A Sign from Above

Recently, when walking through Cambridge, I came across this sign in a parking lot.

"Perfunctorily: (adv) In a routine or superficial manner." I suspect that the owner of the car doesn't think the towing is superficial.

I know that I’m someone who notices these things. I love writing and it drives me a little crazy to see words misused so publicly. There was a time when I’d complain incessantly to anyone who would listen about such a blatant disregard for, you know, using the right word. I’d complain about menus, billboards, movie titles — really anything that caught my eye. But then I watched a short video in which Stephen Fry makes the case that using language should be fun and that being pedantic and complaining about every misplaced apostrophe and comma takes the joy out of language.

But there’s this sign. Talking about perfunctory towing. It just doesn’t make sense. And it got me wondering what, if any, the consequences were to using the wrong word. Certainly, an error in a cover letter or resume may cost you a job. But everyone knows that, and those documents generally get proofread repeatedly. But are there other situations where a slip of the pen will be costly? Could a restaurant’s sign actually affect them? Maybe.

I’ll start by saying that I doubt that a misworded sign in the parking lot would prevent me from eating at the restaurant. Their spelling, grammar, or diction are likely poor indicators of their cooking ability. But using words that don’t belong does speak to their ability to communicate clearly and properly. I think about several of my friends who have dietary restrictions, whether from choice, religion, or allergies. If there’s any uncertainty about the menu or the server’s response to a question about what’s in the food, they’re going to play it safe. They’ll get the vegetable lo mein – again – and we’ll be unlikely to return.

While I may be over-thinking this scenario, it does make me wonder what kind of effect poorly worded signs, menus, ads, etc. can have. If you’ve ever been in a focus group or taken a marketing survey then you know that one of the questions that’s regularly asked is “how much do you trust this product?” When the grammar or punctuation is wrong, especially in a public forum, for me the answer is “not very much.”

And that’s not even addressing signs that completely mischaracterize a product like some of these ads do. Or ones that are outright dangerous.

These might be sending mixed signals.

The above picture is the exception. Though dangerous signage does happen, most signs are unlikely to have life and death consequences. And while a misspelling on a billboard may negatively affect a company’s bottom line, even some of the most egregious linguistic errors may not have an impact on us personally. But I do hope we can get a chuckle out of them.

I may no longer rant about every misplaced apostrophe – I keep it all bottled up inside now – I still can’t help but laugh aloud at signs like the one I recently saw on Bentley’s campus:

Are those blueberries or razor blades in my pancakes?

Who knew breakfast could be so dangerous?



About BentleyWritingCenter

This is the official blog of the Bentley University Writing Center staff.
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