Crash blossoms and product hazard warnings

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Although recent Language Log posts about crash blossoms have focused primarily on newspaper headlines, this phenomenon is even more important in messages written to warn customers about immanent hazards, where the same readability problems exist, but with heightened significance. For example, this one recently appeared on a Montana gasoline pump dispensing unit.



This five-word sentence contains what can be read as five syntactically unconnected nouns. Like many newspaper headlines, the meaning can be determined if you think about it a while, but this can prove difficult without a verb in there somewhere to guide you. Even if it had used the verb, SPARKS, instead of SPARK, things might be a bit easier. On the other hand, if the company had said it this way, it might be read as "static electricity always sparks an explosion," something that no company seems willing to say. Even worse, it would also lead  to the illogical conclusion that it is the hazard that will be exploded. Here's one simple way to say this:

Warning: static electricity sparks can cause an explosion

Even this, however, is a far cry from effectively warning customers unless the warning is more specific and clear about how and when such sparks are able to cause this problem.

A recent product liability case in Montana resulted from an explosion and fire at a self-service gas station. After filling her gas tank, the customer extracted the hose nozzle from her gas tank, causing a spark that ignited a huge fire in which her car and the pump units were totally destroyed. Not surprisingly, the law suit focused on the inadequacy of the gas station's warnings about this hazard, including but not limited to the one cited above.

Standards for such hazard warnings are published by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), founded in 1918 by various engineering societies and government agencies to protect the rights and interests of consumers. For hazard warnings on commercial products and services, ANSI specifies certain safety symbols and words (such as warning, danger, and caution — all indicating different degrees of severity), signal words (to be concise and understandable), and standards about lettering style and size. The purpose of these standards is to ensure that the hazard warnings are clear, readable, and prominent. In product liability cases such as this one, the task was to compare the language and design requirements of the ANSI standards with the language and design found in the commercial hazard warnings.

In the Montana gas station case, this hazard warning was certainly present, but not readable, clear, or prominent. The print was one-eighth inch high (too small to be easily readable) and written in all capital letters (known to be difficult for readers to process). Nor was the warning placed in a prominent position. It appeared on the front of the gas dispensing unit, but it was mostly hidden by the pump's hose and nozzle. If consumers can see the warning at all, it is only after they used their credit card, selected a grade level of gas, and began their task of pumping gas. Other clutter on the front of the dispensing units includes information about check-cashing policy and advertisements of various kinds that are on and around the pump dispensing units, including  the largest and most prominent message of all in this case– for Budweiser beer.

The crash blossom here was not the only problem in this case, but it certainly didn't help customers avoid the dangers of pumping their own gas. As for me, I get my car gassed up at the only full-service station in town.

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