Tag Archives: construction sites

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.


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.

Illegal Words

The scene: I’m chopping turnips and listening to my local public radio station. The action: The announcer promises an extended report on “illegal spying” after the break. The reaction: I spend the next ten minutes wondering if “legal spying” exists. The consequences: I  lose a thin slice of fingertip to inattention and have to rinse blood off the turnips. Denouement: I decide that “illegal spying” falls into the same category as “victorious traitor.” If you win, you control the language. That’s why no “traitor” ever gains power. A “traitor” who succeeds is a “rebel” or a “patriot” (see “American Revolution”).  So  James Bond isn’t engaging in “illegal spying” in the eyes of the British government. The nation spied upon, however, holds a different opinion. If James Bond gets caught, he goes to prison. Of course, James Bond never does get caught, not permanently anyway. Why ruin a franchise that reaps billions?

But I digress. This post isn’t about potboiler-blockbusters. It’s about legality and the words that describe it. Take a look at this sign:

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These words appear at a construction site, on the side of a shed that protects pedestrians from any falling debris. The ceiling of this shed is maybe twelve or fifteen feet high, level with the apartment windows on the second floor of the building. (How nice for the occupants! They can chat with construction workers over morning coffee.) Back to language: “burglary” is a legal term for breaking and entering a building in order to commit a crime. Okay, that word makes sense, because the shed could facilitate entry into those second-floor apartments. But “hold up”? This is an informal term for “mugging” or any robbery committed with a weapon.  Technically, the same bad guys sneaking through a window could “hold-up” the occupants, but this action is already covered under “burglary.” So why use both terms?

I didn’t lose a fingertip to this one, but I did speculate all the way home. Did the sign-maker envision armed robbers atop the scaffolding, taking wallets and jewelry from residents strolling on top of the shed? For a block or two I decided that the protection was for pedestrians under the shed – a sort of “walk through here and you’ll be safe” notice. Then I realized that “pedestrians” aren’t “premises.” So that theory bit the dust. At the end of the walk, I decided that another definition of “hold-up” worked best: “delay.” This company promises that the building will be “electronically protected” against missing sheetrock, striking workers, and four-hour lunch breaks. Now that is something worth paying for.