Not not propping open the door

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Do not prop open this door for security reasons, says a sign on the inside of the side door to a garage full of delivery trucks on Haste Street in Berkeley. (Interestingly, this morning I noticed that the door was propped open with a traffic cone.) And then it goes on:

Failure to do so will result in disciplinary actions.

But… failure to do what? What has gone wrong here?

Look at it again:

Do not prop open this door for security reasons. Failure to do so will result in disciplinary actions.

The verb phrase do so is a conventional way of referring again to an action already referred to by a recent verb phrase in the discourse. The so can be regarded as an adverb, I think: just as do likewise means "take a similar action to the one that was just mentioned", do so does likewise.

What seems to have gone wrong with the door sign is this: to make sense in the minatory context, the verb phrase that has to be picked up to provide the action that do so refers to would have to be not prop open this door. That contains a negative. And there is another implicit negative in the word failure: a failure to do something amounts simply to not doing it. (Using the root fail conventionally carries the additional implication that either you were trying to do whatever it is or you should have been trying; but that doesn't alter the truth conditions, and we can ignore it for present purposes.)

So failure to do so in the context of the sign has to mean approximately "not not propping open this door". And reconstructing a verb phrase meaning with a straight double negation like that is too much to ask of our processing mechanisms (or at least, mine).

In fact for an instant I find I interpret do so as "prop this door open", yielding the crazy meaning that you are not to do it but you will be subject to disciplinary action if you don't.

A very sloppy interpretation of failure to do so, based solely on what meaning would make sense in the context, could let it mean "failure to act like we just said", or "failure to obey this sign", or "failure to do right"; but the linguistic resources as we ordinarily deploy them do not really allow that. For example, it would seem incoherent to tell someone ??I have repeatedly asked you not to call this number, but you have failed to do so. You can only make sense of that sign by being extremely careless about the way we normally interpret do so.

Two other points. First, I misquoted the sign deliberately on one point in order to eliminate a distraction: it actually says "for security reason", not "for security reasons". That's ungrammatical too. It could be just a typo (the sign is a crude piece of amateur layout and 64-point laser printed capital letters), or it could be evidence that the wording was written by a non-native or inexpert speaker.

And second, the propped-open door with the warning on it is at the corner of Haste Street and Bowditch Street, just across the road from People's Park, and any of the homeless people and drug users who sleep there can slip in past the traffic cone right now and steal a delivery truck. Though they shouldn't, and failure to do so will result in prosecution. (You see what I mean? That construction really isn't linguistically well formed.)


  1. Scribe said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    Failure not to comment on this post will result in disciplinary actions?

  2. anon said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    Can you prop it open for non-security reasons?

  3. Barbara Partee said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    I would love to see 'job aptitude tests' with things like this on them. I have a strong suspicion that those of us who go into linguistics have a higher-than-average tendency to react as you do to the linguistic form of the sign, but that 'normal people' are more likely to go straight for the pragmatics and not even notice a problem. I'd like to see experiments with your telephone example too — it's convincing to me, but I'm not sure I'm a regular fella.

  4. Mark P said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    anon made the same reading I did. Although the real meaning is obvious, a contrary person (I name no names) might prop it open for other than "security" reasons. The rest of the sign sounds like a sign maker got too far into it before he realized the trouble he was in.

  5. SP Hoyle said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

    "Do not prop open this door for security reasons." I take that to mean that it can be propped open for other reasons. Well, that's what I would understand if I were in that kind of mood. And if today's cone were propping it up for ventilation reasons, the perpetrator could plead not guilty.

    Please, for security reasons, do not prop open this door.

  6. Jonathan Lundell said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    I'm with anon; we're already off in the weeds with the first sentence: propping the door open for fresh air is fine.

    Of course, even with all the sign's problems, we're in no doubt as to what it means.

  7. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

    It sounds as if the person who propped the door open did not want to be accused of failing to not prop it open.

  8. MattF said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    I guess they meant "Failure to not not do so…". I think.

  9. Chris said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    I also responded to the first sentence with "For what reasons *can* I prop open the door, then?"

    It's difficult to express the concept of not propping open the door without expressing the more fundamental concept of propping open the door. Therefore, both concepts are available to be modified or referred to, which creates the potential for ambiguity.

    Hmm… What about "For security reasons, keep this door closed when not in use."? The second sentence can remain as is, because now there's only one (positive) verb for it to refer to. Assuming the reader agrees with the sign poster on what it means for the door to be "in use", I think the problem is solved. (Presumably the sign poster would also object to other means of not keeping the door closed which do not involve propping it open, such as tying a rope to the handle and some nearby fixed object, so the meaning is actually improved by focusing on the desired state – closedness – rather than specific means of avoiding it.)

  10. Matt Pearson said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    I wonder if this isn't a kind of clumsy variant on the phenomenon of over-negation, reported elsewhere on Language Log. Perhaps the sign reader felt (unconsciously, of course) that "Doing so will result in disciplinary actions" would have sounded too weak. "Failure to do so…" sounds more serious. It gives it that extra feeling of admonishment: Failure = bad! Don't do bad things!

  11. Matt Pearson said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    Also, "failure to X" is a pretty common turn of phrase in this particular genre of official-sounding future tense or conditional warnings. "Failure to report all income will result in an audit." "Failure to wear protective gloves could lead to electrocution." "Failure to follow orders will be severely punished." I'm sure the sign-writer had examples of this sort floating through his head.

  12. anon said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    How 'bout "Keep this door closed at all times, or we will fire you."

    "For security reasons" has lost much of its punch from overuse, and from the public realization that the mysterious "security reasons" are usually just another excuse for petty officials to throw their weight around; it's now just another bit of bureaucratese on the order of "At this time we must request that you…"

  13. Nicholas Waller said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

    "Keep this door closed at all times" has its own problems – if you can never open the door under any circumstances, then you might as well brick it up.

  14. Theophylact said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

    "Prop door on Haste and repent at leisure."

  15. dr pepper said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    Your Honor, my client is seeking compensation for wrongful termination and emotional distress. My client is outraged at this spurious claim of propping the door opwn when it was in fact wedged!

  16. Lazar said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    @Nicholas Waller: I remember seeing a door on a college campus with a sign that said "This door must remain locked at all times", and marveling at it. Did they just put the door there to taunt people?

  17. Stephen Downes said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

    "do so" in this context means "comply", and as such allows a perfectly intelligible (and grammatically coherent) interpretation.

  18. Nathan said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

    Stephen Downes: That's a really odd expression, isn't it? I don't think it's been picked up by any of the lexicographers yet. Do you have any other citations?

  19. Emily said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    "Failure to comply" is a common expression that might have worked better. Perhaps the writer originally had something like that and then changed it to "do so" without noticing the problem that created.

  20. Lazar said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

    @Stephen Downes: I disagree; I find it completely unnatural to use "failure to do so" to refer to a negated verb, and I think it does harm intelligibility. I would say that "do so" does not serve the exact same role as "comply" in this context – "comply" would refer to the order as a whole, whereas "do so" refers specifically to the verb.

    So I would find it more natural to say this:

    "Do not prop open this door for security reasons.
    Doing so will result in disciplinary actions."

    By your analysis this would be the opposite of the truth, but I think most people would agree that this would express the intended meaning in a far more natural and comprehensible way, and that it's the sign as Prof. Pullum found it that has things backwards.

  21. Janice Huth Byer said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

    Isn't not not propping it open for non-security reasons the no-no?

    Maybe not.

  22. Richard said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

    A really interesting notice. Perhaps the confusion is less complex, i.e. less to do with negation and more to do with the differences in the ways in which different languages make use of non-finite verb forms: after all, "doing (so)" and "to do (so)" can seem approximately equivalent in meaning and can be substituted for each other in some syntactic contexts, e.g., "To do so/doing so was crazy".

    "Failure in doing so" would be ambiguous between (a) failing to prop the door open and (b) failing by or consisting in propping the door open. If the writer's native language is not English, perhaps the infinitival "to do so" has crept in as a false option for translating something which allows only (i.e. requires) the -ing form in English (as complement of a preposition). It's quite possible then that a belief that the notice could have the desired meaning would be enough to blind the non-native writer to the possibility that it might have another meaning (i.e. the (a) meaning) even if the writer knew that "failure" can indeed be followed by an infinitive.

  23. Mark F. said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

    Actually I would have said "Doing so will result in disciplinary actions."

    Actually, best would probably be simply "Do not prop this door open."

  24. Rick S said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 12:29 am

    I'm inclined to think that the writer started with "Keep this door closed" (after which "Failure to do so" makes perfect sense), but on reflection thought that the stern warning might discourage people from opening it to exit. So he changed it to "Do not prop this door open" to be clearer on what the transgression would be, and then didn't reconsider the effect on the whole message, since the alternate imperatives are pretty nearly equivalent in isolation.

  25. Rubrick said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 1:29 am

    I think "Failure to do so will result in…" is something of a stock phrase in public warnings. I suspect this signmaker may have borrowed it from another context where it made more sense, and tacked it onto the end of his sign in an attempt to sound official, without thinking sufficiently about what it really meant.

  26. Franz Bebop said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 1:57 am

    Prof. Pullum,

    What, no photo? Come on! :-)

  27. Totally different Chris said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 3:46 am

    As British entertainer Larry Grayson used to say: 'Shut that door!'

  28. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 3:50 am

    I think the deal is that health and safety at work programs work with collections of stock phrases that are just slapped together without regard to whether they make sense to more refined natures. Somebody chose the "not propping door open (security)" phrase (there's probably also a "not propping door open (fire)" phrase), and added the disciplinary action phrase.
    Basically this sign could be reduced to "you no close door, we kick you ass". For the people the sign is addressed to, it is probably just a reminder of a verbal warning exactly along those lines, since many of them possibly couldn't read it properly no matter how well it was written. I suggest on the day in question, the verbal warning had not been administered, or the truck driver had the foreman down as an asshole and was ignoring him on purpose.

    My favorite sign nonsense is a fairly common one around here (in Austria) and it reads something like:
    "Parken verboten. Zuwiderhandelnde werden kostenpflichtig abgeschleppt"
    Now, unfortunately I can't translate that into English without destroying the joke, but the point is that the second part implies that either the cars park by their own agency, or that PEOPLE who park in the wrong place will be towed away (and charged for the expense).

  29. Noetica said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 4:26 am

    Do not prop open this door for security reasons.

    "For security reasons" is metalinguistic. That's a good way to put it. "We make this admonition for security reasons: 'Do not prop open this door' ". SP Hoyle's re-ordering (above) makes the metalinguisticity more obvious:

    Please, for security reasons, do not prop open this door.

    But really, it is obvious enough in the original. To diagnose charitably, the error is one of punctuation, since the word-order could be preserved and a comma or a pair of brackets (parentheses, in American) would also do the trick:

    Do not prop open this door, for security reasons.
    Do not prop open this door (for security reasons).

    Once that is cleared up, the other component can be dealt with independently:

    Failure to do so will result in disciplinary actions.

    This is far more aberrant. Geoffrey Pullum refers in the original post to a "very sloppy interpretation": "failure to act like we just said". But this is probably the only available interpretation that makes sense of the sign – and indeed gets it right! The sloppiness is not on the part of the reader of the sign, who does the interpreting, after all; obviously the author of the sign has been sloppy.

    Once again, a minimal change could be forced to fix this second problem, given that the first problem has been taken care of, and given natural assumptions about what candidates there are for the status of transgression in this context:

    Failure to act so will result in disciplinary actions.

    Strangely formal in tone; but it would do the trick. For the legalistic reader, so remains ambiguous, even though all that we need for disambiguation is to hand. Substituting for so removes the ambiguity:

    Failure to act in the prescribed way will result in disciplinary actions.

    But why was act not used in the first place? Apart from sheer insouciance and incompetence, there is the fact that the sentence includes actions, so act might have been unconsciously avoided as likely to be confuse the reader. (!)

  30. Noetica said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 4:30 am

    At the end I meant "… as likely to confuse the reader. (!)"

  31. Dierk said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 4:31 am

    First of all, why is there a door if it should not be opened? And then, why didn't they write what they really want:

    For security reasons this door has to be closed at all times. If opened, disciplinary action may be taken.


    Keep door closed!

    Personally I'd prefer the last variant since the other two [the original as well as my first] contain too much information to process. Too much unnecessary information.

  32. Jeffrey Chesters said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 4:55 am

    How about : " Not succeeding to do so will result ……………. " ?

  33. Jeffrey Chesters said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 5:36 am

    Okay, okay. " ….in doing so."

  34. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 7:44 am

    "First of all, why is there a door if it should not be opened?"

    Well, why do you keep a door in the hole at the front of your apartment, if it's cool to have it open at all times? Jeez.

    The notice is likely a consequence of insurance conditions. If something is stolen out of the shed, the company will have to document that they took reasonable steps to ensure the door was not left open unattended. The presence of the notice is proof that they have made a token effort in that direction. This shifts the liability onto the ***k who propped it open, and off the company. They get their insurance and the trucker who forgot to close it after having a smoke outside gets time as an accomplice.

  35. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 8:10 am

    @Ben Hemmens:
    There's a sign in the parking lot of an apartment a block from where I live that reads:
    Parking for Tenants Only
    Violators Will Be Towed
    at Their Own Expense

  36. Dierk said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    Ben, the door of my flat does not have a disingenuously pretentious sign on it. It is also meant to be opened.

  37. bianca steele said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    Here's what I think: The first thought was to say, "Do not prop open the door." People didn't take the instruction seriously. Therefore, "for security reason[s]" was added. Everybody knows how serious "security" is (especially these days). Still, some people might not care that much about security. Now they read the sign and see that they only have to leave the door shut if their goals include security. Therefore, a dire warning, using the same warning used for similar dire warnings in other situations, was added: "Failure to do so will result in disciplinary action." Now people know that if they do the wrong thing, they will be disciplined.

    Problem solved, presumably.

  38. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    @Ralph Hickok:

    Maybe this sign exists in all languages?

    I think we should be told.

  39. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    If the topic of really bad, misleading, and incomprehensible signs has been opened, my favorite is:

    One Way
    Do Not Enter

    All I know is that I dared not enter.

  40. Janice Huth Byer said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

    Mr. Fnortner, heh, yeah, there's no arguing with trucks set on having their own way. For me the classic sign is:


  41. dr pepper said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    What we have here is failure to not prop the door open!

  42. Mark Liberman said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 9:41 pm

    The logic of signs is tricky.

  43. John Chambers said,

    July 10, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    "Parken verboten. Zuwiderhandelnde werden kostenpflichtig abgeschleppt"

    I've often heard a similar phrasing in English. One common example is asking "Where are you parked?" instead of "Where did you park?" or "Where is your car parked?". I think there's a word for this referring to a person rather than to some object associated with them, but I don't recall what it is. I always have the temptation to say something like "I'm not parked; I'm standing right here."

  44. peter said,

    July 10, 2009 @ 10:00 am

    There used to be a cafe in Palo Alto with a small sign inside the cafe above the only external door, saying (IIRC): "Door must be open while in use."

    Being near Stanford and SRI, we concluded that perhaps the cafe had been navigated by an early-model robot which had needed such reassurance to deal with the Frame Problem.

  45. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 10, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    A bit off-topic, I know, but I must put my favorite sign on record. I saw it some years ago above a sheet metal shop in Fall River, Massachusetts.

    We Make Heating Ducts
    and Smoke Pipes

    I thought at first that was the metal workers' equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

  46. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 10, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    @John Chambers: "One common example is asking "Where are you parked?" instead of "Where did you park?""

    Curiously that also happens in the same way in German. People coming out of a building will ask each other "Wo stehst du?"

    To check out this car/person conflation in more languages would be a topic for a posting of its own.

  47. Gabe Ormsby said,

    July 10, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

    A similar formulation appeared in a WCCO (Minneapolis) story about city buses recently photographed running red lights:

    "When Metro Transit was alerted about all the buses caught on tape running lights Wednesday, bulletins were immediately sent out to all 1,450 drivers, reminding them of intersection safety rules. The bulletin reminds drivers to never run a red light in order to stay on schedule."

    Not clear whether it's the memo itself or the WCCO writer, but someone is implying that there may be other, legitimate reasons for a city bus to run a red.

    Or…A more nuanced interpretation might be that, because bus schedules factor in time for traffic lights, running reds may in fact put the buses *ahead* of schedule. Might they have written "Bus schedules are designed to accommodate the wait times at red lights. Therefore, to avoid getting ahead schedule on your route, do not run red lights." Seems like a rather ancillary benefit, though, given the other legal and safety reasons for stopping for reds.

  48. dr pepper said,

    July 10, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    Wouldn't that be a form of metonymy?

  49. Bill Sharpe said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    The sign I quarrel with is the one often found on printed pages:
    This page intentionally left bland.

    and of course it isn't blank any more…

  50. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    Mr. Sharpe, I have just returned to this page after an absence and found your message, and typo. I am in awe, and will be eternally grateful.

    "This page intentionally left bland."

    So much written, so much blandness, so few warnings…

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