Tuesday 28 February 2012

boundary marking

In intonation, tonality (chunking) appears to work in much the same way in all languages. The boundaries between successive intonation phrases (IPs) generally correspond to the location of syntactic (= grammatical) boundaries. Here’s what I wrote six years ago.
We regularly place an intonation break between successive sentences, usually between successive clauses, sometimes between successive phrases, and occasionally between successive words. We can even break within a word — though this is unusual and only used for special emphasis.

…The presence or absence of intonation breaks, and their location, signals to the hearer the syntactic structure of the sentence. Sometimes this structure is potentially ambiguous, and the tonality can disambiguate it. An intonation break signals a syntactic boundary…
[English Intonation, p. 187]

What I did not say was that sometimes we find an equivalent effect without an actual intonation break. A syntactic ambiguity within a single IP can sometimes (optionally) be resolved merely by a slowing down at the relevant point.

   (i) There was a lot of bloodshed.
   (ii) There was a lot of blood shed.

We can try to make it clear that we mean (ii), ‘a lot of blood was shed’, by slowing down as we say blood shed, as opposed to not slowing down for the compound noun bloodshed in (i).

I saw a nice example of this in the Sunday Times magazine two days ago, illustrating an article about ‘cheeky seaside postcards’ of half a century or more ago.
If we want to be pedantic, the compound-noun reading ought to be spelt screwdriver, solid; the noun plus vocative ought to be spelt with a comma, screw, driver. In speech, the more we slow down the more we push the hearer towards the second interpretation.


  1. There's an interesting difference between the postcard and the others. The intonation of cheese and the syllabic length of blood trigger one semantic interpretation or the other. But screwdriver triggers both screwdriver and screw, Driver — otherwise there'd be no joke.

    I don't think the joke would work without the picture. There is admittedly no comma before driver but there are two written words, not one. It's the situation made clear by the drawing that makes us first choose the interpretation screwdriver. But this interpretation is provisional — open to correction when we see (and inwardly hear) the driver's punchline.

    There's an example with a single grammatical unit vs two units confusion at a higher syntactic level which is made possible by the written genre of telegraphese and yet relies on the same sort of sound difference:


    This anecdote (reported to be about someone else originally) works in spoken form and has been spread in spoken form — even though it plays on a written idiom.

  2. You qualify your statement that the difference between "screwdriver" and "screw, driver" should be marked in writing, by saying "if we want to be pedantic". Intentional puns aside, I don't think it's pedantic to expect boundaries to be marked in writing where needed to avoid ambiguity. We had a leaflet from the council about rubbish collections, saying "Crews will be working on the Queen's Diamond Jubilee bank holiday on Tuesday 5 June but not the day before Monday 4 June." It's mere good fortune that the unintended meaning (no collection on Sunday 3 June) isn't actually false.

  3. It's mere good fortune that the unintended meaning (no collection on Sunday 3 June) isn't actually false.

    No it isn't. It's common sense. If the reader really wants to know which day is meant, he or she puts in a little work and all becomes clear.

    1. I'm pretty sure that the lack of comma after "before" in that example is just plain wrong, and I guess what I'm really trying to say is that it's reasonable to be more picky about punctuation where it actually affects the meaning than we may be elsewhere. In this case, a comma is needed before the phrase in apposition, and it's presumably no coincidence that this comma also coincides with a break in the intonation in the spoken version. What is coincidental is that the unpunctuated version happens to make grammatical sense because "before" can function as different parts of speech, and even more coincidental that it happens also to be a true statement.

    2. Alan

      it's reasonable to be more picky about punctuation where it actually affects the meaning

      It's the word actually that I'm objecting to. The ambiguity is purely theoretical.

    3. Saying the wrong thing is still saying the wrong thing, even if the intended meaning can be figured out with "a little work". To pick an example hopefully less tangential than my earlier one was, I think we would expect "don't get into a flap, Jack" to be spoken differently from "don't get into a flapjack" even though the latter meaning can be ruled out on common sense grounds. So I don't see why similar considerations shouldn't apply in writing.

    4. I think we would expect "don't get into a flap, Jack" to be spoken differently from "don't get into a flapjack"

      I don't think I would. Even if I did think that one delivery was slightly more helpful than the other I wouldn't consider one 'correct' and the other 'incorrect'.

      I'm not saying that anything goes, but upwards of two centuries ago the English intellectual tradition lost all sense of proportion and elevated theoretical but not actual ambiguity into an unnecessary shibboleth.

    5. Alan

      Seriously, I can't hear myself changing flap, Jack, which is strange.

      My best guess is that flæp is a difficult syllable to lengthen — whereas skru: is very easily lengthened. I suspect it's also easier to modify the rhythm of a sentence with a questioning initiation like Would you like a screw, Driver? than with the peremptory command Don't get in a flap, Jack!.

    6. This may be where my lack of knowledge of phonetics is going to be a limitation, but I think that in both flap, Jack and flapjack I would not release the p, but in the former I would hold it for longer before saying the ʤ. (I guess that how much longer would depend on whether I was consciously trying to avoid it sounding like flapjack.) I agree that I wouldn't lengthen the æ in any way.

  4. "In speech, the more we slow down the more we push the hearer towards the second interpretation."

    Couldn't that slowing down be in fact a signal of an intonation break, at least in the picture (stupid guy!- I mean the guy in the picture, of course)?

    1. No, because if there were an intonation break there would have to be a second nuclear tone, on "driver". But that's not what happens, because it's a final vocative, and is therefore pronounced as a tail following the nuclear tone on "screw".

      That was the whole point in this example. Sorry if I didn't spell it out.

  5. Oh yes, it was obvious (stupid guy! -I mean ME).

  6. Hi there,

    just stumbled across your post on phonetics and as I am desperate and have been searching the web wide and far...

    do you know if there are any 'uralic phonetic alphabet' (UPA) and/or British English Phonetic alphabet converters online?

    I just recently got interested in phonetic symbols and would love to learn more about it!

    Would appreciate any help.


    1. There is no "British English Phonetic alphabet". British phoneticians use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

      From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uralic_Phonetic_Alphabet: "it is not possible to automatically convert a UPA transcription into an IPA one."


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