"Snacks with few ingredients that you can pronounce"

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Reader JB described a visit to the Peabody Museum in New Haven, "where in addition to the classic dinosaur bones and so on they had a temporary exhibit aimed at educating kids about the nation's burgeoning obesity problem and its (per sort of unreflective conventional wisdom) causes". One feature of this exhibit was "a set of wooden doors concealing popular snack foods where you could read a blowup of the ingredients list from the package and then open the door to see what it described".

The associated legend explained:

Remember: snacks with few ingredients that you can pronounce are usually the best choices.

As JB recognized, the intended meaning is clearly ""you should look for shorter rather than longer ingredients lists, with most/all of the entries on that short list being easy to pronounce". But he noted that a more natural reading would be ""you should look for lists of ingredients where most of the entries are difficult to pronounce, with only the remaining few being easy."

This is a classic sort of scope ambiguity — but is the intended scope, where few and that you can pronounce are parallel characterizations of the ingredients, even possible in this case? JB had his doubts.

I share his skepticism. When I look for other nominal post-modifiers of the form [with few NOUNs that S], all the examples that I find seem to mean that the NOUNs that S are few, not that there are few relevant NOUNs, all of which also have the property that S.

Thus when an investment-advice article explains that lack of unrealized capital gains may signal "a lousy fund with few stocks that have appreciated in value", it does not mean that the fund owns few stocks, and that these few stocks have appreciated in value, but rather that few of the (many) stocks owned by the fund have appreciated in value.

Or when a TV show is described as "well-paced, with few parts that seem to drag", this doesn't mean that the story has few parts and that all these parts seem to drag.

There are currently two replications on the web of the phrase "with few ingredients that you can pronounce":

Stick to natural face and body products that are made with few ingredients that you can pronounce and understand.
Eat foods with few ingredients, that you can pronounce.

But most replications of the idea use better ways to express it, like these:

Stick to foods with few ingredients and preferably ones that you can pronounce without a dictionary.
Don't buy products with more than five ingredients or any ingredients you can't easily pronounce.
Look for products with very few ingredients, and make sure you can pronounce each one.
Don't eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce.
Pick a bread with very few ingredients– all which you can pronounce!

This meme may have originated with Michael Pollan, who has a flair for catchy slogans, : "If you can't say it, don't eat it", NPR 4/24/2008.

JB has his doubts about the memetic content as well as about the form of the museum's version of the idea:

Later in the weekend I was at dinner with a college classmate who is a research chemist; she found the message substantively aggravating because of what she considered the empirical bogusness of the easy-to-pronounce=healthy; hard-to-pronounce=unhealthy notion, which is itself sort of a weird pop-linguistics thing:  "nature is good and artifice is bad and you can detect artifice because it will be polysyllabic."

We'll leave further discussion of monosyllabic nature-fetishism for another time. For now, I'd just like to draw a lesson from this case for those who are interested in the caricatured Iptivist Wars that we've recently discussed.

We started with JB's reaction to a piece of writing that he encountered in a setting where standard written English is expected. He felt that the phrase was at best confusing, and perhaps ungrammatical (in the sense that the intended reading is outside the norms implied by the practice of the linguistic community in question).

My intuition agreed with his; but I took this as an opportunity to explore, at least superficially, what the relevant usage patterns actually are. The (admittedly incomplete) evidence that I found supported our view of the likely interpretation, and so I'm tentatively concluding that we're right:  Even if the desired reading of the museum's sign were technically grammatical, it would still be stylistically ill-advised, because it's likely to confuse or mislead readers.

There are several kinds of evidence that would persuade me to change my mind: a careful corpus study showing that the museum's intended scope is in fact found in a significant fraction of relevant cases; a systematic analysis of the semantics of  relative clauses whose head noun is quantified with few, supporting the view that the museum's intended interpretation is an expected product of those patterns; a psycholinguistic study of readers' reactions to such sentences, showing little or no evidence of bizarreness reactions or interpretive backtracking; etc.

But it never occurred to JB or to me that our reaction should be: Whatever is, is right.  Are we therefore "prescriptivists"? As I've written before ("Prescriptivist Science", 5/30/2008):

[The] genuine scholars of English usage find themselves forced to spend as much time marshaling evidence against the cranks who promote non-existent "rules" as they do correcting writers whose prose is genuinely non-standard, confusing, or mistaken. As a result, the word "prescriptivist" is generally taken to refer to the crazies rather than to the scholars, and this seems unfair to me. The scholars also prescribe, after all, it's just that their recommendations are based on a rational analysis of the facts. It's as if we called witch-doctors "prescriptivists" because they prescribe on the basis of magical thinking about imaginary spirits, while calling practitioners of evidence-based medicine "descriptivists" because their recommendations are based on the factual relationship between remedies and their consequences.



39 Comments

  1. Neil Tarrant said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 10:45 am

    Do you believe that the addition of an 'a' to the sentence would resolve the ambiguity? That is:

    "snacks with *a* few ingredients"

  2. Ted said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 10:50 am

    As a which-hunter, is it time to say "I told you so"? There's no ambiguity in

    Snacks with few ingredients (all of which you can pronounce).

    [(myl) Everyone agrees that (with marginal exceptions) which is required in supplementary (= "non-restrictive") relative clauses. The which-hunters' quarry is the use of which in integrated (= "restrictive") relative clauses. So your status as a which-hunter is not really relevant here.]

  3. Josh Smith said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 10:57 am

    Or even "snacks with *only a* few…"?

  4. Theodore said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 11:02 am

    "Few ingredients that you can pronounce" is ambiguous and confusing, certainly, but I don't think it's ungrammatical. Compare "snacks with natural ingredients that you can pronounce": this would clearly mean "snacks all of whose ingredients are natural and pronounceable", not "snacks whose natural ingredients (but not necessarily others) are all pronounceable". Why should "few" behave any differently than "natural"? Even if corpus evidence is hard to find, there's nothing in this construction that breaks any general rule of English NP modification, as far as I can see.

    In speech, by the way, I think the ambiguity might disappear: in the intended reading you'd get two intonational phrases with two stresses, on 'few' and 'pronounce', while in the unintended one the whole NP would be one intonational phrase with its main stress on 'few'.

    [(myl) Quantifiers and adjectives don't always work in the same way. How about "snacks with almost no ingredients that you can pronounce"? ]

  5. Valerie said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 11:11 am

    I too see a job for parentheses: "Snacks with few (preferably pronounceable) ingredients." But it still bothers me that "pronounceable" arguably should be modifying "names of ingredients" rather than "ingredients" – you can taste an ingredient, but can you really pronounce it?

  6. NW said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    One of those two replications isn't, because it has a comma so it's intonationally well-formed. This should have the correct reading, a supplemental relative clause (marked with 'that', a comparative rarity):

    Eat foods with few in\gredients, that you can pro\nounce.

    This would sound better with 'and':

    Eat foods with few in\gredients, and that you can pro\nounce.

    But there's still some scope problem. The 'and' lays bare that you can't coordinate determiners with relative clauses. As a matter of fact you can't coordinate attributive AdjP's with them either, as this still doesn't work smoothly:

    Eat foods with healthy in\gredients, and that you can pro\nounce.

    Obviously using the pronoun 'which' here won't fix it, so that's not the problem. All these sound like the kind of workarounds you use when there's no obvious or felicitous standard way of saying it.

    [(myl) In the case of the museum's sign, it's clear that the head of the relative clause is ingredients, not snacks. Otherwise, evading the advice is purely a marketing problem — "Cheese Whiz" is easy to pronounce, though the ingredients list includes "Whey, canola oil, milk protein concentrate, maltodextrin, sodium phosphate, whey protein concentrate, salt, lactic acid, sodium alginate, mustard flour, worchestershire sauce, sorbic acid, milkfat, cheese culture, oleoresin paprika, annatto, natural flavor, enzymes", thus making it presumably one of the foods that "don't eat it if you can't say it" is intended to discourage children from consuming.]

  7. Theodore said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    @myl, you're right that in "snacks with almost no ingredients that you can pronounce" the quantifier is only naturally interpretable as scoping over the relative clause, but I think that's for a specific pragmatic reason: one would be unlikely ever to speak of "snacks with almost no ingredients", so that phrase doesn't make sense as a unit in the way that "snacks with few ingredients" does.

    [(myl) How about "people with almost no flaws that you have heard about"?]

  8. Jonathan said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    Monosodium glutamate is really easy to pronounce. It's somewhat harder to read. High fructose corn syrup is pretty pronounceable too. But if my snack contained, say huitlacoche or quinoa I would definitely avoid it, my spanish pronunciation being particularly weak. Vhipotle, anyone?

    [(myl) Yes, the "pronounceable" part of this theme seems to be kind of metaphorical.]

  9. Jonathan said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    V is next to C on my keyboard.

    [(myl) And I look forward to learning more about "vhipotle" in Thomas Pynchon's forthcoming novel about the role of hallucinogenic peppers in the American Revolution.]

  10. Mark F. said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 11:41 am

    It's easy enough to write an unambiguous version. It's doing it well that's the trick. "If you can't say it, don't eat it" is punchy and memorable, but leaves out the notion of keeping the ingredients list short. But downgrading the "easy to pronounce" part to a parenthetical aside in a bigger sentence weakens that point and also forces you to use a phrase like "all of which" which isn't so good in a sign in a kid's exhibit.

    Not that the above sentence was so good either. But at least it reinforces my point that writing well is hard.

  11. Theodore said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 11:52 am

    How about "people with almost no flaws that you have heard about"?

    I agree that you can't get the interpretation "almost no flaws, all of which you've heard about" out of that phrase. But this leads me to think the scope restrictions associated with 'no' may be stricter than those associated with 'few', on the evidence of my own judgement, and presumably that of the museum writer, that "few ingredients that you can pronounce" is OK in the intended sense (especially given the appropriate prosody). Isn't that good descriptive reasoning?

    I think we're in almost complete agreement except that I would change the subjunctive in your clause "Even if the desired reading of the museum's sign were technically grammatical" to an indicative.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

    @Neil Tarrant:

    Changing "few" to "a few" occurred to me too (though along with other changes), but I don't think it helps. As the only change, while it does change the meaning, still doesn't get at the correct meaning. It just means that, among the many ingredients, there should be a few that one can pronounce. Which isn't what they mean to say.

    Josh's "only a few" is better, but on it's own doesn't fix it.

    Adding a comma after ingredients helps, but it feels to me like doing that transforms it from saying the wrong thing grammatically to saying the right thing ungrammatically. Needs "the name of" tacked on at the end.

    As for unpronounceable ingredients, I better avoid Cheez Wiz, it has Worcestershire sauce, and I can never manage to say Worcestershire right.

  13. Howard Oakley said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

    Perhaps we should offer the author(s) of that notice their own take-home message,
    Remember: messages with little grammatical complexity.

    Howard.

  14. Theodore said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    By the way, the complementizer that is also playing a part here: I would bet that few ingredients you can pronounce isn't grammatical for anyone in the intended sense.

  15. Belial said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

    How about "Snacks with only a few, easily pronounceable, ingredients" ?

  16. Michael W said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

    How about switching it to "snacks with a short ingredient list that you can pronounce"? It still seems a little awkward – now we're pronouncing a list instead of several ingredients, but the scope is clear.

    I always have a harder time pronouncing "Worcestershire" than "sodium phosphate", but I'm not likely to eat any Cheez Whiz either way.

  17. Tim Morris said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

    Fortunately, Fritos contain just "Corn, Corn Oil, and Salt." Mmmnnn.

  18. Antariksh Bothale said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

    When I read it for the first time, I was almost sure that it meant that one should look for ingredient lists that have difficult to pronounce ingredients and very few pronounceable ones. I guess I found it reasonable because I would expect kids to know most of the common stuff found in fast-foods, most of which is likely to be unhealthy. In this case, then, lack of familiarity might be a positive sign.

    "Never heard of broccoli? Awesome."

  19. Mr Punch said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

    "a few ingredients, ones that you can pronounce"

  20. Greg Bowen said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    Maybe it's just calls for some punctuation?

    "Remember: snacks with few ingredients (that you can pronounce!) are usually the best choices."

  21. Alacritas said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

    To be honest, it's very hard for me to get the intended meaning, even after having read the post. I keep reading it to mean exactly the opposite of what it wants to say, i.e. "Snacks that have mostly difficult-to-pronounce ingredients are the best", which is obviously not what they mean.

  22. erik i said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

    "The quicker you can read the whole list of ingredients, the better the snack"

  23. Mona Williams said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

    Michael W: "Snacks with a short list of ingredients you can pronounce"? I like that!

  24. Mark Young said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 4:49 pm

    Remember: messages with little grammatical complexity.

    "If you can't diagram it, don't say it"?

  25. Eeden said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

    There seems to me to be something about the word "few" that can cause difficulties.

    This article from The Irish Times a "few" weeks ago caused me some problems:

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/world/2011/0518/1224297220703.html

    The headline to the article is "Few unlikely to vote against ANC despite dissatisfaction"

    OK. I realise that the word "few" is not the only confusing thing in this headline, and I had to read the story to figure out that the headline didn't mean what I thought it did.

  26. Kevin said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

    This is what the museum wrote:
    "Remember: snacks with few ingredients that you can pronounce are usually the best choices."

    It seems to me that one of the better ways to rewrite this is as:
    "Remember: snacks with few ingredients that you can't pronounce are usually the best choices."

    The ambiguity is still there, but both options are tolerably healthy (lots of pronouncable ingredients or few ingredients prounoucable or not). Plus, it's always fun when negating a sentence amplifies the original intended meaning.

  27. Nick Lamb said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

    "… Evading the advice is purely a marketing problem"

    That's true for most of this sort of well-meant but not very well thought out advice, and probably explains why doctors seem to like "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" so much.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

    Just in terms of what sort of new evidence could/should lead to a revised opinion, I'm not sure how much weight to put on possible psycholinguistic evidence of lack of confusion. It seems a common theme in prior posts on e.g. "no head injury too trivial to ignore" puzzlers that our poor monkey brains are actually surprisingly good at figuring out from context what is intended and when necessary simply skipping past what is actually said when it has been botched in a way that it doesn't or can't strictly speaking (when parsed according to what ought to be the governing syntactic etc. rules in the relevant variety of the relevant language) express what was obviously intended.

    [(myl) You're right that uniformity of perception is not a guarantee of accuracy of perception, as visual and auditory illusions amusingly demonstrate.

    But what I meant is that experimental evidence of lack of reader confusion would call into question my assertion that the the phrase as written is indeed confusing to readers as a way to convey the meaning the sign's author intended.]

  29. Debbie R. said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

    How about, 'Choose snacks with short, pronounceable ingrediant lists'?

    [(myl) Except for the misspelling of ingredient, it works for me.]

  30. Faldone said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

    I had no problem reading the line as it was intended, but I'm familiar with the notion expounded by Michael Pollan, so I knew what it was supposed to mean. I can certainly see how other readings could be understood without that additional context.

  31. Patrick said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

    Well, the intended message seems to be patent nonsense in any case: If I make a snack consisting solely of fat and sugar, then the ingredients are few indeed, and very easy to pronounce as well – but I have my doubts regarding the healthiness of such a snack.

  32. Craig said,

    June 8, 2012 @ 12:36 am

    If we're all chipping in an improvement, I'd offer "foods without long lists of hard-to-pronounce ingredients" (assuming that this principle is vague enough to begin with that it's irrelevant whether the two criteria are both necessary or one or the other by itself is sufficient).

    But what bothers me about the rule in the first place is the subtle anti-intellectual undertone — the way it just assumes the non-pronouncability of science words (I would assume that most educated adults could pronounce maltodextrin or sodium phosphate whether they knew what they are or not), and suggests that the best way to handle a long list of unfamiliar words is to avoid it.

    Is there any attempt to explain to kids what these weird ingredients are, why their names are unfamiliar, what causes ingredients like this to make foods unhealthy? No, the lesson is just, "if you see big words, close the book and walk away." This advice belongs in the same category as dumb standardized testing strategies (don't waste time solving the problem, just use these tricks to eliminate the wrong answers!) which I think are a disturbing trend in our educational system.

  33. Adrian said,

    June 8, 2012 @ 4:10 am

    Does the Cheese Whiz list really say "worchestershire sauce"?

  34. Adrian said,

    June 8, 2012 @ 4:24 am

    "with few, pronounceable ingredients" would give the intended meaning, whereas "with few pronounceable ingredients" gives the same meaning as the original. Greg is right: punctuation is the key.

  35. zafrom said,

    June 8, 2012 @ 5:31 am

    @ Adrian, 4:10 am: Does the Cheese Whiz list really say "worchestershire sauce"?

    The Cheez Whiz ("original cheese dip", whatever "original" modifies) ingredients list does not have that first "h". http://www.kraftrecipes.com/products/productinfodisplay.aspx?siteid=1&product=2100062679

    Several, pronounceable, ingredients.

  36. Richard Wein said,

    June 8, 2012 @ 8:51 am

    It's unfortunate that the terms "descriptivist" and "prescriptivist" have come to be used as opposites (complements), since this suggests that describing and prescribing are incompatible.

    Perhaps the term "descriptivist" should be dropped and replaced by "empiricist". Descriptivists/empiricists think that pronouncements about language should be based on evidence, and not just on making stuff up (or citing an "authority" who has made stuff up).

    [(myl) There would remain both practical and conceptual problems with the terminology. The practical problems would include the fact that "empiricism" is commonly used to describe an approach to epistemology, contrasted with "rationalism" and "nativism". The conceptual problems would include the fact that "rational people" (as I prefer to call the Good Guys) like to analyze patterns of usage and extrapolate from them, rather than simply describing or cataloguing them.]

  37. Azimuth said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 11:39 am

    The following is short, has no need of punctuation, and uses placement to emphasize the right words:

    "snacks with ingredients that are few and pronounceable"

    Perhaps it sounds a bit old-fashioned because perfection in English expression was attained some generations ago?

  38. [links] Link salad looks forward to JayCon | jlake.com said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

    […] Snacks with few ingredients that you can pronounce — "Monosyllabic nature-fetishism?" Really? […]

  39. pj said,

    June 27, 2012 @ 2:33 am

    A similar construction in an article from The Guardian (UK) in March that just brought me up short and made me remember this post:

    …the memories of a very pretty but nervous young woman who came to the throne, unexpectedly, at a time when there was still rationing, almost every British city was studded with bomb sites, beer cost a shilling a pint, few people had television and needed to draw the curtains to watch it; when every film ended with the national anthem and she was even made to watch the cup final.

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