Friday, 4 May 2012

In Case of Fire . . .

I’m learning! Blogs are most lively with pictures. So here’s an  image to contemplate as we discuss what will be an overarching question of this blog: Does clear English matter?

In case you can’t see the photo, it's a fancy sign that I encountered beside the elevators in a retirement home. The relevant lines proclaim (erroneous capitalization and all):

In Case Of Fire
Elevators Are Out Of Service.

The establishment’s intended meaning is clear: If fire breaks out, don’t wait for an elevator, because it won’t come. There is no reason to doubt that they mean what they say.

But sap that I am, I expect signs--and sentences--to say what they mean, and this wording caused me to do some mental translation (a professional hazard). While most folks would immediately grasp that they’ll need to take the stairs in the event of fire, this wording actually suggests that the elevators have already been turned off.

Don't believe me? I'll prove it. English is flexible when it comes to word order. Nuance may change when you shift a sentence’s components around, but meaning is rarely affected. Possibly even never. (Challenge! Find me an English sentence that shifts meaning when its word order is changed.)

Take the second sentence of this post, for example: “Blogs are most lively with pictures.” You can say “blogs with pictures are most lively” or “with pictures, blogs are most lively” or even (but clumsily) “blogs are with pictures most lively” without changing the meaning. See?

But look what happens when we flip our elevator sign around. “Elevators are out of service in case of fire.” Yikes! Why didn’t you say so? It is suddenly clear that the establishment is so worried by the eventuality of fire that they have turned off the elevators as a preventive measure! Let’s get out of here! "Use exit!"

Clear English matters.

P.S. Could it be that someone was made uneasy by the ambiguity?This sign is posted nearby:


  1. I read it the same as you too, how funny that they could have just switched it around to read properly. This is fun! I hope you are going to get an email sign up widget so I can subscribe via email :)

  2. Catherine! Thanks so much for the suggestion. An email widget--who knew? 'Tis done!
    Thanks too for a particularly delightful comment. You couldn't have said anything nicer than "I'm having fun!" 'Cause I am too!