March 09, 2008

Per bus per journey

There was something linguistically strange about the sign I saw on the number 60 bus between Ayr and Girvan yesterday. It concerned the baby buggy parking area of the bus, and it said there was a limit: "a maximum of two baby buggies allowed per bus per journey". It's not that you can't iterate preposition-phrase modifiers with per; you can, for example when talking about acceleration (an object dropped from a height accelerates at a rate of 32 feet per second per second). I'll tell you what I decided was weird about it. Curiously, it relates to the sea lion story I once told on Language Log, which was really about officialdom, technical vocabulary, and failure to adjust perspective.

Here's what I think is wrong with the wording of the notice. The modifier "per bus per journey" could be a relevant way to talk, but only if bus/journey pairs were under consideration. That might happen in a context where, for example, someone was trying to compute the maximum number of baby buggies that could be transported from place to place in a day given a certain number of passenger boardings or stop-to-stop transits. It's transport economics talk.

No one who needs to know whether they can bring a baby buggy on board is interested in bus/journey pairs, because other journeys than their own are irrelevant to them. For them, "a maximum of two baby buggies allowed per bus" would do fine, because they experience the bus as a small transient universe, not as a resource with a certain daily carrying capacity.

Certainly, a given bus will be able to carry vastly more than 2 baby buggies on it during a day: the theoretical maximum would be 2n baby buggies for n stop-to-stop transits (basically, it would be reached if at every stop two passengers get on with baby buggies and two others get off). But no passenger cares about that. The notice is trying to tell passengers something about the limits of what they can do on their one segment of the bus's daily activities: if there is one other baby buggy on board, or none, they can bring theirs on, but if there are two on board, they can't. Nothing about other journeys or trip segments can be relevant. As Noam Bernstein points out to me, it is hard even to get it to make any sense: he notes that you have to redefine journey to try and get "per bus per journey" to mean that there mustn't be more than two buggies on the bus at any one time. The only way Noam could see is to define it so that a journey "is from one stop to the next, and then passengers who are going more than one stop are taking multiple journeys, which isn't what anyone means by 'journey'." He's exactly right, I think. The modifier "per bus per journey" is semantically not quite right, and syntactically one layer too complex for the situation at hand, when properly viewed — from the passenger's perspective.

A lot of the linguistic trouble that arises when organizations attempt to communicate with the public stems from point of view: an inability on the part of members of the organization to empathize, to view situations from the perspective of someone who is in the situation that a member of the public will typically be in. (Think of those unintelligble sheets of instructions that incorrectly assume you will know how to align the trunnion with the sprocket flange when they haven't told you what these are.) It's not about the grammar; it's about theory of mind. It's about being able to see the world through other people's eyes.

There are plenty of other examples out there, I think. Beverley Rowe points out that in Camden, north London, there are recycling bins labeled "Mixed card and paper". But that's not what we're supposed to put into them, is it? It doesn't mean we have to mix card and paper. The council is thinking about what it will be taking out of those bins. They labeled them from their perspective instead of from the user's. No ability to see through others' eyes, or walk a mile in other people's shoes.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 9, 2008 05:19 PM