What’s on the menu?

By Matt Diffee, in today’s (12/6) New Yorker:

(#1) There is a header on the menu that says Breakfast Served All Day, intended as an assertion that all the breakfast items are served all day — but understood by these diners as a label for a category of menu items, or even for a specific menu item, a label similar to Breakfast Special or (Special) Breakfast of the Day (an item whose identity is further specified on the menu or by a server)

(Yes, there is yet another reading, in which the diners are supposing that they can have their particular breakfast order served to them throughout the day, as one monumentally extended meal.)

So a rather complex kind of ambiguity, which might seem unlikely to be significant in real life, until you look at some actual menus without the knowledge that the assertion Breakfast Served All Day is a commonplace on menus at American family-style restaurants (fancy places don’t serve breakfast all day). But even if you’re firmly in possession of that knowledge, some menu designs invite the label understanding.

Case in point: this page from the menu of the Hamden Town House Restaurant in Hamden CT:

(#2) The menu is divided into four parallel major sections, with identical fonts in the headings (plus two boxes of special offerings, for Eggs Benedict of several varieties, and for Eggs Florentine): Breakfast Served All Day (just for fruits, juices, and cereals), Extra Large Farm Fresh Eggs (of several types), Three Egg Omelettes (of a large number of types), and Specialty Omelettes (also of many types)

At Saturday family breakfasts at the Palo Alto Creamery, my tiny family is confronted with a similar page, and my most common order from it comes in two steps, with the category label (“a three egg scramble”) first, then the specific ingredients (e.g. “with sausage, spinach, and cheddar cheese”) and sides (“and with hashbrowns and sourdough toast”). Meanwhile, Served All Day is added as a note to the Breakfast label at the top of the page, so we’re clearly dealing with an assertion rather than a label.

Back in Connecticut, it turns out that the on-line menu view has a reproduction of the menu page (as you see it above), but with this header above it:

(#3) Breakfast the label, Served All Day the assertion; all is clear on-line

Assertion, label — and instruction. Earlier on this blog, two cases of entertaining signage ambiguities involving instructions, vs. a label in 2018, an assertion in 2020:

— in my 5/1/18 posting “Another signage ambiguity”, a PET AREA sign intended as a label (with the compound noun pet area ‘area for pets’), treated jokingly as an instruction (with the telegraphic imperative pet area ‘pet this area!’):


— in my 6/24/20 posting “Annals of ambiguity: I feel like making in rough for Schrödinger”, an EMPTY WHEN FULL sign on a dumpster intended as an instruction (to empty the dumpster when it’s full), but playfully treated by some as a paradoxical assertion (that the dumpster is empty when it’s full, hence both empty and full simultaneously — cf. Schrödinger’s cat, which is both dead and alive simultaneously):


One Response to “What’s on the menu?”

  1. Mitch4 Says:

    I’m very disappointed that the online menu for Morry’s Deli in Hyde Park, Chicago, does not include the sandwich always listed on the in-restaurant menu board as “SPECIAL OF THE DAY” — which was an invariant item, something like soft salami and corned beef.

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