s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: Syntagms, paradigms, and a gallon of milk

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Syntagms, paradigms, and a gallon of milk

In semiotics, we sometimes speak of "syntagms" and "paradigms." "Paradigms" are words or signs which are related by the property of being able to substitute or stand in for each other. So, in the sentence

The cat sat on the mat.

"Cat" and "dog" have a paradigmatic relationship with each other, because the word "dog" could substitute for the word "cat." (The sentence wouldn't mean the exactly same thing, of course, but the point is that the new sentence would still be grammatical.)

"Syntagms" are words or signs which are related by the property of appearing together in a group, often in a sequence. So, in the same sentence as above, "cat" and "sat" have a syntagmatic relationship with each other, because they appear next to each other in the sentence.

Clothing is another area where we look for syntagms and paradigms. Two pairs of socks have a paradigmatic relationship, because they can substitute for each other. And socks and shoes have a syntagmatic relationship, since they appear together in the same "group" (i.e., outfit).

So, I actually think about this a lot when I go grocery shopping. (Why, what do you think about when you're grocery shopping?) The reason I think about this, aside from being an incurable nerd, is that grocery stores are largely organized on syntagmatic and paradigmatic principles.

Take cake frosting, for example. Between various brands and flavors, you can probably find 30 different types of cake frosting at a good-sized grocery store. Nobody comes into the grocery store for 30 different types of cake frosting, though — most people just want one or two types. So, why bother to put all 30 together? Why not organize them some other way, maybe alphabetically, so you can go straight to the one you want?

Well, you might come into the store wanting some type of cake frosting, but not knowing exactly what brand or flavor, so the current setup allows you some leeway in that regard. (At least, that scenario seems more likely than coming in wanting either vanilla frosting, vanilla pudding, or vanilla wafers. Not to mention the fact that alphabetizing a list isn't necessarily as straightforward as it seems — do you go by "Vanilla frosting" or "Frosting, Vanilla"?)

Moving down the aisle, why are frosting and cake mix invariably together? Well, one may not be able to substitute for the other, but they do commonly go together. So, even if you don't go to the grocery store looking for either cake mix or frosting, many people do come in looking for both. (This also goes to explain why birthday candles are also in the same aisle.)

Of course, there are limits to the grocery store as a perfect model of syntagms and paradigms. By extension, eggs and milk should also be located next to cake mix, but the practicalities of food preservation intervene and dictate that all refrigerated foods be stored together. (Even if they didn't, some foods are such common staples that they're syntagmatically related to many different other foods. So, while cake mix and frosting are more closely tied with each other than with any other products, eggs and milk are ingredients in many different kinds of mixes and recipes.)

As interesting as it is to ponder the underlying semiotic structure of frosting and cake mix, I find myself really thinking about this sort of thing when I'm looking for something obscure. Take bread crumbs. What are they like? Flour? Corn meal? Bread? (Paradigmatic analysis.) What do they go with? Meat? Vegetables? (Syntagmatic analysis.)

In the end, I think I found them on the same aisle as rice and beans, go figure.


At January 21, 2009 10:59 PM, Blogger Giovanni Schwartz said...

You, my friend, are an insufferable nerd.

At January 22, 2009 12:16 PM, Blogger Mr. said...


Also: frosting containers tend to be roughly the same size and shape. So putting frosting next to Frosted Flakes would result in wasted space.

At January 22, 2009 4:05 PM, Blogger Redoubt said...

One time I couldn't find canned pumpkin anywhere. It wasn't with all the other canned foods. I knew the store had it, but where? WHERE?

Turns out it was in a tiny "dessert" section with graham cracker pie crusts and canned pie fillings. I passed this section several times, but I didn't associate canned pumpkin with pies, and apparently everyone else does.

At January 22, 2009 4:49 PM, Blogger e said...

I was just looking for bread crumbs today. I was wondering where they might be and then serendipitously found them near the ketchup and pickles while looking at different vinegars. I had previously thought to look for them on the baking isle near the flour and corn meal. Nope.

Tracking down wheat germ was the strangest and longest task.

At January 22, 2009 6:09 PM, Blogger Petra said...

Well, the layout also depends on what the grocery store thinks is going to make you buy more food. Now where did I just read an article about that? Was it in The Economist?

At January 22, 2009 6:36 PM, Blogger Katya said...

e - So, where was the wheat germ?

Petra - I read that milk is always located at the back of the store for that reason — it's a common staple and that way you have to walk through the entire store just to grab a gallon. Also, I assume that syntagmatic placement would help to sell more items, because it would encourage you to buy items related to the one(s) you came in for.

At January 26, 2009 11:10 AM, Blogger e said...

I asked 4 store personnel where I might find the wheat germ. Three didn't know what I was talking about, and one nicely and very helpfully led me to the wheat *flour*. Luckily, another shopper was passing by the 4th time I questioned someone and mentioned where I might find it.

On the short isle that stocks foodstuffs for people with gluten allergies I found WHEAT germ. ?? Of course.

At January 27, 2009 3:37 PM, Blogger alea said...

I'm always bothered by the location of corn syrup, which tends to be placed alongside maple syrup. Which makes no sense to me, given the fact that it doesn't really relate at all to that grouping. Instead, it should be by the flour and sugar, right?

At January 28, 2009 11:40 AM, Blogger Sonya said...

I stumped the grocery clerks with Sterno. It's certainly related to food and food preparation, but definitely not something you eat.

I see a giant graphic with milk and eggs in the middle, linking out to all the things it's related to. Near the edges are things like cake mix, and then frosting. I suppose you do other things with frosting, but not many.

At January 30, 2009 8:04 PM, Blogger Katya said...

alea - That's a interesting example, because they're both similar, in some ways (a sweet syrup), but their actual culinary uses are quite different. (Except, who even cooks with corn syrup any more? I don't think I know of a single recipe that calls for it except maybe rice krispie treats, and even then, those are mostly made with marshmallows, I thought.)

Sonya - Where was the Sterno?

At February 02, 2009 9:18 PM, Blogger Katya said...

alea, guess what? I went to the grocery store on Saturday and noticed that the corn syrup was in the baking aisle, next to the molasses! So they do it right in Maine, at least.


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