Parse this!

Ned Deily reports the following sign on the San Francisco Muni. It’s all on one line, no punctuation, with single spacing between words:

PLEASE HOLD ON SUDDEN STOPS NECESSARY

It’s only too easy to parse this with ON SUDDEN STOPS as a constituent, in which case you can’t incorporate NECESSARY: it’s an annoying garden-path example. Then you re-analyze, with PLEASE HOLD ON and SUDDEN STOPS NECESSARY as constituents.

Or you could parse ON SUDDEN STOPS NECESSARY as a constituent, with NECESSARY understood as a postmodifier of SUDDEN STOPS: ‘please hold [something] on sudden stops that a necessary’: this is grammatical but bafflin — a crash blossom. Again, you have to reanalyze.

All this hassle is just so unnecessary. What’s needed is something, anything, that would visually separate PLEASE HOLD ON and SUDDEN STOPS NECESSARY. A colon or dash would be especially good for this purpose, but a period or a semi-colon, or even a comma, would do. Simply dividing the sign into two lines

PLEASE HOLD ON
SUDDEN STOPS NECESSARY

would improve comprehensibility. Or a big space between the two constituents would probably do the trick. In contexts other than instruction-giving signage, like advertising signage, type sizes, fonts, and colors can be used strategically.

But somehow instruction-giving signage seems almost always composed to be as spare and uniform as possible (which often makes comprehension difficult). I have this image of someone who complains about the paucity of features on such signs that might give clues to interpretation being told that that’s just not the way signs are designed.

4 Responses to “Parse this!”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    A big contrast with the Hawai’ian-language street name signs we encountered in Hawai’i recently, which often include the macrons and apostrophes of Hawai’ian orthography. And which often make it almost impossible to recognize the street name at driving speeds, since Hawai’an words are mostly megapolysyllabic.

    Your remark on the utility of a two-line rather than a one-line sign reminds me of Chuck Fillmore’s famous example of just what a “text” is — on the fence surrounding a motel pool are two signs, one above the other, thus:
    USE THE TOILET, NOT THE POOL
    POOL FOR MOTEL GUESTS ONLY

  2. rhhardin Says:

    The style draws on an early era when signs had authority and less design flexibility.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    Can you really “hold on sudden stops”? Even less likely, to me, is that they’d leave out the “something” in “hold [something] on sudden stops”.

    This sign doesn’t slow me down at all, even without knowing what the Muni is.

  4. Robert Morris Says:

    This reminds me of a Spanish-language sign I saw on a bus once, something like NO SE APOYE CONTRA LA PUERTA (do not lean against door). However, there was so little spacing between the words and I wasn’t immediately sure which language it was in, thus causing me to think it said “Nose” something and making me wonder why a bus would have signs about noses.

    Of course, once I figured out to read it in Spanish and saw the teeny little bit of space they did manage to put in, I managed to parse it, since, luckily, it’s not one of those that is severely lacking in puncutation or visual break-up.

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