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a “small pitch” for the specificity of language.

Dec 08, 2010
a “small pitch” for the specificity of language.

by Richard Borbridge, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture
image credit

It is the bane of my every walk to work in the morning.

A short walk down the new Granville Street and there it rests – nary larger than a “no parking” sign, and just gleaming and fresh enough to unfailing catch my eye against the black lamp standard:

“up to small pitch”

The great eighth note above says “play here!” to the newly unshackled busking community – the eighth note… and the word Busking. But the words below speak clearly to an agonizing misrepresentation of musical performance knowledge.

A quick look at the definition of ‘pitch’ ranges from the by-product of tar, to a soccer field, to its rightful musical definition – the tone or frequency of a sound (which is high or low, not small or large) and finally, down the list and Chiefly British, “the stand of a vendor or hawker” – which, while perhaps the most relevant, is still a linguistic leap from the City’s intended meaning.

I understand that these signs are intended to coordinate the level of intensity of a performance on the street and the city’s introductory PDF confirms as much:

  • Small pitch (S): Minor amplification, designed for passers-by, not designed for crowd building
  • Medium pitch (M): Medium amplification, small crowd building, less than 50 person audience
  • Large pitch (L): Medium + amplification, circle crowds, middle of street or large plaza spaces, 100+ person audience

However, what the signs do say is gibberish.

The imprecise use of words and the overuse of imprecise words is hardly a new lament in the English language. My closest friends would be quick to point out that I’m hardly innocent. However, I’m not sure what prompted the City of Vancouver to establish ‘pitch’ as its go-to word in the busking regulation business.

I fear it’s the same prompt that has misrepresented “green” in many aspects of our lives, and so variably defined “sustainability” so as to be a deeply felt throwaway word. What do you think of when someone says “street”? Does your vision of the street demarcate public space, does it include the sidewalks or just the roadway from curb to curb? Is “road” any better? The principle of precise and relevant language continues to dog our public spaces, partly because these most commonly used words are so common and imbued with each person’s experience and perspective, rather than any formal definition.

A large component of the work of design professions is communicating – mostly through pictures. The reason both words and images exist simultaneously is because they serve different, complementary purposes. All too often however, we need to describe an image in words, which is when communication can break down. We fall back on the 10,000-or-so words most frequently used words in our vocabulary, choosing those that just ‘feel’ right, or we turn to neologisms and mash-ups that strive to fill in the blanks between our 7,000 favourites and the 171,476 words in the OED.

In this era of Google’s instant search (just type “define:” people) a bit of second-guessing is easy. Alongside the radical transformations words are undergoing as a result of new technologies – from the Internet to our infrastructure – it is vital that we share our meanings, not just our words.

So let’s all SaveTheWords and pledge a little more precision. Let’s hunt down just the right word and take back the nuance, especially in public spaces. Like “pitch”, when you only have one word to make your point, it had better be right.

PS – Since this writing they have appliqued operational hours on the signs. Any suggestions for a better busking word? “To small audience”, “little busk stop”? If they stickered over them once, they could do it again… perhaps better.

PPS – Other signs with problems


  1. I’ll see what I can do about the sign…

  2. Well put Richard! You know that this is an issue that’s near and dear to my heart, both because public and embarrassing misuse of language annoys me so and because I am all too often guilty of such misuse myself.

    Apart from the specificity of terms used and misused there is another issue here. At whom is this particular sign directed? At the presumed audience, or the busker? Should we disperse when we count ourselves above 50? Or do they expect the performer to sign off key to discourage overcrowding?

    And what of the underlying assumption that the decibel level (probably a better measure than “pitch”) determines crowd size? Could a crowd larger than planned for spontaneously gather if the performer is particularly talented and not just loud? Or do decibels alone determine popularity?

    Sadly that may be true in practice, but I think that it is even more sad that our institutions are permitted to codify and arbitrate our tastes and the quality of our expression according to its volume.