Category Archives: Picky Punctuation Points

How punctuation changes or destroys meaning

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.

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.