Economy of expression

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Flying back from Vienna on Austrian Airlines yesterday, I saw the following notices printed on the back of the seat in front of me:

Gurte während des sitzens geschlossen halten*

Fasten seat belt while seated

*some airlines begin this sentence with a "bitte", which would make the German even longer

Die schwimmweste befindet sich unter ihrem sitz

Life vest under your seat

As so many times before, I was struck by the terseness of English.  See, for example:

"French vs. English" (8/2/15)

"Chinese, Japanese, and Russian signs at Klagenfurt Botanical Gardens" (6/12/16)

Why did English develop this predilection for terseness?  Is it something innate in the language?  Is it a predisposition of the people?

I was an English major in college, and I can still recall very clearly the injunctions of my professors, both verbally and in their written corrections to my papers, to cut out all unnecessary words.  They convinced me that my writing would actually be more vivid and powerful if I removed all useless verbiage.

Of course, Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) is by nature very short, but in that respect it differs from the Sinitic vernaculars, which are generally much more expansive.  The section on "Literary Chinese" in the Wikipedia article on "Adoption of Chinese literary culture" brings this difference out nicely:

Thus the written style, based on the Old Chinese of the classical period, remained largely static as the various varieties of Chinese developed and diverged to become mutually unintelligible, and all distinct from the written form.[8] Moreover, in response to phonetic attrition the spoken varieties developed compound words and new syntactic forms. In comparison, the literary language was admired for its terseness and economy of expression, but it was difficult to understand if read aloud, even in the local pronunciation. This divergence is a classic example of diglossia.[9]

Literary Sinitic can get away with extreme terseness because of the density of strokes per character, which overall add semantic content to the writing.  But that additional information is not available through speech, only visually in written form.

I was trying to think of an example, so as not to leave my readers wondering what in the world I was talking about, and the first thing that popped into my mind was a verb related to speech pathology, viz., "stutter; stammer; speak with spasmodic repetition":

kǒuchī / kǒují (Taiwan Mandarin)  口吃/喫

Synonyms are:

jiēba 結巴

Both in writing and in speech, people will often reduplicate the syllables thus, jiéjiēbābā 結結巴巴 (295,000 ghits; the unreduplicated form jiēba 結巴 yields 370,000 ghits).

kēba 磕巴

A Literary Sinitic word for "stutter; stammer" is:

jiǎn 謇 (can also mean "speak out boldly")

It can be expanded as 謇吃 jiǎnchī.

There are probably other words in Literary Sinitic for "stutter", but I can't think of any off the top of my head.  I thought that perhaps there might be a character for one such word consisting of the radical for "speech" (yán 言, Kangxi #149) inside the radical for "sickness" (nè 疒, Kangxi #104).  Of course, I didn't know whether there really were such a character, nor whether, if in fact there were one, it would mean "stutter; stammer" or would signify some other form of speech pathology.  It seemed logical, though, that if such a character existed, it would probably signify some type of speech defect.  Well, it turns out that there really is such a character, but it is pronounced hū (I have no idea why yán +nè should be pronounced hū) and it means "excessive sleep; hypersomnia" (I have no idea why 言 ["speech"] + 疒 ["sickness"] should mean "excessive sleep; hypersomnia"]).  These are just some of the mysteries of the mighty Chinese writing system.

There are more than 75 characters pronounced jiǎn and more than 250 characters pronounced jiān, jián, jiǎn, or jiàn, so if you are giving a lecture or holding a conversation about stuttering, just saying jiǎn will not get your idea across, and you probably won't get the tone right anyway because you likely won't be a speaker of perfect Standard Mandarin.  Even if you were speaking Middle Sinitic or Old Sinitic, which have richer phonetic inventories than Standard Mandarin, there would still be too many homophones for people to know for sure which of them you're talking about.  Moreover, unless you have a high degree of literacy, you're unlikely to know the character 謇 in the first place.

By some miracle that I do not fully comprehend, English manages to be terse and intelligible at the same time.


  1. Ralph J Hickok said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 7:36 am

    Here's a sign I see frequently here in New Bedford, which has a substantial Portuguese population:

    Barefeet prohibited
    Pés sem sapatos não são permitidos

  2. Yerushalmi said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 8:05 am


    My wife is always surprised, when she asks for a translation from a word in Hebrew to English, at how many options I give her. "This word is slightly more formal; that word has a negative connotation; the other word is used in a technical context…" The large number of available words in English, some with very fine differences between them, gives the opportunity for great flexibility of meaning in a small number of words, where other languages might require adding adjectives or adverbs for clarification.

    But that's at the word level. On the letter level – well, English is famous for how many different ways "e" can be pronounced. A high number of vowel sounds and a high number of consonant clusters, coming from English's source as an unholy merger of two rather different languages, gives a huge space of possible syllables. Add to that our tendency to vacuum up useful words from every language we meet, some with unique pronunciations that aren't in the rest of the language (I know Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, who can pronounce the khhhhhh in "chutzpah" but not in any other word, not even "Chanukah".)

    Back to the word level, in signage and other formal contexts English prefers to leave off articles and other cruft that aren't strictly necessary for communication. Maybe other languages are less flexible in this regard?

  3. GALESL said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 8:36 am

    English's brevity must be especially difficult for dubbing. I remember watching a US horror movie on Italian TV (where everything is dubbed, never subbed) set on a cruise ship. At one point they were talking about something which might be one of the most extreme examples I've encountered of length difference in a single word/semantic unit: "scialuppe di salvotaggio" (three words, eight syllables, with two geminations), translating the English "lifeboats" (one word, two syllables, with two short diphthongs).
    God knows how that managed to repeatedly fit a phrase at least four times the length of the original into the same running time. They probably had to cut 20-30% of the original conversation.

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 9:10 am

    I wonder if the supposed terseness of English is not limited to signage, headlines and the like, and Language Log readers know well how often this terseness (especially copula suppression) leads to misunderstanding. By contrast, English translations of the Hebrew Bible, especially the King James, are in many instances ridiculously wordy; my favorite example is hamashtin baqqir, rendered as "him that pisseth against the wall."

  5. KeithB said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    Could it be because English has so many synonyms?

    Do other languages need/have thesaruses?

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 9:31 am

    I would like to add that, in reference to Victor's first example, the instruction as spoken would probably be something more like "Keep your seat belt fastened while you are seated," which isn't all that different from the German. Besides, "fasten seat belt" doesn't necessarily mean that it should be kept fastened — another example of the ambiguity of English signage and headline language.

  7. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 9:39 am

    Certainly 'life belt under your seat' is not a standard sentence, and if one were trying to convey the same information in speech one would say 'the life belt is under your seat'. 'Fasten seat belt while seated' is more grammatically complete, but still it would be normal to say 'your seat belt'. (The German, if I read it rightly, says 'keep… fastened' rather than just 'fasten', which seems to me more accurate.) And if the German might say 'bitte', well, the English might say 'please'. So I'm inclined to agree with Coby Lubliner that this terseness is not a feature of the English language as such, but of a particular style of public announcement.

  8. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 9:40 am


  9. bagerap said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 9:54 am

    With regard to dubbed films/TV, I once had the distinct pleasure of watching an episode of Dallas dubbed into Xhosa.
    Click, click, click, Miss Ellie.
    Surrealism at its most sublime.

  10. mollymooly said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 10:07 am

    Medieval European manuscripts made abundant use abbreviations, initials, and non-alphabetic symbols, to save on the cost of parchment and ink. Is there any extent to which the condensed nature of Classical Chinese texts is an artefact of similar concerns during transmission?

  11. WSM said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 11:11 am

    This is an interesting post but I'm a little skeptical that English is terse compared even to modern Chinese; every time I translate from Chinese to English I feel bad about how much "padding" I'm adding in English to get across the meaning of the Chinese. Of course you could argue that just means I'm not translating well, but in that case it doesn't seem a foregone conclusion that English is generally terser on average.

    This is, however, a question amenable to quantitative analysis. It should be possible to come up with some information theoretic definition of "terseness" that works cross language, and see which language ends up being terser based upon various written corpuses.

  12. Yerushalmi said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    @WSM There's a general rule among translators that a translation will *always* increase the size of the text, often because the original uses idioms or unique words or phrases that don't translate directly and need to be explained more at length, whereas it's rare to be able to use such idioms in the target language.

  13. unekdoud said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 11:46 am

    @GALESL: I guess we English speakers have it good when it comes to both dubs and text replacements. Now we just have to deal with the pesky vertical text bubbles in Japanese manga…

    Anyway, I had the same ***LAYMAN SPECULATION*** that borrowing loanwords from so many languages allows for a phonetic inventory much larger than the orthography suggests, and therefore shorter writing for the same words. Whether the vocabulary itself is larger is a more difficult question to answer.

  14. Levantine said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 12:01 pm

    I'm sorry to hijack this post, but Geoffrey Pullum invites us to decide whether his joke is indeed offensive but then denies us the ability to comment. As a gay man, I don't find the joke particularly offensive, but the timing (coupled with Pullum's reference to 'gays' rather than 'gay people') strikes me as insensitive. It seems an odd moment to post something of this nature, and there is nothing in the post to explain its timing (on the contrary, Pullum seems to be responding to a post from April).

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 12:32 pm

    Via googling I turned up a commercial seller of German-language "warning signs" for industrial sites, and e.g. "Unbefugten ist das Betreten des Steinbruchs verboten" does not seem notably wordier than the English equivalent ("Entering the quarry is prohibited for unauthorized persons," which might more idiomatically be "Entry to quarry by unauthorized persons is prohibited" at no real gain in terseness) and "Vorsicht! Sprengstoffe! Nicht rauchen!" is identical in word count and terser in syllable count when compared to the English ("Caution! Explosives! Smoking prohibited!"). These appear to be written in a perhaps more forceful and less polite register of German than airlines may think suitable for their paying customers, but what I take away from that is that it's hard to make these comparisons without accounting for register, and cross-cultural variation in what register is suitable for what occasion may make broad statements very difficult to prove.

  16. Brian Spooner said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 1:14 pm

    Victor is right about the avoidance of unnecessary words being part of traditional education in writing English–in England as well as America. It is part of the classical heritage of our educational system. It is one of the things taught in Latin composition, on the models of Caesar, Cicero and even Livy. But there may also be other factors, such as efficiency, and literacy–aiming to make it as simple as possible.

  17. WSM said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 1:18 pm

    @yerushalmi interesting point, but I'm not sure it holds for English->Chinese translations: translations of Harry Potter books into Chinese tend to be noticeably shorter than the English originals. I'm not sure whether they're full translations though, and of course you have to detail with issues of text spacing, etc. Even modern Chinese tends to omit things like subjects and articles, which are far more optional than in English: features that could lend to more "terseness" overall.

    Again, though- this is an interesting question that could be examined quantitatively.

  18. George Amis said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 1:19 pm

    J.W.Brewer– I would expect the English sign to say something like "No unauthorized persons allowed in quarry," or perhaps simply "Authorized personnel only!"

  19. hector said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 2:18 pm

    "Im Westen Nichts Neues"

    "All Quiet on the Western Front"

    German can be quite terse when it wants to be.

    Perhaps the real question here is whether bureaucratic German is more long-winded than bureaucratic English.

  20. cameron said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 2:18 pm

    I remember as a child our English language textbooks (British-published) had exercises called précis where we were given a text and told to shorten it to some specified number of words, without reducing the semantic content.

    I gather that American schoolchildren are not given drills of this kind.

    I have it on reliable report that French schoolchildren do précis as well; they even call it by the same name.

  21. Vulcan with a Mullet said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 2:30 pm

    I work as a graphic designer/production artist for an ad agency, and one of our clients is a large retail hardier company, for which we regularly produce bilingual signage with legal disclaimers in parallel English and Spanish. Over time, we have developed a rule of thumb that almost always holds true: Allow AT LEAST 3 times the space allotted for the English copy to fit in the Spanish translation (which will be provided separately later).

    Best example:
    10% OFF TOOLS
    is a lot easier to fit onto a sign headline than

  22. Francisco said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 3:22 pm

    Regarding the first commenter's example, "Barefeet prohibited" can be quite idiomatically translated as "Usar calçado".

  23. raempftl said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 3:34 pm

    German for

    Fasten your seat belt

    Gurt anlegen.

    (The "anlegen" actually instructs you to put the belt around your body while the "Gurt schließen" in the above translation just means "close the belt" and is a at least unusual if not unidiomatic.)

    German uses the infinitve for impersonal instructions which often produces nicely terse sentences. It just so happens that German does not have a snappy construction for "while seated". There is "im Sitzen" but this implies "while seated" as opposed to "while standing/not being seated".

    A German wording uninfluenced by the English original would probably just be:

    Stets Gurt anlegen. (Always fasten your seat belt.)

    The "while seated" part would be implicit because that is the only sensible interpretation.

  24. flow said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 3:42 pm

    I cannot entirely agree with what has been said about German. I do think that English often displays a terseness that can be hard to impossible to match in German, and also that German copy occupies rather more space than the corresponding English text, be it due to an increase in the length or in the number of words.

    However, these examples:

    "Gurte während des [S]itzens geschlossen halten" / "Fasten seat belt while seated"

    "Die [S]chwimmweste befindet sich unter [I]hrem [S]itz" / "Life vest under your seat"

    are rather communicative equivalents rather than faithful translations, as has been pointed out in the comments. It would be perfectly fine for the German announcements to read

    "Bitte während des Fluges angeschnallt bleiben" / "Bitte immer anschnallen", and

    "Schwimmweste unter dem Sitz" (or use "Rettungsweste")

    (incidentally if a German was to brief their neighbour on the whereabouts of the life vest, they'd probably utter sth like "Die Schwimmweste is(t) unterm Sitz", which compares with the English "The live vest's under the/your seat".

  25. David Marjanović said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 4:21 pm

    Do other languages need/have thesa[u]ruses?

    German has them, but almost nobody actually possesses a Synonymenlexikon.

  26. PS said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 4:23 pm


    Regarding synonyms and thesauruses, here is Phillip Lutgendorf on Hindi poetry (emphasis mine)

    But there is another dimension to Tulsi's apparent "repetitiveness" that neither Growse nor Hill mentions: the fact that some of it reflects more on the deficiencies of the English lexicon than on the formulaic expedients of the Hindi poet. I have counted, for example, twenty-nine different Sanskrit and Hindi terms for "lotus" in the Manas, including such lovely expressions as jalaj (born of the water), saroj (born of the lake), vanaj (born in the forest), nalini (long-stemmed one), rajiv (blue-streaked flower), and tamras (day-flower). For any of these, given considerations of space and syntax, the English translator has little choice but to insert "lotus"—thus obliterating all the subtle shades of meaning the original terms can convey.

    Regarding terseness, here are the notices translated into Hindi, in standard Devanagari ("life vest" is normally not translated in Hindi).

    Fasten seat belt while seated

    कुर्सी की पेटी बाँध कर बैठें

    Life vest under your seat

    लाईफ वेस्ट आपकी सीट के नीचे है

    I don't think the notices are significantly shorter or longer.

  27. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 4:28 pm

    @ Levantine –

    I thought the same thing. It was a really odd post all round.

  28. Lugubert said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 4:30 pm

    Yet another comparison, not improbable in a tech manual:
    US EN: Now please press button A.
    DE: A drücken.

  29. Lugubert said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 4:38 pm

    @ PS
    You forgot to mention that, in the second example, "seat" also is a borrowing, so that three out of seven words are English. That helps in making the difference small.

  30. Charles Antaki said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 4:55 pm

    I agree with Levantine and Lugubert. Contrarian is fine, but a spot of good taste and timing doesn't go amiss.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 5:10 pm

    @Charles Antaki

    "I agree with Levantine and Lugubert."

    I think that you meant "I agree with Levantine and Pflaumbaum."

  32. Robert Davis said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 5:22 pm

    I noticed this in bi-lingual English-Spanish books. There was always a blank space on the bottom of English version. More mono-syllabic words in English?

  33. David Morris said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 5:24 pm

    "French schoolchildren do précis as well; they even call it by the same name."

    They've borrowed the name from English!

  34. PS said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 6:13 pm


    I could have replaced सीट by the equally short and more idiomatic कुर्सी, as I did in the first line. I could also have replaced लाईफ वेस्ट by the shorter but unidiomatic रक्षा-वस्त्र. My point is that (as others have pointed out) one can typically be as terse as one wants in any language.

  35. Levantine said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

    PS, your comment is directed at someone else! I remarked on something entirely unrelated. I apologise for breaking LL rules by doing so, but Pflaumbaum and Charles Antaki's subsequent comments show that I'm not the only one to be taken aback by Geoffrey Pullum's latest post. I hope he responds to these concerns; opening his own comments section would be a start.

  36. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 6:39 pm

    @ David Marjanovic:

    German has them, but almost nobody actually possesses a Synonymenlexikon.

    Except for those hundreds of thousands who own their Duden Sinnverwandte Wörter: Vergleichendes Synonym-Wörterbuch and/or Duden Sinn- und sachverwandte Wörter und Wendungen.

  37. monscampus said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 8:01 pm

    @ David Marjanović

    What makes you say almost nobody uses German Synonymlexika? It's simply not true, as already stated by Reinhold. I could add more titles to his list.

  38. Chris said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 10:05 pm

    It should perhaps be pointed out that because English is the international language of aviation, the English versions of those airline seat notices are all likely to be standardized wordings required by regulations of some sort. You can verify this quite easily by googling "Fasten seat belt while seated," for example. This means that not only is the English wording not a translation of the German, it is also not a choice made by anyone working for that airline. The German, on the other hand, probably does reflect the preferences of the airline itself, and is likely to be a translation of the English.

    I would also point out that German translations of English (and probably of many other languages) have a general tendency to add detail which English tends to consider unnecessary, or to explicitly clarify things that English is happy to leave implicit. This explicitation is typical of the German language in general, and is another reason why these airline notices should not necessarily be viewed as evidence of exceptional terseness in English. On the other hand, one could in fact argue that English has a greater fondness for leaving things implicit than most languages, and that English and German represent opposite ends of a spectrum in this regard.

  39. Francis Boyle said,

    June 14, 2016 @ 10:41 pm

    New hypothesis (though hinted at above): international commercial English is especially terse due to its status as a sort of quasi-pidgin.

  40. cliff arroyo said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 2:27 am

    A few notes:

    Written notice English often uses a telegraphic style that would be completely inappropriate as speech.
    If a flight attendant turned and said to me "Fasten seat belt while seated" to me then they're going to have one cranky passenger to deal with. I would expect something more like "Escuse me, but please keep your seatbelt fastened while your'e seated". that is, if the flight attendant seems to be a native speaker of English, if they're not a native speaker I'd still expect at least a 'please' and 'your' in their somewhere.

    Other European languages tend to use full expressions in written notices.

    Gurte während des sitzens geschlossen halten
    isn't significantly longer than

    Keep seatbelt fastened while seated
    or the more natural
    Seatbelts should be kept fastened while seated.

    When it comes to thinks like multi-lingual notices or information (of full sentences) my impression is that among European languages the most terse are the Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian) followed not too far behind by English. The most longwinded tend to be German, French and Spanish (depending on the notice). The rest slot in the middle.

  41. cliff arroyo said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 2:32 am

    "New hypothesis (though hinted at above): international commercial English is especially terse due to its status as a sort of quasi-pidgin."

    Oh yes, listening to native speakers of various European languages speak together in English can be jarring for native speakers. Up to half the grammar taught in class disappears and so do politeness and discourse markers. At times it seems like they're just throwing words and/or disjointed short clauses at each other. It works well enough but elegant is surely not the word to describe it.

    To some extent this is normal since politeness markers (like expletives) just don't have the same expressive force in a second language that they do in the native tongue.

    An odd side effect of this is that the idea that questions of style and register are really important in English is a really tough sell to many Europeans. German? French? Hungarian? Of course these are rich standardized languages with many conventions that must be followed, English? blech, who cares?

  42. Jon said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 2:38 am

    @cameron: I loved doing précis at school, 50-odd years ago – the idea of bringing out the meaning of a text more clearly and simply appealed to me. It also showed starkly how empty some texts were. I found the skill very useful later when condensing scientific papers for a semi-scientific newsletter.

  43. Rolyh said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 4:04 am

    As an anglophone living in a Portuguese speaking country I frequently notice the terseness of colloquial Portuguese.
    I go into my little local shop looking for onions:
    "Tem cebolas?"
    "Do you have any onions?"
    "Não tenho"
    "No I don't"
    A significant saving in words and syllables.
    And when I have finished selecting my purchases the shop keeper will say
    considerably shorter than
    "Is there anything else?"

  44. David Marjanović said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 5:34 am

    Except for those hundreds of thousands who own their Duden Sinnverwandte Wörter: Vergleichendes Synonym-Wörterbuch and/or Duden Sinn- und sachverwandte Wörter und Wendungen.

    If by "hundreds of thousands" you mean less than a million, that's about 1 % of the total number of native speakers.

  45. Bastian said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 5:47 am

    I've got no idea how frequent possession of a printed thesaurus is in the anglophone world vs. the German speaking countries. However, there is an important stylistic difference between English and German in that in written German it is commonly considered poor style to repeate the same root across sentences or even within a sentence. That is, when composing texts in German, you are forced to constantly look for (near-)synonyms to express one and the same idea.

  46. KeithB said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 8:38 am

    That is perilously close to "100 words for snow".

    Why couldn't the English translator put in "born of the water" or whatever? We are talking poetry, after all. Is "green-eyed monster" a synonym for jealousy?

  47. Hans Adler said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 9:12 am

    My take is that terseness on signage is a sign of quality. Clearly someone with an understanding of how we process notices, especially when in panic, has had a strong influence on the phrasing. The opposite end of the spectrum is actually not reached by the German versions mentioned. (Rather, I am reminded of the verbose historical weight limit for motor vehicles that can still be seen on a bridge in Leeds. Unfortunately I didn't take a photo and don't remember the text. It was at least a long paragraph.) They just weren't optimised in the same way.

    But yes, there also seems to be a tendency for people to write more clearly – and this usually means shorter – in English than in German. Maybe this dates back to a time when English had copyright and expensive books written by a small number of literary superstars such as Charles Dickens. While in Germany, where the introduction of copyright took much longer, books were cheap, wordy, and typically plagiarised.

  48. PS said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 9:27 am


    Because, in Hindi literature, jalaj, the word in question whose etymology is "born of the water", is hardly used for anything else except lotus.

    The same cannot be said for "flower born of water" in English, which would made for an excruciating translation.

    Ans yes, Hindi and Sanskrit do have several dedicated words for lotus. That the "so many words for snow" trope is false for Inuit languages does not mean it has to be false everywhere.

  49. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 11:26 am

    I think one important aspect has been overlooked so far: many of these English notices are quite impenetrable for the uninitiated EFL learner (here, one that doesn't fly much). Evidently, they were written with the American reader in mind. For them, the terseness might work. But for your average EFL learner outside your stereotypically proficient countries (Denmark etc.), Fasten your seat belt while seated is a needlessly opaque way of expressing the message. Nerdview.

    Fasten? WTF? Does that mean going fast? While seated??? What kind of perverse structure is that?

    In an international context, it would have to be When you sit, put on belt or something. Or, of course, the notice should be pictorial. That's why road signs are the way they are everywhere in the world outside of North America. (And the quirks of NAm road signs have been discussed more than once on here.)

    So, @Hans Adler, I'm afraid I would submit that the way many of these notices are written is a sign of bad quality.

    Life vest? For goodness' sake, what on earth is a vest? This is life-threatening. We should sue them.

    (Sorry. Just back from a trip where I saw a notice inside a luggage compartment that said Latch closed or something along the lines. It must have taken me a minute to parse it as 'use the latch to close the compartment'. But then I have a degree in linguistics. Latch. Please give me a break. Who writes these things? /rant off)

  50. Rodger C said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 11:36 am

    As for Spanish texts being longer than their English equivalent, I think it's simply that Spanish parataxis is so much more restrictive that it takes many more segments to produce the same number of contrasts, hence the same amount of information. The other side of that is that Spanish can be spoken much faster than English, syllable-wise. I don't think that conciseness of expression has anything to do with it.

  51. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 2:07 pm

    As to terse phrasing on signage sometimes requring more cultural context to be understood, that's a usability meta-question re knowing your audience. In most road sign contexts in the U.S., for example, it's plausible to assume that the overwhelming majority of people who will be seeing the sign are fluent in the standard conventions of U.S. road signage. If there is reason to believe that the context unusual in that regard, a different approach might be warranted. I remember noticing 20+ years ago while in Scotland some multilingual signs near the exit of parking lots (um "car parks"?) at locations likely to attract foreign tourists, reminding the reader to drive on the left side of the road after exiting the parking lot. Such signage was absent from other places, where it was more sensible to assume that such a high percentage of drivers were UK natives (or well-assimilated foreigners) that they did not need that reminder and would have found its redundancy annoying or distracting.

    Occasionally in NYC restaurants the bill will come with a rather heavy-handed explanation-for-the-benefit-of-foreigners saying essentially service is not compris in the US so you ought to leave a tip you cheapskates. Even in Manhattan this is very much the exception rather than the rule, but I assume it reflects a perception on the part of the particular establishments' management that they attract an unusually high percentage of customers who don't know the local conventions and will thus benefit from a reminder that would be unnecessarily unterse for those who do.

  52. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 2:09 pm

    And here's an example of such a multilingual "drive on the left" sign, in which the German text is the tersest:

  53. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 3:13 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: Well, that's my point exactly. The signs don't say "Proceed sinistrally" ;)

    (BTW, what a pertinent find! "Links fahren" is terser than "Drive on left", by one space.)

  54. Geoff said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

    Comparing terseness in formal situations like these is confounded by the meta-questions we've been discussing.

    To compare terseness of natural spoken languages, surely you would go to a corpus, find conversations of similar type in different languages, and compare the average number of phonemes per turn (I suggest 'per turn' on the assumption that turn-taking behaviour would reflect human universals, but perhaps that should not be assumed).

    I'd be surprised if there were significant differences, since I would hypothesise that natural selection has shaped all languages similarly under similar forces concerning concerning the balance between information density and comprehension.

  55. Eidolon said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 6:38 pm

    "New hypothesis (though hinted at above): international commercial English is especially terse due to its status as a sort of quasi-pidgin."

    Probably correct, though I'd say that there has been a cultural predilection towards simplifying expressions in Anglophone countries – or just America, since I'm not especially knowledgeable about the UK – with acronyms being an obvious example. And even within native English speaking communities, "no smoking" is preferable to "smoking is not allowed" and "no texting while driving" is preferable to "do not input text on your phone while driving." We are indeed taught that brevity and conciseness is best, both in writing and in speech, such that people complain about flowery, descriptive, and/or just simply long texts/speeches.

    What becomes an interesting linguistics exercise is to answer whether English allows for more minimalism than other languages, or if all languages are, in fact, capable of the same brevity provided that people get used to them. For example, one could presumably generalize "no smoking" as a negation and a verb put alongside each other, and argue that any language that has negations and verbs can express the same in just as few morphemes. Is that the case?

  56. Dave said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 2:43 am

    mox nix

  57. BZ said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

    My feeling is that aside from very standardized/regulated signs (like traffic signs), the shorter language is the one the original is written in. The translation is usually longer. In addition, many English signs tend to include various politeness markers, whereas e.g. Russian signs don't bother as long as the meaning is clear. I seriously doubt that English is really shorter at any substantial level except when it is the original (which, of course, is very often)

  58. Zeppelin said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 12:27 pm

    I think translation definitely plays a part. I have here my trusty book of 364 Lithuanian Verbs, which gives examples of their usage, with an English translation.
    Standard Lithuanian isn't exactly a famously terse language, but those English translations are often significantly longer, and rarely shorter. Some examples (hand-picked for interest, admittedly):

    – "Jis išsiskirė iš kitų studentų savarankiškumu." > "His independent attitude distinguished him from the rest of the students."

    – "Jie nupoušė Kalėdų eglutę." > "They took the decorations down from the Christmas tree."

    – "Ji vaidina princesę." > "She is playing the role of a princess."

    – "Ji nepristatė draugo tėvams." > "She didn't introduce her boyfriend to her parents."

    "Pusnys mažėja." > "The snowdrifts are getting smaller."

  59. Guy said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 5:22 pm


    I would analyze "no smoking" as a noun phrase, like "no pets". A verb would usually be negated by "not".

  60. Victor Mair said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 11:24 am

    A good example of laconicity in current American English is when you ask somebody to do something, and they quickly and proudly reply "done". When people write back to me that way, as the person on the receiving end of the favor, I too have a good feeling.

    No words wasted!

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