Is a particular sequence required for detailed replicator requests?

To elaborate, is there a reason Captain Picard orders his tea, "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot." aka "Noun. Descriptor. Descriptor." and not "Descriptor. Descriptor. Noun." or "Descriptor. Noun. Descriptor." (in the event he forgot a descriptor)? Would ordering it as "Hot. Earl Grey. Tea." or even the non-statement "Hot Earl Grey tea." produce a warm (hot), smoky (gray-ish) gas with the odor of tea? I assume his ordering sequence is an acquired background affectation, but I'd like confirmation.

Note: I'm using "descriptor" instead of "adjective" to avoid minutia/debate about classification.

  • 52
    Or would it produce a reasonable facsimile of the Earl himself, steeped in tea?
    – Valorum
    Aug 1, 2014 at 17:18
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    He says it that way because the first time he asked for tea, forty years ago, the machine asked him what kind. Then the stupid machine asked him hot or cold, as if anyone civilized would actually drink cold tea. "Tea, Earl Grey, hot" forestalls the stupid questions, even if he's at a new post where the replicator doesn't know his preferences.
    – Kyle Jones
    Aug 1, 2014 at 17:35
  • 11
    For the same reason why Bond orders a "Vodka Martini, shaken, not stirred"? That's how catchphrases work. And "Tea, Earl Grey, hot" has a better ring to it than the alternative.
    – scrwtp
    Aug 1, 2014 at 20:38
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    Note that Janeway does this too. She says "Coffee, black", rather than "Black coffee".
    – Boann
    Aug 2, 2014 at 11:56
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    Maybe then he would need to explain to the holodeck what tea is, including the complete history of the East India Company. And wait for a time while the holodeck takes over the rest of the computer systems of the Enterprise in an effort to understand what is required from it...
    – SJuan76
    Aug 2, 2014 at 12:22

6 Answers 6


An answer might come from a broader realization that the computer rarely stumbles over anything but a lack of information.

For example, Scotty somewhat infamously asks the Holodeck to produce an image of the bridge of his old Enterprise. The exchange is as follows:

Computer: "Please enter program."

Scotty: "The android at the bar said ya' could show me ma' old ship. Lemme see it."

Computer: "Insufficient data. Please specify parameters."

Scotty: "The Enterprise! Show me the bridge of the Enterprise, ya' chatterin' piece of..."

Computer: "There have been five Federation ships with that name. Please specify by registry number."

Scotty: "NCC-1701. No bloody A, B, C, or D."

Computer: "Program complete. Enter when ready."

The computer is not able to tell Captain Scott which ship he wants to see; however, it is able to parse out the colorful language without mistaking it for a command it isn't aware of. It also permits him to draw out the lengthy "no bloody A... B... C... or D.", so we know the computer can also continue to incorporate the continued dialog of the user; it isn't bound by the parameters of pre-defined functions and it isn't just looking for keywords - it comprehends your English and derives a meaning from it.

There are other times when it does similar tasks; most notably, it allows a user to compound queries by saying "and" or "now" to extend the nature of the original request. It maintains context for the requests, and allows for indefinite articles to be used to reference points of data. From the episode Transfigurations:

DATA: Computer, run transformational matrix calculations. Match navigational referents to known stars in this sector.

COMPUTER: Information on this sector is incomplete. No correlation.

LAFORGE: I'm not giving up yet. Not after coming so close to cracking this thing. You know, that might be flight path information from John's ship, but without a frame of reference, I can't determine its origin points.

DATA: Computer, assume those paths are course corrections and derive gravitational values for stellar objects near those flight paths.

DATA: Most of these are ordinary G-type stars. This would appear to be a neutron star, possibly a pulsar.

LAFORGE: Which means that this might be a rotational time reference.

DATA: Computer, assume these symbols are pulsars. Translate associated values into standard temporal notations. Computer, is there a pulsar with a rotational period of one point five two four four seconds within sensor range?

COMPUTER: Affirmative.

LAFORGE: Bingo! Now, Computer, overlay navigational chart using referenced pulsars and project a flight path back to its origin.

COMPUTER: Flight path originated at bearing zero zero three, mark zero one five. Distance, two point three parsecs.

Finally, let's assume that in all cases when an entity with computer access addresses the computer, the universal translator is at work. This would mean that the computer accounts for word order, syntax, inflection, and so on. In English, one can structure a sentence in a variety of ways: "I'd like a taco." "A taco, please." "I could sure go for a taco right about now." The computer never really seems to trip over the structure of a person's sentence - the meaning is typically always inferred, and if the user needs to narrow down the selection through a series of continued decisions (such as Tom Paris attempting to order tomato soup), the computer guides them down that path.

TLDR -- the computer constantly demonstrates the ability to encapsulate an entire conversation within the context of queried results from the database, and also demonstrates its capacity to filter verbal garbage out while also comprehending the user's intent. As long as Captain Picard doesn't low-talk and horribly mangle his request by intentionally obfuscating the meaning, he can ask for tea in any number of ways.

  • 6
    The computer has a language processor that is like, 75% of the way towards being an actual AI all on its own. Of course, it would have to, given that the universal translator exists...
    – Jeff
    Aug 1, 2014 at 19:10
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    Is it possible that while they currently have the features you describe, they didn't always? Maybe Picard 'grew up' on an older model that required a more rigid form of input and he just kept the habit.
    – corsiKa
    Aug 1, 2014 at 19:45
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    +1 for pointing out that a voice-operated computer four centuries in the future will be at least as good at parsing human language as Wolfram Alpha already is. Aug 3, 2014 at 11:18
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    In S5E21 (The Perfect Mate), Kamala orders tea for Picard from a replicator by saying "Earl Grey Tea. Hot." and it works just fine, which supports this "the computer figures out any reasonable request" theory. (I almost built a separate answer around this, but it didn't quite seem to be enough.)
    – Pops
    Feb 8, 2015 at 6:55
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    @KeithThompson: Scotty served on more than one Enterprise himself. It's certainly not obvious that he would mean the first one he served on and not the most recent one. Apr 23, 2018 at 16:48

There are also a number of examples of the computer asking someone to specify a temperature for a beverage or provide some other specific piece of information. It may be that some exchange of this kind happened which caused Picard to develop his odd way of addressing the computer:

PICARD: Computer, tea.

COMPUTER: Please specify variety. There are over 1500 types available.

PICARD: Earl Grey

COMPUTER: Please specify temperature.


In fact, Tom Paris had exactly such an experience on his first day on Voyager:

PARIS: Tomato soup.

COMPUTER: There are fourteen varieties of tomato soup available from this replicator. With rice, with vegetables, Bolian style, with pasta, with ...

PARIS: Plain.

COMPUTER: Specify hot or chilled.

PARIS: HOT! Hot, plain, tomato soup *Groan*.

  • 4
    While "Earl Grey" may be sufficiently explicit as to the tea leaf mixture, it does not specify how it is brewed or what water is used. Likewise "hot" is not very specific. Presumably the replicators would have default settings/definitions. This mass-market approach seems contrary to the individualistic tone of ST:NG. Temperature in particular could easily be a personal preference (e.g., barely drinkable hot vs. just above "warm") and not require excessive memory for pattern storage.
    – user11683
    Aug 1, 2014 at 23:22
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    @PaulA.Clayton Presumably the replicators would have default settings/definitions This is backed up in DS9, Miles O'Brien always orders his coffee "Double sweet" instead of a specific amount of sugar which suggests "Sweet" is a default setting, same as "Hot". Aug 1, 2014 at 23:55
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    That would be 1547 varieties.
    – user
    Aug 2, 2014 at 15:58
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    Most likely the computers recognize the person making the request, and have their specifics stored.
    – DougM
    Aug 2, 2014 at 16:06
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    If the computer recognizes the person making the request AND has specifics stored on them.. then Picard just saying "TEA!" would work.
    – crthompson
    Aug 4, 2014 at 5:03

I always thought it was an affectation --- Picard ordering it in a precise, military manner --- rather than a limitation of the system.

  • 2
    Perhaps this reflects how most adjectives in Picard's native language, French, follow rather than precede the nouns they modify. :) Aug 2, 2014 at 2:38
  • 1
    Problem is, French is an extinct language (see TNG: Code of Honor). Though Picard is pretty passionate about it anyways (same episode).
    – trlkly
    Aug 2, 2014 at 11:30
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    This was my thought, although I wouldn't call it an affectation as much as it's just "how he is." Aug 2, 2014 at 12:12
  • This was also my thoughts. I'm reminded of standards for identification names of military inventory, e.g. the naming convention detailed in the document at dtic.mil/whs/directives/corres/pdf/410039m/410039m_vol04.pdf which contains names such as "Tank, refueling, aircraft" and "BRACKET, FRAME, VISIBLE INDEX FILE, used aboard ship". I'm not a military person myself, but I've been led to believe anyone who has worked in military logistics has a tendency to start thinking in this kind of order automatically...
    – Jules
    Aug 2, 2014 at 20:24

I was happy to see corsiKa's comment, as this reflects a theory I've had for a long time. If Picard asked for "hot, Earl Grey tea," he would get exactly the same thing, but this hasn't always been the case. When Picard was younger, the Federation's parsing technology was not so advanced, and replicators only understood basic commands, so you had to order in a menu-system way as Andrew Miner describes. Or perhaps it's not a question of technology development, but the availability of this technology: self-contained domestic replicators, such as Picard might have grown up with on his family's estate, worked this way, but replicators on starships (and maybe those in big cities) are connected to a centralised language processor to understand natural-language commands.

For this reason, Picard might have developed the habit of asking for tea in computerese, a habit that's stuck with him even though it's no longer necessary. He's like your older relative who always saves files by going through the File -> Save menu instead of the toolbar icon. I like to imagine that when he asks for "tea, Earl Grey, hot," his younger colleagues inwardly sigh and shake their heads at gramps.

  • 3
    You mean like when Janeway orders "coffee, black"?
    – user
    Aug 2, 2014 at 15:59
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    @MichaelKjörling and she doesn't even specify what type of coffee!
    – Monty129
    Aug 2, 2014 at 16:57
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    @Monty129: I guess one thing the authors failed to predict was that in the future, Starbucks menus would encourage/require people to even know what type of coffee they're served, let alone care. Aug 2, 2014 at 18:11
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    You mean, instead of Ctrl+S?
    – Lie Ryan
    Aug 3, 2014 at 9:37
  • 2
    I don't know whether it's more or less common than restaurant patrons asking for "black coffee", but ordering "coffee, black" is hardly unusual even when dealing with human servers.
    – supercat
    Aug 3, 2014 at 19:15

Assuming we're happy to look to the EU novels as our guide, ordering an Earl Grey tea and specifying the temperature seems to be sufficient, regardless of the precise order of the words, suggesting that Picard's clipped description is just force of habit rather than somehow essential to the ordering process.

The Federation emblem replaced Jellico’s face on the desktop monitor. Dax deactivated the screen and sighed. “Nothing like a pep talk from headquarters to boost morale.” She stood and turned to her replicator. “I’m having a raktajino. Can I get you something?”

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot,” Picard said.

She turned to the replicator and said, “Raktajino, hot and sweet, and an Earl Grey tea, hot.” The drinks formed in a whorl of golden light and white noise. When the machine had finished, she took the drinks from the nook and handed the tea to Picard.

Star Trek: Destiny - Lost Souls

As to why Picard doesn't just tell the computer "When I say tea, I mean "Earl Grey Tea, Hot", this is neatly dealt with in Q in Law when we see that he doesn't always want his tea the same temperature.

Picard glanced at him. "Would you?" "Captain, are you all right?" "A headache, Number One," said Picard tiredly, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Just a headache. God help us if she's still in phase." "Yes, sir. Can I get you something?" Picard turned to the food dispenser just behind him.

"Earl Grey tea. Piping hot." Within an instant the small hatch slid open and a cup of tea extended out. Picard took it and sipped it gingerly. "Take the conn, Number One. I'm going to be indisposed for a few minutes."

Q in Law


Just to throw another one out there, albeit something that a few commenters have pointed out...

In French, "hot Earl Grey tea" would be "thé Earl Grey chaud", so perhaps it is merely Picard's undying French influence lying beneath the surface. He may well speak English all the time, but old habits die hard, and bilingual people are known to think with a mixture of both their languages, so it's not a huge leap to presume that Picard might be using English words with French grammar simply out of habit or as a result of the way language forms within his mind.

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