Category Archives: Now trending

Observing and all too often criticizing language trends

Personal Attention

Are you a “people person”? That’s slang for an extrovert, someone who delights in the company of others. (Which brings up this question: If you like one-on-one interactions, does that make you a “person person”?)  The noun “person,” used this way, refers to someone who is extremely interested in whatever descriptive word is attached to it. In this sign, though, “phone person” probably doesn’t refer to someone whose views on the latest iPhone resemble the way the rest of us feel about air. Instead, it’s the easiest way to avoid gender-specific terms. Take a look:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Write “phone man” or “phone woman” and you’re implying the gender of the preferred job- applicant. Top marks to this signmaker for non-sexist language! Not so top marks for communication. What does a “phone person” do? Call or answer or both? People doing those tasks used to be called “operators” or “secretaries.” But back to “person”:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: On some devices the image appears small, so I’ll reproduce its message here:

Help wanted

Experienced

  • Deli Man
  • Delivery Person

According to this sign, anyone can deliver, but only men can work in the deli. Really? I doubt that’s the meaning, if only because the ratio of men to women zooming around with bags of dinner is approximately a zillion to one, judging from my experience dodging delivery bicyclists on the sidewalks of New York. I checked “deli man” in various dictionaries, to find out whether this was a traditional term, like “businessman.” Nope. I’m still scratching my head over the mixed usage — gender nonspecific “person” v. masculine “deli man.” I can imagine a few scenarios: (1) two people worked on the sign or (2) someone cut-and-pasted part of an old sign into a new one or (3) the signwriter was on automatic pilot for the first half of the sign and then remembered that these days, discriminatory hiring is illegal. Other theories welcome.

To be fair, it’s not always easy to come up with an inclusive term. Here’s one effort:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, “fishermen” would be sexist, and “fishermen/women” is way too long. But “fishers” sounds strange, at least to my ears.  And so does, I’m sad to admit, “fisherperson.”  I can’t think of another term that works, though. “Marine-life procurement specialist”? “Seafood harvester”? Nope and nope.

I’ll let you, the “blog person,” figure it out. I’m off to see the deli man for some tuna, caught by fishers.

No parking in Oregon, and other absurdities

New Yorker that I am, I don’t often think about compass directions. I go uptown or downtown, and to the East or West Side. So this sign caught my attention as I walked around Seattle last week:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first impulse was to check the position of the sun and try to determine where, exactly, south was. I located the sun easily enough, but I’m staying in a house with a two-month-old. Was it morning or afternoon? I didn’t know. Nor did landmarks help, because my knowledge of Seattle geography is hazy at best. Next I looked at parking patterns. The sign was close to a corner;  only a micro-car could squeeze into the bit of curb in front of the sign. That direction was probably not south. Behind the sign were maybe fifty parked cars.  Law-abiding Seattlites are unlikely to flout parking rules in such large numbers, I reasoned — no south there, either. At last I figured out the true meaning. Listen up, Oregonians! Pay attention, Californians! You need to head north for parking. As I pondered the meaning of the sign, by the way, I decided it was fortunate I wasn’t driving a car at the time. I might have hit the tree while decoding.

And while I’m on the topic of absurdities — and I am — here’s a ticket stub from a play I saw recently:

 

 

I don’t mind paying for the ticket, and I’m semi-okay with the service charge. But paying a fee for a fee is going too far, in the same category as a charge for “shipping and handling” when I’m standing at a box office, holding my hand out for the ticket, which the cashier places on my palm. Why is that “shipping and handling”? At Madison Square Garden, it is.

One more:

Isn’t the very definition of “crime” something that is “punishable by law”? What else would it be, a crime rewarded by free ice cream cones?

It’s July 4th, America’s day to celebrate our independence — which apparently includes the right to hang silly signs and impose ridiculous fee fees. Enjoy your barbecue and your right to express yourself, absurdly or not.

Necessary Information

In colonial New England, the “necessary” was the room where you took care of necessary bodily functions — in other words, the toilet, restroom, lavatory, bathroom, latrine, powder room — pick your favorite term. (Off-topic but interesting: Why are there so many words for the same place?) The people in charge of these facilities appear to believe that they have to supply information to those who use them, as you see in this sign, which states what I would have thought was fairly obvious:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay, is there someone out there who thinks leaving the door open is standard procedure? I should point out that this restroom is right next to the eating area of a small café. You can hear people munching through the closed (and locked) door when you’re inside, and I guess the people outside occasionally hear you. So is a reminder really necessary? Plus, the first statement cries out for a direct object (“before you use the facilities” or something similar). I’d also like to see a period after “Thank you,” which isn’t, I admit, a sentence but seems to need closure.

Onward and ungrammatically upward, as in capital letters:

The sign wants to direct your throwing arm (actually, hand, according to the illustration), but the sign writer throws capital letters around at random. Also note the absence of a period at the end of the sentence — which really is a sentence.

One more:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aren’t restrooms constructed for “conducting personal hygiene practices”? Isn’t that the whole point? This beauty, by the way, sat atop a sink. I washed my hands anyway. I hope everyone else does, too. It’s necessary.

 

Do Me a Favor

English can’t do without “do,” a small but important verb. All by itself, “do” means “perform, act, or achieve” or “to be suitable or acceptable.” With another verb, “do” creates questions (“Do you like my new sofa?”), emphasis (“I do like it!”) or negation (“I do not hate the color.”) And then there’s “do” in the world of signs, where it shows up in odd or unnecessary places:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why not “we repair” all those things? The only way this sign makes sense to me is if it is a response to customers complaining that the shop sells all that stuff and then leaves them on their own to figure out why the audio is supersonic and the video invisible. “You should fix these things,” I hear imaginary enraged clients shouting. In this scenario, “we do repair” is an attempt to shut down accusations.

And then there’s this sign:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay, “waxing” is a gerund here, a verb-noun hybrid (the Prius of the grammar world). With “waxing” as a gerund, the verb “do” technically makes sense, because “waxing” is a direct object. This usage still sounds strange to me, though. Yet “we wax” sounds odd also.  To me, “we do waxing” comes across as a boast about some sort of mind-altering, illegal substance: “Cocaine is so 1980s! We do waxing at parties!” Forget about the sign for a minute. Isn’t the whole concept of waxing weird?  Can’t people just shave or stay hairy? But I digress. “We do waxing” should probably be “we offer waxing” or “hair-removal via wax offered here.”

One more:

 

This sign makes sense, because “massage” is a noun in this sentence (which even has a period! be still my beating, grammatical heart!). Even so, it’s part of the trend that pushes the main action into the direct-object role and inserts an unnecessary verb. I’d rather see something like “we massage backs.”

A final comment: Why “we”? If the store is advertising something, shouldn’t you assume that the employees aren’t sending you to “they” — the repair, waxing, or massage emporium down the block? “We do” want to know, so if you have any theories, post them. And do me a favor: Don’t “do” unless you have to.

 

Whatevers of the World, Unite!

I’ve written before about the modern custom of calling employees anything but. (See http://www.grammarianinthecity.com/?p=546.) Staples has “team members” (with customers as the opponent?) and Walmart has “associates.”  This trend appears to be gaining strength. Note these signs posted in a food store near me:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first one is a lie, judging by my experience, because the elevator has never actually functioned when I’m in the store. The second seems ominous; crew members entering their “quarters” are really on their way out of the building. Perhaps that’s why the elevator doesn’t work.

But let’s hear it for Starbucks, which displays this chalkboard:

I wonder if this employee’s 401K reflects her status as “partner.”  Somehow I doubt it; in fact, I doubt that she has a 401K or any other retirement plan from the coffee chain. And what’s with “quarter”? They can’t find an employee — sorry — partner of the month? I also like that she’s encouraged to show leadership “through” her peers. “Show through”? Like the crew being shown through the exit?

Lest you think I yearn for simpler times with older terms for workers, I should point out this sign is also problematic:

And the tradeswomen go where?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave aside for a moment the fact that “tradeswomen” are out of luck. Focus on the verb. The air of command in “will use” admits no possibility that someone delivering food, services, a baby, or whatever will disobey the sign and enter the same place as the front-door worthy. The sign is prescriptive, yes, but also it presumes to be predictive. Must be nice to see the future so clearly, as a crew member, a partner, a tradesman or a whatever.

No Time Like the Future

Does the English language have a future – tense, that is? Most grammarians keep things simple and answer yes. A few, though, see the future as an aspect of present tense, based on the fact that the verb form does not change in a sentence about what has yet to happen, as it does when, for example, “walk” turns into “walked” in a sentence about the past. To talk about the future, the main verb simply acquires “shall” or “will” — helping verbs, in this sort of analysis.

For the record, I think future tense does exist. But I’m intrigued by the philosophical implications of the other way of thinking – that the future, as we conceive it, is solely an aspect of what is happening right now. From that perspective, present actions carry more weight. Or, as thousands upon thousands of coffee mugs put it, “The past is gone. The future has yet to come. Only the present moment is real.” Or something like that.

I thought about future tense when I encountered this sign in the emergency entrance to a hospital:

Will be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As everyone who’s ever rushed to an emergency room knows, ten minutes of terror precede five hours or so of tedium (if you’re lucky). So I had a lot of time to think about the statement that “the nursing station will be on the left.”  Why not “is”?  Why future tense? Are workers scurrying around with hammers and dry wall, constructing the nursing station as you open the door?

Eventually I realized that the sign speaks to the state of mind of the people who are reading it. Most likely they’re scared because of what’s happening in the present moment and hoping that the moments, hours, days or even years to come will be better.  No general-purpose sign can promise that everything will be all right — not in a hospital. Uncertainty is king. But the sign supplies one small concrete truth to hang onto. Follow the hallway, and the nursing station — and the help it provides — will be on the left. Not much, maybe, but in that moment, that present moment, enough to keep you going.

Being Patient

Every once in a while a word or phrase snags my mind and pulls my attention away from more important things, like oncoming traffic or melting polar ice caps. This message on a sign in front of a medical pavilion caught my eye and took me away, however briefly, from my worries about the serious illness treated there:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll forgo all the jokes about why “patient” is the appropriate term for someone who waits, patiently or not, to see a doctor. The medical personnel I’ve recently gotten to know have a lot of patients — all of which require a lot of patience. Calmly and competently the doctors, nurses, and staff answer questions, soothe fears, and minister to every ailment, taking as much time as the patient, not the doctor, needs.

So I’ll skip the first word on the sign and focus on the rest of it, which at first offended me. It made me think of a loading dock, where things — inanimate objects, not people — are hoisted onto or off of trucks. How demeaning, I thought. But sick people, to an extent, do take on some characteristics of objects. They’re moved around, often without understanding where or why, because their bodies require attention. The normal dignity of adulthood rightly takes a backseat during illness.  Still, “loading and unloading” seems harsh. No one wants to be viewed as cargo.

But what are the alternatives? My first thought was “pick up and drop off.” That wording is not as bad as “loading and unloading,” but it’s far from perfect. “Pick up and drop off” shows up on laundromats and dry cleaners, UPS stores, and so forth. The phrase still conjures up things, just smaller items like packages instead of larger loaded or unloaded crates. (True, kids are picked up or dropped off, but that fact underscores the loss of independence that adult patients experience.)

Nor do longer phrases work for this sign, because drivers need to comprehend the meaning immediately. For this reason I discarded (dropped off? unloaded?) “Stop here only long enough for patients to get out of or into your car.” By the time a driver comes to the end of that sentence, fifteen cars are lined up behind, horns blaring.  Less common phrases have the same problem. Do you want a driver who’s decoding “disembark” or “alight” instead of flicking the signal lever and easing over to the curb?

Nothing I’ve come up with really works, so I’ll have to live with “loading and unloading.” I’m open to suggestions, though. Write when you have time. I can wait. I’m patient.

Bossy

New York signs make a valiant effort to boss people around. Valiant, but futile, as New Yorkers are not known for their unquestioning obedience. Yet the effort continues. Call it faith, if you’re an optimist, or insanity, if you’re not. Here’s an example of bossy New York, in the primary image I chose for this blog:

NYC Block Box Sign

 

I often wonder whether non-New Yorkers understand this sign, which directs cars to stay out of the intersection (“the box”) when the traffic light turns red. New Yorkers decode it easily; they just choose to ignore it. Effective or not,  this sign is one of my favorites, rivaled only by the classic “Don’t even think of parking here” that sadly has disappeared from the streets of New York. Not that drivers paid attention to that one either.

Recently I snapped photos of two lists of no-nos. Here’s one from a city bus:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Except for the first (littering), riders mostly obey the other prohibitions on this list. I don’t credit the sign, though, because in this day and age, hardly anyone assumes that smoking is allowed on public transit. Spitting is rare because of the gross-out factor.  The last prohibition seems to be a leftover from the boom-box era, when teenagers lugging thirty pounds of technology blasted thumpingly loud music into their fellow riders’ ears.  Even then, those devices were more often playing CD tracks, not radio broadcasts.

The next sign was posted by the management of an apartment building:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I saw this sign, no one was around, so no one was noncompliant. So is this an effective sign? In my view, no, because of its content.  Maybe a couple of kids gave up ball-playing, but that’s probably because they’d been scolded by someone who didn’t want to listen to the thump of a tennis ball or a Spaldeen (a pink ball essential to stickball, a NY street sport that no one plays anymore because of all the Uber vans clogging the road). Nor does the sign stop “loitering.” That activity disappears naturally because if you stand in one spot, a preoccupied pedestrian is likely to knock you over. Side point: Why specify “sitting in front of building”? Perhaps you’re allowed to sit next to or behind the structure? Or on top of it, if you can get past the doorman? I  agree with the ban on peddling. It’s a well known fact that one sidewalk cart, unopposed, spawns ten more each day, each of which in turn gives rise to ten more, leading to . . . well, you can imagine. But peddlng is, in my opinion, less of a problem for this building than pedaling — bikes criss-crossing the sidewalk and terrifying everyone moving on actual feet.

But carriages? True, strollers increasingly resemble Hummers. I’ve been kneecapped by more than a few baby carriages myself. But seriously — how can you tell parents that their baby’s primary mode of transportation is not welcome?  You may have noticed that the list ends with “under penalty of law.” Illegal baby carriages. Who knew? Unless they’re referring to a Jane Austen sort of carriage? Or the horse-drawn ones that circle Central Park? Not likely.

It seems to me that New Yorkers, with their ingenuity and preference for hanging out (loitering?) on the cutting edge, should be able to come up with a better “don’t” list. Mine isn’t complete, but so far I’ve got cell-phone blathering in crowded areas (especially when it involves relationships, recent surgery, or job complaints),  texting while walking, and bicycling on the sidewalk. What’s on your list? Feel free to send it in. First prize is a boom box with an AM/FM connection, which you can use whenever you sit next to a “no radio playing” sign.

Breakage

A recent article in the New York Times reported that airlines count on “breakage” to save money. The reporter explains that many  airlines issue a voucher for a free checked bag on a future trip when the luggage you stashed for your current trip doesn’t reach you until more than 24 hours after landing. Which raises the question: What does the passenger do in the “acceptable” 24-hour interval? Leave teeth unbrushed, sleep without jammies, recycle underwear?

By offering you a voucher for the future, the airlines appear to hope that (a) you’ll be willing to fly with them again even though you’re in Seattle and your luggage is in Kuala Lumpur and (b) you’ll stop complaining because you have a voucher to pay a fee that they should never have been imposed in the first place. The third possibility is that they hope you’ll forget about the voucher completely, even if you do fly again on the same airline.

This last assumption, according to the Times, is known as “breakage.” The chain of reimbursement comes undone more often than not, and the airline incurs a theoretical but not a real expense. Why? My guess is that most customers forget about the voucher or lose it in the morass of junk mail that piles up on even the neatest kitchen counter.  I saw this sign (unrelated to airline travel) that captures the phenomenon the Times describes:

 

 

 

 

Sitting in a remote office, the corporate big-wigs of the airline world wear down the customers’ sense of control with late and overcrowded planes, ever-tinier seats and bathrooms, and expensive inedible snacks. Voucher breakage is just the final tug on a fragile chain.

I speculate about another possible motive for breakage. It strikes me that it’s hard to believe that you’ll actually get a bit of justice in this unjust world.  It’s tough to exert yourself to right a wrong that you didn’t create. As you’re watching the baggage carousel spit out suitcase after suitcase without spotting your own, you may have enough energy to act, but you can’t claim and use the voucher then. Three months later, as you contemplate a trip, it’s difficult to summon up the same level of outrage. To use a phrase that applies more and more these days, you may “normalize” bad behavior — which of course then increases.

My advice: resist breakage! Claim what’s due to you — in luggage and in life.

New Year’s Hodgepodge

The definition of “hodgepodge” — a great word if ever there was one — is “a confusing mixture.” Life feels like a hodgepodge these days, but laughter is an essential reaction to any absurd or difficult situation. In that spirit, here’s a New Year’s hodgepodge of incomprehensible New York City signs. First up is an example of over-eager punctuation:

Really not allowed. Really a bar. Thanks you for asking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m guessing a nervous owner is aiming for an emphatic tone. If so, mission accomplished. But why? Do people bring their dogs, cats, boa constrictors, parrots and any other NYC pets (and by the way, I’ve seen all of these at one time or another on city streets) into the store if only one exclamation point appears? And what’s with the underlined “bar”? Wouldn’t “open” be the more relevant word? Unless there’s a secret message (martinis available here, disguised as “food”)?

Friendly is good, right? Maybe not in this context, though:

Friendly to what?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is this product “friendly” to the conditions (asthma, allergy) or to those who have them? I’m assuming the latter, but the sign is ambiguous at best. And it’s trademarked! You’d think the sign-writer/trade-marker would check with a grammarian before signing off (pun intended) on this slogan.

Next up is a salon sign offering a very specific service:

Who’s counting?

 

 

I’m not really sure what “Natural Lash Extns.” are, and I’m very sure I don’t want to find out via personal experience. My real question concerns the number. Is someone sitting there counting? Do lashes come in numbered sets? And why 90? Is 75 too little? Inquiring minds want to know.

And while I’m on the subject of numbers, I’ll end this hodgepodge with a number of my own: 2017. I hope it’s a happy, healthy year for all of you.