Category Archives: Picky Punctuation Points

How punctuation changes or destroys meaning

Verbal Warfare

No, I’m not talking politics. This is a grammar blog! I’m talking about verb forms employed as nouns or descriptions, adding a dash of information — or, in the case of these signs, misinformation. Have a look:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I appreciate the sentiments, which appeared in one outpost of a national coffee chain, and I enjoy the creative capitalization. The last line of the message was a little alarming, though. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to see employees “serving,” not “servicing,” customers. If I need an oil change, I’ll look elsewhere. (I won’t make a pun about the other definition; this is a G-rated post. Besides, a little dictionary research won’t hurt you.)

Next up is this offer:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m willing to overlook “toping” charges for my pizza, but not “designed your own salad.” As the sign reads (lacking punctuation, of course), a “personal pizza designed your own salad.” Huh. I can only hope the ingredients of the salad are better than the grammar.

And then there’s this one:

I was thinking about upgrading my shower, but I guess I waited too long. This company “specialized in bathrooms” but now has moved on to bigger and better things. Too bad.  I do need someone I can rely on. Perhaps I’ll try this place:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll be charitable and assume that the shopkeeper is busy making sure light fixtures don’t catch fire and has no time to correct the sign. Points for artistry with duct tape, though.

Maybe I’ll turn to this firm:

If they’re “certified,” they can’t be that bad, right? Don’t ask me what they’re “certified” in (or “of,” as the sign says). At least they’re in NY — well, make that “Ny,” but nothing’s perfect. Not even verbals.

They Should Know Better, Part 2

In the previous post I lamented (okay, mocked) errors made by major corporations and my favorite newspaper, The New York Times. Sadly, I have more than enough material for a second post on the same topic. Check out this sign, which did NOT appear in a hair salon or wig store:

 

 

 

 

 

 

This sign is fine if the intent is to ban the passing of hair clumps, shining though the tresses may be. But I suspect the intended meaning is that the couple with the dog must stay away. Or maybe they’re the only ones allowed? It’s worth noting that this sign is made of enamel over metal. If you’re going to all that trouble, a moment with spell-check would seem appropriate.

Moving on to a passage from a novel, as it appears on my Kindle:

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Phased”? Pardon me a moment while I grind my teeth. “Phase” as a verb means “introduce in gradual stages.” The verb “faze,” on the other hand, means “to daunt or disturb.”  This book was professionally edited (presumably) before being sold by a major publisher. And yes, this book may be categorized as junk-food reading, which I admit I indulge in, but I expect literacy all the same.

And then there’s this statement from the NY Times:

Huh? I read this several times before guessing that the hyphenated element means “present.” I question that hyphenation, but even if it were correct, “who’s who in-house” is awkward and confusing. The newspaper of record shouldn’t require repeated reading to reveal meaning.

Last one, also from the Times:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I paused at “web vertical.” Before I unleashed my scorn I looked up “vertical” and got all the meanings I expected (“upright,” “perpendicular to the horizon,” and similar definitions). But then I checked “web vertical” and discovered that a website covering one topic in depth is “vertical.” “Horizontal” sites cover many topics briefly. So this time the joke was on me. I read quite a bit about technology, and I should have known better.

They Should Know Better

When I read hand-lettered signs in small stores, I readily accept a certain number of mistakes from proprietors who, I presume, are too busy to proofread because they have to order stock, supervise employees, and fill out tax forms. But when major companies are involved, my expectations rise. Obviously I’m courting disappointment, because Those Who Should Know Better often don’t. Witness this advertisement from a nationwide cosmetics chain:

As a verb, “gift” strikes me as a bit pretentious, but it’s not incorrect. The direct object, though, is another issue entirely. The sign urges you to “gift” people. Human trafficking, anyone? Please say no, even if you have a few relatives you wouldn’t mind “gifting” to someone willing to take them far, far away from your holiday gatherings.

And then there’s the phone company. I won’t tell you which one; I imagine it’s easy to find horror stories about all of them. I had to visit and call the one responsible for this ad no fewer than eight times before I succeeded in canceling my late husband’s phone contract. Check out this recruitment pitch:

 

 

 

 

 

 

If they can’t come up with the proper contraction (“you’re,” not “your”), how can they “practice data story-telling, analytics, and more”? And while I’m on the subject, do we actually want “data story-telling”? Can’t we manage with “data” alone, leaving “story-telling” to fiction writers?

I count on good grammar when I read my favorite newspaper, The New York Times, and usually that’s what I get. Every once in a while, though, the editors miss something. Perhaps the excitement surrounding Amazon’s search for new office space overpowered this writer:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wouldn’t mind “500,000 square foot modern of office space,” if I could figure out what it is.

One more, from a chain restaurant:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve always wanted to try the wings at this restaurant, but I’ll pass on the “sloo smoked BBQ.” I’ve never liked the taste of “sloo.”

Holiday Shopping

Judging by the signs I’ve spotted recently, merchants are hoping you’ll purchase fashionable holiday attire — for your furniture. An example:

Surely you weren’t planning on ushering guests into a room with a naked table! A four-legged pair of jeans would do nicely for a hip, can’t-be-bothered-to-dress-up dinette set. An evening gown with a very wide skirt saves formal hosts from the embarrassment of an underdressed eating surface. No hint from the shopkeeper about what sort of “table clothes” are available. If the customer isn’t pleased with the styles on sale, “sheets” could possibly preserve the table’s modesty.

Sheets, by the way, seem to tangle when they encounter signs, much as they do in a washing machine:

My bed has lumps, but no bedbugs or a single  “pillow sheet.” How about yours? Maybe a “pillow sheet” would be a good gift.

Still in the linen closet, I’ll move on to the next sign, trying not to cry that the apostrophe rule has crashed and burned once again:

 

 

 

 

 

 

The apostrophe give a sheet possession of the “sale,” which, judging by the price but not the quality of the merchandise, is a pretty good deal. Why is it that so many people persist in thinking that an apostrophe creates a plural? Theories welcome.

I’m obviously stressed about punctuation, and this sign didn’t help:

The bullet point in front of “house” was odd because there were no other items on the sign, hence no bulleted list. But if I’m opting to tinker with punctuation, I’m going for a comma after “house.” That comma would create a direct address statement appropriate to this holiday season:  “House, hold items [so I don’t have to].” See? Shopping-stress relief!

Enough grammar quibbles. Focus on what’s important about Thanksgiving and other holidays:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do what the sign says: “Enjoy you holiday.”

The Next Logical Question

A challenge of writing is to distinguish between what’s in the mind and what’s on the page, or, in the case of this blog post, on the sign. No doubt these sign writers thought they were expressing themselves perfectly, but each left me with at least one unanswered question. For example:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unanswered Question: What do the “gas leaks” say?

I should note that a little punctuation would have gone a long way. A question mark after “leaks” and a period or exclamation point after “us” would do nicely here. On the other hand, clarity may be overrated. I did spend an enjoyable quarter hour thinking up possible dialogue:

COMPANY: Good morning. How may I help you?

GAS LEAK: Hiss …sss … sss.

Longer but not clearer is this one:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unanswered Questions: Why do “pearls” (plural) outnumber “diamond” (singular)? And does the shop really grind up precious gems? Most important: Does anyone working in this shop actually know what these facials are?

Once again I’m struck by the number of nonsense words employed by the “beauty” industry. I read a Sunday NY Times feature on skin and hair care for several weeks before I realized that it was not, in fact, a parody. Moving on:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unanswered Questions: How many passengers need a DNA Kit? Can’t they check their genetic heritage at home? Does the transit authority seriously believe that a robber will stand still long enough for a cheek swab?

The difference between “may be” and “is” seems significant, but I can’t quite figure out why. My best guess is that the MTA wants you to know that they are not necessarily watching but they are always ready to roll when it comes to your genes. Last one:

Unanswered Question: What happened to the candlestick maker?

I did toy with the idea that the “butcher” chops up a “prime” number — not into factors, but maybe into pieces, like severing the top circle of an eight from the bottom. That interpretation leaves out the “baker,” who may bake less than prime quality bread and cake. Perhaps that’s why the candlestick maker quit.

Dumb Questions

One day when I was teaching ninth-grade English, a student approached me during a test. “When it says ‘answer the question’ should I answer the question?” I mention this incident, which sits in my memory bank right next to the time a senior wanted to know whether the government had a “suppository of documents” nearby, because I ask some pretty dumb questions, too. Such as . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doesn’t number two on this list — “imported & domestic items” —  include everything ? If so, why not just say “everything”? And does the customer have to choose: “I want domestic items only, please” or “If it’s not from here, I’m buying it”?

More dumb questions:

“Your portrait painting here”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does “your portrait painting here” mean that you and Abe are in it together? Does he stay the same size while you’re squeezed into the upper left corner? Why write “portrait” and “painting”? Isn’t that overkill, like the “oral mouth care” ad I heard on the radio recently?

Dumb Question #3:

Is the price “around 50 cent”? Why not give an exact price? And why not “cents”? Is a rapper in the vicinity? I won’t ask who’d buy wings “all day and night” because this is the city that never sleeps, and that sort of schedule leads to interesting dietary habits and, possibly, the omission of crucial punctuation.

Last one:

Do you call the front desk for “boom service,” and if so, how much do you tip the guy who lowers the boom?  How do you delivery a “jobsite”? And what does a “boom service” showroom show?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Punctuation Problems

And the award for good punctuation goes to . . . none of these signs. Why? Well, take a look.

The first comes from a fence around a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. (Yes, this blog is about language in New York City, but even a grammarian needs a vacation from time to time.)  Where would you add punctuation?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is this direct address? Are the mansion-owners calling me (or any other sightseer) a “bad dog”? And who’s being ordered to “keep off fence” — the property or the dog? I don’t know. I do know that there are no bad dogs, just bad sign-writers.

Another muddle for you to solve:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I assume the contractor didn’t have time to add punctuation marks to this notice.  Too bad, because you can punctuate it this way:

Construction zone? No.

Access permitted.

Authorized personnel only permitted beyond this point.

Hear that, authorized personnel? There’s no building going on here. Wait behind the barricade until we call you. Regular people, feel free to walk wherever you like.

This one needs more than punctuation:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No, I didn’t add the duct tape. I resisted the temptation to peel it off to see what was underneath. Maybe it said “keep right” or “keep left”? Theories welcome.

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.

 

Beware!

As if you didn’t already have enough to worry about, along come a few more things to up your angst level. Take this sign, for example, posted on a construction site near Wall Street:

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here you thought it was enough to educate your kids about sex, drugs, and Internet chat rooms. Hah! Even if you’re far, far away from downtown Manhattan and have no plans to go there, you’re remiss if you don’t sit down with your offspring and explain “the dangers of trespassing on this site” – not the perils of wandering around other sites full of heavy machinery and gaping holes, but definitely this one. Hear that, Tahitians, Alaskans, and  Antarcticans? Tonight, after homework check and before toothbrushing, do your duty.

I confess I still don’t understand what this sign alerts me to, and that fact worries me even more:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are we talking plutonium here? (And if so, wouldn’t it be “radioactive”?) Sparkling pipes in  cement that can distract you and make you fall flat on your nose? Maybe a Keith Haring drawing of his trademark “radiant child,” formed from neon tubes? You wouldn’t want to walk over a modern masterpiece. Besides,  the two exclamation points imply that radiant tubing is nothing to fool around with. You may suffer unknown consequences if you don’t “beware.” (Make that “beware!”).

I do “beware,” but for safety’s sake I’m not limiting my caution to radiant tubing and construction zones. Here’s my slogan: “Beware of Everything.” Try it. You’ll feel a little anxious, but you’ll be much safer.