Dogless in Albion

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Whenever I visit England, I'm struck by the fact that escalators, moving walkways, and other public conveyances commonly have signs requiring users to carry dogs. I also always remember Martin Kay's observation that phrasal stress on the subject ("DOGS must be carried") suggests the absurd interpretation that "you can't use this facility unless you are carrying a dog", whereas stress on the verb remains consistent with the intended meaning "if you have a dog, you must carry it rather than have it go on its own feet".

There are several linguistic puzzles here. The first one is how to represent and explain the ambiguity in interpretation. One possibility is that there's an implicit universally quantified agent, "Dogs must be carried [by everyone]", which in any case needs to be contextually limited to "everyone using this facility", and then may or may not be further restricted to "everyone using this facility who is accompanied by a dog". And those skilled in the art will be able to think of several other semantic or pragmatic treatments, for instance involving the nature and scope of the deontic modal "must".

A second puzzle is why a difference in phrasal stress should apparently affect this ambiguity.

As evidence that the ambiguity is a real one, consider the many similar signs "Xs must be Y'ed" which mean that Y-ing Xs is required of everyone — no X, no access. A common value for X is  "safety shoes", which are shoes reinforced to prevent foot injury from heavy objects falling, sharp things sticking up, and so on. Signs warning that "safety shoes must be worn" don't mean "wear 'em if you've got 'em", they mean "wear 'em or keep out". (Pictured sign is courtesy of

And curiously, my impression is that the safety-shoes sign would naturally be read with main phrase stress on the verb.

There's a cultural puzzle here as well, namely why the "Dogs must be carried" signs are ubiquitous in the U.K., but (as far as I know) never seen in the U.S. It's possible that this reflects a general difference in human-canine relations, as argued here:

In England, dogs often follow their owners about all day, to work, to the Post Office or to the pub. This is considered normal, although any badly behaving dogs are not welcome. Each English town and city has their own level of dog-friendliness. Dogs are usually okay in country markets, but not welcome in large chain superstores, for instance. Dogs also are not allowed in human medical facilities.

But this is not consistent with my own experience in several American cities, where I see plenty of dogs accompanying people on their daily errands. And nobody is more American than Rick Beeman, about whom this was written in 1998:

The biggest regret Rick Beeman, Ph.D. , has about his new post as dean for undergraduate education and director of the College, is that he no longer has time to take his Bernese mountain dog, Chief Justice John Marshmallow (Johnny) to doggy play group near Swarthmore College.

But Beeman has a solution: In the morning, he asks Johnny if he wants to go to work, and if he jumps in the car, off to work they go.

(It's true that Johnny could probably have carried Rick more easily than the reverse, but surely this is an orthogonal issue.)

And I don't spend much time in New York City bars, but I was sorry to read this, just a few weeks ago (Matt Flegenheimer, "A Tradition Ends as Bars Shut Their Doors to Dogs", NYT 8/26/2011):

Miles has been going to Ace Bar all his life.

His face has grayed there. Friends have come and gone. He never paid for a drink, but rarely walked out of the East Village bar with an empty stomach. He may have purged his dinner on the floor a time or two, his fellow bar patrons said, but who among them hadn’t done the same?

Over the past year, though, Miles has become the latest subject of what may be the city’s least funny running joke: A dog walks into a bar — and the health department threatens to issue a violation for allowing live animals in a food establishment.

“He’s a dog, but I swear he looks sad,” Mike Israely, 33, said of Miles, his 9-year-old boxer-pug mix, as the dog peered through Ace Bar’s glass doors Thursday night. “Coming here was part of our evening walk.”

In fact, during six days in Manchester and two trips through the airport, I saw no dogs at all, carried or otherwise. So the fact that every escalator and moving walkway at Manchester Airport warns us that "Dogs must be carried", while no such signs can be found anywhere at Philadelphia International, remains as much a mystery to me as how that sign means what it obviously does.


  1. Ben Hemmens said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 7:53 am

    I just love the pictogram, which evidently feels considerable detail of the escalator is needed but leaves the rear end of the dog implied.

    [(myl) The dog's rear end isn't missing, it's just white against a white background…

    And the escalator schematization is complete only if the figure is entering the escalator from the upper level rather than the lower level — which would imply that the dog-carrier is either going down backwards, or is holding his pet behind his back. (I say "his" because the figure has two visible legs without a skirt, which in other contexts is icon-ese for "male".) In general I feel that it's a mistake to devote much interpretive effort to such things, but once I noticed this orientation issue, I couldn't help thinking about the problems of going down an escalator backwards while holding a dog, or while trying to carry a dog behind one's back. Not that there are many better things to do while walking from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 at Manchester Airport, a 20-minute journey on which you'll encounter a dozen or so such signs. ]

  2. Martin J Ball said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 8:06 am

    The important point missed here is that British dogs have an annoying habit of floating away if not carried. This is supported by the commonly seen exhortation that they be affixed to metal: "Dogs must be on lead".

  3. Lynneguist said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 8:12 am

    I can tell you, it's different with dogs in England than in US. Really, really. In fact, I wrote about it a while ago (with a bunch of dog-related idioms):

    [(myl) Thanks! One small correction: you quote someone suggesting that "dog's breakfast" is a peculiarly British idiom ("I used the expression 'dog's breakfast' in a comment on an American blog, and the bloke said he'd never heard it before"); but the OED says that it's "orig. U.S." and gives a 1915 Pennsylvania newspaper article as the source of its earliest citation. I think it's true that this idiom is now more widely used and understood in the U.K., but I certainly remember hearing it as a child in the U.S. (in rural New England). By the way, without being able to cite a source, I've always thought that the metaphor referred to dogs' habit of eating vomit and feces.]

  4. h. s. gudnason said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 8:25 am

    The sign may also be a demonstration of the UK's openness to continental European visitors. It's not uncommon in Germany and Austria (or France, though I have less experience there) to see dogs in public eating establishments. (Sometimes contained, but for their heads, in what I would otherwise call a gym bag.) On the other hand, I just remembered British quarantine laws, so perhaps that's not the reason after all.

    As for the icon, I see the image as a person emerging at the top of an escalator, holding the handrail with his right hand and the dog in front of him in his left arm. I'm not sure why the person has to be riding backwards or holding the dog behind his back. On the other hand, I'm not very good at interpreting these visual instructions.

    [(myl) You're right — the icon could represent someone leaving the top of an up-escalator. But the sign is displayed at the entrance of the device rather than at the exit.]

  5. marie-lucie said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    I think the escalator picture does double duty for moving walkways such as those in airports. In any case, adding more detail would just make the picture more confusing.

    It is obvious that the regulation implies that only small dogs will be accompanying people. The dogs in the photographs look far too large to be carried by the average person and the attempt would probably place the person at more risk than the dog of being injured on an escalator.

    In Canada I see many signs banning dogs from buses, restaurants, etc, with the mention "except seeing-eye dogs" or similar specially trained dogs, which are not excessively large but still too large to be carried.

  6. arthur said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 8:40 am

    Signs warning that "safety shoes must be worn" don't mean "wear 'em if you've got 'em", they mean "wear 'em or keep out".

    Or perhaps "don't wear brand new ones."

  7. Dominik Lukes said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 8:46 am

    I'm not sure I see where the puzzle is. The difference between "dogs must be carried" and "safety shoes must be worn" is disambiguated by context and knowledge of the world. No implied relative or conditional clauses are necessary. The syntax allows both interpretations in both cases and therefore can be hypostesized into the absurd but no real misunderstanding was ever possible. The cultural scripts associated with the respective situations are simply too unambiguous. I doubt you could elicit the infelicitous interpretation of "dogs must be carried" even at a dog show with a stress on DOGS. You'd have to say something like "Only people accompanied by dogs allowed" or "Only for people carrying dogs". Or you'd have to a situation with a shared script allowing for this. In that case the stressing of DOGS could be interpreted as a reminder. Otherwise it would probably just not make a lot of sense.

    The cultural difference isn't about what the "underlying" cultural reality is but about what the cultural patterns of putting up public signs are. Or simply a matter of an incident of a hurt dog on an escalator that resulted in a public safety rule. No need to posit a special dog-Brit relationship. I've never seen a dog near an escalator in the UK in over 10 years.

    These things are hard to predict. I always give the example of the US/UK English. The US has the Postal Service and the Mail Man. The UK has the Royal Mail and the Postman. You'd expect a language surrounded by particular signs to adopt the analogous title for the person working under them.

    [(myl) The simple assertion "The syntax allows both interpretations in both cases" is empty and unworthy of you. SImilar sweeping and contentless assertions could be used to replace all analysis of form and meaning in all the phrases of all the languages of the world. It's equally obvious (and just as analytically empty) that context disambiguates, that readers know what is meant, and so on. The questions of interest here are what the various interpretations are; why they are available here (and less available, for example, in signs like "Riders must carry dogs" or "Workers must wear safety shoes"); how they are related to syntactic forms, accent patterns, and interpretive contexts; and so on.

    You may well not be interested in such questions. If so, the Language Log subscription department stands ready, as always, to give you double your money back on the condition that you take your comments elsewhere.]

  8. Nicholas Waller said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 9:18 am

    Generally on British escalators etc we stand on the right and walk on the left, so I would see the graphic showing our chappie arriving at the top of an escalator. (Maybe the graphic is suggesting that if you don't carry your dog, by the time you get to the top it'll have been cut in half by vicious escalator teeth).

    Slightly different, in my local village (in Somerset, in the west of England) there is a sign on a gate that reads


     ON A LEAD

    As you'll see from the sign, SHEEP is in red and the rest in black (of various sizes). Each time I pass I wonder whether this is an instruction to sheep or a warning to humans.

  9. Jon Weinberg said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    This is just one data point, but it supports the "differences in human-canine relations" theory: In the U.S., you wouldn't see such a sign in an airport (as myl did), because, in U.S. airports, dogs other than service animals are supposed be kept in carriers. Thus, the Air Transport Association's guidelines on "air travel with your pet": "Do not take your pet out of its kennel inside the airport unless TSA personnel ask you to do so. In keeping with airport regulations and out of courtesy for other passengers, you should let your pet out of the kennel only after you leave the terminal building."

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    On a nearby beach there's a sign that says "Always swim between the red flags", which makes us wonder if we're allowed to walk along that section.

  11. Teresa G said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 10:10 am

    I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe the use of the adjective in "safety shoes" contributes to the interpretive possibilities. That is, try using the frame "__ must be carried" with "shoes" vs. "safety shoes".

    "Shoes must be carried" suggests the same interpretion as with "dogs must be carried". i.e. Those bringing shoes along must carry them, not wear them.

    "Safety shoes must be carried" suggests to me that I'd better go out and get some safety shoes if I want to continue here.


    [(myl) Maybe the modifier tilts the interpretation a bit, I don't know — but it's not necessary.]

  12. teucer said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 10:10 am

    I'm pretty sure Arnold Bros (est 1905) has something to say about this.

  13. David L said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    Since this discussion seems to have devolved into a list of funny signs that people have seen, let me add mine. I was driving along the Washington Beltway yesterday afternoon and saw a couple of prominent notices announcing "DUI Enforcement Area," which of course made me wonder on what parts of the Beltway it's OK to have a beverage while driving.

  14. The Ridger said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 10:47 am

    Oh. Oh, David L. That sign bugs the heck out of me. (As does the one indicating that NOW you're in an aggressive-driving-enforcement zone.) I always – ALWAYS – immediately think: so up till now it was okay?

  15. Nick Fleisher said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    It's interesting to note that, if you change these bare plural subjects to explicitly universally quantified ones with "all", the silly reading of the dogs example goes away. I.e., "All dogs must be carried" seems to me to have only the sensible reading, and "All safety shoes must be worn" is bizarre (unless we understand that people typically carry around such shoes with them). Obviously, "all" must be suitably contextually restricted in these cases. Clearly this doesn't bear directly on the bare plural cases of interest, but it does provide an interesting contrast, or perhaps a useful starting point for further thinking.

  16. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 11:10 am

    We've puzzled over the ambiguity in the written word and had a mirthful moment with the behind-the-back dog, but no one as yet has inquired whether the graphic carries the same ambiguity as the text. Were I a non-English speaking traveler, would I wonder if I should have brought a dog as the price of admission to the people mover (as might the text)? Notwithstanding my impression that most cautionary signage communicates badly, does the ambiguity infuse text and graphic equally?

  17. Theodore said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 11:43 am

    I would suspect that construction sites, industrial facilities, etc. first tried signs reading something like: "SAFETY SHOES REQUIRED".

    The wording was changed after the first time a safety inspector observed a worker in sandals, sneakers, bare feet, etc., asked why he didn't have the required safety shoes and received the reply: "I do have safety shoes; they're here in my bag."

  18. HP said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    Is this the right thread to mention "Warning: Children at Play"?

    Always gives me the creeps, in a sort-of "Midwich Cuckoos" way.

  19. Ben said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    The claim that dogs "often" follow their owners about all day in England is definitely not true. I've never seen *anyone* bring their dog to anywhere I worked. I'm sure there are dog-friendly workplaces where it happens, but they are the exception.

    Against all the odds, somehow public transport workers manage to interpret the signs correctly. I've never been barred from using the Tube because I wasn't carrying a dog. So far.

  20. NW said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    My first cut on the accent is that primary accent marks new information. So 'DOGS must be carried' implicates "Oh, you'll need a DOG for this next bit", and likewise 'SAFETY SHOES must be worn' says "You'll need SAFETY SHOES to come in here". Which is perfectly reasonable. But the people coming into the building site prototypically do already have the right shoes, helmet, and visibility jacket, so now they need to be told they must be WORN, not left in your locker or held in your hand.

    If the primary accent is on CARRIED, the dogs are backgrounded, so we're talking about whatever dogs there happen to be – in most cases none. But such as there are, they have to be CARRIED.

  21. W A said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

    I agree with Dominik. The sign is only confusing if you were, perhaps, an extraterrestrial who didn't understand context. Is there anyone who really thinks that one must be with a dog in order to ride this dog-toters-only escalator? There is no problem with the ambiguity, because none exists for most readers, and the sign doesn't need to be "fixed".

    [(myl) I also agree with Dominik that no one is likely to misunderstand this sign. However, both of you are totally and completely missing the point, which is not that people are likely to find the sign confusing, or that the sign needs to be fixed, but rather that the the sign illustrates an interesting ambiguity (or perhaps vagueness) in the English language, one perhaps worthy of examination and analysis.

    So here's a place-holder for another post, some day, about the fact that posts about linguistic ambiguity invariably attract clueless comments from (visiting extraterrestial?) readers, apparently blind and deaf to the context of the discussion, who carry on about whether or not specific examples are likely to be misinterpreted.]

    As for the image itself, try to imagine, in all of its flatness, how the sign is supposed to depict a dog carrier at the bottom of the escalator going up. It makes sense graphically to have the person already at the top. As with the text, I think have taken the sign far too literally; you're practically Amelia Bedelia.

    [(myl) Again, you've completely missed the point. Please do take advantage of our promise to refund double your subscription price in case of less than full satisfaction, and mind the step on the way out.]

  22. paul said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    teucer, I wondered how far down the page I'd get before seeing that! Then there's the fire buckets to worry about.

  23. Kathleen said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

    Going off-topic with everyone else . . . A house in my little college town has a sign out front that reads:

    For Rent College Girls 555-1234

    I can't help but wonder why the police don't crack down on such blatant prostitution.

  24. John Roth said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

    Maybe translating these two injunctions to the active voice would provide a clue?

    1. You must carry dog.

    2. You must wear safety shoes.

    The first cries out for a determiner, either your or a. The second seems fine as it stands

    [(myl) That's because plural indefinite noun phrases in English have no determiner (or have null determiners, as you please). Since the original sign was "Dogs must be carried", (your version of) the active version in this case would be "You must carry dogs", which is of course fine without a determiner.

    Shoes happen to come in pairs, but that's not relevant here, as is shown by the corresponding signs reading e.g. "Masks must be worn".

    And I agree that things are interesting different in active sentences, suggesting that explanations in terms of modal scope may be relevant.]

  25. Ellen K. said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    No one said the sign was confusing. (There was reference to the picture possibly being confusing, but no suggestion that meaning of the sign is confusing.) Though one probably shouldn't assume that there isn't someone, somewhere who finds it confusing. Still, such things tend to get posted about because they are amusing and/or interesting, not because they are confusing.

  26. John Roth said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    Hm. I seem to have changed a plural to a singular, which seems to provide a clue. So it's

    1. You must carry dogs.

    Which still begs the question of what you do if you don't have one or more. I'm leaning to the notion that it's a matter of pragmatics, not semantics.

  27. GeorgeW said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    Dominik & W A: Yes, semantic analysis ambiguates the signs.

  28. Peter said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 1:31 pm

    While we’re being silly, I’m always also amused by the US signs in school parking lots reading:


    I suspect if someone stood there and obeyed for too long, they might be asked to leave.

  29. Chandra said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

    But this post isn't about the potential ambiguity of a phrase like "No Exit". It's about the potential ambiguity of the very specific construction "X must be Y".

  30. blahedo said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    I find it interesting nobody's commented on the word stress claims. In particular, my first reaction to Kay's claim was that it was wrong as a premise—because I thought "DOGS must be carried" clearly sets up a contrast with not-dog items, hence e.g. "but cats can walk alongside". Putting the stress on the final verb gives the intended interpretation ("Dogs must be CARRIED, not left to walk on their own").

    Rolling it around in my head, I can find a different way to interpret "DOGS must be carried", e.g., "rather than handbags and satchels"—this reading puts no stress on 'carried', while my first DOGS sentence above puts a secondary stress on 'carried'. But I can't find any stress pattern that strongly tilts towards the "no entry without a dog" reading. (Though I can of course pull that reading out, with a little effort.)

  31. Rick Sprague said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    Regarding David L's "DUI Enforcement Area" sign, my first thought was of an even sillier interpretation–namely, that in this area drivers are required to imbibe. Likewise for The Ridger's "Aggressive Driving Enforcement Zone" where, presumably, tailgating a slower vehicle is mandatory.

  32. GeorgeW said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

    bahedo: My reaction to the stressed 'dogs' was like yours, contrastive to something. Heavy stress on 'must' would seem to emphasize the imperative.

    In any event, since the sign is written, any unusual stress would be supplied by the reader and not a component of the message.

  33. Gunnar H said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    Maybe my language feel is off here, but to me the most natural way to read it aloud would be "DOGS must be 'carried" (primary stress on "dogs", secondary stress on the first syllable of "carried"), and performed in this way I would unambiguously choose the natural interpretation.

    For the ambiguity to overcome common sense, I would have to read it as " 'dogs MUST be carried" (primary stress on "must", secondary on "dogs").

    I would speculate that you need an unexpected stress pattern in order to signal that the sentence should be interpreted in an unexpected way.

    (I find the whole "refund double your subscription" thing quite hostile to commenters, by the way. Is that something you only use against persistent troublemakers, or aren't people allowed to disagree with or even misunderstand a single post before you tell them to leave?)

  34. Victor Manfredi said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

    mark's english judgement (with which i agree) that "the safety-shoes sign would naturally be read with main phrase stress on the verb" implies that the puzzle is limited to why the text of the shoe sign avoids NSR-driven information focus on the predicate remnant "be worn". but assuming that wearing is the canonical use of shoes (unless of course dubya is within range), it's pragmatically reasonable not to assign it narrow focus; compare the parsing of "she ate some FOOD" as informationally equivalent to "she ATE something" (m. wagner 2005, "prosody and recursion" p. 262 citing ad neeleman p.c.). the same pragmatic rule doesn't apply to the dog sign, because carrying is not THEIR canonical use. the residual issue–why anyone would read the dog sign with initial stress–is no problem either, since it's a marked option under any known theory of english phrasal accentuation, and so demands a contextual cue, e.g. schmerling's "JOHNSON died" (when he wasn't known to be sick).

  35. Bobbie said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    But if I have a BIG dog and must carry it, who will pay for my treatments at the chiropractor?

  36. Chandra said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

    @Gunnar H: "For the ambiguity to overcome common sense, I would have to read it as " 'dogs MUST be carried" (primary stress on "must", secondary on "dogs")."

    That still wouldn't overcome common sense for me. I would read it as, "If you have a dog, it absolutely MUST be carried, no excuses or exceptions."

  37. lynneguist said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

    myl–thanks for the correction re 'dog's breakfast'! Will add it to the original post.

  38. Chandra said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

    I'm trying to think of any stress pattern or other prosodic clues that would turn something like "zargles must be carried" into an unambiguous phrase for me, and I'm not convinced there is one.

    Conversely, in the case of "zargles must be worn", it doesn't matter if the stress is on "zargles" or on "must"; I'm pretty sure I would interpret it to mean "you must wear zargles in this area".

    I'm not sure how to pin down why, but it has something to do with the nature of things we wear (shoes, gloves etc.) and how we don't really expect people to do anything with them other than wear them. Whereas the word "carried" can imply either having the item on your person (carrying a wallet or passport), or physically lifting an item (carrying a dog or heavy box).

  39. Ellen K. said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

    For me, I don't see "zargles must be carried" as ambiguous. If you have a zargle, whatever that is, you must carry it.

    "Passports must be carried" would be, have it in your hand, not in your suitcase that your dragging along behind you. I wouldn't convey that you have to have your passport with you, but HOW you must have it with you. Using "carry" doesn't work for me for only specifying that I must have something with me. Because it indicates something more than that.

    Thus, "zargles must be carried" conveys that, if I have a zargle, I must carry it, rather than letting it walk, or dragging it along, or whatever.

    I mostly agree on "zargles must be worn", but, on the other hand, I can imagine the situation with coats where it might mean "if you have a coat, you must wear it". Or hats. Clothing that one might have with but not on.

    [(myl) Your judgments are plausible, but there do seem to be real-world cases where "X must be carried" doesn't just mean that if you happen to have an X along, you must carry it (as opposed to dealing with it in some other way). Examples:

    Permit Must Be Carried and Displayed.
    Alien registration certificate must be carried at all times


  40. Kenny Easwaran said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

    And of course, Language Log has touched on this issue before:

    [(myl) Thanks for the highly relevant link, which I should have included (though I did include a link to an earlier post in the same 2006 series)! The discussion there concerned the TSA announcement that "We encourage everyone to pack gel-filled bras in their checked baggage"; a slightly stronger and more exactly analogous formulation would have been "Gel-filled bras must be placed in checked baggage".]

  41. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

    So here's a place-holder for another post, some day, about the fact that posts about linguistic ambiguity invariably attract clueless comments from (visiting extraterrestial?) readers, apparently blind and deaf to the context of the discussion, who carry on about whether or not specific examples are likely to be misinterpreted

    I suspect it's because in some people's dialect 'ambiguous' means 'liable to be misinterpreted', so if you say 'there's an ambiguity here', they will read it as meaning 'this is liable to be misinterpreted', and be confused if, in fact, it isn't.

  42. Ben Hemmens said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

    I've been thinking about this on and off and all I can contribute is that one of my other lives (as a lobbyist for cycling) has given me a little insight into the bureaucracy behind the wordings of signs. These are often a shorthand for laws or rules and as such use language conventionalized to the point of being unnatural (as unnatural as programming language). It presumes that the person who sees the sign knows the rule and just needs to be reminded of which rule applies at this place.
    That may be fairly silly, and the signs may happen to be fairly intelligible to someone who doesn't know the rule, but I can tell you, that is often a happy accident. Protecting the client, not the little dogs, is the main intention.
    I suggest that the possible intelligibility of such signs is due to being acquainted with the kind of relation of sign to rule, and the unnatural language used in both. People who have driver's licenses (in Europe) have been extensively lectured on the rules and their signage; anyone who is authorized to enter a construction site has been though a safety training. People who are used to either of these may be able to decode a sign like the dog/elevator one.
    In the USA at least with traffic signage, I believe there is a different philosophy, with many more signs having wording that attempts to be naturally intelligible. I suggest that much signage in Europe is intended to work in a different way.

  43. Zizoz said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 8:37 pm

    «One possibility is that there's an implicit universally quantified agent, "Dogs must be carried [by everyone]", which in any case needs to be contextually limited to "everyone using this facility", and then may or may not be further restricted to "everyone using this facility who is accompanied by a dog".»

    To me, even the second restriction seems to leave open the possibility that those who have more than one dog only need carry one. The correct interpretation to me is rather "[All] dogs must be carried."

  44. Martin B said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 10:18 pm

    The Ridger: there is an overhead sign in Chapel St, Melbourne, Australia, that enjoins drivers to "Obey lane markings". Ever since noticing it I've been waiting for the appearence of a sign telling drivers to "Obey the sign 'Obey lane markings'". Of course then they would probably need another sign…

  45. Janice Byer said,

    September 12, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

    Literary and legal scholar Stanley Fish, known for arguing there's no such thing as free speech, has said the same of ambiguous language. The ambiguity we perceive depends on our awareness of alternatives not the language. I sense he has a point, though thinking about it makes me woozy.

  46. Chad Nilep said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 12:05 am

    I have a feeling that the scope of modality must be (at least partially) to blame here. Compare the sign in (US) restaurant restrooms: "Employees must wash hands". The standard joking misinterpretation is that customers mustn't wash their own hands, but need to seek out an employee.

    We might say that the contrast is between
    1B. For every EMPLOYEE (who uses the restroom), EMPLOYEE must WASH HANDS

    Can we do something similar with these examples?
    2A. For every CARRY, DOG must BE CARRIED
    2B. For every DOG, DOG must BE CARRIED

    3A. For every WEAR SHOE, SAFETY SHOE must BE WORN

    This is all a bit vague, probably owing to my merely nodding acquaintance with formal logic, but maybe someone else can work with it.

  47. Chris Waters said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 1:22 am

    Hmm, someone suggested that the key might be "carried" vs "worn", but I don't think so. Imagine, if you will, a building where toxic sludge is likely to leak from the ceiling, and a sign saying "Umbrellas Must Be Carried". I'd take that as meaning the having an umbrella is mandatory, even though it is worded just like the dog sign, where dogs are not mandatory.

    I think it may be one of those cases where people simply solve the potential ambiguity by simply avoiding the "X must be Yed" pattern in cases where it might be ambiguous. I wonder if anyone's ever seen a case where it was genuinely confusing, and not just amusing? We found a similar natural avoidance of ambiguity when looking at the two ways people use the word "literally".

  48. bric said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 2:28 am

    Another one for you – at a market in London one stall had the sign ALL JEWELLERY ON THIS TABLE £10
    me: I'll have it all please
    stallholder: Oh I'll have to count them, want to make an offer?
    me: But it's £10 isn't it?
    stallholder (scowling): It doesn't mean that
    me: But it says that
    at this point I confessed I was winding her up and escaped . . . next week the sign was:
    THIS TABLE ALL ITEMS £10 EACH (EACH being much bigger)

  49. Nathan Myers said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 4:01 am

    Yanks and Brits both stand to the right, on escalators, and walk on the left? Evidently, that must seem obviously-correct to both, because I have not seen signs advocating it in either country.

    Are Brits inclined to park their cars in the center of the roadway? Or do both Brits and Yanks pass on the left, the one on the shoulder and the other in the oncoming lane? Or does the motion of the standing riders seem merely slow to Yanks, but actually retrograde to Brits? Finally, where do Japanese and Kiwi riders stand?

    Resolutely remaining on topic, I propose that escalator standing place is dictated by not by road rules, but by language grammar.

  50. Ben Hemmens said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 4:52 am

    Germans stand on the right and walk on the left AND have signs about it.

  51. David J. Littleboy said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 6:31 am

    "where do Japanese and Kiwi riders stand?"
    In Tokyo standers stand on the left, us hyperactive folks go on the right. I've been told it's the opposite in Osaka. I understand that the traffic laws actually stipulate that pedestrians should walk on the right (not left), but if you actually walk in Tokyo, it's a lot easier if you walk on the left. So it's local custom,not grammar.

  52. Jonathan said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 8:04 am

    A dog being carried on a Tube escalator…

  53. Nicholas Waller said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 9:11 am

    @ Jonathan – note the Top Commenter on that youTube (delboyplonker) brought it right back to the topic: "I saw a sign on an escalator once "Dogs must be carried", it took me an hour to find one."

    @ Nathan Myers – a photo of a tube notice about standing on the right:

  54. Walter Burleigh said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 9:53 am

    My apologies if some commenter has already cited (undetected by my quick threadskim) this classic discussion of dog-related signage. It's from Graves & Hodge, _The Reader Over Your Shoulder_ (1943ish).

    [(myl) Very nice — thank you! This is the basis of Ernest Nagle's "Symbolic Notation, Haddocks' Eyes and the Dog-Walking Ordinance", in James Newman's The World of Mathematics v. 3.]

  55. marie-lucie said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    Where do Kiwis walk: Some years ago I had a stopover at the Auckland airport, then a very genteel-looking place. There were very few people around as I stepped on a moving walkway and started walking. The only other people on the walkway were a group of four, who were not moving. As I approached them I said "Excuse me please" while continuing to walk. Not only did they not move, but one woman looked shocked and said "You are not supposed to walk here!" and other words to the same effect. I gave her a look of disbelief, ready to tell her I had been in many airports and people everywhere else used walkways to walk if they chose, and she let me pass her (on the right side) and continue walking. This happened before the airport was redone in a definitely less genteel, more crassly American style (with Burger King, etc), so perhaps Kiwi habits on moving apparatus have changed too.

  56. Ellen said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

    @Chris Waters: Seems to me the correct instruction in the toxic sludge from the ceiling example would be "umbrellas must be used". Merely carrying an umbrella won't help.

  57. ENKI-][ said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

    The clear solution is to produce stickers saying "Those persons caught dogless will be subject to fines of up to 235 pounds" and slap them on the bottom of each of these signs.

  58. John said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

    The lifeguards at our town pool announce the end of adult swim by letting the kids know they can get back into the pool, but they want them to go carefully:

    "Please walk slowly back into the pool."

    What they of course mean is "Please do not run…", but instead sound like they want everyone to get into the pool.

  59. EndlessWaves said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 8:45 pm

    This discussion on the use of elevators is interesting. As a Brit but not a Londoner I found the 'stand on the right' signs a novel idea when I first used the underground. Normally I don't think of which side of an elevator I stand on and if someone comes running up behind I'll let them by if it's convinient but not otherwise, If you're in a hurry you use the normal stairs (which are almost always alongside the moving stairs or within view from the base of them).

    On the subject of signs I think the largest contributer to the sense of it is the item in question. 'Dogs must be carried' is interpreted one way, but 'Geiger counters must be carried' would generally be interpreted the other.

    It's harder to think of examples for 'must be worn' that don't imply a mandatory item. The best I can do is some sort of context where you'd want both hands free and subsequently 'hats and jackets must be worn' (as opposed to carried) but I'm struggling to think of common examples.

  60. Peter Taylor said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 1:37 am

    @Nathan Myers, I've seen many signs on London Underground escalators with the instruction to "Stand on the right" (a photo, not mine: ). This is another example of signese, because it isn't an instruction to stand on the right but an instruction to stand on the right or walk on the left.

    Incidentally, my local metro has recently added signs to tell people which side of the escalator to use: The left side is for people "In a hurry" and the right "Not in a hurry".

  61. Chandra said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    @Peter Taylor – I, with my rudimentary Spanish, was stumped as to what "la paella, desde ahora, también viaja en metro" could possibly mean, until I looked at the cartoons on the signs and realized it means precisely what it looks like it means.

    I'm still curious, though, about "deja salir para entrar": You must leave to enter?


  62. Peter Taylor said,

    September 14, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    @Chandra, that's dejar in the sense of allow. Let people off before you get on.

  63. JS said,

    September 15, 2011 @ 1:38 am

    I think the ambiguity arises from a missing (or implied) 'if' clause. In other words, nothing that is (overtly) internal to the phrases as posted. Which is sort of what Chad Nilep was getting at too, I think.

    (If you have a dog) dogs must be carried.
    (If you enter) safety shoes must be worn.

    The "if" clauses are implied, because, as so many of our (perhaps less sophisticated?) commenters have pointed out, they are unnecessary given that they are supplied by common sense/context. But, despite not being written, they are still essential to the interpretation of the written text.

    That might seem an overly simple analysis, but it gets at why the ambiguity arises.

  64. Ross Presser said,

    September 15, 2011 @ 2:13 am

    Getting afield from signs … there is "The Dog Walking Ordinance":

    which goes through various permutations like

    No dogs must be brought to this Park except on a lead.
    Dogs are not allowed in this Park without leads.
    Owners of dogs are not allowed in this Park unless they keep them on leads.
    Nobody without his dog on a lead is allowed in this Park.
    Dogs must be led in this Park.
    All dogs must be kept on leads in this Park.
    All dogs in this Park must be kept on the lead.

  65. Keith said,

    September 15, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    I seem to remember from living in the UK that there were often signs along the lines of "Infants and toddlers must be carried"; again, nobody seemed to misunderstand this injunction…

    Comparing the blue and white "Dogs must be carried" with the yellow and black "CAUTION – SAFETY SHOES MUST BE WORN" is a bit of a stretch. The typography and colour schemes of the two signs are too categorically different.

    To contrast with the "Dogs must be carried" (meaning "Any dog brought onto the walkway must be carried"), I would suggest "Shirts must be worn" (meaning "You must wear a shirt") in the same typography and colour scheme. Then we could investigate why a culturally attuned person would easily get two very different messages from two very similar injunctions.


  66. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

    […] at Language Log gave his two cents. Also at Language Log Mark Liberman considered the apparent dog-carrying requirements on escalators and moving walkways in England, while Victor Mair tallied up the hurt feelings of the […]

  67. ajay said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 6:48 am

    By the way, without being able to cite a source, I've always thought that the metaphor referred to dogs' habit of eating vomit and feces.

    Unlikely, given that a dog's dinner ("dressed up like a") is the epitome of desirable elegance, while a dog's breakfast ("made a complete") is a complete mess.

    In Tokyo standers stand on the left, us hyperactive folks go on the right. I've been told it's the opposite in Osaka.

    It's obviously to do with electricity supply then.

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