Tag Archives: English usage


Poet T. S. Eliot called April “the cruelest month,” but he was wrong. It’s definitely February. The holidays are over and spring feels far, far away. Plus, the month is almost impossible to spell correctly. And sometimes it has an extra day! To cheer myself up as February staggers to its end, I snapped these photos of silly signage. I hope they make you smile.

First, a store-closing notice:

“Bitter cold summers, sweltering summers.” Huh. I’ve lived in New York City all my life, and I don’t remember any “bitter cold” July or August days. This store went out of business because, I suspect, the lease the owners signed was checked as carefully as the text of this message.

To defend yourself against “bitter cold summers,” you might try working out:







Pilates, fine. But the other part? We’ve all got “privates” — and I don’t mean the military sort —  so I don’t see a need to purchase any.

This one, for reasons known only to my phone’s camera, is rather small, but I’m posting it anyway because . . . well, you’ll see:




In case you can’t read it, the sign says: “self dog wash instructions.” Where do I start? How about here: It’s reasonable to assume that Fido doesn’t know how to lather up and rinse thoroughly without instructions, but if you assume that, you have to assume that Fido can’t read either.

One more:







In case you’re craving a bit of jerky or a nice bone, you know where to go. Enjoy!

A Valentine for You

I’ll keep this short and sweet for Valentine’s Day because you’re probably too busy (1) hugging your sweetheart or  (2) wishing you had a sweetheart or (3) marketing to sweethearts.  Which is what this store attempts:







I’m awarding a D- grade to the person who typed this sign, especially the last line. (“Your love one”? Really?) I’m also giving a D- to anyone who thinks caviar is a better Valentine’s present than chocolate. Or roses. Or even a trip to a fast-food place without kids, cats, or in-laws in tow. I mean, caviar is fish eggs, right? Don’t expect an “A+” from me for fish eggs! But I’m a grammarian, not a gourmet, so if “your love one” likes fish eggs, go for it. Just don’t call the gift “your caviar.” You’re a sweetheart, not a sturgeon.

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.

Time to Drop Out

Scientists tell us that communication is key to human nature, but they’re just stating what is obvious to every person who ever lived. And speaking of obvious, this sign easily reaches overkill territory:







“Pick Up/Drop Off Only”? Someone from the bus company thought it necessary to tell us that. Because otherwise customers might think that the curb near this sign is handy for, I don’t know, a shower and a shave or maybe a vacation rental. 

Short digression: It occurs to me that I’ve posted a lot about buses lately:  signs announcing in-bus DNA testing and banning luggage-rack climbing, for example (http://www.grammarianinthecity.com/?p=2240). Maybe it’s the crazy and at times infuriating nature of this form of transportation that brings out the worst in people — and not just in New York City. When I typed the Spanish word for “bus stop” during a recent trip to Madrid, my phone’s autocorrect kept trying to attach a rather strong curse word to “autobus.”

And then there’s this one, from the window of a dry-cleaner:








The moment I saw this sign, I wondered why anyone would “only drop off” clothes. Don’t customers want their stuff back? Apparently yes, as the store is now out of business. Instead of dropping off my good clothes (and saying goodbye to them) at this shop, I must now go to a different dry-cleaner. Maybe here:

No word about pick up, but at least the blazers and slacks I drop off will be “well looked after” while they’re away from home. Or in their new homes. Whatever. I’m dropping out of this discussion.

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.”

Bus Woes

Aren’t buses annoying? First of all, there’s that plural. The usual phonetic rules call for a double “s” in the plural, and some people do indeed write “busses.” “Buses” is more common, yet for some reason I feel slightly wrong every time I write it. Then there’s the actual bus, which never comes on time because it’s waiting for a quorum. Passengers, that’s the real reason you see four buses pull up at the same time. Unless there’s a group of four, the bus-run can’t begin. Finally, there are the silly signs both inside and outside of the vehicles. For example:







It’s worth noting that NYC city buses (except those on the airport route) don’t have luggage racks. But even if they did, are there people who need to be reminded not to climb the walls and sling a leg over a metal bar? Actually, scratch that question. This is NYC, so the answer is probably yes. I do wonder why “Luggage Rack” is capitalized. Normally, generic nouns are written in lower case. Perhaps adding capital letters makes the nonexistent item more real.

Moving on:

This one was on a tourist bus, so warning people not to slide the roof or throw packages is probably a good idea. People’s brains tend to hibernate when they’re on vacation. My favorite part of this sign is “frequencies.” I’d expect a singular there, because the time period between events varies, not the time periods. “Frequencies” makes me think of radio stations and, vaguely, astrophysics, which I can think about only vaguely because I have no actual knowledge of the subject. Also, why “approximately”? Isn’t that implied by “vary from 8 to 15 minutes”?

I used this photo in another post (http://www.grammarianinthecity.com/?p=2159) but I can’t resist repeating it because it’s such a good example of the “bizarre bus sign” genre:







DNA. Good to know. If you want to maintain your privacy, try not to shed any cells while riding. And if you wish to explore your genetic heritage, this bus is for you. Happy riding.

Planes, But No Trains or Automobiles

I’ve spent way too much time in airports lately, but my time loss is Grammarian-in-the-City’s gain, because those hours yielded some interesting material for this blog.

First up is a sign in JFK Airport that I stared at for what seemed like hours (because it actually was hours — the plane was late):

Good advice. I hate collaborating alone.

Moving on, I saw this advertisement in Madrid’s Barajas Airport:







I’m not sure what a “deli flight” is, but I’m certain that I didn’t have one. I’m pretty sure I don’t want one, either.

Speaking of Barajas, the map of stores and other amenities in Terminal 4 included this item:

The number 15 corresponds to a spot on the map (I think), so that’s one mystery solved. I never did find the “Hour Passion” store to see what it was selling. I’m not sure I want to know.

My ideal airport would let me get in, get on, and get out as quickly as possible. Too bad that ideal never becomes remotely real. If you’re flying during the holidays, good luck!  Feel free to send me any interesting signs you encounter.

Traffic Favorites

During the holiday season “clip shows” pop up, presumably to give those involved in creating them some time with their families. Grammarian in the City is no different. I’ve just returned from vacation, where I occasionally snapped photos of ridiculous signs for use in future posts. While working through jet lag, I’m recombining bits of old posts of some of my favorite traffic signs, such as . . .







The word “oxymoron” was invented for situations like this one — especially the last two syllables, which are reserved for the sign-posters, who want you to stop and not stop at the same intersection — which, by the way, is in front of the United Nations, where contradictory statements occur with some regularity.

And then there’s . . .

If you’re a truck needing Weight Watchers, you can drive on this street as long as you don’t get an “overweight permit,” which I presume is some sort of legal document. Thus this sign tells you to break the law or stay off Park Avenue.

And for those of you who drive taxis . . .

From this sign I assume that taxis with more than one passenger can go anywhere, but if your destination is above “46 St” or you have a crowd in the back seat, you’re out of luck.

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.”

Calling All Creatives

Words slide from one part of speech to another all the time. How else could I meet some Yankees (noun) or watch Yankees baseball (adjective)? Nor is it rare for words to pick up new and fanciful definitions, though I confess that the first time I see the unexpected, I tend to assume the writer is wrong. Alas, pride does indeed go before a fall, because often I am wrong and what I thought was an error turns out to be a creative expression or a specialized usage.

Are these sign-writers visionary, knowledgeable, or grammatically inept? I’ll let you decide.

Man shirt?









The usual expression is “men’s shirt” or, in an apostrophe-stricken way, “mens shirt.” “Men’s” with the apostrophe is a possessive noun. Without the apostrophe it’s a mistake.  “Man shirt” turns “man” into an adjective. The dictionary allows for “man” as a noun (the man at the counter), a verb (to man the barricades) or an interjection (Man! That was awesome!) True, I don’t flinch at “man cave” (not at the wording, anyway). Perhaps the sign-writer didn’t want the correct but trite “men’s shirt.” But how to change it? “Male shirt” endows the clothing itself with gender.  “Shirts belonging to men” is too long and often inaccurate, as lots of people who aren’t men like the button-down look. “Masculine shirt”? That seems to rely on outdated stereotypes. Maybe “man shirt” isn’t so bad after all.

Moving on:

In my ignorance I was ready to impose an “unauthorized part of speech” penalty — until I looked up “creative” in the dictionary, which enlightened me to the fact that “creative” can be a noun applied to people who, well, create for a living: writers, artists, composers, and so forth. Apparently I’ve been a “creative” for decades and never knew it.

Last one:









“Availability” as a noun is pretty common, but usually in the abstract sense: “Her immediate availability makes her the ideal candidate for Fire Warden, because two million acres are aflame and another million at risk.” But every dictionary definition of “availability” begins with “the quality of” or “the state of,” not “the place where.” On the sign, “availabilities” is a stand-in for “property you can rent if you have enough money.” (A little research into real estate prices showed me that “availabilities” are more expensive than “space for rent.”) Before I leave this sign, I have to address the meaning of “RSF.” I found a site listing 53 meanings for this acronym. I scrolled past “Royal Scots Fusiliers,” “Resource Selection Function,” “Rivista di Studi Fenici” (Journal of Phoenician Studies) until I arrived at “Rental Square Feet,” which seemed more apt than Scots, ecologists, and Phoenicians.

This whole post, by the way, arose from a New York Times article that quoted the phrase “negative effectives” from a judge’s decision.  Given that an “effective” is a “soldier ready for battle” and the ruling was about the military, the phrase might have made sense. Sort of. Then I checked other papers, all of which referred to “negative effects.” Sometimes a “new usage” isn’t creative or specialized. It’s just a typo.

Moral of the story (and note to self): Check before you scoff.