What Are You Trying To Say?

30 Apr

I came across the sign pictured here while at a gas station off of a major highway. My first reaction was to giggle. My second reaction was to whip out my camera and take this photo. I know most people don’t love grammar jokes as much as I do but really, I couldn’t resist. Why do you think the store owner chose to use a sign that’s worded this particular way? Read the sign, think about what it means, then read on below.


“Clean restrooms for customers only.” A bit different than the usual bathroom sign, right? So what point do you think the gas station owner was trying to convey? Was it:

A. The CLEAN restrooms are only for customer use, but the DIRTY restrooms can be used  by whomever happens to stop by.

B. The restrooms are so clean that you should feel compelled to buy something just so you have the privilege of using the facilities.

C. The cleaning crew should only clean the restroom if customers are around. If no customers are around or only non-customers are around, they shouldn’t even bother cleaning.

Or maybe, just maybe, the owner was simply trying to tell us that restrooms were for customers only. As in, if you aren’t buying anything, get outta here. But the addition of the word “clean” to the sentence makes it feel so different. It makes it feel like there is more to the story. Adding in an adjective changes how the sentence reads because you figure there has to be a reason the sign’s author chose to include an extra word. I’m willing to accept that the writer didn’t even think about it and just threw that “clean” in there. But my grammar-loving brain would much rather believe the word choice was deliberate!


3 Responses to “What Are You Trying To Say?”

  1. conradwhitaker May 1, 2012 at 3:12 AM #

    This is great. It’s surprising we don’t see more meanings in (regular) phrases. Some computer parsers can. Currently reading Pinker’s “The Language Instinct”– I’m sure you’d enjoy it.

    Take this sentence and consider what it means: “Time flies like an arrow.”

    Before you read what’s below, how many different ways can you interpret this (unambiguous?) sentence?

    Then, here are a few:
    1. Time proceeds as quickly as an arrow proceeds, (the intended reading)
    2. Measure the speed of flies in the same way that you measure the speed of an arrow.
    3. Measure the speed of flies in the same way that an arrow measures the speed of flies.
    4. Measure the speed of flies that resemble an arrow.
    5. Flies of a particular kind, time-flies, are fond of an arrow.

    Warpy, eh? Fortuitous timing!

    Pinker, Steven (2010-12-14). The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language (Kindle Locations 3729-3733). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


  2. Felicia May 1, 2012 at 11:15 AM #

    Thanks for the book suggestion- just requested it from my local library! I agree, a lot of everyday language could be much more interesting if we just thought about it for a minute. We tend to just assume meaning and move on.



  1. Introducing Word Jam | Culture Cookies - June 27, 2016

    […] I write about some of these pictures here on Culture Cookies – the baggage sign at JFK, the bathroom sign at a gas station, adventures in translation. But the bulk of those photos never emerge […]


What Do You Think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: