Sunday, February 27, 2005

"Up To" Claims

Perhaps the single most important thing to know about advertising claims is that while they may take the form of a declarative sentence and seem to be being used to make an assertion they also make what speech act theorists* would call an offer -- an offer of a product or service intended to satisfy some consumer need. As such, they make an implicit promise to satisfy the consumer need that gives rise to the offer.

To see how offers work, suppose we have the following conversation:
You: Mike, I need a ride down town.
Me: I'm going that way.
(You get in my car and I begin to drive. Halfway to the downtown area, I pull over to the curb.)
Me: This is where I stop.
I think you will feel betrayed. You expressed a clear need and my saying "I'm going that way." will be taken by you as an offer to satisfy that need, a need I clearly didn't satisfy. But -- and this is very important -- what I said was not false. I was going in the direction of the downtown area. So, my statement, "I'm going that way," construed as an assertion was true but my implicit promise to satisfy your need to get to the downtown area was clearly a false one.

In this light examine the following web advertisement, taking care to look at the speed claims

This ad makes two different surfing speed claims. Let's recast them as (1) and (2).

(1) With NetZero you will be able to surf the web up to five
times faster.
(2) With NetZero you will be able to surf the web five times faster.

In the ordinary use of English, we use "up to" claims to set limits though the limits are not hard and fast. Suppose you need to go to a pharmacy and ask me to drive you there. Suppose, further, that I replythat I am pretty busy but will take you there and wait for you for "up to 20 minutes" (i. e., as many as 20 minutes but not necessarily more). Finally,suppose that I get an emergency mobile phone call and have to leave justa few minutes after I dropped you off. You will, I think, feel that I have betrayed you in that I had promised, at least implicitly, to wait for allof 20 minutes and I didn't. Suppose, on the other hand, you take 30 minutesto finish your shopping and come out of the pharmacy and find me still there.

That does not make my implict promise to wait "up to" 20 minutes false. In conclusion, "up to" claims tend to be used to set limits, though they are not hard and fast.

Returning to sentences (1) and (2), we can say that as an assertion (1) would be true if NetZero only allowed you to surf 2 or 3 or 4 times faster than normal, for recall, "up to" claims are used to set soft limits. On the other hand, were NetZero only able to allow you to surf 2 or 3 or 4 times faster than normal, (2) would clearly be false.

It is not all that unusual for an advertisment to make both types of claims, as I pointed out in my (out of print) book The Language of Television Advertising. I would find it odd were an advertiser who can truthfully assert a strong form like (2) choose to use the weaker "up to" claim. It is also odd that they would use both.

Recall that advertisements are a species of offer -- in the NetZero case, the offer of a service. As such, it undertakes a commitment tosatisfy the need the consumer has for the service they offer. In fact,consumers typically don't have a specific surfing speed they need. Their need is to get the fastest web surfing they can afford. Recognition of this and the fact that there are non-telephone type modes of connection that are blazingly fast may be why NetZero makes the strong claim (2) in addition to (1).

If NetZero can't deliver a five-fold increase in surfing speed, then claim (2) is false both as an assertion and as an implied promise. I do not, in fact, have any personal knowledge of how good the product is and therefore can't say whether it is true or false. Suppose, though, that they had not included the strong claim. Since the advertisement constitutes an offer, albiet a commercial offer, it is subject to the condition that the service satisfy the consumer's need for a fast internet connection and should the connection fall short of a five fold increase I believe the consumer would have a legitimate gripe for NetZero is implicitly promising them that they will get such an increase. The reason is that in setting the limit at a 5 fold increase, that is what will determine the expectation of the consumer that that is what they will get.

*See Wikipedia on Speech Acts. If you Google "speech acts," you will get a large number of results as befits the fact that it has been a very popular topic in lingusitics and philosophy since the publication of John Austin's How to Do Things With Words. I offered my own quite different approach in Speech Acts and Conversational Intereaction.

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Linguistic Pet Peeves

I think most people have pet peeves when it comes to the use of language. Typically, we linguists tend not to be very judgemental about how people use language, preferring instead to describe and try to understand it. There is at least one class of exceptions for me, and that is when a word with one meaning undergoes a shift of meaning to become identical in meaning with that of a second word. Normally this is a quite unnecessary shift for, per hypothesis, we already have a word with this second meaning.

Journalists are responsible for one such instance in my opinion. This involves using the word "refute" when "rebut" is the more accurate word. To rebut a point of view, is to give arguments against that point of view; to refute a point of view, is to provide a "knock down" argument against it. In the example from the title link, we have sentence (1).
(1) Syrian Information Minister on Sunday refuted Israel's accusation that it was behind the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

I'm sure that in the mind of the Syrian Information Minister, he had refuted the Israeli accusation. However, I suspect that Israeli's wouldn't agree. And a journalist shouldn't be taking sides in such a case.

Another case of this is
(2) Less than three weeks after Napster Inc. began touting its all-you-can-rent music subscription service, the company finds itself refuting Internet claims that its copy-protection measures are flawed.

Again, we have an instance where "rebut" would be more accurate.

The importance of these examples is that with this change, the language loses an important lexical distinction.

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Friday, February 25, 2005

I Don't Mean to Be Rude, But

Simon Cowell of American Idol fame has published a new book titled I Don't Mean to Be Rude, But. The surprising thing is not that he has written such a book -- Who else knows more about being rude than Mr. Cowell? -- but that Oprah, who is the quintessential nice person, has given her imprimatur to Cowell's book.

Examples like

1. I don't mean to sound rude, but we sure get a lot of really inane posts here
2. I don't mean to interrupt but did you hear that Sam married Sally?
3. I'm not trying to tell you what to do, but you should consider acting a little nicer to your boss.

are very strange for in saying or writing them, we commit the very offenses against our norms of politeness -- Don't be rude; Don't interrupt; Don't tell people how they should act -- that we say we don't intend to commit. Compare an example like (1) with (4) to get a sense of why they are odd.

4. I don't mean to say that Mr. Cowell is rude but Mr. Cowell is rude.

Sentence (4) makes no sense whatever. Though it looks a bit like a contradiction it isn't one. However, like a contradiction, it doesn't communicate anything -- at least not anything specific. On the other hand, (1)-(3) are perfectly comprehensible.

To understand what is going on here we have to recognize that when we speak (or write) we are doing things (see Wikipedia on Speech Acts) besides simply talking. In the case of (1)-(3), we actually are doing two quite distinct things. With the second part of these sentences we are saying something that would normally be taken to be offensive. With the first part, we are trying to mitigate this offense by saying that we do not intend to be committing the very offense we are in fact committing. What is interesting is that we normally do not take offense when something like (1)-(3) is said to us. We seem to have a social convention that legitimizes them.

This will not always work. Suppose I am a stranger to you and that I say (5) to you.

(5) I don't mean to be rude but you are exceedingly fat.

I feel pretty confident that you would not give me a free pass in this case. It is more likely that you would coldcock me.

Examples like these are just one small case of the politeness phenomena that abound in the use of English or any other language. We will have occasion to touch on many others in later blogs.

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Neologisms -- i. e., new words

A friend on a message board I frequent wrote the following today:

Mike -- you may have heard how "downsizing" became "rightsizing." Well, now "outsourcing" is being supplanted by "right-sourcing" (don't send jobs to India, send them to Idaho! LOL) Sometime, I'd like to hear your thoughts about neologisms -when are they a great idea and when they are stupid.

Neologisms are simply new words. They are created every day, I would imagine, in this fast moving world. Scientists, for instance, routinely create new technical terms as they discover new phenomena for which there are no appropriate existing words. The word quark comes immediately to mind.

The phenomenon referred to as "outsourcing" was initially used in my experience for cases in which a manufacturer, instead of building a part "in house," would acquire it from another manufacturer, possibly in a different city or state. These days not only manufactured parts but whole products or even services like programing are outsourced, sometimes to businesses outside the United States. It was used frequently in the last Presidential campaign.

Some people who fashion themselves as protectors of the English Language dislike such creations. Yesterday, while surfing, I found the following amusing entry in a blog:
"Utilization" and "utilize" are a blot on the English language. They are polysyllabic abominations spawned by the regulatory/consulting complex, suffering, as well it should, from an inferiority complex that renders it too insecure to use the perfectly good word "use."
Persons taking this sort of position are doomed to a life of linguistic disappointment.

Back to neologisms: Successful communication requires both ease of expression (a speaker desideratum) and ease of understanding (a hearer desideratum). In the case of the creation and acceptance of a neologism like "outsourcing" speakers of English satisfied the criterion of ease of expression, for there is no simple existing way of communicating the notion "acquiring goods or services from an outside source" and we certainly don't want to use a long phrase like this every time we want to refer to the phenomenon of outsourcing. On hearing it for the first time, in a sentence like "We are outsourcing our widgets to Ohio Widgets," I suspect that most people would instantly understand what is being communicated. And in that case, the neologism also satisfies the criterion of ease of understanding.

I had not heard of the notion "rightsourcing." I presume it means "acquiring the right amount of something from another source" or possibly "acquiring something from the right source." Either is a credible initial interpretation for a speaker hearing it for the first time. But that means the neologism doesn't satisfy the criterion of ease of understanding for this criterion involves"correct understanding" of course. I suspect that this neologism might survive within the business community but not come to be used widely in the press or by ordinary people. I can't imagine hearing something like "We must ecourage our business community to rightsource goods and services not outsource them" in the next Presidential campaign.

In addition to the criteria of ease of expression and ease of understanding, there are other factors that are involved in the successful introduction of a new word into a language. Some years ago, the term of address "Ms" was created to be the female equivalent to "Mr." It was largely done for political reasons as a part of the feminist movement. "Mrs" and "Miss" give away the marital status of a woman whereas "Mr" doesn't do the same in the case of men. When "Ms" was first introduced, I thought business world would jump for joy, for with this term available, they would no longer have to guess as the marital status of a woman when addressing a letter or package to them. This incredibly useful neologism was shot down by married women who were proud of their status and didn't want to see their status diminished by the use of "Ms."

New words can also fail for other reasons. We are unlikely to want to use ugly looking or bad sounding words. As I observed in What is Linguistics?, People routinely refer to others who speak a number of languages as linguists though the "proper" word for this is "polyglot." The first word that comes to mind when I hear that word is "pollywog," another term for a tadpole. It is no wonder that polyglot is used only by linguists and others who want to distinguish people who study the nature of lanugage from those who speak a number of languages. In this case, however, we are not dealing with a neolgoism but with a word that is on life support.

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

More for Less

What could be better than getting more of something for less money? Actually, there is something better and that is getting more of something for nothing -- but we know that isn't going to happen. I ran across a "more for less claim" today that reminded me of some old General Motors ads exclaiming that we could Get more car for less money. This was in a Hertz ad that went on to say, Get a one car class upgrade when you book online.

In my book, The Language of Television Advertising, I deconstructed the meanings of several "more for less" claims, investigated them, and found that they are typically ambiguous, having two possible literal interpretations and, what is more, they are typically false on both interpretations.

The first such ad I encountered was a "more car for less money" television promotion on behalf of the 1978 Chevy Chevette. The basic claim seems to have been that the 1978 Chevette was more car (had more features) than the 1977 Chevette and cost less money than did the 1977 car. What a deal! The kicker though was that a disclaimer appeared on screen, which was printed in three lines, each of which used 3.7% of the vertical height of the television screen and it appeared on screen for just 5 seconds, presupposing a reading speed of 228 words per minute. I showed it to five Ph. D.'s and they like I couldn't read it in the time allowed (partly, perhaps, because the voice-over announcer continued his pitch for the car). What this disclaimer said was that the comparison was between the standard 1978 Chevette and a comparably equipped 1977 Chevette.

There is a real problem with this disclaimer. As specified by the disclaimer, the price comparison was between two identical cars, so, at best, General Motors was offering the same car for less money if we concede, as I am happy to do, that the 1978 Chevette cost less than a 1977 Chevette equipped with exactly the same features. What about comparing the standard 1978 car with the standard 1977 car? That does make the "more car" part of the claim true. But was the standard 1978 Chevette less expensive than the 1977 Chevette? No, as it turns out, it was not less expensive. So we have a claim that admits of two interpretations and on both it is false: Get the same car for less money and Get more car for more money. The 1978 Chevette became the best selling car in America that year and one wonders what sort of role this deceptive commercial played in the success of the car. General Motors ran exactly the same promotion for two different cars the next year as one can see in my book.

I leave it to you to check out the Hertz promotion but I'm betting that it comes down to getting an "upgraded" car for the same amount of money as you would have had to pay for the lesser car, not a smaller amount of money.

I have been asked many times if those who create these "more for less" claims do so in an effort to deceive us. I don't think that this is necessarily true. It took me a weekend to sort out these two interpretations of the Chevette ad and to investigate what features the 1978 car had that the 1977 car didn't have and what the price of the "comparable 1977" car would have been, which wasn't easy. They are a bit tricky.

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What is Linguistics?

When people ask me what I do or did before I retired, and I say I am a linguist, I usually either receive a blank look or they ask how many languages I speak. When I reply that linguistics is the study of the nature of language, the blank look turns to puzzlement. Study language? Why?

Linguists do a lot of different things. At the heart of the field is the effort to describe languages - to specify what sounds they employ (phonetics), how these sounds combine to form meaningful units such as words (phonology and morphology), how words combine to form sentences (syntax), and how the meanings of sentences are formed from the meanings of the words that comprise them and, critically, of how these words are combined (semantics). Then there is the problem posed by the fact that we frequently use sentences to mean things that the sentences themselves don't mean. If I say Could you pass the salt? to you while we are eating together, I would normally mean for you to pass the salt to me even though that is plainly not what the sentence means. Understanding this phenomenon - how we use language in context - was and is my primary area of interest (pragmatics), and it includes, in my case, how we use language in advertising, politics, the law, as well as ordinary conversation.

Linguists do a great deal more than this. Those at the juncture of linguistics and psychology study how children learn language and how we process it. Historical linguists study how languages change and how they are related to each other. Dialectologists describe differences in the various dialects that make up a language. Sociolinguists study the social determinants of dialect differences. And there is more.

As for why someone would want to study linguistics, the answer is pretty clear: anything we can learn about humans -- especially about our higher cognitive functions -- is of intrinsic interest. And there are practical applications as well -- in the development of "natural" computer-human interactions, in understanding how advertisers bamboozle perfectly intelligent consumers through how they use language, in understanding the role of language in various areas of the law, and in understanding how we use language with each other in our daily lives.

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