Tag Archives: usage

Last to come, first to go

A friend recently reminded me that prepositions are the “last to come and first to go” in language learning or retention. As someone who’s often placed a “por” where a “para” should be while speaking Spanish, I agree. Which leads me to the conclusion that the people creating these signs are still on their way toward mastery of English. An example from a tailor:

Note the poinsettia in the background, which presumably enjoys regular pruning and an occasional nip of fertilizer. After all, this shop brags about “all work done on our plant.” If the poinsettia isn’t the point, the preposition “on” should be “in” or “at,” explaining that the work (whatever it  might be) isn’t contracted out but performed by the business itself in a factory — “our plant.”

Sometimes an “on” is present where it shouldn’t be and absent where it should be:

According to the dictionary, “premises” are buildings and the land they stand on. The conventions of English allow you to be “on” land and “in” a building. The preposition, therefore, should be a toss-up, and both “on” and “in” should work. But that’s not the case.  I can’t  come up with a reason why “in these premises” sounds odd. “On” fits better here. It just does.

And now a sign from a photography studio:







“In to” or “into”?  “Into,”  with logic behind the choice. The single word “into” shows insertion, which is what the sign warns against. The two-word version implies separate actions, going “in” and then “to” some particular place: “Go in to your friend and apologize,” said Mary standing on the lawn and pointing to the house.

One more:







You can’t have “business with” a property, because “with,” to my mind, implies a person dealing with whoever enters the service entrance. I imagine that the sign should read “on the property.” But who knows? The US Supreme Court ruled in the “Citizens United” that corporations are people, too. Maybe “with” actually fits this context.

Feel free to get in touch with, at, to, by, or for me if you have other ideas.

Another Inconvenient Truth

There are lots of “inconvenient truths” out there these days, one of which is this: “Convenience” and “convenient” are like the dinosaurs ten days after the asteroid hit. They’re still around, but they’re wobbling, as you see in these signs:









So much to love here: “The Inconvenient,” for one, plus the capitalization. Also, the sign doesn’t tell where “The Other Location” is. I guess it’s in the “if you have to ask, you can’t afford to shop here” category.

Round two:









I’m trying to decide whether “sorry for inconvenient” is better than “The Inconvenient.” Also, the dash over the letter i is a nice touch.. But this one is the best:









Points in favor include the fact that it’s not “inconvenient store.” But this is a backlit, permanent, glass sign. Nobody thought to spellcheck “convenience”?

I’d write more, but it’s an inconvinience time.

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.

No Time Like the Future

Does the English language have a future – tense, that is? Most grammarians keep things simple and answer yes. A few, though, see the future as an aspect of present tense, based on the fact that the verb form does not change in a sentence about what has yet to happen, as it does when, for example, “walk” turns into “walked” in a sentence about the past. To talk about the future, the main verb simply acquires “shall” or “will” — helping verbs, in this sort of analysis.

For the record, I think future tense does exist. But I’m intrigued by the philosophical implications of the other way of thinking – that the future, as we conceive it, is solely an aspect of what is happening right now. From that perspective, present actions carry more weight. Or, as thousands upon thousands of coffee mugs put it, “The past is gone. The future has yet to come. Only the present moment is real.” Or something like that.

I thought about future tense when I encountered this sign in the emergency entrance to a hospital:

Will be.









As everyone who’s ever rushed to an emergency room knows, ten minutes of terror precede five hours or so of tedium (if you’re lucky). So I had a lot of time to think about the statement that “the nursing station will be on the left.”  Why not “is”?  Why future tense? Are workers scurrying around with hammers and dry wall, constructing the nursing station as you open the door?

Eventually I realized that the sign speaks to the state of mind of the people who are reading it. Most likely they’re scared because of what’s happening in the present moment and hoping that the moments, hours, days or even years to come will be better.  No general-purpose sign can promise that everything will be all right — not in a hospital. Uncertainty is king. But the sign supplies one small concrete truth to hang onto. Follow the hallway, and the nursing station — and the help it provides — will be on the left. Not much, maybe, but in that moment, that present moment, enough to keep you going.


New York signs make a valiant effort to boss people around. Valiant, but futile, as New Yorkers are not known for their unquestioning obedience. Yet the effort continues. Call it faith, if you’re an optimist, or insanity, if you’re not. Here’s an example of bossy New York, in the primary image I chose for this blog:

NYC Block Box Sign


I often wonder whether non-New Yorkers understand this sign, which directs cars to stay out of the intersection (“the box”) when the traffic light turns red. New Yorkers decode it easily; they just choose to ignore it. Effective or not,  this sign is one of my favorites, rivaled only by the classic “Don’t even think of parking here” that sadly has disappeared from the streets of New York. Not that drivers paid attention to that one either.

Recently I snapped photos of two lists of no-nos. Here’s one from a city bus:








Except for the first (littering), riders mostly obey the other prohibitions on this list. I don’t credit the sign, though, because in this day and age, hardly anyone assumes that smoking is allowed on public transit. Spitting is rare because of the gross-out factor.  The last prohibition seems to be a leftover from the boom-box era, when teenagers lugging thirty pounds of technology blasted thumpingly loud music into their fellow riders’ ears.  Even then, those devices were more often playing CD tracks, not radio broadcasts.

The next sign was posted by the management of an apartment building:








When I saw this sign, no one was around, so no one was noncompliant. So is this an effective sign? In my view, no, because of its content.  Maybe a couple of kids gave up ball-playing, but that’s probably because they’d been scolded by someone who didn’t want to listen to the thump of a tennis ball or a Spaldeen (a pink ball essential to stickball, a NY street sport that no one plays anymore because of all the Uber vans clogging the road). Nor does the sign stop “loitering.” That activity disappears naturally because if you stand in one spot, a preoccupied pedestrian is likely to knock you over. Side point: Why specify “sitting in front of building”? Perhaps you’re allowed to sit next to or behind the structure? Or on top of it, if you can get past the doorman? I  agree with the ban on peddling. It’s a well known fact that one sidewalk cart, unopposed, spawns ten more each day, each of which in turn gives rise to ten more, leading to . . . well, you can imagine. But peddlng is, in my opinion, less of a problem for this building than pedaling — bikes criss-crossing the sidewalk and terrifying everyone moving on actual feet.

But carriages? True, strollers increasingly resemble Hummers. I’ve been kneecapped by more than a few baby carriages myself. But seriously — how can you tell parents that their baby’s primary mode of transportation is not welcome?  You may have noticed that the list ends with “under penalty of law.” Illegal baby carriages. Who knew? Unless they’re referring to a Jane Austen sort of carriage? Or the horse-drawn ones that circle Central Park? Not likely.

It seems to me that New Yorkers, with their ingenuity and preference for hanging out (loitering?) on the cutting edge, should be able to come up with a better “don’t” list. Mine isn’t complete, but so far I’ve got cell-phone blathering in crowded areas (especially when it involves relationships, recent surgery, or job complaints),  texting while walking, and bicycling on the sidewalk. What’s on your list? Feel free to send it in. First prize is a boom box with an AM/FM connection, which you can use whenever you sit next to a “no radio playing” sign.

Curation Nation

I spend a fair amount of time in NYC’s museums, so I’m accustomed to thinking of “curate” as something an art expert does. Indeed, the primary definition of this verb is “to select, organize, and look after items in a collection or exhibition.”  So I was surprised to see this sign over a display of snacks:

Separating forged from authentic potato chips?

Keeping the customer safe from forged potato chips.

Okay, back to the dictionary, where I found that you can curate “content or merchandise using professional or expert knowledge.” The sign is correct if a professional snackpicker selected the food. Cynic that I am, though, I couldn’t help thinking that the advertising and marketing of this merchandise benefited more from “expert knowledge” than nutrition and taste did. I declined to test my theory because a glance at the price tags showed that curated snacks cost a lot more than just-throw-it-on-the-shelf stuff.

Once the word was stuck in my mind, I noticed it often in The New York Times. Sometimes the definitions quoted above applied: “The web has gotten so big that you need people to curate it.” No argument there, unless you’re a fan of the candidates-are-from-another-planet sort of story, in which case you’re against the act of curating, not the use of the word.

Other “curate” sentences stretched the definition: “Sometimes you see veggie burgers made with 100 ingredients, a kitchen-sink burger,” she said. “It’s better when you curate a burger.” Here “curate” seems to mean “select,” but I’d opt for curating the ingredients of the burger, not the burger itself.

An even greater stretch shows up in this sentence:  “I started to curate this idea.” Now “curate” is closer to “create,” though you could make a case that the speaker sifted through many possibilities and organized the harvest into a coherent idea.

The one that really got me was a comment from a rock star: “I’ll curate my own brand.” Leaving aside the question of whether a person can or should be a brand, my best guess is that this sentence returns to the museum context for “curate.” The star sees herself as a work of art!

Contradictory Words

As I worked my leisurely way through the Sunday paper a week ago, one phrase stopped me in my tracks.  The New York Times, which should know better, referred to a “very mediocre” rock band. According to my dictionary, “mediocre” means “moderate” or “not very good.” So “very mediocre” means “very moderate” or “very not very good.” Aren’t you glad I cleared that up? Nice to know that something can be extremely not extreme.

That experience sent me to my picture files, to see whether I had any photos of signs with contradictory meanings. I found this one:

A specialized generalist.

A specialized generalist.









When I was a kid, my doctor was a “general practitioner.” He was good at many areas of medicine, but when things got interesting, he sent me to a specialist. This sign in a 24-hour, no-appointment-necessary, storefront clinic leads me to believe that the “multispecialty physicians” inside are, in fact, the 2016 version of  “general practitioners.” They may have the medical equivalent of several masters degrees, but I doubt it. I’m not complaining about the medical aspect of this sign. The docs inside may provide excellent care. I am complaining about the language, which is much less precise (I hope) than the diagnoses and remedies dispensed  there.

One more example of a contradictory statement comes from an official notice taped to a streetlight on my corner, announcing a public hearing on issues affecting the neighborhood. Here’s item three of the agenda:

Restricted to?

Restricted to?

Turning again to the dictionary, I found that “restricted” means “admitting only members of a particular class.” Thus a street “restricted to” vendors is a street where vendors are allowed — but nothing or no one else. No stores, cars, residents, annoying little kids on scooters — you get the point. I spent the rest of my walk trying to reword the agenda item to reflect the most likely intended meaning: how to keep hotdog carts, ice cream trucks, tables piled with “designer” handbags, and other such vendors off the block. Expressing this idea concisely was surprisingly hard. “Restricted from” doesn’t do the job, nor does “restricted against.” I came up with “barred,” in this revised wording: “Discussion of the process of barring venders from a street.” Alternate versions welcome.

I know I’m being picky (what else is new?), but I do believe that language should be precise. How different would our current political campaign be if every candidate followed this principle, even if their command of the language was “very mediocre”!

The Price Is (Maybe) Right

Some luxury marketers brag that if you have to ask how much something costs, you can’t afford to buy it. But we non-one-percenters do need to know how much of our hard-earned money we’re plunking down. Which question is hard to answer, if you rely on signs like these:

Any 1/2 hours?

Any 1/2 hours?









How much do you pay to park here, not counting tax? If this were a math problem on the SAT, your choices might be (A) $4.22 for the whole day (B) $4.22 for a half hour (C) $4.22 for some unspecified number of half hours or (D) any of the above, depending upon how well you tip the parking attendant at holiday time. I’d probably go for (D), realistic New Yorker that I am, but (B) is not out of the question. But how can a driver figure out the price while whizzing past this parking lot, eyes (hopefully) on pedestrians, other cars, and bicycles?

Car parked, you may want to eat a little something. Specifically, six inches of something:

Six inches of what?

Six inches of what?

This sign hangs in the window of a sandwich shop, so I guess you’re paying for a “six-inch” roll, with one of six designated fillings. But if it’s a meal, do you also get six inches of beverage? If so, is the liquid in a narrow test tube or in a broad-mouthed beer stein? I’m hoping for dessert, too. Maybe a six-inch éclair.

One more:

Those two-letter words will get you every time.

My favorite word is now OT.









I don’t usually bother posting spelling mistakes (too easy a target), but it’s not often I find a misspelled two-letter word. I imagine that “OT” should be “TO.” Even after you adjust the spelling, though, you have to wonder whether the rent is “up ot” half off. After all, the sign specifies “EVERYTHING,” so you can make a case for false advertising if rent is not discounted too.

The moral of this story: Buyer beware!




Massage Tips

The rise of e-tailing has led to the decline of brick-and-mortar retailers. But personal services can’t easily by sent via UPS (or drone, for that matter). You can’t have a haircut delivered to your apartment, though you may — if you’re financially fortunate — have the haircutter arrive at your door for a few quick snips. Fortunately for bloggers like me, personal-service shops abound in NYC, and their signs are as loopy as any other sort, outclassed only by everything composed by the city’s Department of Transportation.

Shop owners who knead body parts for a living may be great at their chosen task, but they’re not necessarily good at advertising. Recently I saw this disturbing claim:


If your front-foot is sore, you’re out of luck.


This sign would be fine (though perhaps not effective) had it appeared in a vet’s office or a dog spa. But it’s in a salon devoted to bipeds. Grammar note: The hyphen creates a single adjective, a description of the noun “massage.” In this case “back-foot” implies a lead (front-foot) and a follower (back-foot).  I wonder whether a person’s back- and front-feet correspond to their dominant hands. But that is a question for scientists, not grammarians.

Here’s another variation:

What rub?

What kind of rub?









Now there’s no hyphen, just an artistic slant that leaves the meaning floating somewhere over the Land of Confusion . Maybe “back or foot rub”? Or “back and foot rub”? Personally, I like to know which body parts are involved before plunking down my cash.

The moral of this post:

Tips appreciated.

Tips appreciated.









Not a gem of clarity either (“waxing massage”? “facial tips”? “waxing facial”? “massage tips”?), but, dreamer that I am, I choose to believe this sign refers to a veteran masseuse, eager to impart wisdom garnered over decades to newcomers to the profession.

Maybe even a few tips about hyphens.