20 May 2015

The Mysterious Syntax Of A Road Sign

Some people seem to believe that writing or speaking grammatically is elitist or simply fussy.  Then there are those who are convinced that those of us who do are conspiring against them in some way or another.

Now, I don't pretend to speak (or write) with perfect grammar all of the time. I think I do it often enough to be understood, at least most of the time. If nothing else, I know how poorly constructed sentences with unclear phrasing can lead to misunderstandings--and keep lawyers busy.

Hey, proper punctuation can save a person's life. If you don't believe me, look at this:

Rescind order to execute prisoner.

Now, tell me:  Does the prisoner live or die in that sentence?

If we add a comma, the intent is clearer:

Rescind order, to execute prisoner.

If that sentence was in the governor's memo, the inmate in question would be choosing his or her last meal.  However, another kind of punctuation, placed in another part of the sentence, gives us an entirely different outcome:

Rescind:  Order to execute prisoner.

Now, there aren't such drastic examples (to my knowledge, anyway) in the world of cycling. However, in an earlier post, I showed how a poorly-phrased sign can say something different from--even the exact opposite of--what was intended.

Today I saw another sign--on the RFK/Triborough Bridge--that doesn't convey what I believe the Department of Transportation is trying to tell us:

So, the graphic part of the sign is saying that graffiti isn't allowed.  Then the first four words of the text say it's a crime.  So far, it makes sense.

But what does "camera enforced" mean?  Is crime "camera enforced"?  Perhaps the person who wrote the sign speaks another language and, while composing the sign, his or her brain flipped from English to whatever, causing a change in syntax. A "camera enforced crime" would be a "crime camera enforced" in French, Spanish, Italian or a lot of other languages.

Hmm...Maybe the city didn't want to spend the money to print the sign in both English and Spanish.  

Or is the sign trying to tell us that graffiti is camera enforced?  Now that would be interesting, if in an Orwellian sort of way. 


  1. Signage is an art form, sadly with very few artists.

    If an expensive instruction is required why on earth would you give the job to the most stupid person available...?

  2. Coline--You've asked the million-dollar question. (pun intended)