Please don't offend this post

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On a recent commute via Calgary's light rail train, the following recorded announcement caught my ear: "Please stand clear of the doors as this train is trying to depart." Beyond my initial bemusement, I thought little of it. I imagined, perhaps, a harried public transit employee playing a bit fast and loose with selectional restrictions in much the same way that a certain child I know puts together jigsaw puzzles: by pounding together pieces that approximately fit together and hoping for the best. But later in the week my husband fielded a call that made me wonder whether the train announcer's overextension of animacy features wasn't in fact a crafty linguistic maneuver to increase rush-hour compliance.

The call in question was for a survey on behalf of the City of Calgary, designed with the obvious intent of figuring out how to get people to stop planting non-indigenous species that end up spreading throughout the local eco-system. You know the type: wisteria on the North American East Coast and purple loosestrife here in the West. Would we, the survey caller wanted to know, be less likely to introduce a plant into our yard if we knew it was an invasive species—or an aggressive ornamental? Now that you mention it, I think we'll stay away from the aggressive ornamentals, those lovely but neurotic plants that are prone to outbursts of snarling and clawing at your bare ankles as you walk by. Nor, apparently, do they play well with other plants. They have a tendency to leap over the garden fence and be rather belligerent towards the local flora.

Word-tinkering tools are of course to be found in the handbag of any communications expert, ever since the famous studies on framing effects by Daniel Kahneman & Amos Tversky and the highly-publicized linguistic machinations of Republican advisor Frank Luntz, who regularly dispenses advice on how to most persuasively refer to policies (for example: Americans allegedly disapprove of a death tax more strongly than the co-referential estate tax). The City of Calgary has certainly had its own Luntzian moments. For instance, city council chose to name an expensive and aesthetically controversial footbridge the Peace Bridge (this being Canada, peace is hardly ever a controversial topic). And our current mayor, a fierce advocate of building a tunnel that would run traffic beneath the airport, has taken to calling it the airport underpass—a term that surely evokes a lesser probability of engineering and fiscal catastrophe than the word tunnel.

In light of all this, I'm now imagining some communications person with an animacy fetish doing language design somewhere in a back room of City Hall. And now that I think about it, elasticizing animacy seems a promising approach that could generalize quite well to a variety of persuasive contexts. I suspect some of its persuasive work is being accomplished by simple incongruity—after all, it was the violation of selectional restrictions that first made me notice the train announcement in the first place. But beyond that, we humans are clearly a species obsessed with animacy. We eagerly attribute goals, intentions and emotions to objects that have none—people routinely apologize to computer-generated voices, accuse their software of having it in for them, or wheedle, cajole, bribe or threaten their cars to start in the depths of a Calgary winter. Surely, if a train is trying to depart, one would not be so insensitive as to knowingly frustrate it. (I'll let you know if I see any fellow Canadians actually apologizing to the train.)

So, in the interests of fostering safe and civic-minded behavior, I thought I'd help the City of Calgary out by proposing the following signage:

$100 fine for smothering the grass by littering.
Molesting the walls with graffiti will be strictly punished.
A fine will be charged for wounding the library books.
Kindly relieve your sidewalks of snow within 12 hours.
Mind the malicious gap.


  1. Eric said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

    "A fine will be charged for wounding the library books."

    I'll remember that for when I'm a grouchy 80-year-old librarian. If books still exist. And libraries.

  2. Ken Brown said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

    "Invasive species" is the normal biologists term. Though "aggresive" is much less usual. Trust me, I'm a botanist.

  3. Julie Sedivy said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

    Indeed, it was clearly the less usual term that was being test-driven here against the default control.

  4. Nicholas Waller said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

    "how to get people to stop planting non-indigenous species that end up spreading throughout the local eco-system" – for a moment I thought we were back on the Matthew Engel anti-Americanism topic.

    On the actual topic, you find a lot of plane crash news reports saying "the plane was trying to land" or was "unable" to land – 50,000+ googlehitsworth for that string anyway.

    I have found a Bomb Waited In Drawer But Drug Agents Spotted It headline, which has shades of the philosophical planet-buster bomb in the film Dark Star.

  5. Aaron Toivo said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

    I do not believe the "aggressive ornamental" label is likely to have the desired effect. It may sound sinister to non-gardeners, but as a gardener I can tell you that the label immediately suggests to me a plant that's likely to successfully grow in my garden with minimal care and attention. There are so many garden plants that struggle to survive, who wouldn't want a beautiful one that aggressively thrived?

    Another term I've seen used in state law for invasive species is "noxious weed". Labelling invasive plants "weeds" is far superior for the purpose of motivating gardeners to pick something else.

  6. The Ridger said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

    Interesting – a train "trying to depart" sounds normal to me. On Literal MInded a while back (Getting a Raise) he was talking about "try" and mentioned that "it's trying to rain" wasn't possible. It was for many of his commenters, though other things he said about "try" were so. Maybe some things are more easily anthropomorphized than others?

  7. James C. said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

    Personally, I think the most effective way to get people to stop planting harmful non-native plants in their gardens would be to call them all "loosestrife".

  8. Sili said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

    This door is alarmed.

  9. Bob Moore said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

    That train is obviously related to The Little Engine that Could: "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can …"

  10. Josh Treleaven said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

    Regarding Luntzianisms, I have a rule of thumb that the way to stay objective is to always use the more negative-sounding term. Ie. use death tax because it is more negative. And instead of pro-choice and pro-life, it's anti-life and anti-choice. (I actually got that last pair from Penn Jillette.)

  11. Bathrobe said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

    "This train is trying to depart" sounds ok to me. I've heard similar examples from time to time, although I can't think of any good examples at the moment.

    How about, of revolving doors, "The door is trying to rotate but something is stuck in there"?

    Or when someone (e.g. a dying man) is trying to say something: "The words were trying to come out but…(finish sentence how you want)."

    "Aggressive" used of plants seems fine to me, too. What it means is that they grow or spread aggressively. The usage is no worse than "aggressive policies" to control inflation, which are somewhat different from the older sense of policies of aggression towards one's neighbours.

  12. Duncan said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 11:10 pm

    I'm with Aaron on "aggressive ornamental". "Aggressive" when used of a plant, is to me synonymous with "hardy", something that'll take over- or under-watering, too much or too little sun, etc, obviously something I'd prefer to a plant that dies if I forget about it for a couple days. "Invasive", OTOH, is something I'd probably avoid (similar to "penetrative", the negatives there are perhaps highest for rape/abuse victim and friends who have helped them overcome the ordeal), but for this past gardener, "noxious weed" is even more to avoid (tho I imagine pot users might find a positive connotation there, so the tried and true "invasive species" remains perhaps the best choice).

    Meanwhile, the negatives of "airport underpass" are far higher than those of "tunnel", here. Granted, I've been relatively far from falling concrete tunnel liner incidents, etc, but to me, "tunnel" has the relatively stable and thus positive connotation of a circular hole bored thru mountains and other (implied) stable geologic structures, while "underpass" has an unfortunate linkage with "undertaker" and calls to mind images of the equally unfortunate concrete sandwiches made of the freeways in the California quake some years ago.

  13. Robert Coren said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

    I am reminded of a sign that has always amused (and puzzled) me in the lobby of the Colonial Theater in Boston: "Drinks are not permitted to be carried into the theater". If you allow your drinks to get carried into the theater, they'll think they can get away with anything, and likely get all aggressive and/or invasive.

  14. Robert Coren said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 11:22 pm

    Also: purple loosestrife is just as invasive/aggressive here in the Northeast.

  15. UK Lawyer said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 12:35 am

    I have often heard (and been irritated on several levels by) the announcer on UK trains telling us that "this train will terminate at [Paddington] station".

  16. GeorgeW said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 6:11 am

    "Aggressive ornamental" gives me a polarity clash or the image of a bad horror film in which violets and daisies suddenly become malevolent and take over the world.

  17. Barbara Partee said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    I'm with those who actively seek aggressive plants; my gardening technique, since I'm away half the year, is to plant various aggressive perennials and let them fight it out. Invasives I do try to avoid — I was sad when I learned that bittersweet is not as nice as it is pretty, and have been working on eradication ever since (it's VERY hardy!). Purple loosestrife is even invading drainage ditches in our dacha community, I've noticed, and I rip ours out every year, but most people here don't know it's a bad guy. ("Garden loosestrife", on the other hand, is one of my favorites and not aggressive at all, so nix to 'name them all 'loosestrife'. Besides, wasn't there a nice Loosestrife character in Watership Down? I have only positive associations to the name!) (Uh-oh, correcting myself: there are several kinds of lysimachea called 'garden loosestrife' and some of them are also classified as invasives and are aggressive. Hmm, I see the word 'noxious' gets used for the 'bad guys' too — good move. I just planted I hope a good one at our dacha two years ago — I think it's lysimachea punctata, not positive.)
    Sorry, I guess I got off topic — but it's linguistically interesting that 'aggressive' can be desirable or undesirable in plants: I want plants that will out-aggress the weeds. I know that's not a word, but I need it.

  18. Barbara Partee said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 7:29 am

    Oh, maybe it would be closer to Julie's original comments if I just said I'd like my perennials to be assertive. That's milder than aggressive, but I think less commonly applied to plants. (Yet commonly applied to flavorings in foods; hmm.)

  19. Karl Narveson said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 9:11 am

    Isn't "the train is trying to depart" just a metonymy for "the person in control of this train is trying to make the train depart"? A very common metonymy. We say "the car up there is trying to merge into my lane", not "the driver of the car up there …". We even say "I'm parked on Elm Street" as an unremarkable shorthand for "I have parked my car on Elm Street".

    More semantically interesting is when we attribute intention and knowledge to separate components of automated systems. Your thermostat can try to start your furnace and be frustrated because your furnace isn't lit. If your word processing software doesn't know where to print the document you have asked it to print, it will prompt you to tell it. This is not a shorthand for "Bill Gates is prompting you to enter a printer connection string".

  20. notrequired said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 9:48 am

    Poor train. Getting stepped on by all those passengers every day :(

  21. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 9:53 am

    There's the added wrinkle that terms with strong connotations of death increase the listener's mortality salience, which is known to encourage authoritarian and tribalistic thinking. That's probably part of what is going on with "death tax". Always choosing the more negative term is probably going to involve a lot of vivid death imagery, which could introduce a cognitive bias in that direction.

  22. JHH said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    I grew up hearing "The garbage wants taken out" from my Pennsylvania-born mother.

  23. GeorgeW said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 10:12 am

    I am trying to think of how to speak, at least in the world of smart phones, computers, drones and the like, without animacy. Of course it is possible but more wordy and often the human agent might be quite distant and not transparent.

  24. Bobbie said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 11:55 am

    In my gardening experience, I have naively selected various "assertive" plants that became quite aggressive. When they started taking over the garden plot and the yard and the pathways, to the detriment of other plants, I told them sternly that I was in charge, and they did not rule the world, even if they thought they did! Then I pulled some of them out! Ha!

  25. Julie Sedivy said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

    Gadgets and even vehicles certainly invite extensions of animacy/agency, and more and more, actually do have goals/intentions programmed into them. But there are intriguing tensions that come up in our willingness to extend human-like traits. For example, Clifford Nass, who's done some fascinating work with computer-generated speech, finds that synthetic voices trigger all sorts of automatic social responses in humans—including the tendency to think that a computer is more trustworthy if its voice suggests personality traits similar to one's own or if it's been identified as belonging on one's "team". And, as I mentioned, people readily apologize to computer agents. However, evidently humans resent it when the computer refers to itself using the pronoun "I". It's this space in the middle that I find interesting and no doubt cognitively rich.

  26. Allan said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

    We have road signs all over town that read: "Driveways Entering Roadway Ahead".

  27. Paul Kay said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

    Where I come from there's a, perhaps regional, expression, "It's trying to rain," and I believe "It's threatening to rain," is common all over. Karl Narveson is probably right that many of these examples can be interpreted as metonymies, but something tells me that some can only be attributed to a more general, anthropomorphizing, trope.

  28. Xmun said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    "The garbage wants taken out": I suspect this is "wants" in the sense of "lacks". That's to say, the garbage hasn't been taken out yet. This is sheer guesswork on my part: is it anywhere close?

  29. neminem said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

    Yeah, I also have absolutely no issue with hearing that a train "is trying to depart". If, in fact, the train is being controlled by a human operator, then yes, it would just be metonymy, referring to a human-driven object as if it were a direct extension of its controller. But even were the train entirely driving itself by its own programming, that phrasing still wouldn't bother me in the least; see also:

  30. kenny said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

    The most notable thing about that sentence to me is the question of whether the "as" clause is being used explanatorily or as a simple time marker. I have always used "as" independent clauses pretty much exclusively as an indicator of contemporaneous occurrence with the main clause. It is probably the recency effect, but I have noticed lots of my writing students use explanatory "as" clauses (that is, where you could replace the "as" with "since") very frequently. It's hard for me to tell whether in this case, the "as" is meant explanatorily or not, which makes a difference in the interpretation (this ambiguity is one of the reasons why I discourage my students from using explanatory "as" clauses too often): If it is explanatory, then the message really is, "hey, man. watch yourself, the train is trying to leave here"–anthropomorphizing the train. But if it's simply a temporal marker, the anthropomorphizing effect is greatly diminished. My feeling is that the author of this post felt that the "as" clause was in fact intended as explanatory.

  31. Bathrobe said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

    "I have always used "as" independent clauses pretty much exclusively as an indicator of contemporaneous occurrence with the main clause."

    I quite normally use 'as' in the meaning of 'since' or 'because' and I've never thought of it as a particularly strange or aberrant usage. It's clearly the intended meaning here.

    In fact, I find the 'indicator of contemporaneous occurrence' potentially more confusing — especially when it's used in journalistic prose. Journos use it, usually in the lead paragraph, to point out that two things are going on at once, implying that there is some kind of link between the two. It's become a lazy way of packing two tenuously related events (sometimes unrelated events!) into one sentence. It can be quite hard to translate into foreign languages because it is so meaningless.

    As usual, examples are hard to find when you need them, and even harder to manufacture, but something like this is what I have in mind: "EU holds emergency DSK meeting as hotel maids demonstrate in NY".

  32. Pi Madison said,

    July 23, 2011 @ 10:47 pm

    It took me a minute to see what was out of place. In southern American English just about anything can be anthropomorphized with the phrase "fixing to" as in "it's fixing to storm."

  33. Bathrobe said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 12:06 am

    That probably should have been:

    "IMF hold emergency meeting as hotel maids demonstrate in NY".

  34. Rob said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

    In "this train is trying to depart", doesn't "train" somehow refer collectively to all the passengers on board the train? That's how it sounds to my (British) ears. I feel that the guard or driver, in making this announcement, is positioning him/herself as representing the interests of the passengers as a whole.

    As an illustration of Julie Sedivy's last comment above, I thoroughly despise the (all-too-frequent) announcement in railway stations in Britain, spoken by a computer with a posh lady's voice, saying "I am sorry for the delay to this service". I find this pseudo-apology infuriating, because it's clear there is no "I" doing the apologizing.

    JHH: Shouldn't that be "the garbage wants taking out", rather than "taken"? That construction is also common in Britain (though of course "garbage" is not!).

  35. Simone said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 4:38 am

    Maybe the Canadian train manufacturers just implemented the GPP feature that Douglas Adams predicted in the Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy?

  36. J. Goard said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 8:10 am

    Sometimes I forget that there are linguists out there still thinking about "violations" of "selectional restrictions"…

    From my perspective, the phenomenon in question concerns the backgrounded elements of a lexical item's meaning, which (like the profiled part of its meaning) are abstracted from usage tokens with various kinds of sensitivity to frequency, and then applied to novel situations using frequency-sensitive analogy. There are no restrictions, except insofar as the ability to form a plausible analogy tapers off, such that you can find something on the far side of whatever arbitrary degree of unacceptability you're looking for.

  37. Ellen K. said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 9:19 am

    @Rob: Regarding taking vs. taken in "the garbage wants taken out", that construction, using the "taken" form* instead of the -ing form, has come up before on Language log before, but I don't know how to search for that. Basically, using the -ed form (and it's non-standard equivalents, like taken) instead of the -ing form is a legitimate non-standard variant.

    *Not sure what to call it, for most verbs I'd call it the -ed form.

  38. » Another word for it said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    […] out to be something else that she'd found. However, the term "invasive species" itself is apparently not doing the job for some folks: The call in question was for a survey on behalf of the City of Calgary, designed with the obvious […]

  39. Craig said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 4:56 pm


    I think it's more that "verb+[past participle]" in some Pennsylvanian dialects replaces "verb+to be+[past participle]." Thus, things "need done" instead of "need to be done. I can "want taken out for ice cream" instead of "want to be taken out for ice cream."

  40. Ellen K. said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 6:41 pm

    @Craig: I'm not the one who suggested it should be "taking".

  41. Nathan McCoy said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 2:29 am

    On the MAX train in Portland, OR, the automated recorded voice which announces the stops also informs the passengers which doors will open with a phrase like "Northeast 7th Avenue; doors to my left." It seems that we're supposed to understand it as the train itself telling us which of its doors it intends to open. (It's tempting to refer to the train with a female pronoun, as the voice is female – but the Spanish voice which immediately follows to repeat that information is male. So I suppose the MAX must be personified, if at all, as a bilingual hermaphrodite in this case.)

  42. Bathrobe said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 8:19 am

    the backgrounded elements of a lexical item's meaning, which (like the profiled part of its meaning) are abstracted from usage tokens with various kinds of sensitivity to frequency, and then applied to novel situations using frequency-sensitive analogy.


    "violations" of "selectional restrictions"

    I don't know which is worse.

  43. Treesong said,

    May 12, 2014 @ 9:14 am

    Re aggressive ornamentals, this from the New Yorker around 1951, 'The Big Nasturtiums' by Robert Beverly Hale:

    All of a sudden the big nasturtiums
    Rose in the night from the ocean's bed,
    Rested a while in the light of the morning,
    Turning the sand dunes tiger red.

    They covered the statue of Abraham Lincoln,
    They climbed to the top of our church's spire.
    "Grandpa! Grandpa! Come to the window!
    Come to the window! Our world's on fire!"

    Big nasturtiums in the High Sierras,
    Big nasturtiums in the lands below;
    Our trains are late and our planes have fallen,
    And out in the ocean the whistles blow.

    Over the fields and over the forests,
    Over the living and over the dead—
    "I never expected the big nasturtiums
    To come in my lifetime!" Grandpa said.

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