Tuesday 23 November 2010

contrastive customers

Transport for London is the body responsible for running London’s public transport services. Like the railway companies, to general derision, it now calls those who travel on its trains and buses not “passengers” but “customers”. (You can even argue that a child or a pensioner, who in London can travel free of charge, is not actually a customer at all. A customer is “someone who buys goods or services from a shop or company”. But that is by the way.)

Here is a recorded announcement I heard at a tube station recently.
\/Customers are re°quested | to ˈtake their ˈlitter \home with them.

As you can tell if you say this aloud, the lady making the recording spoke the right words but used the wrong intonation for them. The intonation pattern that she used bears an implication that the request is aimed at customers, but not at others. It implies a contrast between customers and some other possible subject. We might gloss this implied meaning as ‘although those who are not customers can leave their litter behind’.

What she ought to have said was
ˈCustomers are re\/quested | to ˈtake their ˈlitter \home with them.
or just
ˈCustomers are reˈquested to ˈtake their ˈlitter \home with them.
If she had placed the intonation break differently and said
\/Customers | are reˈquested to ˈtake their ˈlitter \home with them.
then the fall-rise could have been interpreted as signalling merely non-finality, rather than the inappropriate contrastivity.

Dwight Bolinger has a number of further examples of people using the wrong accentuation (wrong tonicity) when reading scripted material aloud. Taken from broadcasts over San Francisco radio stations, they are to be found in Chapter 16 of his Intonation and its Uses (Edward Arnold, 1989). Here is one.
Some restrictions apply.
Bolinger comments “There is nothing that a restriction can do but apply.” It ought to be
Some restrictions apply.

Bolinger concludes
Maybe all this should be excused simply as the ingredients of a professional style. But for the constant listener it would be restful if occasionally the newscasters and their associates would just COOL IT. A daily exercise in taming the wild accents and toning down the ends of sentences might help.

Nannying station announcements are different from the compelling urgency of newscasters. But their use of inappropriate intonation can be just as annoying.


  1. I have the impression that (commercial, news, sports, weather etc) announcers speak to us as if we were small children in desperate need of great surprises, hence their absurd melodies. Some correspondents of the BBC World Service, for example, are a bit irritating because of this. Newsreaders here in Spain are equally insufferable.

  2. Can we be sure that the actor read that text as any sort of intonation group?

    As a visitor to London this weekend, I noticed that many Transport for London announcements seemed to be cut and pasted from short clips — like the Speaking Clock, but less plausible.

  3. Actually this is a very mild example of inappropriate intonation used in public transport announcements. I've often noticed that announcers tend to emphasise prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs rather than nouns and main verbs.

    "First Capital Connect WOULD like to apologise FOR this delay, and for ANY inconvenience it may cause. Compensation forms CAN be found at www-dot, firstcapitalconnect, DOT co, DOT uk" (with emphasis on the last two DOTs)

    "Please do not leave unattended luggage IN the train, or ON the station" (strangeness compounded by the fact that we usually say ON the train and IN the station)

  4. It seems, indeed, that our normal explanations of what particular intonation patterns mean may not hold for these announcements. Is it time to acknowledge the existence of a specific script-reading intonation, I wonder? It seems to me that the way they're produced is not necessarily "wrong" or "inappropriate"; in fact, seeing as new announcers seem to pick up on it quickly and people seem to understand what is meant, I'd argue it's both right and appropriate for the context in which it is uttered.

    What I find surprising is something like an announcer at my station last night who had quite wide pitch movements especially on stressed syllables, giving (to me) the effect of being read a list of station names as if I was a small child (or perhaps listening to Flanders & Swann's "The Slow Train"). It was a strange but not unenjoyable experience and I wished I had a recorder handy.

  5. Misplaced emphasis is a plague in recorded announcements Across the Water too. But what left me at a loss was the lexis. Trash is not called litter in AmE until it has been inappropriately discarded (on the ground, say), and the use of the word here left me fumbling for a different interpretation: 'brood of children', perhaps? A similar announcement here would use trash or perhaps belongings.

  6. Virgin Active's customer services number has a recorded message that plays while you're on hold:

    "And remember, Virgin Active health clubs are not just here to make YOU look good...they make you FEEL good too."

    Clearly the writer intended the emphasis to be put on LOOK and FEEL, rather than YOU and FEEL, and it's amazing that this wasn't spotted.

    I always expect him to finish with "...they make US feel good too". He never does though.

  7. "Some restrictions apply" is a phrase which I would only hear (and do hear frequently) as part of a commercial/advertisement announcing a promotion/special offer.

    The stress pattern which I associate with it has primary stress on "some" and secondary stress on "apPLY". "Restrictions" I would expect to be entirely de-emphasized. This is presumably not an error but a conscious strategy to avoid focusing attention on the negative connotations of the word "restrictions". Indeed the "natural" intonation advocated by JW sounds quite marked to me.

  8. B 'Nary' Narayanaswamy / New Delhi23 November 2010 at 14:37

    Hi. There is a riddle / joke that asks " why does the Statue of Liberty stand in New York? ( emphasis on New York)

    The Ans.: Because she can't sit down


  9. One can distinguish
    (a) a voice actor being paid specifically to read a set of notices, once each, in a studio;
    (b) a PA announcer who spends much or all of their workday reading announcements, sometimes bespoke but mostly boilerplate;
    (c) a flight attendant for whom reading a list of safety instructions is one chore among many;

    One might expect greatest competence from (a) and least from (c); but also, as Paul suggests, it's not clear what the target prosody is, or that it's the same in each of (a), (b), and (c).

  10. Pete, that use of "in the train and on the station" has often bugged me. Given that most stations are open to the elements and trains aren't, it seems logical. But when have prepositions ever been under the thumb of that kind of logic?

  11. @ VP: Yes I agree. The stress pattern you describe for that phrase is the way I would expect to hear it here in the U.S. and probably the way I would say it.

  12. VP and Phil: that comment was of course Bolinger's, not mine. He was American.

  13. Michael, I wasn't suggesting that "in the train" and "on the station" are more logical or sensible than the other way around - just that that's what people always say. Everyone says "I'll ring you when I'm on the train" or "meet me in the station".

    Everyone except station announcers and train drivers, that is. I'm not saying they're "wrong" or that their versions don't make sense, just that they're different from laypersons' versions.

    It's a bit like when tailors refer to a pair of trousers as "a trouser". The professionals in the field use terminology differently from their customers.

    Sorry, we're a bit off topic here. Let's hope no-one takes us any further off by embarking on a debate about whether London Underground can be called "professionals"...


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