Permitted loads are not allowed

« previous post | next post »

Driving on I-91N between New Haven and Hartford a couple of days ago, I saw this sign describing one of the exits:

Permitted loads are not allowed on Route ___.

At least that's what I think it said. According to Michael Quinion's World Wide Words (4/16/2011):

Gordon Drukier noted that new signs have appeared In the past few months on the approaches to State Route 3 from Interstate 91 in Connecticut. These warn: ROUTE 3 NO PERMITTED LOADS ALLOWED

I suspect that Mr. Drukier's attention and memory were better than mine, but I haven't been able to find a picture to verify either version.

Arnold Zwicky discussed a similar sign in California last year, and linked to a picture of a variant formulation "No permitted trucks allowed". Even without Arnold's explanation, you've probably figured out that a "permitted load" is (or sometimes can be) a load that has been granted a permit, because it's too big or too heavy to be transported legally without one. In other words, a "permitted load" is a load that is forbidden unless it is permitted.

You'd think that they could find a less ambiguous term. But as Geoff Pullum put it,

Languages love multiple meanings. They lust after them. They roll around in them like a dog in fresh grass.

In my experience, dogs are driven to roll around in fresh animal droppings more than in fresh grass; but perhaps this improves the simile for those who find ambiguity vaguely unclean.

Update — Paul Ellis supplied a picture of what was probably the sign that I saw, and certainly the sign that Gordon Drukier saw:


  1. john mckenzie said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 8:01 am

    "No permit-regulated loads allowed"

  2. Michael said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 8:14 am

    That's why the bard said: All that's spoke is marr'd…

  3. Rodger C said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 8:30 am

    I suppose "permitted" in this sense, as "a verbing of the noun permit" (Zwicky), is stressed on the first syllable and is therefore a different verb from "permitted" meaning, uh, "permitted."

  4. Jake Nelson said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 8:31 am

    Maryland's phrasing "No permit loads permitted" seems less ambiguous, though still jokeworthy. ("Permit load" appears to be more common than "permitted load" overall.)

    No permission for things that need permission makes me think "If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it".

  5. NW said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 8:40 am

    I want to spell this initial-stressed verb 'permited' (cf. 'riveted', 'wainscoting'), but fear the chaos this would bring if I tried to explain why no permited loads were permitted.

  6. Rodger C said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 9:06 am

    To pursue the thought: I daresay it never occurred to the bureaucrats who are familiar with "permitted" as an initial-stressed verb that it could be confused with the other verb, which occupies a different mental compartment.

    Completely off topic, this just in from "Relatives charged in murder of 10-year-old found locked in box." Well, I say leave them there.

  7. John Lawler said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 10:05 am

    Virtually all the odd signs and crash blossoms noted here, and garden path texts generally, are unremarkable and unambiguous in speech. Literacy, for all its delights and benefits, represents only a small portion of the communicational spectrum that spoken language uses, and this causes its own problems, like any antiquated technology.

  8. Ellen K. said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 10:06 am

    @NW: Glad I'm not the only one thinking that the having a permit meaning should be spelled permited since the stress is (presumably) on the first syllable.

  9. Becky said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    One of my favorite highway signs (one I've only seen in the south and mid-west) is: Gusty Winds May Exist

    And every time I see that sign, I think to myself, well yes of course, but that's hardly helpful in highway sign form.

  10. Faldone said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    These signs might be unremarkable and unambiguous in speech, but they're also unremarkable and unambiguous to their target audience. If you're cruising the freeway in your Beamer you might get a giggle out of these but if you're driving a permited truck you'll know exactly what they mean.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    @Becky: High winds "may exist" here in New Mexico too.

  12. Jim said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    Was the sign talking about PERmitted loads of perMITTed loads? It would make a difference, if PERmitted loads were the ones needing a permit because they were abnormally heavy.

  13. Robert Harris said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 11:19 am

    On west-bound US 30 between Jennerstown and Laughlintown, there are signs at the Laurel Summit that say (more or less) "no Placarded Trucks" meaning trucks with hazard placards. This is a steep and crooked down-grade on this road.

  14. eye5600 said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    There was somewhat similar signage on the Garden State Parkway (IIRC) saying something like "EZ-Pass signed lanes only."

  15. Pete said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    There's a large sign on the A40 that says POLISH WAR MEMORIAL. It always makes me think "Oh yes, I mustn't forget to polish the war memorial."

  16. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

    This brings to mind Bob and Ray, whose radio show was sometime sponsored by "Polish polish."

  17. David Walker said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

    If a load has a permit, isn't it automatically allowed? After all, it has a permit! What good is a permit then?

    Reminds me of a discussion I had with my Dad, who said the meaning of a sign saying simply "Posted" was completely clear. I said it is not clear unless you grew up in the woods (which I did not).

    For those who may not know, a sign that says "Posted" means "Posted – No Trespassing". How is that obvious?

  18. Agustin said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    If a load has a permit, isn't it automatically allowed? After all, it has a permit! What good is a permit then?

    David – I think you've found the crux. What the sign is trying to convey is that this particular road is not covered by the permit, which means that a more helpful sign might read something like "load permits are invalid on this road".

  19. Ross Presser said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    "I can't permit the permit load to pass the pass, because the gravity is too grave to grant Grant's grant."

  20. mira said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

    All the buses here in the Czech Republic have signs that say "Cestující jsou povinni se za jízdy držet" which is supposed to mean that we're supposed to hold on during the ride, but which always makes me imagine all the passengers holding on to each other.

  21. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

    I think I mentioned here once the contortions the Maryland Highway Dept. went through some years ago to erect a sign that indicated a detour on the road to the village of Detour, MD (q.G.). They ended up with close to a paragraph on their sign. You had to stop your car and carefully parse the information. Only natives and linguists made it to Detour that season.

  22. Xmun said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    @Becky: A sign reading "BEWARE OF WIND" used to grace a hill road just north of Wellington. A former governor-general pleaded for its retention, because it amused him, but the authorities removed it anyway. I can't remember what sign, if any, there is now.

  23. Ø said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

    Every time I see a "Posted, No Trespassing" sign, I go through the same curmudgeonly thoughts: (1) this seems to convey no more information than a simple "No Trespassing", (2) but maybe in cases of prosecution for trespassing the presence of the word "posted" in the sign somehow puts the prosecutor or the landowner in a stronger position because of some law about the effect of posting No Trespassing signs, and (3) some day they'll start posting "Posted, Posted, No Trespassing" signs, won't they?

  24. briggslaw said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

    Posting is alive and well in Wisconsin, which recently became the 49th state to allow its residents to carry concealed weapons (they'll be permited). If you don't want your visitors bringing concealed weapons on to your property, you must post. And the notice you post must be not less than 5" x 7".

  25. MJ said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

    Related for me is the deer crossing signs, which utterly puzzled me as a child. How, I wondered, did the deer know to cross there?

  26. Frank Y. Gladney said,

    August 17, 2011 @ 1:15 am

    The denominal verb _PERmit_according to American spelling rules shouldn't doouble he -t-: PERmited, PERmiting (cf. PIvoting, not *PIvotting), but few editors have the courage to follow this rule.

  27. Jason Stokes said,

    August 17, 2011 @ 2:41 am

    But what of tucks carrying loads which, in virtue of their, lets say, urgency, have been given a permit to travel even the roads which have prohibitions on loads that have permits? These require a permit to override the prohibitition on permitted loads on certain roads.

    Now consider a road so fragile that even a load that has a permit to ignore a road's prohibition on loads that have permits has to be prohibited. The sign would have to read "Loads permitted to override prohibitions on permitted loads prohibited."

  28. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 17, 2011 @ 8:45 am

    Sort of the opposite of; or maybe its bastard twin.

  29. Faldone said,

    August 17, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    Last night, in the wild, in a discussion of the potential damage caused to roads by traffic generated by drilling for natural gas, one proponent of the drilling used the words permit and permitted (the latter referring to vehicles that had permits allowing them to be over certain weight limits) both with the emphasis on the second syllable.

  30. Paul Wilkins said,

    August 17, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    In Flizbardian, the word permit has 37 meanings, depending on context and empahsis. 82 of them are vulgar.

  31. Robin A said,

    August 18, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

    What about alarmed doors too. They are becoming more frequent here. I suppose that if a door is already alarmed and I suppose frightened, then it might make a noise when opened. Still looks odd to me though.

  32. Adrianne said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

    Becky – west of El Paso on I-10 is the delightfully philosophical sign: "Dust Storms May Exist." Makes me happy every time I pop over to Las Cruces.

RSS feed for comments on this post