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A Valentine for You

I’ll keep this short and sweet for Valentine’s Day because you’re probably too busy (1) hugging your sweetheart or  (2) wishing you had a sweetheart or (3) marketing to sweethearts.  Which is what this store attempts:







I’m awarding a D- grade to the person who typed this sign, especially the last line. (“Your love one”? Really?) I’m also giving a D- to anyone who thinks caviar is a better Valentine’s present than chocolate. Or roses. Or even a trip to a fast-food place without kids, cats, or in-laws in tow. I mean, caviar is fish eggs, right? Don’t expect an “A+” from me for fish eggs! But I’m a grammarian, not a gourmet, so if “your love one” likes fish eggs, go for it. Just don’t call the gift “your caviar.” You’re a sweetheart, not a sturgeon.


We New Yorkers, have, upon occasion, been known to be a tad self-absorbed. Common wisdom holds that Londoners see their city as the center of the world and New Yorkers view theirs as the world itself.  Nor are we New Yorkers known for patience. I read somewhere that telemarketers receive special training so they can convey their messages to New Yorkers at double the pace they employ for other locations. And, this just in: New Yorkers also like to complain.

Add self-absorption, impatience, and irritation and you get a phenomenon known as NIMBY – “not in my backyard.” NIMBY occurs all over the world, of course, but in New York City, where backyards aren’t common, it’s more often NIMS – “not in my street,” or NOMS, “not on my sidewalk.”

Check out this NOMS sign:

Note the italics.

Note the italics.









I might not have snapped a photo of this sign had it not italicized THESE PREMISES. The italics add emphasis and imply that you are free to loiter somewhere else, just “not on my sidewalk,” or NOMS.

A variation, which I’m still trying to decode, appears on this sign:

Let Fido poop on the sidewalk. Just not my sidewalk.

Around tree?









In a flush of optimism (no pun intended), I first saw this sign as a request to steer dogs to the stretch of curb around tree. (An impatient New Yorker, the sign-writer had no time to add the.) But this sign appears in New York, so I must conclude that instead of offering canine accommodations, the sign-writer wants dogs to go on somebody else’s sidewalk or street. It’s a NIMS/NOMS.

Slightly off topic, but too good to omit, is this sign:

Blessed or punished?

Blessed or punished?









The tenuous connection to NIMS is the fourth statement, Private Property. Implied by that phrase is “go somewhere public” (NIMS). But I have to admit I snapped the photo because of the five exclamation points, each a vehement finger stab in the eye. (How New York is that?) The sign also attracted me by including one our language’s strangest words, sanctioned, which means (a) official permission and (b) punishment. You have to love a language in which a word may be its own antonym.

And you have to love New York City, or at least I do, for displaying signs like these.


Some years ago, while I was teaching Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” a student stumbled over the proper term for the person who caught the animal. He started out with “fisherm…” and then stopped himself and went with “fisherperson.” Fisherperson? Really? I consider myself a feminist, but even I was taken aback by this word. It was fair, of course, because both men and women go fishing. But it sounded like something a late-night television host would mock. Yet what is the alternative? Fisher? Trout-worker? Marine life catcher? Perhaps letter carrier and firefighter also sounded strange when they first entered the language in place of postman and fireman.

I thought about this issue when I saw this sign on a construction project:

A single-sex project.

A single-sex project.


Only men work there? Or are only the male workers dangerous? Neither meaning is likely, so the sign is incorrect. The habit of assuming that a male term is understood to include both men and women – the “masculine universal” – has been out of favor, and for very good reason, for many years. Yet “MEN AND WOMEN WORKING ABOVE” seems artificial. How about “DANGER: CONSTRUCTION ABOVE”? Or, “WATCH OUT! WE’RE WORKING UP HERE!”

Here’s another sign:

No more "busboys"?

No more “busboys”?









Okay, busboy doesn’t work, not least because some of those doing this job are a couple of decades past boyhood (or girlhood). I can’t really support busser, as buss is a slang word for “kiss.” Table cleaner isn’t accurate, nor is plate remover. So, I’m stumped. Any suggestions?

The larger point is that language changes slowly, especially when it’s tied to a social movement, in this case feminism. And yes, gendered language matters. Children asked to draw a scene with cavemen hardly ever include women, while those asked to draw cave people more or less balance the sexes. So we do need these changes if we’re to see possibilities and eventual equality. Along the way, though, we may have to deal with some fisherpeople.



Expensive Words

The old saying, “words are cheap,” isn’t always relevant when it comes to marketing strategy. Add an old word – especially one that appears British – and the price rises. In these signs, holdovers and resurrected terms signal merchandise that costs more and (they hope you’ll think) that is actually worth the extra money. First, pharmaceuticals:

An apothecary!

An apothecary!



Chain pharmacies – Duane Reed, Walgreens, and Rite Aid in my neighborhood – could never be apothecaries. They emphasize price (as in low) and convenience. In my imagination, an apothecary wears a striped apron and requires a few minutes of polite chit-chat before filling your prescription or directing you to the toe-fungus section. (Not that I have toe fungus.)  In a non-apothecary (the word apothecary applies to both the person and the shop), I don’t expect a discount. I do expect personal service and a gentle shopping experience.

I expect the same in this food store:

Not general items here. Only specialties.

No general food here. Only specialties.



Doesn’t purveyor sounds better than merchant? About 20% better, judging by the prices for the specialty foods within. Don’t go into this store searching for, say, a box of Wheaties or a Hershey chocolate bar. Instead, look for food with advanced degrees – of both pretention and price.

Every rule has an exception. This store, in NYC’s garment district, sells doo-dads that attach to clothing (buttons, lace, sequins, and the like). This banner features a blast from the past:

Not from a research study!

Not from a research study!



The term findings  more frequently appears in connection with an inquiry, poll, or research project. In this sign, though, it means “tools or materials used by artisans,” according to Comparing this shop with others on the block, I found lower prices and slightly scruffier décor in the findings store. (Or should I say shoppe?) Perhaps in this case, the owner modernized neither language nor prices.

I’ll keep searching for strange words, and let you know my findings.








Station(a) (e) ry

In an old joke, someone asks, “Do you have trouble making up your mind?” The reply: “Well, yes and no.” I thought of this exchange when I saw this sign on an awning:




I saw this sign on a board in front of the same store:











The store, which has, to put it mildly, an eclectic inventory, needs a new awning. It sells paper goods and office supplies (stationery), not an adjective meaning “fixed in one place” (stationary).   The sandwich board could use some revision, too, as you can sell  “beauty aids” (objects) but not  “aides” (people who assist).  Still, at “99 Cents Plus,” the price is right, even if the spelling isn’t. See you later. It’s time to go shopping.





Gate Keepers

After the last Super Bowl, “Deflate-gate” consumed football fans. Were the Patriots’ footballs too soft during the AFC championship game? If so, who let the air out? I am by no means interested in that scandal or that sport. Traditionally, I go to the movies during the Super Bowl in an attempt to ignore all the hoopla. But I am interested in the suffix -gate. It’s tacked onto various words to signal “scandal” or “wrongdoing plus a cover up” (which is, of course, a fine breeding ground for scandal).

I know the origin of the word, having lived through Watergate – the scandal about a break-in at a Democratic National Committee office that ultimately led to the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency. I know this because I am old. But many of those discussing squishy footballs or sitting in traffic (during “Bridgegate,”  the questionable closing of most lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, a major commuter route to New York City) had not even been born when burglars snuck into Washington’s Watergate complex. So how did they learn the meaning of -gate? My guess is that so many scandals have occurred between 1972 and the present day that the term never had a chance to become history. It has remained in the language because it’s always in use. A quick search for –gate on the Internet turns up dozens alleged scandals on several continents. Some, like Watergate itself, involve serious constitutional issues. Others, like “Bibgate” (champion skier jumps without his assigned bib), do not.

So -gate is keeping up with the times (partly because the Times prints the term fairly often). Which got me to thinking about other words or expressions that have remained long past what I’d have imagined their “sell-by” date to be. This sign, for example, appears on nearly every construction fence in New York:

Did you pay your bill?

Did you pay your bill?









No one sees these signs as banning public displays of electric bills or credit card statements. Nor is the sign interpreted as a demand that Congress keep its laws off our building sites. Despite the fact that this definition of bill – a public notice or advertisement – is old and uncommon, the signs persist. Maybe they need an update, given the number of “bills” plastered over them. I suspect, though, that blank fences will always tempt those searching for free advertising space, regardless of the language used. So why is post no bill still around? Because it’s short? Because it sounds firm – three single-syllable words? My working theory is that “post no bill” is a tradition. It persists because that’s what traditions do. I’m open to other theories, though. If you have one, feel free to comment here.

Just don’t expect me to bail you out if you post your ideas on a bill.


What they are really saying . . .

The human mind has a need for completion, which often tempts me to take a sign to its logical conclusion. Logical, by the way, does not mean “intended.” I’m fairly sure that the people who wrote these signs would be surprised where their words led me. Here are a few signs and my responses:


Note that the last two words are italicized.

Note that the last two words are italicized.









RESPONSE: Loitering in front of someone else’s premises is fine.


Low? On Premises?

What kind of prices?









RESPONSE: How nice to pay low discount prices instead of high discount prices.


Accuracy above all.

Accuracy above all.




RESPONSE: If you lie about your age, this product reveals the truth.


No perc? No perc odor?

No perc? No perc odor?









RESPONSE: You can have perc odor without the perc? Good to know.

Take two adverbs and call me in the morning

Grammarians generally split into two camps, prescriptivists and descriptivists. A prescriptivist tells you to follow the rules, much as a physician urges you to exercise, stop smoking, and lose ten pounds. (Okay, twenty. But who’s counting?) A descriptivist explains how people actually speak and write. As a retired English teacher and the author of a number of grammar books, I have strong ties to prescriptive grammar. Without standards of expression, meaning often sails off the cliff of comprehensibility. Take a look at this sign:

Shop for free?

Shop for free?









I get that the store wants to associate shop and save, though you could make the case that customers save more by declining to shop altogether. But how do you shop for free bakeware? This sign may be a promotion — buy a certain amount of food and the store will present you with the pan to cook it in — or it may be something else. The language is so mangled that the meaning is lost. Same thing here:


What does "natural" mean?

Are there unnatural springs somewhere?


When everything is up for grabs, words lose meaning. Sign- and ad-writers know this very well, as do politicians.

On the other hand, rigid rules kill creativity. Language can’t — and shouldn’t — be preserved in amber. I used to fume when I saw disinterested, which traditionally means “unbiased or neutral,” in a sentence where uninterested was clearly indicated. But I’ve given up. Just as the definition of nice evolved from “neat and exact” to “friendly and kind,” disinterested has come to mean “not interested.” That’s how people use the word, and most readers or listeners understand. Those who insist on uninterested have lost the battle. Time to move on.

But I can’t give up completely on prescriptive grammar, and not just because I sell grammar books. Standard English — language that follows currently accepted rules — opens doors to careers that require formal expression. To tell someone trying to wedge a toe on a higher rung of the socio-economic ladder that prescriptive grammar is a totalitarian invention is not helpful. Citizens of the reality-based community know that “me and him are working on that case” is not something an attorney should say — well, not an attorney hoping to keep the job.

Yet I love this sign, despite the fact that it breaks the rules:

And mingle?

And mingle?









The thought of patrons of this bar enjoying mingle is just too much fun to edit out. Not to mention the image of a couple dancing to the beat of a football pass or a smartly executed bunt down the third-base line.

So I’ll play for both teams, and console myself with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” What grammarian could oppose a principle containing the word hobgoblin? Not this one.


















No workers, but lots of work

The famous command of the Communist Manifesto — “Workers of the world, unite!’  — is obsolete, and not just because communism proved to be, as the old joke says, the most painful route from capitalism to capitalism. The communist ideology  failed, but the slogan bites the dust for a completely different reason. Those who labor are no longer workers. Somehow it has become crass to refer to employees as the underlings they are, as this sign illustrates:


Who are we playing?

Who is the opponent?









The idea that “we’re all in this together” may appeal to management (where you’ll find many managers but few coaches), but I doubt that the store displaying this sign shares power and profits equally.

Another popular word for employee is partner, which is what you are when you work full time at Starbucks and Whole Foods, among other New Age enterprises. Barnes and Noble invites you to join its community of booksellers, not apply for a job. At Walmart you’re an associate, either management-level or hourly. Traditionally, an associate worked as a colleague, not always as an equal, but close to the power center. New lawyers become associates on their way (they hope) to partner status. Walmart has many employees (sorry, associates) who complain about forced overtime and underpayment. These claims may be without merit, but it’s hard to see the people at the registers of a discount store truly associating with those higher in the company structure, as associates in law firms do.

Conferring titles instead of power and increased pay isn’t confined to the business world. Just ask a distinguished professor or a professor emeritus. True, some with these designations see a small bump in salary, and many an adjunct (a college-level instructor paid a subsistence-level salary with no job security) would love to join their ranks. But the point is the same: Symbolic gestures, whatever the field, have come to replace concrete advantages.

Just ask the partner who bags your groceries.


Where beauty lies

I’m no stranger to the silliness of advertising. I came of age in the Sixties, when beauty product companies sold a “no-makeup look” that required about a pound of cosmetics to achieve. But lately, those same companies or their descendants have been marketing their wares using some strange appeals. I wager that the average consumer has no idea what’s in these products. Take a look at this ad:

Organic? Wild-crafted?









I understand the definition of organic, but seriously — wild-crafted? Are these products mixed in a small clearing overhung with oaks or whatever trees grow in the Black Forest? And of course it has to be a “complete system,” not just a jar.

If forests aren’t your thing, how do you feel about the Dead Sea? Read this one and weep, because you missed the deadline (or the Dead Sea-line) for a session with a haircare expert, who came, as the sign says

Which 26 minerals?

Which 26 minerals?


I don’t know how many minerals are in my shampoo. Twenty six sounds like a lot. But the more the merrier – or the shinier.

Maybe your hair is in good shape, but what about the skin underneath it? Better be sure, with this service:


The ultimate selfie

The ultimate selfie









I hope your scalp is photogenic! If it isn’t, move south a bit, to your eyes. They may be hungry:


How do eyes eat?
How do eyes eat?










Focus in on the cream, which appears on the window above the “nourish” tagline:

So glad the treatment doesn't migrate!

So glad the treatment doesn’t migrate!









And as long as you’re nourishing, consider this last sign:


Watch your diet.
Vegetarian cosmetics?


This sign would make sense if it appeared on the window of a food shop, but it’s advertising cosmetics. So what is a vegetarian cosmetic? One not tested on animals? One not made from animal products? One that doesn’t eat animals? All three categories are fine with me, but the signage is not.

These stores are selling beauty, which certainly lies in the eye of the beholder. The ads, though, simply lie.