Thursday, September 29, 2011

            Information floats through the air like a fart or a sneeze, and is just as common. Fortunately for us, information’s most common medium is language. Language is a fairly simple concept to observe, million-dollar-words not withstanding, yet language has a depth to it hidden in plain sight. Consider for a moment the word “cheese.” When one person says to you “cheese,” you immediately have a mental image or memory of what “cheese” is. Although there can be an easy understanding between the speaker and the receiver of what “cheese” is, the concept itself is unique to the person. For the sake of example, a simple distinction could be that the speaker is perhaps thinking of blue cheese whereas the receiver is thinking of Gouda cheese. But to dig even further, in reading “blue cheese” and “Gouda cheese,” your concepts of these things are different from my own, despite our ability to agree on the general message.




From the perspective of efficiency, language is perhaps a very crude tool. Keeping in mind the cheese example, consider the word “love,” or the word “hate.” Although the concept is reasonably broad and easy to understand, one person’s concept can differ drastically from another’s. Likewise, the emotional definition is ineffable, since language is unable to efficiently convey emotions. Regardless, language is probably the most ergonomic tool used to transfer information.

But is there a way to measure the amount of information sent out? The most direct method of measurement is to observe the language used, even more specifically: observe the number of clauses. The simplest definition for a clause is a joined subject and verb. In the example sentence: “The window broke,” “window” is the subject, and “broke” is the verb. Thus there is one clause. Clauses are useful in measuring the amount of information sent out because clauses denote action, and action tells a story. The more actions there are, the more story there is. Although adjectives and other linked clausal features are also important in giving information, when it comes down to it, clauses are the meat of information transference.


There are three points of interest featuring an attempt to transfer information to us, the readers. The first is interesting because it is an instruction manual. Efficiency is paramount with this avenue because one assumes that the company will want to save as much money as possible by using the least amount of words to convey the necessary information. That said, here is an excerpt for a Black & Decker 18V cordless chainsaw:

            “Some dust created by power sanding, sawing, grinding, 
             drilling, and other construction activities contains 
             chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or            
             other reproductive harm. Some examples of these 
             chemicals are: 

• lead from lead-based paints,
• crystalline silica from bricks and cement and other 
  masonry products, and
• arsenic and chromium from chemically-treated lumber. 
  (CCA)

Your risk from these exposures varies, depending on how often you do this type of work. To reduce your exposure to these chemicals: work in a well ventilated area, and work with approved safety equipment, such as those dust masks that are specially designed to filter out microscopic particles.”


There are eleven clauses in this portion of the instructions, which contains 105 words. One must consider that there is a huge amount of non-clausal information, however. Still, from the perspective of actions taken, there are only eleven.




            The second example of information transference is provided from a comic book. Comics provide an interesting contrast to the bleak nature of instruction manuals. Where instruction manuals are meant to be as efficient as possible, comics can be argued to require inefficient artistic flourishes. Likewise, the images presented to the readers can sometimes convey concepts ineffable. The following example is found in Detective Comics’ (DC) Batman, issue 610:

“Criminals, by nature, are a superstitious and cowardly lot. To instill fear into their hearts I became a bat. A monster in the night. And in doing so, have I become the very thing that all monsters become……alone…?”

With a mere six clauses, this tiny portion of dialogue is featured upon an entire page, perhaps twice the size of the instruction manual previously mentioned. Its inefficiency seems extreme, despite its evocative nature. However, one must remember that because this is a comic book, images tell an even greater part of the story. Furthering this is the image juxtaposed with the aforementioned dialogue: single image of Batman and Catwoman embracing in a passionate kiss, made complete by the night sky and full moon as a backdrop. Thus, it is observable how the constraints of language can sometimes be bypassed. Though inefficient from the perspective of language use, the imagery is used to prop up the point of the story.


            The final excerpt is both an example of very efficient language use and the filth that such efficiency sometimes entails. Looking back at the two previous examples: the instruction manual’s bleakness is not at all pleasing, whereas Batman’s evocations are fairly poignant. This contrast is perhaps what makes novels and the like so alluring: they are able to provoke poignancy whilst remaining efficient transmitters of action, or efficient “stories.”

            In our last example, SkullAssassin2472 writes:

“When I began reading good comments about the first game I knew I had to play it, I did, and it sucked, the graphics and AI where just awful, not even the story made me want to keep playing beyond the first mission.
I really hope this second attemp works, I really hope so because I am a huge fan of cyber-punk stuff. And, hey, it is Square-Enix logo in there.
The graphics look very nice.
Now, I'll se what GT has to say about this game.
(After watching review)
Oh...
:(”

In 92 words, SkullAssassin2472 spews out seventeen clauses. Recall that the cordless chainsaw’s instruction manual excerpt used 105 words, and realize that in those 92 words, SkullAssassin2472 paints an action-packed story. Consider the phrase: “…I knew I had to play it, I did, and it sucked…” In 12 words, there are five clauses. SkullAssassin2472’s filthy butchering of grammar belies his incredible ability to transfer information to the reader, an inherent trait in most, if not all, of humanity. Indeed, consider the phrase “I came; I saw; I conquered.” Though Julius Caesar and SkullAssassin2472 are worlds apart, the bridge of language equalizes them in their use of language.

            Though language is omnipresent, it is overlooked, often seen as white noise of our day-to-day operations. It is with hope, that in observing this information presented, you, gentle readers, may be able to garner a bit more insight into what you say, hear, read and write.

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