Author Archives: SpeechDudes

Politics and Platitudes: The “No Shit, Sherlock” Test

A recent TV ad from a Republican group called opportunitylives.com in North East Ohio has been getting my proverbial goat. Not, I should add, simply because it’s from Republicans but because it appears to say absolutely nothing that helps me differentiate their position from that of anyone else. Nothing. The entire ad is simply a sequence of soporific sentences playing over insipid images of smiling people, families, heath care professionals, workers, and so on. All that’s missing are puppies and kittens.

Captain Obvious

So take a look at the transcript I took from the ad and imagine for each phrase what the opposite claim might be:

Republicans believe in a society open to all; where government stays out of our way; where families can get ahead; where opportunity lives; where good schools are available to anyone; where good jobs are there for the hard-working; where every one of us has the opportunity to succeed; and where all can look forward to a better and more secure future. There are people who still believe opportunity still lives in America, and we call ourselves, Republicans.

Let me help make the point a little more obvious by providing you with the possible antithetical marketing copy:

Republicans believe in a society closed to all; where government stands in our way; where families can fail; where opportunity is stifled; where good schools are available to only a few; where good jobs are not there for anyone; where no-one has the opportunity to succeed; and where all can look forward to a worse and more dangerous future. There are people who still believe opportunity is dead in America, and we call ourselves, Republicans.

If you prefer this version of the ad, then you’d have to be close to bat-shit crazy and the sort of person who wears one of those special shirts that ties your arms at the back. And the reason the antithetical prose sounds so bad is that the original is nothing more than a set of vapid platitudes. When the negative version of a claim sounds stupid or is plainly false, then you can pretty much bet that the claim is a platitude.

A platitude can be defined as “a flat, dull, or trite remark, especially one uttered as if it were fresh or profound” (Dictionary.com), “a banal, trite, or stale remark” (Merriam-Webster), or “A remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful” (New Oxford American Dictionary). More often than not, a platitude simply states the obvious and so would be better off not having been uttered [1]. In the world of Marketing, a good sales pitch avoids platitudes like the plague. 

Of course, bad Marketing and Politics are crammed so full of platitudes that you have to wonder if there’s a computer spewing out the copy, because surely there’s no sane human doing it? And if you want to spot a platitude, here are two simple tests you can apply:

A: The “What Would the Other Dude Say?” Test

Imagine that the statements being made were uttered or written by your competitor, nemesis, or arch-enemy. Would they make the same claims? Well, in the example above, if you change the word “Republican” for “Democrat,” “Libertarian,” “Communist,” or “Monster Raving Loony Party Supporter,” you bet your patootie they’d agree. And if that’s the case, then there’s no differentiation and therefore it says nothing of substance. Now if the phrase, “where everyone can carry a semi-automatic and a hand grenade into a Chuck E. Cheese” is include in the list of beliefs, then that’s not going to be OK with everyone, so it’s not a platitude.

B: The “No Shit, Sherlock” Test

If you read a claim that makes you want to reply, “Well no shit, Sherlock” then it’s a platitude. So if a law firm says, “We offer a professional service,” well no shit, Sherlock! Or if a printing firm offers “high quality prints,” then no shit, Sherlock! When someone claims to offer something that is inherent or implied in the service, then there’s a no-shit-Sherlock moment ahead.

No shit, Sherlock

At this point, you might be wondering what the difference is between a platitude and a cliché. To some extent, a cliché might be thought of as a platitude that refuses to die. A platitude states the obvious and a cliché states the commonplace.

New platitudes can be created every day but clichés have to stand the test of time. When a company is creating a Mission Statement [2] sometimes it ends up as an exercise in saying nothing but in a new way. Here’s one you might have heard some years ago: Respect, integrity, communication, and excellence. This was from the company called Enron, which was one of the most notorious business scandals in American history and is considered by many historians and economists alike to be the unofficial blueprint for a case study on White Collar Crime. It’s also an example of a crime against vocabulary for creating such a miserably loose mission statement

Avoiding platitudes is always a good thing. But as we in the US move closer to the next Presidential election – and hey, it’s only a year away! – I can guarantee that the platitudes will be coming thicker and faster as we hurtle headlong to November 8, 2016. Set your No Shit Sherlock phaser to stun.

Notes
[1] With a platitude, not only is there a stating of the obvious but it’s also done in such as way as to have the appearance of being profound or wise. Facebook is full of such pre-digested pabulum that, sadly, spreads like linguistic herpes, passed on by well-meaning but ultimately uncritical people who think that quoting something that sounds smart also makes them sound smart. It doesn’t. Platitudes also seem to aspire to taking on a moral dimension, presumably to reinforce the semblance of profundity.

[2] A Mission Statement is supposed to be a clear and succinct representation of a business’s purpose, which should incorporate socially meaningful and measurable criteria that address concepts such as the moral/ethical position of the company, its public image, the market it serves, the product and services it offers, and expectations of growth and profitability – if you want to stay in business. Alas, a Mission Statement can become so generic that is wanders into the Platitude Latitudes and says essentially nothing, or becomes a boiler-plate for ANY company in the world. A mission statement such as “To combine aggressive strategic marketing with quality products and services at competitive prices to provide the best value insurance for consumers” is about as broad as you can get – and by the way. it’s from Aflac.

My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels and My AAC Device Full of N-grams

Hovercraft

A hovercraft with or without eels

Back in my college days – that’s 1977 to 1982 for those who like historical perspective – a friend of mine was taking East European studies with a view, I think, to improving his chances of joining the Socialist Workers Party. Although it wasn’t actually obligatory to speak any of the languages from Communist Europe, he clearly felt it might help. And come the day of the Glorious Revolution, when the Working Class of England would cast off their Capitalist shackles and take control of the means of production to become part of the global Socialist world, he’d be one of the intellectual elite who would help the under-educated proletariat rise to power. Sadly for him, the down-trodden workers decided to vote for Margaret Thatcher and usher in a new age of Capitalism where owning the means of production meant buying shares in British Telecom, British Aerospace, British Gas, and a host of companies that they already owned as tax payers! This was Mrs. T’s version of Clause IV socialism [1].

And that is why I happened upon a Czechoslovakian phrasebook.

I have to admit that my brief flirtation with radical socialism was fueled at that time by the fact that the local Labour club served subsidized beer, and another of my friends who worked behind the campus bar would serve Russian vodka as doubles or triples while still charging for a single. Hardly a rock upon which to build a firmly held political perspective but unlike my socialist buddy, I wasn’t at college to change the world – I was there to get a degree in Psychology and Linguistics so I could become a professor with a job for life [2].

Like many foreign language phrasebooks, it contained many “useful sentences” that one could simply trot out in the appropriate situation. Although I no longer have the book itself – and can’t for the life in me remember the title – I did keep the following short list of examples:

Can this be invisibly mended?
I have broken this denture.
How high is that mountain?
The clutch engages too quickly.
To whom does this concrete sports pavilion belong?

The latter, if memory serves me correctly, had an example answer along the lines of “It belongs to the people of the glorious Czech Republic.”

There’s actually a name to describe these types of sentences; postilion sentences. This was coined by the UK linguist David Crystal in a 1995 article where he talked about sentences used in teaching English as a Second Language:

A postilion sentence is one which has little or no chance of ever being useful in real-life. It could be used, obviously, because it is grammatically well-formed; but the contexts in which it would be natural to use it are either so restricted or so adult that the chances of a child encountering it, or finding it necessary to use it, are remote. In short, it is uncommunicative. It conveys a structural meaning, and a lexical content, but that it is all.

Crystal refers to a sentence from a early 20th century Hungarian-English phrasebook that went “The postilion has been struck by lightning.” It’s not perhaps a coincidence that the British Monty Python’s Flying Circus comedy group came up with a skit called “The Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook video,” where Hungarian phrases were translated into obscene, or simply ridiculous, English phrases, one of which has taken on a life of its own; “My hovercraft is full of eels.” It has become such a popular example of a postilion sentence that the linguists at the Omniglot website have devoted a page to provide over translations in over 130 languages from Afrikkans (“My skeertuig is vol palings“) to Zulu (“Umkhumbi wami ugcwele ngenyoka zemanzini“). So should you ever find yourself needing to explain the fishy condition of your water-skimming vehicle while vacationing in Iceland (“Svifnökkvinn minn er fullur af álum“) remember to bookmark that page!

Postilion on the Queen's carriage

The royal postilion

In fairness to phrasebook creators, creating lists and lists of sentences can appear to be a reasonable goal. After all, should you find yourself in the middle of a crowded street in some foreign land with the need to scream “That organ grinder’s monkey has stolen my wallet,” having it written down at the tip of your fingers would clearly be of benefit [4]. Similarly if you’re out on a dark and stormy night in Transylvania and your postilion does indeed suffer a lighting-related injury, you’d also be covered (“A légpárnás hajóm tele van angolnákkal“).

The limitation – and it’s a pretty big one – is that it is impossible to predict all the sentences that a traveler could potentially need. The best you can do is create a selection of fairly generic sentences that can be used across situations, such as “I like that” or “That’s not what I wanted” or “Excuse me but I need some help.” Now, if you put your lexical and statistical hats on, ask yourself why “That’s not what I wanted” seems like a better choice than “My hovercraft is full of eels.” If you said it because the former seems to be a more probable sentence than the latter, then you’re definitely on the right track. When you consider strings of words, one way of analyzing them is in terms of frequency of use, and words like that, not, want, what, my, and is, are far more frequently used than hovercraft, eels, monkey, and postilion [5].

If  you wanted to perform a simple test at a bar, a much underrated and underused experimental venue, write down the following cloze sentence [6] and ask as many folks as possible to fill in the blanks:

My <blank> is full of <blank>

In truth, I have no idea what you’ll get in response, although glass and beer may well score higher than most nouns, but the  chances you’ll get hovercraft and eels is very low. What I can predict is that the missing words will be nouns because when you look at sub-strings of words, the inherent rules of how the English language behaves start to bias our choices. In computational and corpus linguistics, folks talk about such string as n-grams, where n is the number of words in the string.

The n-gram [my <blank> is] is a trigram, and words my and is limit the words that could fit into the blank. In fact, if we look at the bigram of [my <blank>], even that excludes certain choices. This is because when we use a possessive adjective such as my, the probability is that the word to follow will be a noun. If it’s the trigram of [my is], that probability actually goes up. For example, we can find examples of the bigram [my ] as follows:

[My dog]. (my + NOUN)
[My old] dog. (my + ADJECTIVE)
[My very] old dog. (my + ADVERB)

As you see, the bigram [my ] doesn’t have to be a noun if it’s part of a longer string. But if we contrast that with the trigram [my is] then we are much more limited:

[My dog is] hungry. (my + NOUN + is)
[My *old is] hungry.
[My *very is] hungry.

For those of us who work in the field of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) we’re actually more familiar with the science of n-grams than we might have realized because this is essentially how word prediction works. Outside of AAC, anyone who uses a mobile phone will have seen next-word prediction and not necessarily worked out that it’s based on algorithms that use n-grams to estimate the most likely next word.

Of course, probabilities are simply that; probabilities. Given a word or n-gram as a starting point, we can make good guesses as to what word or words may come next but you can never be 100% sure. A number of AAC vocabulary sets have a feature whereby if you bring up the n-gram [SUBJECT PRONOUN + TO BE] a selection of verbs appear that are all in the progressing form i.e. VERB+ING. This is based on the thinking that whenever you say something like “I am…” or “he is…” or “we are…” any following verb is likely to be along the lines of eating, drinking, running, finishing etc. But that’s a probability only –  I might want to say “I am finished” or “He is done” or even “I am really thinking about…” or “we are certainly not wanting…” where the verb is actually in the ED form or there are other words (typically adverbial) before the following verb. If I want to say “I am doing something” then having doing appear automatically after “I am” can save keystrokes; but if I want to say “I am done,” I have to delete the word doing then find done as a word on its own, which adds keystrokes and takes more time.

Designing AAC systems to take advantage of n-grams is not a bad idea. Back in the 1990s when I was working with the team that developed the Unity symbol-based language program for devices built by the Prentke Romich Company, we included a number of bigrams and trigrams based on the thinking that phrases such as “I like” and “do you want” or “she doesn’t feel” have frequencies that are comparable to individual words and actually much higher than the vast majority of nouns. At the time, we didn’t have the resources to check the figures but nowadays it’s pretty easier to do that with online corpora. A phrase such as “do you want” has a frequency score or 11126 in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which is way above words like postilion (9), hovercraft (109), eels (464), and even lightning (6724). Another example is “I don’t like,” which comes in at 5282 but when you look for “I don’t like ,” the frequencies drop dramatically:

I don’t like (5282)
I don’t like it (682)
I don’t like this (211)
I don’t like being (128)

What you see is that in general, as the length of the string increases, the frequency drops, to the point that “I don’t like eels” and “I don’t like hovercrafts” score a big fat zero. It’s only those bigrams and trigrams that seem to have frequencies that make them practical within an AAC vocabulary set.

You can now probably work out why sentence-based AAC systems are not only impossible to design but unlikely to be of use. Sentences are in effect simply n-grams with a large n value. “My hovercraft is full of eels” and “My postilion has been struck by lightning” are a 6-gram and a 7-gram respectively, and because probability is cumulative (the sum of the probability of each word) you can imagine how stunningly low the frequencies can be for sentences. Word-based systems, supplemented with high-frequency bigrams and trigrams provide access to vocabulary sets that are flexible and practical. Having the individual words eels, full, hovercraft, is, my, of as building blocks from which to construct novel sentences when turns out to be much better than having thousand upon thousands of prefab sentences stored “just in case.”

Notes
[1] The phrase “Clause Four Socialism” came from the fourth clause in the UK Labour Party constitution of 1918, which read; “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.” Although it sounds like it was written by a lawyer and has more embedded clauses than a convention of Santas, it formed the basis for the Socialist ticket of Britain in the 1970s, where the country came as close to being a satellite of the USSR as it had ever been.

[2] That turned out to be yet another dream unfulfilled with my life taking a very different path that kept me well out of the world of academia. But you’re not here to read about me so go back to the article and keep reading 😉

[3] Crystal, D. (1995). Postilion sentences. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 11(1), 79-90.

[4] Technophiles will point out that the better way to do this is to shout “That organ grinder’s monkey has stolen my wallet” into their smart phone with translation facilities. That may be true but even machine translation can get a little iffy at times, and there’s a good chance that if the aforementioned simian is smart enough to target your wallet, it’s probably going to snatch your iPhone too. No-one reads books any more – not even monkeys – so your pocket phrasebook would be safe.

[5] I suppose now is a good time to add a little bit about postilions for those who are curious. On horse-drawn carriages, the postilion is a person who sits on the leading left-hand horse and who can guide the carriage if there isn’t an actual coachman on the carriage itself. The word derives from the French postillon meaning “the person who rides the post horse,” and the post horse was the one reserved for a mail carrier who would use it to take letters from one location to another. The earlier Middle French noun poste referred to “Any of a series of men stationed at suitable places along appointed post-roads, the duty of each being to ride with, or forward speedily to the next stage, the monarch’s (and later also other) letters and dispatches, and to provide fresh horses for express messengers riding through.” (OED).

[6] A cloze sentence is one where words are purposely left out so that readers can add appropriate choices. It’s a standard tool for research and education, especially when teaching literacy. The word is simply a shortened version of the word closure, hence the pronunciation of /kləʊz/ and not /kləʊs/. It’s not a “close” sentence but one that needs “closure!” It was first noted in 1953 so is relatively new.

First Post: Another Dude.

Not an original title, but I don’t always have an original thought.  Hope you enjoy the rantings, ravings, and misadventures of Duke Iceland.  Now, if you think Duke is my real name… stop reading now…This is my alias, my avatar, my other life, concealing my true identify as one of the Speech Dudes.  I really am a SLP and have specialized in AAC for nearly 20 years, working in rehab, the public schools, at the university level, the industry, and private practice.  Either I am very lucky for all my experiences, or I have one of the worst cases of professional ADHD.  Personally, my feelings are this field is going through a major time of transition like it has never seen before.  A new technology penetrated our field in a way that nothing has done before. It is time to weed out the good, the bad, and the ugly of what the technology can bring.