Thursday, 3 January 2013

conservators’ stress

How would you read this notice out loud? What intonation pattern(s) would you use? Where would you put intonation breaks? Which words would you accent? (The choice of actual tone is, as usual, less important and less constrained.)

Two breaks go, fairly obviously, at the points where the commas are written. There are optional intonation breaks at the ends of the first and second lines of writing. The nuclear accents in the resulting intonation phrases go on Conservators, responsibility, of, and from.

  • The Conˈservators | accept ˈno responsiˈbility | for ˈloss ˈof, | or ˈfrom, | …

But I think we need a further break after to, with a nuclear accent on that word.

  • The Conˈservators | accept ˈno responsiˈbility | for ˈloss ˈof, | or ˈfrom, | or ˈdamage ˈto | ˈvehicles ˈparked in this ˈcar park.

I find it difficult to explain, in terms intelligible to EFL students, just why this must be so. Perhaps my command of syntactic analysis, or logic, or pragmatics, is insufficient. OK, the items of and from are in contrast (“loss of vehicles”, “loss from vehicles”), so they receive contrastive focus. Then these categories of loss are in contrast with a further category. damage, so we need an accent there, too. But why do we need to put contrastive focus on to? Despite appearances, to is not in logical contrast with of, from, or with anything else.

But I think it would sound bizarre to read the notice aloud without a contrastive accent on to.

There must be a generalization here to be made about the accenting of prepositions in elliptical coordinated structures. Yet I am not sure what it is.

Sometimes we have a choice of accentuation patterns.

  • Any interˈference with, | or ˈdamage to, | this instalˈlation | will be subject to a fine not exceeding £500.
  • Any interˈference ˈwith, | or ˈdamage ˈto, | this instalˈlation | will be subject to a fine not exceeding £500.

_ _ _

As for the word stress in conservator, there are two possibilities in contemporary BrE, ˈkɒnsəveɪtə and kənˈsɜːvətə. The OED says (entry updated 2010)

In some 18th and 19th cent. sources (see e.g. Johnson 1755, Sheridan 1780, Smart 1849) the word is recorded with stress on the third syllable. From 1947 onwards editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. distinguish between use of the word in the sense ‘official guardian’ … with stress on the second syllable and use in the sense ‘preserver’ … with stress on the first syllable.

The officials looking after Wimbledon Common are known locally as the kənˈsɜːvətəz. However I’m not sure that many people would observe Jones’s distinction consistently, so in LPD I just give both alternatives.


  1. What about the onset in "accept ˈno responsiˈbility "? Would it be OK if it was triggered on the first word? I assume that, in any case, the word "no" should be accented or at least stressed (and that by deaccenting "accept" even more emphasis is put on the negation?)

  2. Yes, it would be OK. I would make it more ponderous, though.

    1. I see, thanks! This sort of "content word pre-head" can be quite slippery for Spanish speaking learners.

    2. Hi, it's me again. Just to say that by "emphasis" I meant "prominence" (in my first comment).

  3. One basic question: such 'chopped' object-with-a-variety-of-prepositions constructions as the above with 'loss of/damage to vehicles' or 'X's position is not at all congenial to, still less conforming with, but, much rather, crassly different from, Y's' --- are they at all good English? Do they not reek of lamp-oil burnt till late in the night or worse?

    I used to regard them as characteristically charmingly-eccentrically English, but now Polish writers have taken to copying them, though in Polish they wreak havoc to grammar, as the prepositions usually take different cases and consequently different endings (of 'vehicles' in the example above) and I don't like them any more. If they are artificial in English, small wonder they can't be stressed 'correctly'. Nobody spontaneously speaks like that (???).

    Other than that, I personally find John's pattern quite natural (the one with stress on 'to'). My (layman-ish) explanation would be that tho' 'to' do not stand in logical contrast to anything _by itself_, it is a very prominent part of 'damage to', which does (viz. to 'loss of or from') and what makes it prominent is precisely its pseudo-contrast to the corresponding parts of what 'damage to' stands in ortho-contrast with, namely 'of' and 'from' in 'loss of or from'. Does this make any sense to you?

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    1. In Dutch these kinds of constructions are quite ubiquitous, even in regular speech (though maybe more of a formal register), as well as in other constructions that lack a proposition. Dutch doesn't like repetition, it seems.

      "Does this make sense to you" - Yes, at least that's what I wrote below, more or less.

    2. Well, this reflects the Calvinist, parsimonious, ascetic spirit of the Dutch, I s'ppose... Plus, Dutch, like English, but unlike German or Polish, has no noun cases (to speak of).

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  4. Though the "to" may not be in "logical" contrast, it is in contrast together with "damage" to the whole of "loss of/from". And given that the former receives stress on the "of/from", the "to" gets stress as well. I think an alternative reading might be with primary intonation on "loss" and "damage" (as they may be seen in contrast as well), and secondary on the of/from, so "for loss 'of | or 'from | or damage to | ...", though my first choice would be the one described in the article. (strangely enough, the underline tag is not allowed, so I marked primary with bold and secondary with ')

  5. this is the same explanation as mine, meseemeth... . My first choice would be the one described by John too, but, again, I am not sure sure if an anglophone in his good senses would form a phrase like that in free speech (perhaps after much exposure to inscriptions like that above...).

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    1. "this is the same explanation as mine, meseemeth" - yes, when I wrote it your comment was not yet visible. I alluded to that in my reply to your post.

  6. Well, this sign was the first bit of complex prose I read today, and I stared at it for a while in complete incomprehension. The punctuation was signaling to me that from was an intransitive verb in contrast with loss and damage, and never having seen such a verb, I didn't know what to do with the sentence. So my first order of business was to mentally move the commas to set off the major rather than the minor contrast: "The Conservators accept no responsibility for loss of or from, or damage to, vehicles parked in this car-park."

    That done, it seemed clear to me that the sentential stresses fall on Conservators, no, responsibility, loss, damage, parked, and car-park. Of or from needs no contrastive stress, because they are too short and too close together, any more than up and down needs it in I walked up and down the street; to certainly needs none. I would expect an American version of this sign to look something like this:

    The Conservators accept NO RESPONSIBILITY for:

    * loss of vehicles

    * loss from vehicles

    * damage to vehicles

    parked in this parking lot.

    In reading this aloud, I would naturally supply the conjunction omitted before the third list entry.

    1. I should too put a comma after 'damage to' (losses of, or from, or damages to, cars parked here). However, I'd stay happy with 'of' and 'from' being, them too, divided with a comma: loss of, or from. Your example 'I walked up and down the street' is not quite relevant, because the 'up' and 'down' in 'I walked up and down the street' are virtually synonymous, or at any event inseparable, signalling different directions perchance. You won't say: 'I walked up---no, sorry, I meant, rather, down---the street. But you can say 'Last night there were no losses of, but sadly some losses from, cars parked here', can't you?

      In any event, I too find reading this kind of sophisticated English prose 'For Very Advanced Learners' rather wearisome. And I still dare any one of you to claim that Anglophone persons ever _speak_ (rather than read out) in chopped phrases like that. Batavonophes, yes (see above), Anglophones, no (???)

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    2. Batavonophes? I've no idea who or what you are referring to by that, and "see above" doesn't help. Puzzled.

    3. P.S. If you meant Batavophones, nevermind. :) Not that I knew what that meant either, but that I could look up.

    4. Batavophones, sorry. Those whose 1st language is Dutch (Nederlands) in one of its variants.

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    5. What about using dashes? "for loss of - or from - or damage to (...)"

    6. Different directions, yes. For me as for other Manhattanites, up means 'north' and down means 'south'. (More geographically accurate would be to say northeast and southwest, but no one does). Properly one walks up and down avenues, or east and west on streets. As a further consequence, uptown and downtown are directions more than locations: 145th St. is uptown, considered as a location, but if you are there, you may walk three blocks downtown to 142nd St. while still remaining uptown. So yes, I would say what you say I wouldn't say: "up or rather down".

      As for those people in the Netherlands, Belgium, and elsewhere, I just call them dutchophones myself: this is English, where we get to mix Latin, Greek, and native roots with total abandon.

    7. Ad Kilian Hekhuis:

      perhaps parentheses would do the trick equally well: 'loss of (or from), or damage to,'?

      Ad John Cowan:

      I am not sure if your sense of 'up and down the street' (while I obviously am not claiming that it is incorrect) be valid for other parts of the englishophone world as well. Let alone transferable to, and applicable in, a something-other-o-phone world. Whither are you walking while walking up rather than down the street in say Paris, Rome or Cracow?

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  7. Jack Windsor Lewis writes:

    The following transcription is tonetic not tonological.
    The accent on 'to' seems very natural: it is contrastive with the previous two prepositions. This overrules the effects of any other semantic features. I write this before looking at anyone else's comments.
    The `Conserˏvators |
    accept `no responsi`biliˏty |
    for `loss | ˈof, | or `ˏfrom, |
    or ˈdamage `ˏto | ˈvehicles
    ˈparked | ˈin ˈthis ˎcar park.

    Brit. /kənˈsəːvətə/ , /ˈkɒnsəveɪtə/ , U.S. /kənˈsərvədər/
    I think I automaticly chose `Conserˏvators
    because of the analogy of ˈconser`vation — which is what they do.

  8. “The accent on 'to' seems very natural: it is contrastive with the previous two prepositions.” - That was my first impression, too!

    (I like the onset on "in", but what if the speaker said something like "|in ˎthis car park"?)

  9. The original NED entry attributed the antepenultimate stress to French influence, while apparently not considering it current.

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  13. [This was inordinately difficult to type. Fourth try ...]

    I find no difficulty in reading the sentence aloud, and I don't see much difficulty in explaining it to EFL students.

    FOR LOSS ↗OF (vehicles) —— [ELLIPSIS]
    ........[1b] (for loss) ↗FROM (vehicles) —— [TRIPLE ELLIPSIS]
    (+ similarly)

    [2] (for) DAMAGE ↗TO —— ELLIPSIS
    .......................................VEHICLES ↗PARKED —— [NO ELLIPSIS]
    ........................................IN THIS ↘CAR PARK

    The three prepositions receive contrastive stress because there'e a contrast between [1a] and [1b] — and a further contrast between [2} and the preceding pair.

    In David Brazil's terms the three preposition-final contrasting groups would carry REFERRING tone as would the group vehicles parked. The final in this car park would carry a PROCLAIMING tone. (Not that I'd use those terms with EFL learners.)

  14. Even now I've written COUNCIL instead of CONSERVATORS, but you see what i mean.

  15. There's also the matter of rhythm and pausing.

    for loss of or from should, I think, be spoken relatively quickly and certainly without any internal pause
    • A pause after from would be helpful
    or damage to should, I think, be spoken more deliberately with slight accentuation (by stress or lengthening) of or
    • There must, I think be a pause after to
    vehicles parked in this car park should be at a natural speed — i.e. slower that for loss or from but not as slow as or damage to.

    1. David, you think all that comes naturally to a native English speaker? I mean when he must read out a sign like that, and still more effortlessly when he forms a chopped sentence like that spontaneously in free speech?

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    2. Wojciech

      In free speech, yes.

      Reading out a sign, I think it depends on the speaker and on the circumstances of reading. Since I already knew what the sign was about, it was pretty effortless to supply the intonation etc when I came to read it in detail. And I'm not a typical native speaker in that reading aloud to bring out the meaning was part of my stock in trade as a teacher.

      Without the condition or from, the text would present relatively little difficulty:

      The Conservators accept no responsibility for loss ↗OF or damage ↗TO vehicles parked in this ↘CAR PARK.

      The insertion of the condition or from adds cognitive difficulty but not so much because it adds a third phrase to process. Rather, the difficulty lies in the different syntax. It would be easier to process with damage unellipted:

      The Conservators accept no responsibility for loss ↗OF, or loss ↗FROM, or damage ↗TO vehicles parked in this ↘CAR PARK.

      Comprehension can depend on what first catches your attention. I would say

      a native reader immediately registers a contrast between loss of and damage to
      he or she will find it easy to read the whole text with understanding
      he or she may well instinctively place contrastive intonation on to when reading aloud

    3. Would you use the switchback for contrast? or the take-off?