Through space and time

Earlier today I was driving along a major road when I saw an advance warning that told me there was a ‘dual carriageway ahead’. Fair enough. I drove another 200 yards or so, and at this point another sign suggested: ‘dual carriageway now.’ And indeed, right there the dual carriageway (divided road, for an North American readers) began. But as far as I was concerned, the sign was wrong, or rather conceptually confused. In a nutshell, the signwriter was apparently unable to distinguish between space and time. The message that was to be conveyed was that the road was changing into a dual carriageway there: but at that precise location, not at that precise moment. In fact, by its appearance the dual carriageway was built maybe two decades ago, so that the signwriter’s apparent comment might have read, not ‘dual carriageway now’, but rather ‘dual carriageway in 1989’. However, what was really meant was ‘dual carriageway begins here’.

I offered all this as a comment to my companion, whose somewhat harsh (but maybe justified) response was that I was an annoying pedant. Probably so. And yet, I still feel just a slight irritation that we have become so sloppy that we don’t distinguish between quite unrelated concepts. I wince when people say ‘less’ when they mean ‘fewer’ (as in ‘there are less cars on the road today’), or when they use a tautology such as ‘forward planning’ (have you ever planned backwards?). English is designed to allow the speaker to be very precise in conveying a meaning, but this is undermined when the precision is wrongly applied.

To make my point, I stopped the car just a foot or so before I reached the sign. There, I said, the dual carriageway isn’t happening now at all. I won’t repeat the reply.

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14 Comments on “Through space and time”

  1. Vincent Says:

    How do you know that the sign was not there since the thing opened.
    While English is also designed to be beautifully vague and the way the Irish use it, they rather than Navaho radio operators could have been used during WWII in the Pacific.


    • Well of course, the other possibility is that the sign was a relic from the campaign to have a dual carriageway in this location. What do we want? A dual carriageway! When do we want it? Now!

  2. Alan Says:

    Planning backwards is our very special area of expertise in Ireland.

  3. Jen Says:

    The attitudes we have to the English language here are as various as the attitudes we have to the English themselves.
    ‘It may be the ‘English’ language but we’ll use it as we like.’

    On the subjects of signs etc. there is a pay machine at a car park I frequent that Zen-like tells you that ‘Change is Possible’. It always makes me smile.


    • Oh yes, Jen – I’ve seen that and chuckled, too. But my absolute favourite is the sign that was erected in the 1960s in a London park and which had solely the following words on it: “It is forbidden to throw stones at this notice”.

  4. poppy tupper Says:

    I’m hoping that your companion was your saintly and long-suffering wife. I’m also hoping she gave you a smack.
    Best wishes,
    a Leyton Orient fan. x


    • My goodness, what on earth can I say to a Leyton Orient fan. Certainly when I consider the wreckage of the encounter, smacks seem in order! (For those who have no idea what I am referring to, Poppy Tupper and I are exchanging Newcastle United-related comments…). And of course my wife is saintly and long-suffering!

  5. Jacques Says:

    Annoying pedant is the proper response to your observation. The civil servants responsible for providing signage have been thoughtfully economical in their signage, also understanding that drivers should not be subjected to lengthy academic verbiage when their primary task at hand is safe driving. I think you have identified here the gulf that exists between the academic sector and the rest of society, reflected in the Snip report.

  6. Iain Says:

    hmmm.reminds me, somewhat tangentially perhaps, of the UK academic union’s slogan at a protest to complain about the widening gap in salaries of academics in comparison to other professionals..great care was taken to ensure that the wording met all appropriate criteria and wasn’t subject to the usual slapdash agrammatical political chanting…..what barricade burning, rabble-rousing phrase did they come up with? “Rectify the anomaly!” 😉

  7. Joseph Says:

    Does “thoughtfully economical” always have to include “full of grammatical errors and missing most of the time”?

    After living here for five years it still drives me *absolutely crazy* to drive into a neighborhood that I have never visited and be unable to find a street sign for hundreds of meters!

    What’s worse, I had always expected Ireland to be somehow “literary,” given what their international reputation in the Arts, and yet, in the five countries in which I have lived, I have never witnessed so many spelling and grammatical errors on public signage, government documents, etc. It is, simply put, sloppy and embarrassing.

    International visitors often remark on such to me and I can only shrug my shoulders and mention that my undergraduate students don’t know the difference between a contraction and a possessive…


    • ‘… between a contraction and a possessive.’ Joseph, I’d love to think otherwise, but I’d be astounded beyond belief – in fact, I’d have to sit down with a glass of water – if you were to suggest that undergraduate students anywhere (except maybe in India) would know what either of these were!

  8. Perry Share Says:

    I think it most likely that ‘dual carriageway now’ is a contraction of ‘you are on the dual carriageway now’. A useful distinction should some vehicle hurtle into you from the opposite direction and you subsequently find yourself up before the beak.

    The one that really annoys me (pedantically) is the sign on Dublin litter-bins that announces that ‘Litter is disgusting, so are those responsible’. A grammatical nightmare that could easily be solved by the word ‘littering’. Of course those responsible for littering could be the very people that fail to provide enough litter-bins in the first place, or to empty them when full, as discussed in an earlier post on this blog. This then makes the slogan very weird!

  9. toby forward Says:

    The sign that most annoys me is the one in the Post Office which says, ‘Wait here until you are called forward’. Whenever I obey it other customers shout at me and the cashier sends me to the back of the queue.

  10. video ızle Says:

    On the subjects of signs etc. there is a pay machine at a car park I frequent that Zen-like tells you that ‘Change is Possible’. It always makes me smile.


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