Giving Directions
April 13, 2012 6:07 AM   Subscribe

Is there a usable generic language or set of instructions for giving directions? Regardless of country language or dialect. Directions that are simple, direct and unambiguous. Ie the way to the bank is up the road for five minutes and then go down to my right. Is that up a hill? Down a hill after turning right? How far up the road do i go? Until i start coming down again? Thank you.

Some people give directions by landmarks often digressing on the way. I always end up confused. Often right and lefts are confused. My left. Your left? Distances are exaggerated and confused. My ten minutes is another persons five. If three people try to give directions at once then you might as well go home if you can find it.

I am looking for a concise way to give directions that we can all adopt. If one doesn't exist then perhaps we could start something. My criteria is


Thank you.

This has been bugging me for years
posted by terminus to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
When you look beyond the usual European languages, ways of talking about space are so different from language to language. For example, in islands with large hills in the middle and ocean around, people tend to use "seawards" and "landwards" (for all space, not just directions, e.g. "he was scratching his seawards ear"). Whether people use absolute or relative directions for "left" "right" or compass directions also is totally culturally dependent.

I think if you want a clear unambiguous non culturally dependent system for directions, you basically are talking about maps :)
posted by lollusc at 6:11 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have to agree with lollusc - as another example, some Aboriginal groups in Australia have language for direction that is completely keyed into "compass" directions rather than relative directions - ie. if you're watching TV, and you happen to be facing north while watching TV, you would say someone walked onto screen from the west, rather than from the left. If the TV is on the opposite side of the room, then the person would be described as entering from the east instead.
posted by Jimbob at 6:14 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Simple, direct, and unambiguous are what computers do via algorithms. Not so much human speech. One of the more maddening things about human speech is the ambiguity inherent in it. This is also why natural language processing has been such a hard problem for artificial intelligence researchers to crack.

All of which is to say: there is not really a solution to your problem that relies on humans communicating more effectively. Perhaps if you're having a problem with people giving you reliable directions, you ought to rely on GPS.
posted by dfriedman at 6:15 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Our perception of distance and time is not fixed, so giving directions based on either is hard for people, but easy for computers. On the street where I live, for example, during the day it takes about the same amount of time to walk to the park as it does to drive, but travelling by bicycle is significantly faster than either. If it's two in the morning, going by car is much faster than walking or cycling.

When I give directions to places that are very close by, usually to people that are walking, I use landmarks in a sequence:
Go past the fast food place, the post office, the library, and when you see the park, your coffee shop will be on the left. If you've passed the town hall you've gone too far.

If I'm giving directions for longer trips by car, I always use absolutes:
Take 95 north to 93 north to exit 1 in New Hampshire, follow signs for route 38 south until you see the arcade. If you're back in Massachusetts you've gone too far.
posted by helicomatic at 6:33 AM on April 13, 2012

There are lots of great books on the subject, but basically the way people mentally define a space is *very* dependent on the environment. Here in flat country, I might tell someone to turn left at the top of the hill. Someone from Massachusetts wouldn't even notice the hill. In a busy city, distances are measured in blocks because people don't have a damn clue how far a mile is and travel time varies based on time of day. You might use cardinal directions if you're somewhere organized on a grid, but not in New England where roads tend to meander around. What does "turn left" mean at a roundabout? If you're a walker, how do you give directions to a driver when there are a lot of one-way roads around?

GPS and smartphones FTMFW.
posted by pjaust at 6:35 AM on April 13, 2012

It's not just a matter of language, though; some people actually navigate in different ways or keep track of different landmarks. I've always navigated by imagining myself and my destination on a map and thinking of things as being NSEW of each other, (and I'm in New England, by the way, and grew up here, so it's not a matter of meandering roads) but some people I've described this to apparently think it's completely absurd to approach things this way and would never use cardinal directions. A friend of mine couldn't answer the question, "If you were travelling from Washington, D.C. to New York City in a straight line, would the Atlantic Ocean be on your right or your left?" even with the cardinal directions left out.
posted by XMLicious at 6:40 AM on April 13, 2012

No. There isn't. This is because directions are almost entirely given in terms relative to the speaker, making them highly ambiguous, or at least underdetermined.

There is a direct and unambiguous way of giving directions, but it isn't simple: GPS coordinates. Even before that, one could give directions with latitude and longitude, but determining one's position has always been tricky, and navigation across any non-trivial distance by dead reckoning is a true feat.
posted by valkyryn at 6:44 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

distance and compass points, simple as that.

Go north two miles, turn east, continue three miles take the split to the northeast...etc.
posted by HuronBob at 6:48 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm part of your problem. I've found I have hazier notions of time and space. When someone asks me and my wife for directions, she is always correcting me. So:
Me: " go down that road until you come to this bridge..."
Her: "It's the second bridge they need to cross!"
Me: "Oh right..I always forget about that first bridge because it doesn't really lead anywhere!"
Me: "Anyways then go straight for about a mile or so..until you see an old church.."
Her: "No! Its about 500 meters at most!
Me: "Really?"

And so on. I'm not trying to deceive anybody. I just have my own mental map that I'm trying to translate for others. If you invented a precise language, it wouldn't matter. The problem would still be with people mapping their perception of the world into that language. So, you'd still have the same problem.
posted by vacapinta at 6:50 AM on April 13, 2012

When I give directions I try to ask the person I am giving them to what type of directions they prefer. Some people like landmark based, others prefer a more mileage+turn system. Some people like a sort of visual travelogue ("Go through the center of town until the road narrows, and passes by some large fields on the right. When you start to see trees on the right, the turn is coming up."). When giving people directions to my home, it is on a newer street, which does not appear on GPS devices that are not updated, and so I will also give an address on the older street my street is off of, as well as a nearby intersection.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:08 AM on April 13, 2012

Thinking of your quesiton reminded me of this Slate article on hand-drawn maps.

I always prefer making maps and charts instead of giving verbal directions. And I always prefer absolute (cardinal) directions and limiting factors, e.g. 'If you pass the fire station, you have gone too far.'
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:58 AM on April 13, 2012

Some people give directions by landmarks often digressing on the way. I always end up confused. Often right and lefts are confused. My left. Your left? Distances are exaggerated and confused. My ten minutes is another persons five. If three people try to give directions at once then you might as well go home if you can find it.

I solve this problem by "checking in" to make sure I'm following.

Them: So you turn left out of here, and...
Me: [pointing east] Okay, I turn that way?
Them: [pointing west] No, that way, and you go about five blocks and turn right.
Me: Is there a landmark at the corner?
Them: Yeah, there's a big stone church.
Me: Okay. So I leave the parking lot and head west, that way, and then I turn right at the big stone church. So now I'm headed north?
Them: Yeah. And then you'll see a gas station on the left.....

People generally don't mind this if you do it in a way that's friendly and not nitpicky or critical. Another covert way to check in is to draw a map or take notes on a piece of paper they can see. If they notice from your notes that they've miscommunicated something, they'll correct themselves.

And yeah, many people just suck at giving directions. Unfortunately, a universal unambiguous direction-giving language won't help with that. The same people who never bother learning to give good instructions, or draw a good map, I'd bet any money that they'll never bother to learn your direction-giving language either.

In general the best way to ensure clear communication isn't to prevent other people from being ambiguous (good luck with that!) — it's to get good at detecting ambiguity when you hear it, determining whether it's likely to be problematic, and recovering from it gracefully by asking polite questions if you need to
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:35 AM on April 13, 2012

Im not even sure maps are not 100% unambiguous. A friend of mine used to joke that an organization we belonged to could save a ton of money on ink and postage if they just had a single symbol meaning "This map not to scale" for our newsletter. The advent of internet map sites has, of course, changed this, but the issue with hand drawn maps remains.

In St. Louis I usually draw the person two maps - one with a wiggly line down the middle, (maybe one or two others feeding into that up top depending on scale) and an upside down U somewhere near the middle, then a bunch of straighter lines labeled 44, 55, 70, etc. Then I draw a square somewhere on that and start a second map that actually shows them where they are going. The square on the big map is where the second map fits into the big picture.

This technique works great when you have the intersection of a couple major interstates and waterways and a giant piece of abstract art to index on. It would work far less well in my home town where there were a couple major intersections on a state highway but no super obvious landmarks that you couldn't miss.

Compass headings and distances are unambiguous, but not super useful if you're actually following roads.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:46 AM on April 13, 2012

I always give directions using "north, south, east, west" plus specific distances (two miles) plus specific street names. Occasionally I throw in "left, right" or a landmark to show where said street is coming up, but NEVER as a substitute for what I consider real directions.

I have a sister-in-law and many friends who have pretty much zero sense of direction, and whose instructions on how to get somewhere are more along the lines of "go for ten minutes, and turn left at the big white building, and go a little ways and turn left again, and then around that a bit, and you'll see my car in front of the house." This makes me crazy.

My sweet but directionally-impaired sister-in-law would drive from her house to my parents' house every weekend for lunch. One weekend I went with them to drop my brother's car off at a mechanic more-or-less between the two homes; the plan was for me to give him a ride the rest of the way to my parents' and her to follow. Well, as he attempted to explain to her how to get to our destination (which was pretty straightforward, involving only one street different from her usual way from home) she started freaking out and couldn't understand. She ended up driving BACK to her own house, then to my parents' by her normal route. Wasting an extra 45 minutes or so of drive time.
posted by celtalitha at 9:31 AM on April 13, 2012

The only unambiguous directions are directions that use specific distances and compass points. Even GPS units' output can be hard to parse, because "turn left" isn't always a clear direction when you're at an intersection with two possible left turns (say, one at a 100 degree angle and one at a 45 degree angle).
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:54 AM on April 13, 2012

To add to what Sidhedevil says, if you look at for example the trail guides that I've used here in the UK - this one for example (scroll down to 'Walk Directions') - you can see that the best we can do is use bearings, distances and landmarks. All together.
posted by vacapinta at 3:04 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

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