Another signage ambiguity

Ambiguity is everywhere, but by eliminating useful redundancies in texts, telegraphic registers — headlines, signage, instructional labels, graffiti, and so on — hugely increase the opportunities for unintended multiple meanings. As in this photo that just turned up in Facebook:

(1) N + N compound ‘area for pets (to use)’ OR an imperative, V + NPobj ‘pet the area’

(Note: N + N compounds are, in a sense, telegraphic by nature, omitting essentially all indications of syntactic or semantic relationship, so that they famously admit of a great many interpretations.)

Yes, the imperative reading is absurd; real-world knowledge and features of the context limit the likely (though not the possible) understandings of an expression. In this case, we use our knowledge about what kind of information is conveyed in public signs in particular contexts and about sorts of actions people are likely to engage in (petting a lawn is unusual).

This ambiguity between a compound-N and an imperative-V reading for a sign has come up here before — in my 12/19/14 posting “Ambiguous sign”, with this Mother Goose and Grimm cartoon:


Other possibilities: GUARD DOG, SUPPORT ANIMAL.

One Response to “Another signage ambiguity”

  1. javava2012 Says:

    In New York’s Catskill Mountains, numerous streams are called ‘runs’, resulting in such names as Turkey Run, Deer Run, etc. I’ve often wished, when crossing over one of the other of those, I could append the name Turkey Run with ‘awkwardly’ or ‘swiftly’ to Turkey Run.
    A town in Central Virginia is named Hurt. When approaching it from the south, you are advised by road signs to ‘Hurt Next Two Exits’. Why or how isn’t explained.
    Doug Harris

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