July 05, 2007

Insert Flap "A" and Throw Away

Geoff Pullum's ruminations on the shortage of determiners in pre-recorded warning announcements ("Please put __ luggage cart brake to on") reminded me of S.J. Perelman's 1944 essay "Insert Flap 'A' and Throw Away".

It begins:

One stifling summer afternoon last August, in the attic of a tiny stone house in Pennsylvania, I made a most interesting discovery: the shortest, cheapest method of inducing a nervous breakdown ever perfected. In this technique (eventually adopted by the psychology department of Duke University, which will adopt anything), the subject is placed in a sharply sloping attic heated to 340d F. and given a mothproof closet known as the Jiffy-Cloz to assemble. The Jiffy-Cloz, procurable at any department store or neighborhood insane asylum, consists of half a dozen gigantic sheets of red cardboard, two plywood doors, a clothes rack, and a packet of staples. With these is included a set of instructions mimeographed in pale-violet ink, fruity with phrases like "Pass Section F through Slot AA, taking care not to fold tabs behind washers (see Fig. 9)." The cardboard is so processed that as the subject struggles convulsively to force the staple through, it suddenly buckles, plunging the staple deep into his thumb. He thereupon springs up with a dolorous cry and smites his knob (Section K) on teh rafters (RR). As a final demonic touch, the Jiffy-Cloz people cunningly omit four of the staples necessary to finish the job, so that after indescribable purgatory, the best the subject can possibly achieve is a sleazy, capricious structure which would reduce any self-respecting moth to helpless laughter. The cumulative frustration, the tropical heat, and the soft, ghostly chuckling of the moths are calculated to unseat the strongest mentality. [emphasis added]

As this classic quotation indicates, it's traditional for assembly instructions to be under-determined, in the sense of omitting determiners as well as in the sense of being vague at crucial points: "taking care not to fold __ tabs behind __ washers".

Though actually, I should say that it was traditional, since these days, assembly instructions are usually graphical rather than textual.

Perelman's essay continues:

In a period of rapid technological change, howeer, it was inevitable that a method as cumbersome as the Jiffy-Cloz would be superseded. It was superseded at exactly nine-thirty Christmas morning by a device called the Self-Running 10-Inch Scale-Model Delivery-Truck Kit Powered by Magic Motor, costing twenty-nine cents.

After some adventures with a knife and "the only sentence I could comprehend, 'Fold down on all lines marked "fold down"; fold up on all lines marked "fold up",'" we encounter another spate of determiner-omission:

"Let's see -- what's the next step? Ah yes. 'Lock into box shape by inserting tabs C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K, and L into slots C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K, and L. Ends of front axles should be pushed through holes A and B.'"

There's some grammatico-cultural generalization here, having something to do with the abstract or underdetermined nature of the conversational context, which makes the writers of instructions and warnings uneasy about choosing any of the available determiners.

In headlines, there's the motivation of saving space; but this doesn't apply to a recorded warning message on a monorail, or to printed assembly instructions for a piece of furniture or a toy.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 5, 2007 08:40 AM