Followup for Food Packaging Grammar

Let’s talk more about my post Food Packaging Grammar Error. Summarizing the post, I commented on frozen microwave meal instructions stating “peel film back enough to stir, replace film and cook […]”. I pointed out that it doesn’t say to stir. The steps are to peel, replace and cook. “enough to stir” is a modifier that tells you how far to peel back. I used grammar trees to show the sentence structure. I thought it was a good example of a pretty basic writing error.

I asked people to spot the error, which can result in a Guessing the Teacher's Password mindset, which wasn’t my goal. My goal was to get people to think about the sentence themselves instead of just passively read my post. It can also be hard to know what sort of error to look for when prompted, which can throw people off. And the sentence is grammatically valid, so someone looking specifically for a “grammar” error might miss the conflict between the literal-grammatical meaning and the intended meaning.

I use the term “grammar” pretty broadly to cover any kind of wording issue that grammar analysis and trees can help with. If someone reads it as saying to stir, then grammar analysis can help them see that the literal meaning is actually different.

I don’t think you need to always see errors like this when reading meal instructions. It’s fine to skim or not pay much attention when reading simple, unimportant things. I expected people to read the whole sentence and pay attention because I quoted it in my philosophy article, which is a different context where details matter more.

If you can turn your subconscious attention to detail up or down based on context, that’s great. If you skim in appropriate contexts, that’s great too. Your goal shouldn’t be to find all the grammar errors in the world.

A better goal is to avoid making reading or writing errors like this in contexts where they are important, such as when debating or writing essays. And it’s preferable to avoid these errors primarily subconsciously so that you can consciously focus on more advanced issues. When debating or trying to analyze complex concepts, you should have your subconscious on high alert for errors. And you should read what your debating partner says instead of skimming it.

Put another way, finding this kind of error should hopefully be easy for you (if you want to do intellectual activities). It should be pretty intuitive. It shouldn’t be hard, confusing, or require careful conscious analysis. You shouldn’t need to make a grammar tree (or see mine) to understand the error clearly. Or after the issue is pointed out, you shouldn’t be wondering “Are you sure it didn’t say to stir?” You should confidently know how lists and modifiers work. If you have a harder time with this stuff, then you need to improve your skills. Difficulty with this will cause problems when you try to debate or to study complex concepts.

And, in general, you should not read by finding some important-looking chunks, then guessing their relationships and the overall meaning. You can skim that way, but your actual reading should use more information from the words themselves and less guessing (and your subconscious should be good at it). You should read the relationships between chunks that the text specifies instead of just extracting isolated chunks from the text then guessing the rest.

Also, it’s not always bad to make grammar errors. I might say “I’m going to the park if you want to come.” But I don’t mean that I’m not going to go if my friend doesn’t come. My going isn’t conditional on him wanting to come or coming. I mean that I’m going to the park and I’m telling him in case he wants to come with me. You should avoid a wording like that in a serious debate or while attempting to analyze complicated philosophy issues, but it’s fine in a casual context with someone you don’t think will be confused. (Some common grammar errors are easy to avoid, so they should be avoided. But others are more of a hassle to avoid, so in casual contexts avoiding them isn’t worth the effort.)

My comments about whispers were about an anecdote. I don’t have clear, detailed memories for most of my childhood. I included that aside because I thought it was illustrative and had ideas worth bringing up for people to think about. But you shouldn’t treat it like scientific evidence or a known fact about how the world works. And there were certainly other factors involved, e.g. I believe my lip reading skill was below average.

The authors of the food packaging might have been aware of the error. They could have written it this way on purpose because they think customers prefer it. They might have wanted to keep it shorter and avoid using the word “stir” twice, which could confuse people. E.g. if they wrote “peel film back enough to stir, then stir”, some people wouldn’t understand why it said “stir” twice. If it said “peel film back, then stir” or “peel film back minimally, then stir” those could both be confusing, too, because they don’t give clear directions about how far back to peel the film.

I liked my point that English words or chunks only have one job. Setting all the other issues aside, “stir” can’t be both an action and a modifier; it can only do one thing. This is obvious in some sense. People take it for granted to the point that it isn’t taught as a grammar rule in school. But while everyone follows it most of the time, errors happen too. Knowing it as an explicit principle may help. It can be hard to identify habits of thought that no one talks about, so I’m glad to have found one.