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I've run into this sentence and don't understand the meaning of "or we have headphones or we don't, so...". It's like some logical issue here that I cannot comprehend

The web is a very visual environment,” he says, “and not enough people pay attention to sound and the very usefulness and power of sound – partly because we’re living in a house with other people, or we have headphones on or we don’t, so we turn off the sound, or we’re sitting in an office environment with other people and take the sound off.

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  • 9
    I see either a stream of consciousness (a deliberate blurring of linear logic for love of the tangent), or a mistranslation from languages that use or...or where English uses a single or. Mar 20 at 18:09
  • 5
    This is simply a transcription of spoken English. When speaking, people almost never speak "correctly" (especially in English).
    – Fattie
    Mar 21 at 14:18
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    "The web is a very visual environment" is a very biased opinion in this sentence. Perhaps for the author, but a good website should be accessible in other ways (Braille, TTS, etc). Not your fault, I know, but that kind of assumption winds me up! Mar 22 at 7:36
  • 2
    This is yet another example of bizarre results that tend to be generated when a question becomes a 'Hot Network Question'. Somebody's badly worded, off-the-cuff remark, which does not illustrate any general feature of the language (or, at least, the question does not so present it), has now received many thousands of times more person-hours of attention than went into formulating it.
    – jsw29
    Mar 22 at 17:07
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    @TobySpeight - That is in fact partly the author's point: that the web is too visual, and that sound-based modalities are underutilized.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 23 at 7:51

7 Answers 7

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As Yosef commented, this is transcribed speech, so the grammar won't be perfectly correct; it's more like a stream of consciousness or a run-on sentence. Also, I suspect it's slightly mispunctuated. I hear it better in my head like this:

“The web is a very visual environment,” he says, “and not enough people pay attention to sound and the very usefulness and power of sound. Partly because we’re living in a house with other people, or we have headphones on; or we don’t, so we turn off the sound; or we’re sitting in an office environment with other people and take the sound off.

Rewritten without the disjointed stream-of-consciousness grammar, it might come out more like:

“The web is a very visual environment,” he says, “and not enough people pay attention to sound, and to the way sound is very useful and powerful. This could be because we’re in a house or an office environment with other people, so we have headphones on [so as not to disturb them]. Or we don’t have headphones on [and still don't want to disturb our housemates], so we turn off the sound entirely. [Either way, we're not getting a full surround-sound experience.]”

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I think that the subordinating conjunction "because" introduces a series of subordinate clauses separated by "or" (polysyndeton):

  1. we’re living in a house with other people
  2. we have headphones on
  3. we don’t, so we turn off the sound,
  4. we’re sitting in an office environment with other people and take the sound off

What seems most unusual to me is the comma immediately before the first "or". I suspect that the author was trying to group the 2nd and 3rd conjuncts together by surrounding them with paired commas. (The second comma of that pair is, of course, absorbed into the comma at the end of the third conjunct, which is part of a pair surrounding the parenthetical phrase "so we turn off the sound".)

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    It may also be worth mentioning that people who are speaking off-the-cuff are often pretty sloppy with their sentence construction. Speakers often abandon one thought and jump into another without doing or saying anything to signal the fact. It seems clear to me that the quote is a transcript of someone speaking (or writing that tries to emulate it).
    – Tom
    Mar 21 at 7:05
  • @Tom That's certainly true. What surprised me in this case was that, even though the sentence runs on a bit, the grammar is pretty good. The four conjuncts even all begin with "we", adding some parallelism to the series. Mar 21 at 16:20
  • Usually when reporting speech, an author will tidy it up with clear punctuation and remove the pauses ("um" and "er"), unless those things are essential to understanding the context. So it's not a surprise to have reasonably good grammar even if the speaker was quite sloppy. Mar 22 at 7:40
9

The quotation is from an article published in 2016 that quotes several people who were apparently interviewed for the article. I would conclude that the interviewees are being quoted as they spoke, without rewriting their sentences—but without quoting everything they said.

It’s also carefully written to make a number of points on the use of audio on the web and why the web is primarily a visual medium.

That is the broader context within which the quotation can be understood.

This particular interviewee, Dr. Kevin Walker, the head of the Information Experience Design (IED) program at London’s Royal College of Art, is explaining why people turn off the sound while viewing the web—they don’t have headphones on, and they are in an environment with other people—a house or office.

“. . . or they don’t” can be understood as the speaker correcting himself when he starts out saying they have headphones on.

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    I was with you until the last sentence. I don't agree he was correcting himself, I believe he was initially referring to people listening to music (not via their computer), then people with headphones that aren't connected (to music or their computer) who therefore have the sound off. It would have been 'oops, I mean ...', not 'or ...' if hew correcting himself.
    – mcalex
    Mar 21 at 12:36
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Probably this was translated from another language. Some languages do use the same word in the "either/or" construction.

French: soit ... soit
Dutch: of ... of
Russian: либо ... либо

BUT

German: entweder ... oder
Swedish: ‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎a‎n‎t‎i‎n‎g‎e‎n‎‎‎‎ ... eller
Danish: enten ... eller
English: either ... or

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  • I think you mean "of . . . of" for standard Dutch. Mar 20 at 18:46
  • Italian…o….o…….
    – user 66974
    Mar 20 at 19:03
  • @user66974 Spanish ditto. I was ten when I began to learn Spanish (after my native English), and at first it was jarring, kind of like the double negatives. But now it's so natural, I might say it in English sometimes.
    – Conrado
    Mar 20 at 21:49
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    @GEdgar this is an interesting possibility, but this instance seems unlikely to be based on a mistranslation. The speaker is simply listing scenarios on the spot, which looks awkward when transcribed, but is perfectly natural when spoken.
    – PC Luddite
    Mar 21 at 3:46
  • I don't think this was an error in translation. I think the speaker did confuse the whole enumeration of "or"s with the two-element construct either/or. A possible fix would be " partly because we’re living in a house with other people, or because we either have headphones on or we don’t, so we turn off the sound, or because we’re sitting in an office environment with other people and take the sound off."
    – Stef
    Mar 21 at 10:21
2

The web is a very visual environment,” he says, “and not enough people pay attention to sound and the very usefulness and power of sound – partly because we’re living in a house with other people, or we have headphones on or we don’t, so we turn off the sound, or we’re sitting in an office environment with other people and take the sound off.

The speaker is saying that in general, sound is not used much on the internet because of the many reasons people have for leaving their sound off.

They are listing the possible reasons people don't use sound on their computers normally, mixed with cases where they might be able to do so.

  • They live in a house with other people who won't appreciate the noise
  • We have headphones (so we can listen to sound)
  • We don't have headphones on at the moment for whatever reason
  • We're in an office-environment where the noise would be intrusive

It's a grammatical mess and it doesn't make sense when read literally.

As other answers suggest, this is a stream-of-consciousness sentence, the speaker has not taken the time to formulate his answer clearly and is producing words that sound roughly like what he's trying to express but don't quite work when you look closer.

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    It is a grammatical mess. I think the two "headphones" bullets were intended to be only one bullet, "we either have headphones or we don't", but the speaker got confused and then split them over two bullets.
    – Stef
    Mar 21 at 10:45
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    I don't agree with your second point. The headphones enabled people are listening to music (radio, mixtape, podcast, whatever). They don't utilise PC (web-based) sounds (similar to all the other bullet points) because they'd rather listen to their chosen audio content.
    – mcalex
    Mar 21 at 12:41
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    @mcalex That's another possibility too, and a fair one. I routinely prefer to listen to my own music (headphones or not) than whatever audio a website I'm visiting has. The most obnoxious thing possible for a website to do is to auto-play a video or background music on a page I'm visiting. Mar 21 at 13:20
2

In formal written English, the way to disambiguate a list like this would be to use semicolons to separate the list of clauses that contain commas, like so:

[...] partly because we’re living in a house with other people; or we have headphones on; or we don’t, so we turn off the sound; or we’re sitting in an office environment with other people and take the sound off.

This isn’t as widely used these days, but makes clearer that “or we don’t, so we turn off the sound” is an item in the list, parallel to “or we have headphones on” and “or we’re sitting in an office environment with other people and take the sound off.”

The inconsistent use of commas in the original—some items in the list have no comma between them, and one item in the list has a comma in it—does make it harder to parse than it needs to be.

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Poorly-constructed sentence.

In clear English :

The web is a very visual environment,” he says, “and not enough people pay attention to sound and the very usefulness and power of sound.

That is because very often we are not offered the option to browse the Internet with sound.

The reasons can be many : Sometimes it's because we’re surrounded with other people -- Because we live in a shared house, or because we find ourselves in an office environment for example. Sometimes it's simply because we don't own headphones, or can't use them for whatever reason. In all those situations, we have to turn off the sound of the computer's speakers.

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