Category Archives: Picky Punctuation Points

How punctuation changes or destroys meaning

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.



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.

Bad Jelly

A while ago a friend sent me a photo that perfectly captures the national mood, or so it seems to me judging by what I read in the paper:







I’m in a “gripe” mood also. So settle in with a little jelly, fellow complainers, and express your own annoyances. Here are three of mine:








It has long been my position that ‘n (intended as a contraction of “and”) is a grunt, not a word. Here it appears with double quotation marks. My advice: If you’re going to butcher a contraction, at least use the proper punctuation to do so. In this case, place an apostrophe before and after the n to indicate that a and d have been dropped.

Next gripe:












I’m a grammarian, not a mathematician, but shouldn’t “Three Cheese Mac & Cheese” be made with three types of cheese? Yet the second line specifies that the dish is “made with American and Swiss Cheese.” I checked the ingredient list, which lists no other identifiable dairy product. I thought about crossing out “three” and penciling in “two,” but I decided that customers, unlike label makers, can count.

One more:







I don’t usually bother with spelling errors, but this one I can’t ignore. Unless they’re trying to exclude everyone except Chicago and Boston baseball professionals, the word is “socks.” Second, even if the sign does refer to the White Sox and Red Sox, you don’t need the final “s.” “Sox” is a plural term. Which makes me wonder what you call a single major leaguer from one of these teams. I can’t imagine an announcer introducing “the next sock at bat.” Baseball fans, feel free to enlighten me, despite the fact that I’ve clearly eaten too much “gripe jelly.”  I think I’ll stick with plain peanut butter for a while, at least until I get my perspective back.

Apostrophes. Sigh.

If I had my way, apostrophes would be exiled from English. My reasons are sound. Many perfectly fine languages do quite well without this punctuation mark. Plus, few people misunderstand the writer’s intended meaning just because an errant apostrophe has crashed a sentence or gone AWOL. Alas, I don’t have my way very often, and never in matters of apostrophes. Perhaps that’s why I seldom bother snapping photos of the many errors I see on signs around New York. But every once in a while, I can’t resist. This sign caught my eye yesterday:







I’m fine with an apostrophe-less “ladies,” because nouns do morph into adjectives at times (e.g. “Yankees baseball”). However, “mens” isn’t a noun. In fact, it’s not even a word. “Men” is an irregular plural, so the only legitimate term is “men’s,” the possessive form. But are the alternatives fair?  You can write “ladies’ & men’s” or “ladies and men” and claim symmetry and equality.  Yet while you might talk about “ladies tailoring” you probably wouldn’t say “men tailoring.” (The technical reason: It doesn’t sound right. Plus, who’s to say that you’re not talking about a guy waving a tape measure around?) Despite the difficulty of fashioning an apostrophe in neon, I think this sign should read  “ladies’ and men’s.”

This sign writer took a different approach:


Fairness demands that because you can have a “man cave,” you should also be able to have a “man shirt.” Working backward on the logic chain to the first sign in this post, you end up with “woman and man tailoring.” I can live with that usage. In fact, I can think of many a woman and man I wouldn’t mind tailoring to my specifications  — talks less, vacuums more, stuff like that. But strict grammarians might object.

One more for (and from) the road:


Why do people keep trying to make plurals with apostrophes? Upstate’s “hen’s” may be the “happiest,” but I bet upstate’s grammarians are pretty glum. They may even be the “unhappiest grammarian’s.”

A Fog of Words

The city is sitting in a soup of gray fog as I write this post, much like the meaning of these earnest but incomprehensible signs. First up is from a nearby market that prides itself on fair-traded, locally grown, never-met-a-chemical produce:

Whose safety?


Okay, I get that skates inside a store can lead to crashes and possible puncture wounds from organic asparagus. I can also imagine that stepping on a stray artichoke with a bare foot might lead to a deadly collision with a pile of kale or a tub of alfalfa sprouts. But why is a shirt necessary for safety? Perhaps male customers showing off the effects of all those hours with a personal trainer elicit attacks from envious (or lustful) fellow shoppers. And pets? Is the store owner assuming that your poodle, well behaved in your house and on the street, will go berserk and bite you upon seeing the dog biscuit display? What the sign ought to say, I imagine, is that the shirtless, shoeless, pet-ful and skated customers may annoy and, by a long stretch of the imagination, endanger the staff and other shoppers.

The next sign features a word that hasn’t yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary:







The “clean up” part is clear, even without the smear of what I hope is dirt that a passerby added to a strategic spot on the sign. But what does “leash-curb” mean? Tie Fido to the sidewalk edge? Limit (curb) the length of extendable leashes? I’d support that one in a heartbeat, having tripped or leapt over many a twenty-foot tether.  My guess is that the hyphen is a comma that unwisely flattened out and floated up.

One more, for fans of beauty products:



Are the “50+ ingredients” this store “won’t sell” the appositive of “the finest ingredients” cited in the first line? I can just imagine the manager declaring that “this is the best hand cream in the world, so we don’t carry it and never will.” I’m tempted to go into the store with a list of 50+ ingredients I won’t buy.  That is, I would be tempted if I had the tiniest clue about or interest in body-care ingredients. By the way, I inserted a hyphen to link “body” to “care.” Without the hyphen, the “body” may conceivably be attached to “50+,” in which case you can’t shop here if you’re AARP-eligible.

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.

Grammarian in a Different City

I spent the last two weeks as a grammarian in three different cities — Madrid, Granada, and London. Far be it for me to write about Spanish signs, even those translated into English. How could I criticize, given that I wrote the Spanish equivalent of “pitifully, I can’t meet you for dinner” in response to an invitation from a friend? Nor would I dare take on the British. More than two centuries after the colonies declared independence, some Americans — including me — still harbor the idea that English in the Mother Country is superior.

I did notice one or two signs in London, on the window of a shop selling bespoke umbrellas and other, more unusual merchandise:

Paging James Bond.

Paging James Bond.



I go to this shop every time I’m in London, not to buy but to gape. I haven’t yet had the nerve to ask how “dagger canes” differ from “swordsticks,” but if I did, I’m sure one of the extremely helpful employees would explain. Nor have I glimpsed any “life preservers,” unless umbrellas sturdy enough to protect you in a flash flood rate that designation. What interests me about this sign is the punctuation — commas after the first two items and a period (“full stop,” in British English) after the last. Contemporary sign-makers on either side of the Atlantic seldom bother to insert commas. Periods, on the other hand, are trendy. (See “Stop Full Stop” at for more on this subject). But commas and periods together in a sign? Unprecedented, at least for me.

My first thought was that this punctuation reflected a different era, as indeed the store itself does:

Late of Saville Place.

Late of 1, 2, & 3 Saville Place.









In fact, the sign understates the store’s age; it was “estd” in 1830. I have no basis for comparison, though, as I was unable to find other signs from the same era.

However, conventions of language tend to be supported by some sort of rationale. I considered the sign again and decided that the commas may be separating items in a list, which ends with a period. In that case, though, I’d expect a conjunction (probably “and”) before “swordsticks.”  Furthermore, I wouldn’t expect to find a comma preceding the conjunction — not in Britain. That last comma usually shows up in American lists but not in British lists. It’s called “the Oxford comma” in Britain and, sometimes, “the Harvard comma” in the United States. (Perhaps “ivy comma” should be the universal, trans-Atlantic term?)  I finally concluded that the comma between “dagger canes” and “swordsticks” substitutes for the conjunction. There’s a comma before the implied “and” because “and” isn’t on the sign. This theory makes sense to me, but I’m open to other interpretations.

Regardless of punctuation, do visit this shop if you’re ever in London. The life you preserve may be your own.

Organic Panic

You can’t walk more than ten feet in Manhattan without seeing a sign advertising an organic product. According to the original, chemistry-class definition,  “organic” refers to any compound containing carbon. In recent years the “organic” shows up in connection with food produced “without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents.” Okay, no one’s against natural food (except perhaps some fertilizer/pesticide/artificial-agent manufacturers). But really, don’t you think the organic movement has stretched a little too far? This sign proves my point:








Buy these shoes in case you’re ever lost in the wilderness and have run out of regular (organic, of course) trail mix. You can eat your footwear without worrying about contaminating yourself with dangerous chemicals. Not that artificial ingredients would be your biggest problem in such a situation.

Moving on, here’s another organic offering, this time on the window of a barbershop. (Oops, I mean “salon,” which is what barbershops on the Upper East Side call themselves.)

Organic ammonia?

Organic ammonia?


Paging the punctuation squad: Clean-up in aisle three. I’ve given up on apostrophes, so I won’t go into “mens.” No one will misunderstand that word because it’s not properly punctuated. I’m also ignoring “natural cuts,” which are … what? Chops from falling trees? Thorn slices? But the absence of hyphens in this sign creates confusion. Is the shop offering “organic ammonia”? “Free hair”? “Free hair color”? And wouldn’t it be “hair coloring,” anyway? My guess is that the sign should read “organic, ammonia-free, hair coloring.” But even with the added hyphens and ing, the question remains: What does “organic” mean when the adjective is applied to “hair color”?

Another sign:

What's in this bottle?

Drink up whatever this is.









Hyphens, we need you again. Without hyphens, the bottle may contain smashed up “organic fruit” swimming in a chemical soup. Or the “beverage” may be organic, with fruit from pesticide-laced plants. The label implies health without giving any specific information, other than the fact that the US Department of Agriculture signed off on the designation “organic” for something. Alternate, perhaps correct labels: “all organic ingredients” or “made with organic fruit and some artificial stuff.”

One last thought: The New York Times reported this week that growers of medical marijuana cannot receive “organic” certification for their crops because the plant is illegal under federal law. Tobacco, the reporter pointed out, could conceivably meet “organic” standards set by the government. Which brings up an interesting question: Do “organic cigarettes” exist, and do they attract the healthy-eating crowd? Inquiring minds want to know.