Txt and contxt

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Yesterday's Zits:

It's not clear that Walt is really missing any "context", in the conventional sense. Instead, the idea seems to be that textual communication lacks  the attitude-signaling dimensions of speech, which provide con-text in the etymological sense, and might permit him in this case to figure out whether Jeremy's responses are literal or ironic (in the sense of conveying the opposite of their literal meaning).

There's no question that there's more information in speech than in text, and a spoken interaction might well have provided the "con-text" that Walt is looking for in this case. But I'm generally skeptical of the frequently-expressed view that there's an intonation or tone of voice that specifically conveys that you mean the opposite of what you say. See here, here, here, here for some discussion.


  1. Mark Eli Kalderon said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 2:38 pm


  2. Alan said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    I'm interested that you contrast "literal" with "ironic". To me the opposite poles would be "literal" vs. "sarcastic". Where I come from, sarcasm can be friendly, used as a joke, or an unfriendly way to rebut an argument. In either case, the intended meaning is almost always indicated by tone of voice.

    [(myl) Traditionally, sarcasm is "a cutting, often ironic remark intended to wound", or "A form of wit that is marked by the use of sarcastic language and is intended to make its victim the butt of contempt or ridicule" (glosses from the American Heritage dictionary). Irony is glossed as "the use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning", or "an expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning". So I think that my usage is the standard one.

    As for the notion that "the intended meaning is almost always indicated by tone of voice", this is a common belief among people who have little real evidence for it. You might be surprised at how imprecise the communicative effect of "tone of voice" usually is. In particular, people's ability to determine whether ambiguous phrases like "that's great" or "good work" are meant literally or not, when they're taken out of context, is not terribly good.]

  3. Oskar said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    You guys have probably written umpteen blog-posts on this already, but I've always seen this situation is the validation for why emoticons should have a solid place in written language. Written language just wasn't designed for the modern practice of instant communication. Sure, it's been used as communication for a while in the form of letter-writing, but instant text communication on a large scale (where text is used as a substitute for speech) has really only existed for 20 years or so, not a very long time. It makes total sense to me that written language was modified to introduce an efficient way to communicate things things like tone-of-voice, and emoticons fill that role perfectly.

    As I said, you guys have probably written a gazillion blog-posts about this already with much grander insights than mine, so I'll just shut up now :)

  4. Robert Coren said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    Well, but it certainly is possible to convey, by an exaggeration of tone if you will, that "Oh, great" is meant ironically. I would expect Jeremy, in a face-to-face conversation with his father, to make it quite clear if his "wouldn't miss it" was intended to mean "no way".

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    December 27, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

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  6. fred said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

    Kids In The Hall (ca. ages ago) had a sketch where a character has a "speech impediment" that makes him talk "sarcastically" (in tone). Here's a brief clip:


    Clearly there's a good deal of body/face language going on to signal stuff, but if you watch it with your eyes clos-…err, listen to it, I think a good case could be made for the role of "tone of voice" (whatever that means) as a vehicle for sarcasm.

  7. the other Mark P said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    this is a common belief among people who have little real evidence for it. You might be surprised at how imprecise the communicative effect of "tone of voice" usually is.

    Surely though it is not "tone of voice", but other non-verbal signals. Body position, smiling or not smiling, eye-contact etc. Even semi-verbal clues, such as hesitation, pausing and volume.

    (Not that I believe that adds up to much. I struggle with the often stated idea that only 7% of communication is verbal. I teach Maths, and I doubt any of it is communicated non-verbally.

    Moreover, I can often tell when a student is being untruthful, evasive or is uneasy by body language – but almost never which exact emotion is being expressed. If 93% of communication is non-verbal, I would expect to get a bit more precision than "is up to something".)

  8. Jim said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

    While I agree that there is no general tone that could be identified that indicates that a person means the opposite of what you say, I have problem with it in this particular context, that of a father talking about his son. While no amount of familiarity can lead to perfect understanding, I know that I have a much better grasp on what my wife and children mean when I'm talking to them face-to-face or at least on the phone instead of via text, and I think this is pretty common.

  9. Ellen K. said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

    Regarding tone indicating irony or not, I recall listening to something where, after several true statements, there was a contrary to fact statement made, and meant to be taken as such, and, after listening to it the first time, I would have shown there was some kind of change in tone of voice indicating not to believe that. Listening again, though, I was astonished to hear that the tone didn't change. I think that to the extent that tone contributed, it was because we don't expect a straight forward tone of voice when a fact that is surprising, out of the ordinary. The lack of a change of tone of voice, when combined with the hard to believe statement, was a clue, I think, not to take the statement at face value.

  10. ohwilleke said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

    This turns out to be a very big practical problem in business related e-mail communications. I frequently advise clients to avoid e-mail where this kind of misunderstanding is possible.

  11. Thomas Thurman said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

    Fred: There was a running joke on the nineties sketch show The Mary Whitehouse Experience about "Ray, The Man Afflicted With A Sarcastic Tone Of Voice". His impediment supposedly meant that things he really meant could only be said sarcastically. When he attempted sarcasm, he unexpectedly broke out into Flemish.

  12. Russell said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    @ the other Mark P,

    Perhaps all of what you hope to convey is encoded verbally, but it might be the case that some is also encoded in other ways, especially by gesture. And if so, there might be some students who will learn at least in part by attending more, or only, to the gesture-encoded information.

  13. Megan said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

    Emoticons can also be used ironically. Can't stop that elusive machine called postmodern thought.

  14. Malo Juevo said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 12:58 am

    @ the other Mark P,

    The 7% figure is utter poppycock. For a very brief explanation of where it comes from, see: http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/05/busting-myth-93-of-communication-is.php

    Whenever that number is quoted to me, I point out that there is essentially only one mathematically rigorous way to quantify information (a la Shannon), and the people making such a claim didn't use it.

  15. Jair said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 2:19 am

    The Other Mark P: I teach math as well (calculus), and I'm surprised that you say you do not do any non-verbal teaching. When I teach I consistently draw diagrams on the blackboard to illustrate ideas, and students will often respond to my questions with hand-gestures indicating shape. I can't imagine trying to learn, say, Euclid's Elements with only words. Occasionally I've tried to tutor over the phone, and it's usually not very helpful. I'm not sure if mathematical notation is considered "verbal" or not, but certainly that's necessary as well. But I agree with you that that the verbal part of communication is much more than 7%, although it's difficult to quantify.

  16. the other Mark P said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 4:50 am

    Perhaps all of what you hope to convey is encoded verbally, but it might be the case that some is also encoded in other ways, especially by gesture.

    Well, in the case of teaching Maths, of course I try to convey the information in multiple ways. Gesture helps, but not a lot (I'm naturally a "loud' gesturer, but I've never had a student say it helps). Analogy is more use.

    My own refutation that most people thing non-verbally is that it is quite hard to get students to draw diagrams to understand a question. Teachers will almost always make a visual representation of a hard question (even when technically they don't need to) because they know how much it helps. Students, however, will rarely do so, no matter how much you demonstrate their use.

    So despite all the theory at Teachers' College that many people are "non-verbal", my personal experience is that the vast majority of people think almost exclusively via language. Trying to get them to think any other way is very hard indeed.

    BTW, excellent link Malo. I had picked up the origins of the myth with Mehrabian, but the fact that it has been found suspect even in the limited range he was testing is quite new.

  17. Ken Brown said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 11:36 am

    "Teachers will almost always make a visual representation of a hard question (even when technically they don't need to) because they know how much it helps. Students, however, will rarely do so, no matter how much you demonstrate their use"

    Might this be another instance of the Great Maths Teaching Conundrum which is that maths teachers are (or ought to be) people who are good at mathematics, and find it hard to understand the problems of clever students who are bad at maths? And so tend to resort to repetition and going back to basics, and so bore the student and risk making things worse…

    When I was at secondary school there were similar problems with PE and music. The teachers didn't get why the students didn't get it, and so all too readily assumed that the students were either incapable of doing what they were asked (usual resort of music teachers, hence the odd idea that many students were "tone deaf" – someone who was really tone deaf would have a serious hearing impairment) or else that the students were being deliberately lazy (many sports teachers seemed unable to realise why some kids don't enjoy sport or aren't good at it) Maths teachers were about halfway between the two…

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