Mama, don’t let your babies name their books with garden path noun compounds

July 4th, 2009 by marti | 3 Comments »

When I realized that I was writing a book and not just a few chapters for a more general book, I instantly knew that the title had to be Search User Interfaces. It is a phrase that I use a lot in my work, and I was trying to summarize all of the literature on that topic.

However, usually when I tell people the title of the book, they look at me a bit blankly. This surprised me because everyone uses search on the web, although I guess they call it “googling” (a term I never use outside of scare quotes) rather than “searching” or “web searching” or “using web search engines”. (Ok, I admit “googling” is more concise and clear, but many of us were working on search before Google arose. And from my time at Xerox PARC I learned never to use the product name (“xerox”) to describe the process of using the product, less you destroy the trademark claims of your employer. So to this day I say “photocopy”, not that anyone xeroxes any more.)

Anyhow, I eventually came up with a better theory for why the book title throws people off. The phrase “search user interfaces” is a garden path noun compound.

What does that mean? Well, the only other time I’ve written blog posts was during a brief stint when I consulted for Powerset. While there I wrote a post called noun-noun compound is like a chocolate box in which I explained how my research group was working on programs to automatically interpret phrases that consist of a series of nouns. The key issue is how do the different nouns relate to one another semantically? For instance, a steel knife is a knife made of steel, while a butter knife is not a knife made of butter, but rather a knife used to spread butter. Some times it can be ambiguous: is a chocolate box a Gumpian box filled with chocolates, or a whimsical box made of chocolate? This is the kind of analysis our research tried to do.

The other relevant blog post I wrote was called search engines leaking oil for holes and discussed the linguistic phenomenon of garden path sentences. These sentences are confusing because the first few words make the reader assume they are going along one path, and then the next word switches the meaning in a new direction. So for a phrase like blog posts digest stories leads you, the reader, down the garden path by making you think it is talking about “blog posts” but then you expect a verb and see “digest” which isn’t really what blog posts typically do, in the eating sense. You have to back up one work and see that this is more of a headline, saying, this blog posted a digest of stories. Ok, a hokey example, but it illustrates the point. Same goes for “search engines leaking oil for holes”. The trick is that here the word “search” is used as a verb, but because you see the word “engines” right after it, and you’re used to reading about the noun compound “search engines”, you think that is what is being talked about, and then you get this weird picture of search engines leaking oil, which would be ok except for the “for holes” part. The sentence is really a command to auto mechanics to search any engines they encounter that are leaking oil to see if the cause is holes.

Ok, returning back to the original topic. I suspect that when people hear me say “search user interfaces” they think I’m telling them to do a security check of their computer screen. I made the title into a garden path noun compound.


  1. Hi Marti,

    Bit of an obvious suggestion maybe, but did you consider “user interfaces for search”? You could then arbitrarily add other qualifiers , e.g. “… and information access”, or suchlike. But it is longer and perhaps not quite as pithy.

    BTW, I suspect your ‘typical’ readers will probably not even be conscious of the alternative interpretation(s) – that is one of the saving graces of garden path sentences!


  2. marti says:

    Thanks for writing, Tony. Yes, I did consider that but I did like the pithiness of SUI. Really I didn’t seriously consider anything else. And I agree that my target audience will understand the name as is.

  3. jeremy says:

    This surprised me because everyone uses search on the web, although I guess they call it “googling” (a term I never use outside of scare quotes) rather than “searching” or “web searching” or “using web search engines”.

    Not to mention the fact that Google only does one of many possible types of search: Precision-oriented search. No recall-oriented options are available, no exporatory search is available. It’s much better to use the term “searching”; it’s much broader than “googling”.

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