job like dirt, or yet another tale of the "Starbucks is just so ridiculous am I right?" variety. *Yawn*.

  84. carla said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    *sigh* "and you want either" should have read "and you want neither." Shame on me for failing to proofread thoroughly.

  85. Janice Byer said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    The only time I ever felt anger at being misunderstood was after a sleepless night following a late dinner at an expensive restaurant, where I'd asked for decaf coffee. What was served was so delicious, all refills offered by our very attentive server were gratefully guzzled. The silver lining is by the time the sun came up, our normally cluttered house was spotless.

    It could well have been a kitchen error rather than mine, but just in case, ever since I've only ordered "decaf" lest "decaf coffee" be misheard. Professor Rosenthal would approve.

  86. Peter said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

    @Yuval: I would consider there to be four levels of redundant repetition (listed in increasing order of acceptability).

    – Repetition of a word in the name (e.g., American Airlines airline)
    – Repetition of a word in a common and well-known acronym/abbreviation (e.g., ATM machine, PIN number)
    – Repetition of a word in an uncommon or relatively unknown acronym/abbreviation (e.g., COCA corpus)
    – Translation and repetition of a word in a foreign name/phrase (e.g., please RSVP)

  87. Daniel Barkalow said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 1:00 am

    So does Burger King actually not give you six things you don't (necessarily) want when you order? Because if you just want two all-beef patties from McDonald's, you have to list exactly six things you don't want. And it fits the standard of having weird objections to usage if she supports her position with a statement which is provably wrong.

  88. pm said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 4:23 am

    Try being an Australian in the USA and asking for "a long black" or "a short white", and see what happens.

  89. Rodger C said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    @Peter: My local ISP's email tells me "Welcome, please login into your account."

  90. Richard said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    @ Penolope: The Cafe Misto thing bothers me. I've never had a barista blink when I order a small, medium or large, but when I order a cafe au lait, there's a discussion of what that is and why I should have just said Misto. Now I just order a "medium misto", and it's clear sailing from there.

    @ Eric: I'd bet "Queue up" is becoming more common in US usage as more Americans regularly manage Netflix (et al.) queues.

  91. kmurri said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

    pm said "Try being an Australian in the USA and asking for "a long black" or "a short white", and see what happens."

    Indeed. Our first moring in Australia, we had to learn how to order coffee for my partner. I like the frou-frou coffee drinks so I got what I wanted pretty easily. She drinks brewed black coffee – American style. Fortunately, an American was working in the cafe and, after my partner nearly choked on a double-espresso (or something similar), we got a lesson in how to order coffee to get something close enough to brewed coffee to satisfy.

  92. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    @army1987: Do you mind English corrections? Your relative clause needs a gap: "Starbucks is one of the few things that I'm glad haven't come to Italy yet." I might omit the that in speech, but probably not in writing.

  93. Isaac said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 7:42 pm

    I attempted to scan to see if anyone had mentioned this so apologize if it's duplicate, but I just wanted to note that the usage criticized in the movie clip actually is logical in a way.

    In Europe and many other places a "coffee" is a single shot of espresso. This is Starbuck's "short" as mentioned by someone previously.

    Tall = two shots (plus whatever other garbage you want in it), so it is in fact "larger" than a regular coffee.

    A grande is "larger" than this, so that usage makes sense.

    Given the preceding insanity, calling their largest size a "large" would clearly introduce confusion, so they named it after it's size in ounces – 20oz, or "venti ounce" coffee.

    The various issues with this are obvious. A "tall" / small isn't two shots of anything if you aren't ordering an espresso drink, but they still use the name for these other drinks.

    The naming scheme is also inconsistent. I don't have an explanation for this at all, wishing that the world was well ordered and not so random.

    I'll comfort myself what little I can with the fact that Starbucks' drink sizes are at least logical. It could be a lot worse.

  94. Kutsuwamushi said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 8:34 pm

    This is Starbuck's "short" as mentioned by someone previously.

    A Starbucks "short" cup is eight ounces. I'm not familiar with every coffee culture, but in general, a shot of espresso seems to be around two ounces.

    I guess if you order an espresso at Starbucks they'll put it in the short cup because it's the smallest they have, but most of the cup will be empty.

  95. Pat Hayes said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 2:14 am

    In a McDonalds in the southern USA, I ordered a fish sandwich 'without tartar'. It arrived positively dripping with the inedible sauce. I took it back, emphasizing that I had asked for one 'without sauce'. Apparently they had misheard 'without' as 'with extra'. It came back, after a slight delay, this time with a smaller dab of sauce, but still enough to make me unable to eat it. This time I took it back I was getting upset, since this behavior seemed to be deliberate. After a somewhat heated conversation, it emerged that 'without' had been heard as 'with light'. It gradually became clear that the word 'without' was not in the vocabulary of the server. I now always ask for the sandwich 'no sauce', which seems to work reliably.

  96. Waffles said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    I'm curious now as to whether or not the butter and cream cheese costs extra.

    As others have mentioned, you are constantly upsold in fast food restaurants, and it can get somewhat annoying to constantly have to explain what you aren't buying.

    Sometimes I go to the local Carl's Jr and get a burger, small fries and a shake. They ALWAYS somehow manage to ask if I'll be having a combo the instant I finish saying the word burger, and I always want to say "If you'd let me finish, I'd tell you!"

    But I don't, because I figure that that kind of behavior is dictated by management.

    Which is why I don't get people who yell at the clerks; either their manager makes them ask everybody if they want butter and cream cheese, or enough orders have been bungled in the past that the barista is careful to be specific.

    The chance that the person behind the counter is trying to make a fat comission off your cream cheese order seems small to me.

  97. Rodger C said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    Pat Hayes' story surprised and even disturbed me until I started thinking how often I actually hear the word "without" in conversation. I have to conclude that "with no" is replacing it in the spoken language. But then I'm always discovering surprising and disturbing things about my students' vocabulary.

  98. Terry Collmann said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    Here in the UAE the Filipina coffee bar staff are trained to ask "Make it hot, sir/madam?" after every order of food, so:

    "A chocolate chip cookie, please."

    "Make it hot, sir?"

  99. Stephen Jones said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    It seems to me that Gricean maxims state you mention more detail if you want something different than the default.

    So in some parts of the world you ask for a white coffee because the opposite is the default, and in some you ask for both as there is no default.

    As there appears to be no default for the bagel it is reasonable of Starbucks to ask which of the three possibilities she wants.

  100. Mfahie said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

    I've never heard an American use "queue" as a verb. Either I'm missing something or there's been a misunderstanding in this thread. Tangentially, here in NYC, the phrase seems to be morphing from standing "in line" to standing "on line" (which I must admit drives me a little crazy).

    Also, I think that in most cases if you read an acronym as a word, it becomes a word and thus might need a redundancy for clarity. Nobody says American Airlines airline, partly because AA stands for something else, but also because it's a deliberately ridiculous example. Nobody would say COCA corpus if you read COCA as its full name, but I (and presumably the blogger in question) read it as the word "coca", and thus it feels incomplete without the word corpus.

  101. APELC Class Notes : Mr. Girard Online said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    […] of those who actually study language as it is spoke. See commentary at the Language Log's: "Gricean bagel rage"; and more apt analysis at The Economist: "Does "a bagel" imply no […]

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