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Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

July 10, 2011

Five Man Electrical BandIn 1971, a group called The Five Man Electrical Band had a hit song about the growing number of signs, and how restrictive many of them were (“do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign”).  Those lyrics are probably more relevant today than they were then, because there are – quite simply – signs just about everywhere you look.  It’s a sure ‘sign of the times’ (sorry!) that a number of cities have instituted bylaws to reduce (or restrict) the size and number of roadside signs that can obstruct a driver’s view of pedestrians, other traffic, and – occasionally – the very businesses who put the signs out in the first place.

The sheer number of signs is one issue – for me the bigger problem is the number of spelling and grammatical errors that appear on many of them. Here are just a few frustrating examples:

  • In the 1960s, a famous Canadian hockey player named Tim Horton opened a coffee and doughnut shop; it should have been called “Tim Horton’s” (i.e., possessive); however, the apostrophe got lost and it’s always been simply “Tim Hortons”.
  • Frustration AheadFor years, ads for Zellers department store read: “where the lowest price is the law … everyday” (everyday should be two words … as in “every day of the week”). 
  • A sign in a local office supply store reads: “Pens, Paper, Computers, Printers, Stationary”.  I’m glad the store is fixed, motionless, inert (i.e., stationary), but I think what they are selling is actually notepaper (stationery). 
  • For years, a certain television channel warned that, “Due to graphic and mature adult content viewer discretion is advised”.  Every time the announcer would read the words aloud, I would shout out ‘COMMA’ between the words content and viewer. To my amusement (and my husband’s relief), the warning has recently been edited and is now correctly punctuated (I guess someone was actually listening!)
  • Probably the most shocking example (considering the setting) was the sign I saw a couple of years ago outside a public school announcing “Principles Retirement Celebration – June 25”.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I would like to see fewer principles (values, morality, ethics) retired.  If it was – as I suspect – the head of the school who was retiring, the sign should have read “Principal’s Retirement” (note both the spelling and the placement of the apostrophe).

These kind of mistakes might not matter to most people, but to the ‘grammar czars’ among us (former English teachers, writers, perfectionists), it is truly irritating.  In 2008, two young men – Jeff Deck and Ben Herson – set out on a road trip through the United States with the goal of finding and correcting mistakes in public signage.  They claim to have found over 400 errors in road signs, advertisements, billboards, and menus – and to have fixed more than 230 of them using Sharpies and correction fluid.  (Unfortunately, they took it upon themselves to ‘fix’ a 70 year old hand-painted sign at a watchtower in the Grand Canyon and were fined $3,035 – and banned from ever entering a national park again – for doing so; they now tell other ‘typo hunters’ to get permission before correcting anything!)  NOTE: for more information about the “Typo Eradication Advancement League” and the book they wrote about their experience – “The Great Typo Hunt” – visit their web site and if you’re of a mind to do a little web surfing on the subject, there are quite a few websites dedicated to odd and humorous signs and billboards.)

Spelling Grammar PunctuationSome of these mistakes might be forgiven if they weren’t so public.  I blame the lack of proper spelling and grammar instruction for the increase in errors.  Neither of my boys learned the ‘rules’ of spelling, sentence structure, or punctuation in school, and any formal writing they did was returned with a noticeable absence of red marks to show them where they’d gone wrong (Mom, however, was always available to provide guidance).  For years I had the ‘privilege’ of trying to teach business writing skills to college students who generally preferred writing fragments (or – worse –run on sentences with no punctuation or capitalization), and who thought text-messaging shortcuts (ur, i, b4) were appropriate methods of communication.  The supposed ‘reliance’ on spelling and grammar checking tools in word processing programs is a poor substitute for real understanding.  The ‘grammar checker’ only catches minimal mistakes (and misses some obvious ones) and it’s been shown that – when presented with a list of ‘possible’ correct spellings for a misspelled word – users almost always pick the first word in the list (which explains why a good number of my former marketing students handed in documents about costumers  instead of customers  – an error a friend actually saw on a sign in downtown Toronto directing people to ‘Costumer Parking’; her husband thought perhaps there was a local theatre nearby!)

I do have to admit that some of the signs I’ve seen on my travels have provided the odd bit of amusement, though.  Here are three that have caused me to stop and think just a little upon reading them.

Free These RocksFree These Rocks:  I saw this sign at the end of a driveway on a country road during a recent motorcycle ride. I have never thought of rocks as being subjugated – I’ve always considered them to be lifeless blobs of minerals that stay where I put them (gardens, walls, ponds), with no complaints.  But I suppose I could be wrong.  I did wonder very briefly why these particular rocks should be freed (and not, say, all the others on the property), but I do hope they’ve been liberated and are now living a happy and emancipated life somewhere.

Custom Killing:  I saw a huge sign that read “Custom Killing” on the side of a building in south western Ontario when I was coming back from my vacation last year (but, unfortunately, didn’t stop to take a picture).  I had always assumed that contract killers were hired through a network of ‘associates’ or a connection of some type to organized crime.  Clearly, I was wrong.  And I suppose – if I wanted to put a hit out on someone – I’d need a place to start (I tried looking up “Hit Men” in the yellow pages, but couldn’t find anything).  There was no phone number, so I imagine you would have to drive up to the building to inquire (which – to be honest – I didn’t consider doing), but it was an intriguing distraction on the long journey home. 

Fishing WormsFishing Worms:  I see this truck regularly and every single time I pass it, I am struck by the image of worms sitting on a dock somewhere, lines dangling in the water, waiting for a bite.  What a worm would do with a fish (assuming it caught one) is a mystery, but you have to give the little guys credit for trying (and what on earth do they use for bait on their itty-bitty hooks?? Gnats?)

Signs are everywhere and I’ve certainly read (and probably misread) my share of them over the years.  Turns out they were all pointing me right here to …  the other side of 55.

This Way To The Other Side of 55

  1. July 13, 2011 8:53 pm

    I’ve always had my own version of the ‘typo hunt’ and am glad to see I have a lot of company. It does provide some good chuckles as well as head shaking.
    Thanks for this posting and the link to The Great Typo Hunt.

    • July 14, 2011 11:09 am

      There should be a worldwide ‘grammar reporting centre’ where gross errors in public signs can be reported! Glad you enjoyed it.


  2. Cathy Hendrix permalink
    July 12, 2011 8:08 pm

    Loved this one! I don’t think I’m quite as good as you at spotting the errors, but I’ve seen my fair share too. Makes you shake your head. However, I once railed on a bit about incorrect grammar in a radio advertisement when I was in the staff room at school. I rhetorically asked how advertisers, who were in the business, could let slip such obviously incorrect grammar. A teacher on staff rather huffily explained that her husband was in advertising and he often, after pointing out errors, had to allow them because the client was adamant about using that particular wording. The client is always right, she said.

    • July 14, 2011 7:27 pm

      I used to teach marketing to College students and while ‘the customer is always right’, it is the marketer/advertiser’s responsibility to point out errors that might cause the customer to look foolish (diplomatically, of course). Unfortunately, a lot of marketers aren’t too smart these days either!


  3. July 11, 2011 6:50 pm

    I think I’m most bothered by paper/stationary (if the office supply place doesn’t know how to spell what they sell, who will?) and the misspelling of principle/principal at a school is absolutely inexcusable.

    • July 11, 2011 7:16 pm

      Last year, when I was still teaching at a nearby city college, I twice had to call the Marketing department to let them know there was a spelling mistake on the big sign out front – I can only assume that whoever put the letters on the sign (and the one in front of that school) was illiterate! Personally, I think its inexcusable – but these days you even see spelling (and grammar) errors in TV commercials and print advertising as well (and I’ve spotted more than a few in newspapers, too!) In my opinion, we’ve become far too lackadaisical with respect to the proper use of language and spelling.


  4. Margie permalink
    July 10, 2011 8:56 pm

    In Western Canada, Custom Killing would be a butcher who will kill the animal and then cut and wrap the meat. Perhaps in Ontario the sign has a different meaning!

    • July 10, 2011 10:28 pm

      I’m pretty sure it was an abattoir – but it just seemed like such an odd sign to see out in the ‘middle of nowhere’ that it got my imagination going!


  5. July 10, 2011 6:57 pm

    Regarding Spanish signage…the errors are also rampant.

  6. July 10, 2011 6:51 pm

    Can beets or can’t they? Oh, canned beets, I see it now.

    “Free these rocks” is the best one!

    • July 10, 2011 7:21 pm

      I have to remember to take my camera with me whenever I go out – there are so many great ‘bad’ examples out there!


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