May 28, 2006

Menu conventions vs. syntax

Maybe, just maybe, there's another way to look at the menu of the EVOO restaurant that Geoffrey Pullum described(see here) as full of noun phrases with many attributive modifiers:

Garlicky Pork Sausage Stuffed Crisp Fried Maryland Soft Shell Crab

On the (possibly weak) assumption that fair-minded restaurant patrons ought to try to read menus from the perspective of the menu writers, I ask the question, "Why did EVOO's menu have a string of words of such complexity?" Were the owners laying in wait for a grammar expert to come in and parse their menu? Or were they merely victims of the long-held conventions of menu presentation?

Let's begin with data. Restaurant menus follow a standard, expected series of meaning slots. I've examined dozens of restaurant menus around the country and I've found that they consistently present their offerings according to this formula:

Slot 1. self-congratulations about the item        our famous, world's best
Slot 2. method of cooking the item                   fried, roasted, baked, wood-fired
Slot 3. style of cooking the item                        Italian, Cajun, Southern
Slot 4. the food item                                          chicken, beef, salmon, pork
Slot 5. serving modification                              sandwich, roll-up

To make this look more scientific than it really is, note the following formula:

+/- slot 1      +/- slot 2      +/- slot 3      + slot 4      +/- slot 5

This says that all slots are optional except slot 4, the food item. Other slots can be used but they don't have to be, depending on the menu writer's discretion and creativity. Even though it's not obligatory for menu items to fill all 5 slots, their order is fixed. You probably won't see many menus offering: "Salmon roasted Cajun our best" or "sandwich French baked our famous."

The really top-flight (expensive) restaurants  don't just list the food item all by itself. That would not be classy and their customers would certainly not be impressed to see "crab" on the menu without the method in which it was cooked. Nor would they want to order a sandwich denuded of what actually was in it. Self-congratulation is  to be avoided in all high-class menus. If you have to say how good the item is, it probably means that it isn't all that great anyway.

Although it has considerable oddness in slot 2, method of cooking, the menu item that Geoff analyzed follows the standard menu slot sequence:

Slot 1. self-congratulations -- not used
Slot 2. method of cooking -- Garlicky Pork Sausage Stuffed Crisp Fried
Slot 3. style of cooking -- not used
Slot 4. the food item -- Maryland Soft Shell Crab
Slot 5. serving modification -- not used

By now you're wondering, "How can Garlicky Pork Sausage Stuffed Crisp Fried" possibly be a a method of cooking?" This is where the menu writers got into trouble. One could argue that the method of cooking is really "crisp-fried," but that by itself apparently didn't  sound classy enough to them. If the method of cooking had stopped with "crisp-fried," and if the writers had insisted on putting "garlicky pork sausage stuffed" somewhere on the menu, it might have made sense to shift it to some other slot. But it doesn't really fit slot 3, style of cooking. Nor would the restaurant want its customers to think that lowly and pedestrian "pork sausage" is part of the classy slot 4 food item, since the owners no doubt wanted to highlight Maryland Soft Shell Crab more than anything else.

So the menu inserts "garlicky pork sausage stuffed crisp fried" into the method of cooking slot, leading to the confusing syntax that Geoff described so well. What appears to be wrong with this slot is that it's missing a preposition, a conjunction, and some punctuation. It seems to mean this:

Crisp-fried (and stuffed with pork sausage)         Maryland Soft Shell Crab
                  Slot 2 (method of cooking)                                    Slot 4 (food item)

From the restaurant's perspective the problem with this is that it becomes an overly long introduction to the most important part of the menu, still to come -- Maryland Soft Shell Crab. The menu writers did their best to follow standard menu conventions but they fell considerably short of making syntactic sense. If they were courageous enough, it might have been prudent for them to fly in the face of menu slot conventions, reversing the slot order, and say simply:

Maryland Soft Shell Crab, crisp fried and stuffed with garlicky pork sausage
         Slot 4 (food item)                  Slot 2 (method of cooking)

Maybe we should pity the poor menu writers who have to choose between following the conventions of their field and writing with English  syntax.

[Update] Gabriel McCall writes that when menu items are offered verbally by servers, they generally follow the reverse pattern. Interesting.

Posted by Roger Shuy at May 28, 2006 08:08 PM