Tag Archives: punctuation

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.”

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  http://www.grammarianinthecity.com/?p=1364 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.

“Punctuation”; Puzzles.

The title looks strange — on purpose — and it’s no stranger than the random addition or removal of periods, commas, and quotation marks in NYC’s signs. I wrote about the placement of periods in “Stop Full Stop” (http://www.grammarianinthecity.com/?p=1364). In this post I expand on the puzzles of punctuation. First up is this photo, which my friend Erica Berenstein sent me:

Can you spot the period?

Can you spot the period?









Reluctantly leaving aside the issue of capital letters, I can’t figure out the marketing advantage of placing a period after “dream” and nowhere else. True, the list separates the clauses (subject-verb pairs), but then why place any periods at all in this ad?

Microsoft takes a different approach to punctuation, as you see in these messages that popped up on my screen during a recent update:

And the comma is there because . . .?

And the comma is there because . . .?


The first part of the statement seems to be a shortened form of “we are getting things ready,” an independent clause. But if that’s the intended construction, the rules of Standard English don’t allow you to attach the first independent clause to the second (“Please don’t turn off your PC”) with a comma. Another possible interpretation is that “getting things ready” is an introductory participle, in which case the participle should modify the subject of the following clause. The problem with this explanation is that the subject of “please don’t turn off your PC” is an implied “you.” But “you” aren’t getting things ready. Microsoft is, or so it claims. By the way, there’s a period missing after “PC.” With such attention to detail, the upgrade promises to be buggy at best.

Here’s another Microsoft gem:




Okay, the words make sense, and the sentence begins with a capital letter. It ends with . . . nothing. No period. No exclamation point. Not even a question mark, which, given the state of internet security these days, would be more than appropriate.

Last one. Can anyone find a reason for these quotation marks?









I’m stumped. Feel free to send in your theories, properly punctuated, of course!

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.




Best wishes

In these days of anguish, I’ve noticed many New Yorkers trying harder to take care of each other. On the Third Avenue bus last Saturday night, the driver told departing passengers to “have a very, very, very good evening” or to “be happy, be happy, be extremely happy.” She repeated variations of these statement at each stop with intensity and, as far as I could tell, sincerity. When I got off the bus, she told me to “enjoy, really enjoy” myself. I was grateful for her concern.

Earlier that day, in a pub near the former World Trade Center, the waitress asked my husband and me how “you guys’s day” had been. She really seemed to want to know  and to hope that the answer was “good” or something even more positive.  I spent most of the afternoon trying to decide how to spell what I had heard, which sounded like “you guizes.” The traditional rule for possessive plurals ending in the letter S, such as “guys,” is to tack on an apostrophe after the S. But “you guys” isn’t a traditional plural. Instead, it’s one of the ways New Yorkers indicate that “you” refers to more than one person. (The other common local expression for the plural “you” is “youse” — effective, but not Standard English.) The pronoun you, of course, may be either singular or plural. Lucky waitress: She didn’t have to write down her thoughts or worry about grammar.

That task falls to me. My first idea was “you guys’ day.” That seemed wrong, though, because the pronunciation would be “you guize” — more direct address or a simple plural than possession. I considered writing the phrase as pronounced (“you guizes” or “you guyses”), but then where would I place the apostrophe? And without the punctuation mark, the possessive sense is lost.

I haven’t settled the question, though as you see, I opted for the grammatically incorrect but phonetically accurate “you guys’s.” Your thoughts are welcome — as was the sense of inclusion the waitress was going for. She didn’t want to exclude anyone, a sentiment that, universally applied, would create a better society. And, you guys, we really need that now.