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The Word

Sign language

It's not easy being clear

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
February 3, 2008

READER TOM PRICE of Nahant sees two ways to read the billboard he spotted north of Boston, an ad for a party-supply store that boasts "We have what they have for less!"

"I think they're saying their competition has lower prices," he e-mails. "But friends tell me I'm being silly and overtechnical. Is the sentence ambiguous?"

Price is reading the ad as if it were "[We have] [what they have for less]" - that is, "We have the same stuff, but they sell it cheaper." His friends see it as promising low prices: "[We have what they have] [for less]."

Both readings are grammatically possible, it's true. But does that make the sentence ambiguous? No, because nobody misunderstands it. In the real world, we know that stores don't rent billboards to advertise that they charge more than their competitors.

Price's legal training may have helped sensitize him to such ambiguities. (Or it could be genetics: His grandfather worked on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.) You could, after all, spin a scenario involving lowest-price guarantees cleverly worded to mislead consumers. But in this case, it's unlikely; nobody's going to sue over the price of party hats.

And this amount of ambiguity is commonplace; there are sentences all around that we could misread if we tried. Michael Quinion's online newsletter, World Wide Words, publishes examples sent in by readers, and sometimes the "problem" is pretty hard to see.

One submission, for example, was "Call toll-free, to listen to a 24-hour recorded message." Would you have thought that meant the message was 24 hours long? Me neither. Unless the ambiguity is absurd or funny, like headlines of the "Squad helps dog bite victim" type, we usually read right past it.

That said, it would be simple to improve the billboard ad, just by adding a dash: "We have what they have - for less!"

But not all signs are so easily decoded. I've been puzzling for a while over two that seem more in need of psychoanalysis than grammatical analysis.

One, posted near a trash can at the entrance to a city park in my town, reads "Carry in and carry out all litter."

What train of thought could have generated that directive? Surely city officials don't want us to bring in litter. They must mean "Remove any litter you carry in." But it isn't litter on the way in, that PowerBar or bottled water or not-yet-excreted dog doo. And is it really litter on the way out? Surely trash only becomes "litter" when it's littering the landscape?

I wish they had left it at "Deposit trash here."

Then there's the insistently repetitive sign at the Registry of Motor Vehicles office: "Lifetime Registration Has Been Discontinued Due To a Law Signed into Effect. Effective September 1, 2000. All Registration Renewals Will Be Required To Pay a Renewal Fee."

Seven years after the state's brief experiment with free auto registration, we must hope the notice is now superfluous. But its weary drone hints at some rough times for Registry clerks, that fall of 2000, when disgruntled customers learned that fees were back. Too bad the bureaucrats couldn't say what they probably meant: "Pay up and quit whining - we didn't make the law."

. . .

SUDDEN SILLINESS: I was talking with a former journalist about Stupid Newsroom Rules the other day, and he reminded me of one I hadn't heard in years: the ban on "he died suddenly."

In their 1999 book "The Trust," Susan Tifft and Alex Jones recount how Arthur O. Sulzberger, former publisher of The New York Times, learned from an editor at the Milwaukee Journal that suddenly was (supposedly) redundant: "'Everyone dies suddenly,' he said. 'One minute you're here, the next you're dead.' Years later...Punch said the main lesson he took away was that 'in Milwaukee, you died unexpectedly."'

But this "rule" is totally bogus. Suddenly has always meant both "without preparation, all at once" and "unexpectedly," according to the OED. Trying to limit its sense to "instantaneously" is sheer crankiness.

Suddenly might have once been problematic, back when it was a journalistic euphemism. In the old days, "No one ever committed suicide," observes John McIntyre on his Baltimore Sun blog, but "people sometimes 'died suddenly."'

That usage, however, is no longer current, judging by the paid death notices in newspapers. Journalists may ration their references to dying "suddenly," but bereaved families use it routinely - surely not as a euphemism for suicide.

Sometimes, it's true, the adverb is superfluous. In a report of death from an accidental overdose, a car crash, or a bomb, suddenly should go without saying.

Otherwise, it's perfectly appropriate to say someone "died suddenly." The adverb was never meant to imply scientific precision; it has always been about perception, not biology.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas.

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