Tag Archives: Hyphens

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.

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.

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.

Anatomy Lessons

Thousands of words have been written about the media’s tendency to present unrealistic body images. These signs are unrealistic, too, but in their own glorious way:



This shop apparently caters to customers whose toenails center around their spines. If that’s your situation, you’d certainly want a pedicure. Just think how uncomfortable it would be to settle into a chair, lean back, and hit a toenail.

Staying on the subject of feet, I can’t resist reposting this sign (see “Massage Tips”  at http://www.grammarianinthecity.com/?p=1253):

Front feet not included.

Front feet not included.


The hyphen in “back-foot” creates one description; therefore, this store massages only your back foot. Go somewhere else if your front feet are sore.

Here’s another sign that assumes some strange anatomical features:

How many upper lips do you have?

How many upper lips do you have?









Okay, “upper lips” and “under lips” may be a general reference to body parts, not a strict count of what’s on a client’s face. But why the singular “chin” then?  A customer is more likely to have more than one chin than more than one upper or under lip, even in this city well supplied with supermodels who wear size zero. And what’s a “side face”? Is each side $10, or do some people opt for an asymmetrical look?

I’m not even going to speculate about the meaning of “Men Ear Wax or Thread.” But if you want to do so, go for it!

April Fool

Slightly out of season, I know, but like most New Yorkers, I’ve spent this August dreaming of a time when the city wasn’t wrapped in a blanket of hot, wet air. Specifically April, when I snapped these photos and mentally placed them in the “April Fool” category, though I’m fairly certain the creators thought their signs were models of clarity. First up is a statement about a mysterious “shirt machine”:

How are your shirt conditions?

How are your shirt conditions?


I’d probably be tempted to use this device if my clothing were in good “conditions.” But my tees and blouses currently feature sweaty patches, grass stains, and one blob of what may be somebody’s used chewing gum. I’m not interested in keeping those conditions “better and longer” or, for that matter, keeping them at all.

From the next sign I learned that the city has a “Business Integrity Commission.” Great. If only NYC had a grammar commission as well:

Recycling what?

Recycling what?









Absent punctuation, the establishment is “recycling used cooking oil services.” How exactly do you recycle “services”? And did someone call a hyphen strike without informing me? I’d rewrite the sign this way: “Bio Energy Development, Inc. recycles used cooking-oil from this establishment.”

One more, also punctuation-challenged:

Refinish repair?

Refinish repair?

As written, the shop is offering “restoration” of antique furniture. They also do “caning,” which has nothing to do (I think) with corporal punishment and instead involves weaving strips of stiff grass into a chair seat. So far, so good. Both services are nouns, and both may apply to antique furniture.

Where I crash and burn is “refinish repair,” which seem to be verbs in this context. Is the store refinishing something it had previously repaired, or are they refinishing and repairing upholstery? If so, a couple of -ing syllables would be helpful. Also, is it possible to “refinish” upholstery? Paging furniture specialists! Send in your clarifications, please. While I wait to hear from you, I’ll dream of cooler days.




Wading into a swamp of uncertainty

To read signs in NYC is to wade into a swamp of uncertainty. Please, dear reader, put on your thinking cap and thigh-high boots. Rescue me from the swamp generated by these signs.

First up: this beauty, which was affixed to the fence surrounding a site associated with the never-ending construction of a new subway:

What kind of location?

What kind of location?









I fooled around with hyphens for a while in the context of this sign. But what’s a “white-hat location” or a “white hat-location”? The punctuation mark solved nothing, because I don’t know the significance of a “white hat,” beyond the traditional (and somewhat racist) idea that good guys always wear white hats. I pondered whether the sign referred to “hard hats,” which are supposed to protect workers from head trauma. But then why not say so? Also, I’ve seen many construction workers wearing hard hats in other colors. Perhaps the hat color is associated with rank, in which case this location is open only to those who have earned a white hat, which, like a black belt in karate, signifies that they’ve achieved proficiency in something (subway building? procrastinating? maneuvering around piles of metal rods and concrete blocks?). Your guess is as good as mine.

Next up is this awning:

What, no candlestick-maker?

No candlestick maker?


I went through the hyphen calculation again with this sign and came up with nothing. If it’s “prime-butcher baker,” is the baker toasting top-notch butchers? Maybe it’s “prime butcher-baker” and the store employs a skilled (prime) person who works on both meat and baked goods. At one point the concept of prime numbers flashed through my consciousness, but I couldn’t link 2, 17, or 983 (to name a few) to the “butcher baker” idea. If any mathematicians have theories, please send me a note.

Last and maybe least is this one:

For tiny cars.

For  cars?


What’s a “reduced garage”? For tiny cars only? A garage with fewer spaces? I thought the sign might refer to “reduced prices” until I took a look at the fees, which, I promise you, were in no way “reduced” unless your standard of measurement is the amount charged to park a car inside a luxury hotel suite (a ridiculous but apparently real offer to billionaires who have abnormal relationships with their vehicles).

I have more, but I’ll wait for a future post. I don’t want to swamp your speculative powers.

Boxing, New York Style

Manhattan apartments are notoriously tiny, and so are Manhattan closets. So it’s not surprising that during my walks around the borough I encounter many shops offering storage. What is surprising is the nature of that storage. For example:

Legal? Illegal?

Legal? Illegal?









Could be oregano, parsley, or . . . well, I’m sure the DEA would supply a list of herbs that people might want to stash off-site.

And then there’s this beauty:

Put your cold in a box.

Put your cold in a box.

Absent a hyphen, the sign’s meaning is ambiguous. The shop may be offering to store boxes that are low in temperature (cold-box storage). Or, the sign may be targeting sneezers, coughers, and those with similar symptoms (cold box-storage). I know I’d like to stash my ailments at times, especially when I see this sign:

What's free?

What’s free?









I also know, however, that the old adage, “you get what you pay for,” is true. So what’s free: the storage of a box (contents cost extra) or the box (storage charges apply)? I’ll let you know if my kitchen runs out of space and I have to store some herbs, eggs, milk, or anything else.

Hyphens Needed

Hyphens are the poor relations of the punctuation world. They hardly ever get the respect they deserve as regulators of meaning. Take this photo that my friend Deborah sent, for example. She snapped it at a spa. It’s a bit blurry, and so is its message:

Hyphens matter.

Good luck arguing with the employees here.









My mother would have won “employee of the month” at this spa because she had the “silent treatment” down pat, having practiced it extensively on me and my brother. I bet you know a few experts at this tool for emotional extortion, too. Of course, the sign most likely refers to spaces where talking is not allowed during treatment. But why guess? A hyphen would clear up any confusion. “Silent-treatment rooms” are where you deal with a glacier masquerading as a human; “silent treatment-rooms” are where your masseuse or physical therapist shuts up.

Here’s another hyphen-challenged sign:

Calling all cold boxes?

Calling all cold boxes?


Does this shop offer to store boxes that freeze your fingers when you touch them? If so, what’s in the boxes? Evidence of your latest serial killing?  Or do the shop owners place room-temperature boxes inside refrigerators? And why would you want to hire someone to do so instead of storing your frozen food at home? Are you really that hungry?

I can’t end this post without mentioning two other friends, Ed and Don, who each pointed out a variation on the missing-hyphen theme:  “one night stand,” which, hyphenated, could be furniture (“one night-stand”) or a fling (one-night stand). If you indulge in the latter, you get to visit the silent treatment rooms. . . er, I mean the silent-treatment rooms.

House, Home, and Hand

I gnash my teeth whenever I see a restaurant or food store offering homemade pasta, pickles, or whatever. “Who lives here?” I want to ask the waiter or clerk. “Whose home am I eating or shopping in?” But of course I’m too inhibited to challenge someone nice enough to bring me food, even if the same person is overcharging me for my homemade meal. I say nothing and keep my very short, well-gnashed molars to myself.

What the restaurant or store means, of course, is exactly what this restaurant menu states:

House made!

House made! Hand rolled!









Instead of homemade, this orecchiette dish contains house made sausage. (I’d hyphenate the description, but I’m not quibbling.) The sausage is not shipped in, dried or frozen, from a factory somewhere in an area of the country where there’s room to cook ten thousand meals at a time so they can be microwaved one by one in the postage-stamp sized kitchens New Yorkers put up with. The comment about the lasagna in the above menu is even better; the pasta sheets are house rolled. I would buy anything described so eloquently! And before you hop all over me for not noticing that a house can’t roll or make anything, remember metonymy, the figure of speech that allows a closely associated term to substitute for something else – for example, the Oval Office for the actions of the executive who works there.

Another term that pops up all this time is handmade. Check out this sign:

Not sure about the "treatments," but I like the "handmade."

Not sure about the “treatments,” but I like the “handmade.”


What beauty products await consumers inside this store?  The sign implies that they are made on the spot, just for you, by a Luddite who shuns machinery. This scenario may even be accurate, though a recent court ruling – I kid you not! – held that handmade bourbon could legally be made with the help of machines, because everyone knows that you can’t make bourbon without mechanical help. Truth in advertising, never a strong point, bites still more dust with this verdict.

It’s enough to make you retire to your  home to drink some handmade booze.




How’s that again?

As a New Yorker, I’m used to oddities. I once waited for the green light on a midtown corner. It was raining hard. A fully-clothed woman standing next to me was calmly lathering shampoo into her hair. No one even blinked – including me. But these signs gave me pause.

First up is this one, which I saw on the window of a toy store:

A sidewalk inside?

A sidewalk inside?









I’m not sure what bothered me more: the location of the sidewalk or the idea of a private store selling a public sidewalk. Maybe it was the price. Ten bucks for a sidewalk is a real bargain.

And then there’s this notice from the same shop:

Does the stock get dental benefits?

Does the stock get dental benefits?









Yes, I know that they mean “We are hiring people to work in sales or in the stockroom,” but I’m a grammarian, so I’m picky. It comes with the territory.

One more, from a pharmacy:

How about your "ill being"?

How about your “ill being”?


To talk about one’s happiness and health, you need the term well-being (with a hyphen) or wellbeing (one word). When you separate the two, the word well describes being. Presumably the pharmacy isn’t interested only in those whose being is happy and healthy. I’d like to think that they are also committed to people who aren’t feeling well.

That’s enough pickiness for one day. Be well!