Signtax and the Sloppy Joe apostrophe

Today’s Wayno/Piraro Bizarro collabo, with punctuation:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 5 in this strip — see this Page. And stay tuned for a Bizarro, rather than Hindu-nationalist, interpretation of the initials BJP.)

Two linked things: the syntax of the sign on the hot dog cart; and the potential ambiguity of Sloppy Joe’s on the sign, as a possessive in standard spelling or as a plural in a very popular non-standard spelling.

Signtax. The words on signs have a syntax, some carried over from the standard writing system, but some specific to the sign register. In particular, signs typically lack the punctuation marks of the standard writing system, thus introducing ambiguities not present there.

The visual separation of such printed material into lines can be intended to convey constituent structure, with the separate lines of print serving as separate constituents. But without punctuation, we can’t tell whether this line division signifies a constituent division or whether it’s just a move to avoid printing a really long line. So we get things like the famously ambiguous:


The intention is that the sign should be read as having two constituents: an imperative SLOW (understood with an Adv slow, conveying something like ‘Go slow!’, or with a V slow, conveying something like ‘Slow down!’) and an NP CHILDREN AT PLAY (conveying something like ‘(because) there are children at play here’). But it can also be understood as a single NP SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY, with subject slow children, conveying a caution to drivers to look out for slow children (either children who move slowly or children who have learning disabilities and might not be fully attentive to danger).

Yes, of course, this is only a potential ambiguity. The slow children interpretation is unlikely in ordinary contexts, so the sign is understood as an ordinary SLOW sign with an explanation for the injunction attached.

And the apostrophe thing. The hot dog cart sign in #1, on the other hand,  is also divided into two lines — and this would not be surprising, since such carts often provide lists of foods they offer — but is intended to be read as a single NP, composed of a possessive SLOPPY JOE’S (referring to the operator of the cart) and a head HOT DOGS; it offers only hot dogs, no sloppy joes. In fact, if you insist on taking the apostrophe to be standardly used here (to mark a possessive determiner), this is the only possible reading, as Sloppy Joe himself explains pedantically.

But if you take the apostrophe to be part of non-standard plural marking, you will expect to be able to get sloppy joes as well as hot dogs.

Just to note that hot dog carts often offer other things as well as their main attraction, hot dogs. As here:

(#3) A Sabrett hot dog cart with a rich list of offerings (from Royce M. Becker’s Pinterest pages)

No sloppy joes, but then you can’t get everything.

As for SLOPPY JOES (or as some would have it, SLOPPY JOE’S), see my 5/16/13 posting “Manwich and Beefaroni as portmanteaus” (Manwich is a canned sloppy joe sauce), with its section on the American food item the sloppy joe (a sandwich of ground beef with a seasoned tomato sauce on a hamburger bun), noting in conclusion that

The sloppy joe is at one end of the masculinity / manliness scale of food (in the sandwich world, it shares that end of the scale with the Dagwood sandwich): it’s meat, it’s messy, and you hold it in your hand to eat it, no utensils needed — man’s food.

Sloppy Joe the food seller might then reasonably be expected to provide sloppy joes. But no.

The mystery of BJP. The initials on the customer’s sweatshirt in #1 are a Bizarro inside joke. Put aside India’s right-wing, Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP that comes first to most people’s minds these days. No, this BJP labels a Bizarro Jazz Pickle — Jazz Pickles being fans of the Bizarro strip (like me). We even have an icon:

(#4) The Jazz Pickle icon, with hat, shades, and sax (from the Bizarro store site)

3 Responses to “Signtax and the Sloppy Joe apostrophe”

  1. Sim Aberson Says:

    Possibly because of my location, I almost always think of Sloppy Joe’s with an apostrophe – the famous Hemingway (even named by him, apparently) haunt in Key West.

  2. [BLOG] Some Saturday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky looks at syntax on signs for Sloppy […]

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