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CONFUSING PUBLIC MESSAGES

September 01, 2016

ORDER OF QUALIFIERS:  If I say “He is a big, strong lad,” “big” and “strong” are adjectives qualifying the noun “lad.”  If I say I saw two blind men,” both “two” (a number) and “blind” (an adjective) are qualifying the noun “men.” In the second case, where one of the qualifiers is a counting number, it comes before the other qualifier; so we say “two blind men,” but not “blind two men.”

But on multi-lane highways one is more likely to see: “Trucks use right two lanes,” instead of the correct form, which is, “Trucks use two right lanes.”

 

HYPHENATION:  We discussed the importance of hyphens in some earlier post on these blogs. (An example was given as the difficulty of correctly understanding the sentence “We sell demand-and-supply statistics” (which may make no sense if we remove the two hyphens).

In our health-conscious modern times, the absence of certain undesirable ingredients are used as strong selling points for expensive merchandise or as a “bragging point.” Examples abound:

SMOKE-FREE environment

GLUTEN-FREE menu item

INTEREST-FREE loan; etc.

Unfortunately, there is a growing tendency to omit the hyphens, and that can change the meaning of the phrase. (If the hyphen must be dropped, then it’s best to plug “free” onto the preceding word to yield SMOKEFREE, for instance, as German language does.)

 

WHAT’S NEXT?   Few words of English language seem as clear and simple as the word “next.” Yet, it is getting bent so far out of shape that it may appear to be ambiguous in some cases. Examples:

A highway sign helpful to pressed motorists says:    REST STOP 1 MILE,

But just below it is another message:      NEXT REST STOP 62 MILES.

Question: Why is the rest stop that is 1 mile away not the NEXT rest stop? “Next” means the first instance coming up after right now; so the next rest stop is 1 mile away, not 62 miles. (But we understand the messages on that sign to be warning the motorist, “Beware: If you miss the rest stop that is 1 mile away, then the one after it is 62 miles away.”

Similarly, is there a difference between “This Friday” and “Next Friday” It depends. If today is Wednesday, then “this Friday” and “next Friday” should be referring to the same day, that is only two days away. But if the day is already Friday, then “this Friday” refers to today, while “next Friday” refers to the day that is seven days away. We used to say “Friday week” to refer to the Friday AFTER the next one. But these days few people use that expression; instead, people use “next Friday” when they mean “Friday week.”

Needless to say, I missed a few meetings because of that needless “next” ambiguity. (Similarly, when I see a schedule that says a train arrives 12:00 am, I have no idea whether it means 12:00 noon or 12:00 midnight — as discussed in an earlier blog. In our hurry to make messages brief we may end up making them confusing.)

 

THE PARTICLE, A:   A is the only one of the 26 letters of our alphabet that can stand alone as a full word in its own right. When it stands alone it functions as a particle. Wikipedia defines a particle as “a function word” that must be associated with another word or phrase to impart meaning. (‘The’ is another particle; and “an” is an alternative to “a” when the word it refers to begins with a vowel (so we say “a man” but “an object” instead of “a object.”)

Because A can stand alone, it is sometimes used wrongly in constructions. One sees the following errors, especially in shops and on merchandise:

LAY-A-WAY DEPARTMENT (in which ‘a’ has been wrongly detached from AWAY and left to serve as a particle;

Children’s SING-A-LONG SONG (in which ‘a’ is similarly detached from ALONG).

Such detachment is a corruption induced by poor enunciation in spoken English, which carries over into written English. (We have seen other examples of this corruption in earlier posts on this blog.)

In extreme cases the “a” which is detached from a word is then further separated from that word with the insertion of another word. Thus we get the whopper:

ANOTHER becomes A NOTHER and then, for emphasis, A WHOLE NOTHER (such as in the sentence, “This is a whole nother story.”)