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When I am Copyeditor General ...: October 2007


Emergency instructions will not cause panic

Spotted in an elevator:

How many ambiguities can you find, kids? Here's my list:

1) The sentence is hard to parse: I had to read it a couple of times to make sense of it. ("To operate emergency elevator, phone depress button"? "To operate emergency, elevator phone depress, button and hold"?)

2) "Depress button." Do I really have to bring the button down, man? Can't I just press it? Or push it?

3) "Depress button." But which one? Not shown in the photo are the seven buttons on the control panel: the numbers 1 through 4, the "open" and "close" buttons, and one marked "alarm." By a process of elimination, it appears the latter is the appropriate choice. Still, the label suggests it's intended to trigger a noise, not initiate a phone call.

2) "Hold until answering service answers." Um, isn't that what you'd expect from an answering service? And do we really need that extra detail? I suspect someone felt it important to explain that the response wouldn't come from inside the building--that Mr. Stucky Unlucky shouldn't expect help to arrive within minutes. But to me, it suggests an impersonal, and possibly uncaring, distance. Where exactly is this answering service? New York? Ohio? Bangalore?

3) "Indicating your location." Yeah, hello? I'm inside the elevator. I don't remember seeing the details elsewhere inside the metal box, but the info they're looking for--building address, elevator number, or anything else that might help a rescue crew locate a trapped vertical traveler--isn't posted near the sign.

So let's review: you're in the elevator. The doors have closed, you're descending slowly--and then, with a gentle lurch, you come to a halt. You wait a while, panic building (you were the last one to leave the office! It's Friday night! On a long weekend!). And then you read the sign a couple of times, check the buttons, look around to make sure there aren't any other buttons you should push instead, and finally, sadly, depress the alarm. You have a brief conversation with a disembodied voice.

And then you wait.

After a while, you take out a Sharpie and write on the metal wall:

"If you need help, push the "alarm" button and hold until someone answers. You'll be okay."

Copyeditor General's ruling: Signs directing behavior in unusual, unexpected and potentially frightening situations should be simple, clear and devoid of unnecessary detail. Also, it's always a good idea to carry a granola bar. Just in case.


Monkeys will not be employed as signwriters

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I'm starting to sense a link between grammar and animals:

When you put the two together, one will be wrong.

And as there's no such thing as a wrong animal (apart, of course, from the duck-billed platypus--don't get me started), the wrongness must be on the wordy side of the fence.

For previous evidence, spurious though it undoubtedly is, may I remind you of the "No Live Parking" sign in the Stone Zoo parking lot. And the dog-related signage from a couple of posts back.

And now here's Exhibit C: a trio of signs from Franklin Park Zoo. The first shows a marked reluctance to use the space bar:

I translate this as "Open door slowly; people, perhaps, have gone to heaven."

Next, we have a lesson in stating the obvious:

Because otherwise we'd call it a wall.

Finally, the lamest excuse I've ever seen:

So you can only feed the miniature goats on the days when there's no weather? How often does that happen?

I think this episode riled me especially because zoos (for better or worse) often have kids wandering the grounds. And while their behavior occasionally offends me (the way they scream at skittish animals, bang their tiny, hard fists against glass next to "please do not bang on glass" signs and throw rocks at anything not sufficiently animated to entertain them), I'd still prefer it if they grew up with some understanding of, and respect for, correct language use.

Copyeditor General's ruling: Gorillas should be kept out of the signwriting shop and left to do what they do best: eat fruit, fling poo and create abstract art.


Winners will just be winners

During the Red Sox-Angels playoff game earlier this week, one of the announcers mentioned that both Josh Beckett and John Lackey were among "the winningest pitchers" in the American League this year.


I yelled at the TV, of course. What was I supposed to do?

Not that this was the first time I've encountered the phrase (or the last; today's Metro GameDay notes that on this day in 2001, the Mariners became "the winningest team in American League history").

But why? No, really, why?

Is the player who steals most bases the stealingest? Is the hitter with the most bunts the buntiest? Is the Gold Glove winner the catchiest?

(Please, no comments about the technical inaccuracy of my examples. Kyle, I'm looking in your direction.)

You get my point, though, right? Is there such a dearth of ways to describe the most capable, the most sucessful, the most athletic and agile, that we're forced to create these mutants?

Oh, you may say, but this isn't made up; it's right there in the dictionary. (Merriam-Webster, how could you?).

I prefer to side with the likes of The Grammarphobia Blog, which notes: "The American Heritage entry classifies [winningest] as 'informal' usage. The 'informal' gives all right-thinking people a good excuse to avoid it."

Copyeditor General's ruling: Don't even get me started on "to medal."
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