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Understanding And Using The Milton Model 13: Selectional Restriction Violations

Image of the Discworld Librarian from Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Here’s a language pattern that delights in foxing most students of NLP, because usually, in my experience of being a student on NLP courses and reading NLP books, the explanations are a bit stingy with good examples of how you can actually use it. But this blog wants to be the best NLP resource anywhere, and it knows its job isn’t done until you understand every pattern and how to make it work for you.

(OK, you probably get the idea, but if you haven’t, let’s try some examples with giveaway italics…)

This pattern doesn’t help itself by concealing its usefulness behind a name that isn’t much help when it comes to describing how the pattern works and when you can use it. “Selectional restriction violation” – it’s keeping its cards pretty close to its chest, isn’t it?

All it means is this: attributing qualities or actions to something that cannot by its nature possess them – especially intentions or feelings to inanimate objects. For some reason most books on NLP choose not to give you brilliant examples of this pattern – I can’t really see myself saying “your notebook has learned many things” to my students – but actually people use this pattern all the time.

Have you ever had a morning where your car didn’t want to start? Well actually, the car doesn’t have any feelings about it one way or another – it’s a lump of metal.

And over time, computer systems get more user-friendly. Actually, the systems don’t have any feelings about the users one way or another – but we all know what that expression means.

Two things about this pattern: the unconscious mind will apply these qualities or actions to itself, finding nowhere else to logically put them.

So one of my students came up with a great example in a business context: “This system enjoys a lot of advantages over the competition.” Yes, you could just say it has advantages, but why not get the word “enjoy” in there and psychologically prime the customer to feel a little bit better.

Secondly, this pattern appeals to “animism” – the primitive idea that every object has a mind – which is the way a child thinks. So using this pattern has something of an age-regression effect, which can be useful if you want people to see the world more vividly, be more creative or not overthink things.

It’s actually a recognised technique in poetry and fiction too. Authors often attribute feelings to inanimate objects to suggest what a character is feeling – one I read recently was “He shelled a thoughtful peanut with his feet” (from Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! – the character is an orang utan in case you were wondering how his feet could do that).

In literature this technique is known, as far as I can ascertain, as “hypallage” – not really an improvement on “selectional restriction violation” as far as clarity goes. It’s like these terms are just not trying to be understood! Luckily it’s also known as ‘transferred adjective’ which is much clearer.

You may want to jump back to the beginning of this article to find the examples of this pattern that I’ve concealed in there – they actually do want you to find them. And your browser won’t mind, because the Selectional Restriction Violation is its favourite part of the whole Milton Model, for obvious reasons.

Previously in this series: Understanding And Using The Milton Model 1: The Hierarchy Of Ideas (Chunking)
Understanding And Using The Milton Model 2: What It Is And Why You Need To Know About It
Understanding And Using The Milton Model 3: Distortions
Understanding And Using The Milton Model 4: Generalisations
Understanding And Using The Milton Model 5: Deletions
Understanding And Using The Milton Model 6: Pacing
Understanding And Using The Milton Model 7: Ambiguity
Understanding And Using The Milton Model 8: Embedded Suggestions
Understanding And Using The Milton Model 9: Extended Quotes
Understanding And Using The Milton Model 10: Switching Referential Index
Understanding And Using The Milton Model 11: Negation
Understanding And Using The Milton Model 12: Tag Questions

Practical NLP 2: Language ebook

Lots more about NLP language patterns in this book – Practical NLP 2: Language – How to use presuppositions, chunking, the Meta Model and the Milton Model in practice!

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