"Falling rocks" versus "fallen rocks"

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[This is a guest post by an anonymous correspondent.]

We traveled last week from our home in Baltimore out to see our daughter in Ohio, and while en route in Pennsylvania, my husband and I noticed something. At various points along the turnpike, we saw signs that noted "Falling Rocks" and others that noted "Fallen Rocks." It was after dark as we drove, so we couldn't see what the hillsides looked like, but we found it unusual to see both signs, which appeared to be in free variation. We didn't see any rocks in the road, and happily for us, none came rolling down as we passed.

I can find nothing on the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation website that says anything useful about this variation, so we let our minds wander. Is there a running argument within PennDoT about how to phrase this? Is someone trying to save a tiny bit of money by using "Fallen" instead of the slightly longer "Falling" term? Is the placement of an individual sign dependent on the slope? I'll write PennDoT when I can figure out where along the turnpike we probably were when we first noticed this. Their website demands exact locations, alas.

If you happen to drive to Ohio via the turnpike, in the daylight, would you mind paying attention to this signage? I'm curious as to whether the different signs reflect the differences in the topography or if there is no apparent reason for the variation. Honestly, if I worked for the road crew, I'd hammer in whatever was in the back of the truck and not concern myself whether the rocks have rolled or might roll yet. Falling or fallen, gravity will eventually get all of us.

At least my husband's vision is still reasonably good, although he admitted to misreading a company logo on a large truck he passed. It really read, "Dedication at Every Turn," but he saw something slightly different: "Defecation at Every Turn." We only felt that way once we crossed back into Maryland, when the insanity resumed.


VHM:  A few additional notes:

"fallen rocks" — 114,000 ghits

"falling rocks" — 752,000 ghits

When I typed in "fallen rocks", Google automatically suggested "fallen rocks vs. falling rocks", so this must be something that has puzzled other people.  Come to think of it, when I used to drive across Pennsylvania many years ago, I had the same quandary.



  1. Bjorn said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 10:59 am

    I would assume that "Fallen rocks" would indicate a place where there might be rocks on the road, perhaps because they fell/rolled down an embankment and stopped in the middle of the road. "Falling rocks", I'd assume, would indicate a place where rocks sometimes fall directly from a cliff onto the road.

    On the other hand, now that I think about it, there wouldn't be much point in having the latter sign; it's not as though a driver can do anything to reduce the risk of being hit by a rock falling from above.

  2. Andrew said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 11:03 am

    A previous discussion of the topic: https://www.prdaily.com/writingandediting/Articles/Beware_of_fallen_rocks_A_phrasing_conundrum_21168.aspx

  3. Andrew said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 11:07 am

    In the UK we have a pictorial sign for such hazards. I see from the official list (see https://www.gov.uk/guidance/the-highway-code/traffic-signs under "warning signs") that it means "falling or fallen rocks"

  4. Scott P. said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 11:34 am

    On the other hand, now that I think about it, there wouldn't be much point in having the latter sign; it's not as though a driver can do anything to reduce the risk of being hit by a rock falling from above.

    They could refrain from driving on the road in the first place. It's an issue of liability. If the public is warned, they will have a more difficult time winning a lawsuit against the state.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 11:44 am

    From Heidi Mair (writing from Seattle):

    Falling rocks is a place where rocks often fall and fallen rocks is a place where rocks have recently fallen. Were both signs permanent?

  6. ===Dan said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 1:03 pm

    It seems to me that both signs mean exactly the same in practice. Any fallen rock on the road must have been "falling" not so long beforehand, assuming that rocks on the road are removed reasonably promptly. "Falling" may convey a sense of immediacy, but the more likely risk seems to be encountering a rock already in the road. "Fallen" may direct the driver to pay attention to the road, not to the cliffs above. Crucial advice.

    I'm reminded of a Mad Magazine one-page comic (Don Martin, probably) where the driver sees the sign, and his nervousness is palpable. At the end of the falling rock zone, he wipes his brow and shows his relief, and then a huge boulder flattens the car. (That's the way I remember it, anyway, but the only one I could find with a quick search shows the car flattened by a big tree in the last panel.)

  7. Victor Mair said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 1:23 pm

    From the anonymous correspondent who wrote the guest post:

    @Heidi Mair

    About the permanence of the sign: Both signs were shaped the same and looked to be permanent.

    Honestly, when we drove back in the daylight a few days later, my husband and I could not tell what the difference between the signs could be. The hills had been cut through for the road, the sides had loose stones and rocks, with some vegetation to hold it all together where possible, along with ditches or fences in several spots. Where there was "Fallen Rock," we could not see any rocks that had fallen, and where there was "Falling Rock," we hoped like heck to not be there when the party started.

  8. Fernando Colina said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 1:24 pm

    @Dan: For me they have exactly opposite meanings, at least as far as the behavior they elicit from me. If rocks are falling, I want to drive as fast as possible in order to minimize my time in danger. If the rocks have fallen, I want to drive slowly as to avoid hitting them.

    Falling rocks hit you, but you hit fallen rocks.

  9. David Morris said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 2:41 pm

    Would it help if the signs just said "Rocks"?

  10. Ray Scanlon said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 2:43 pm

    Massachusetts Turnpike, "Falling Rocks." New York State Thruway, south of Albany: "Fallen Rocks." No mixture in either place.

  11. DWalker07 said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 4:08 pm

    Right, what is a driver supposed to DO when confronted with this sign? Cross your fingers? Drive while looking up at the hillside so you can see rocks starting to fall, instead of looking at the road ahead? Very strange.

  12. Leslie Katz said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

    An Australian road sign that makes me smile is: "Falling Rocks Do Not Stop", to which the response could be, "Of course they don't, at least as long as they don't hit anything".

  13. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 5:26 pm

    Surely somewhere there's a rock band called Fallen.

  14. David Marjanović said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 9:02 pm

    What Fernando Colina said.

  15. AntC said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 9:55 pm

    An Australian road sign that makes me smile is: "Falling Rocks Do Not Stop",

    We've had a lot of those signs around Christchurch, NZ after the series of earthquakes starting 2010. It means: if there's a quake and you're driving under this cliff, get out of here.

    NZ has a similar sign as @James linked for the UK. There's apparently a Vienna Convention on road signage, and a whole wikipedia page on NZ road signs. I'm sure I've also seen a sign with fallen rocks lying on the road.

    There's two hazards: a falling rock landing on your car and crushing it (this happened near St Arnaud a decade or so ago, it's particularly likely if a heavy truck ahead of you goes over a pothole and sets of vibrations); a fallen rock lying on the road (with or without a crushed car underneath it), blocking your path as you come round a tight corner.

    All of cliffs/steep hillsides near roads, heavy trucks, potholes, and tight corners are likely on NZ roads. Particularly in the beautiful places where tourists go. Do not stop to take photos of the cute roadsign, particularly at the tight corners: you'll be crushed by either a rock or a truck coming the other way round the corner.

    Regularly New Zealand roads are closed so that engineers can blast away rocks balanced precipitously above them. The entrance to the Homer Tunnel/access to Milford Sound major tourist attraction is frequently closed in Spring as melting snows reveal hazardous rocks moved by Winter storms.

  16. AntC said,

    November 16, 2018 @ 10:20 pm

    dangit where's the edit button! That should be "balancing precariously". The rocks/quakes/unstable geography/storms do that all by themselves without need of outside agency.

  17. Garrett Wollman said,

    November 17, 2018 @ 1:04 am

    Highway signs in the United States are specified in two documents published by the Federal Highway Administration: the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (says what signs to erect and where) and "Standard Highway Signs" which provides actual drawings of the signs to be used with a code number for each (e.g., W15-1 is the sign for "playground"). In most cases, a warning-series sign (yellow diamond with text or pictographic legend) is to be understood by the driver as indicating the presence of a potential hazard and advising extra vigilance. (E.g., the W15-1 sign is supposed to indicate to drivers that they should look out for children suddenly entering the roadway.)

    Historically, the states each had their own sign manuals, but FHWA now requires states to adhere to the federal standards as a condition of receiving highway subsidies. There is still room for variation, both between states and within a state if multiple sign shops or private contractors produce the signs. In addition, toll roads like the Pennsylvania Turnpike historically did not receive any federal funding, were owned and maintained by an independent state agency, and often developed their own idiosyncratic signage standards that were at variance even with their own state's official manual.

  18. Scott Mauldin said,

    November 17, 2018 @ 1:28 am

    @David Morris Re: "Would it help if the signs just said 'Rocks'?"

    One downside is that there might be an extremely high incentive to grafitti that sign with some noun before "rocks."

  19. David Morris said,

    November 17, 2018 @ 3:27 am

    The authorities can anticipate that by using signs saying 'This highway rocks'.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    November 17, 2018 @ 5:02 am

    DWalker07 — "what is a driver supposed to DO when confronted with this sign ?". Well, if I were to see such a sign ("fallING rocks" rather than "fallEN"), I would drive as I do when driving under overhanging trees during a force-9 gale : keep one eye permanently glued upwards while using the other to navigate (metaphorically speaking).

  21. Robert Coren said,

    November 17, 2018 @ 11:35 am

    @Dan: I remember that cartoon (I was going to write a comment about it if nobody else had). It was indeed Don Martin, and it was indeed a tree. In my memory, the car was occupied by a couple, who cowered in terror for several panels and then could be seen to be heaving huge sighs of relief before getting crushed by the tree.

  22. Ken said,

    November 17, 2018 @ 5:43 pm

    @Scott P: I don't know about the rocks, but that's the reason that tall buildings put out "watch for falling ice" signs.

  23. Robert Carroll said,

    November 18, 2018 @ 6:10 am

    How about "Fallin' Rocks"?

  24. ardj said,

    November 18, 2018 @ 8:37 am

    The consensus I would draw from this discussion is that either form of words should alert one: but while one can do nothing about the falling rocks, those which have already fallen, even though they might not have done so when the “falling rocks” sign was put up, are still dangerous and need to be watched out for.

    Such warning signs, usually pictorial, are common in France., if – in my view – not sufficiently widespread.

    I once drove my children to the Pyrenees, whither some skiing cousins had invited us to stay for a few days. I swiftly and safely navigated many kilometers of dangerous ravine, finally, and near journey’s end, came into a small village, where I slowed to well below the obligatory 50km/hour, as the road was very winding.. Coming round a blind corner at about 25km/hr, we ran over a largish rock in the middle of the road and of course got a puncture.

    Fortunately it was a fine day, there was a pleasant café just opposite with a smashing view where I could park the kids, and I set to work. The security lock-nut on that wheel had somehow been degraded, and would not come off. My insurance was no help, for reasons best known to themselves; but I summoned a tow-truck, as I think you Americans call it, which arrived about two hours later (it was of course, Sunday), had the same difficulty as me with the wheel, and took away the car: and then we called a taxi and went to rejoin the cousins. When I went to collect the car the next day, I found that somewhere between the dépannneur (the breakdown vehicle) and the garage, some body work had been damaged. With the cost of taxis. body repair, drilling out the wheel nuts and fitting two new tyres, and the towing, it was the best part of a thousand euros (and a missed day’s skiing) for a holiday which should have cost almost nothing.

    None of the villagers seemed surprised at the rocks (there were several) in the road: they fall down between the houses sometime, it appears.

    Mind how you go.

  25. monscampus said,

    November 18, 2018 @ 7:36 pm


  26. arthur said,

    November 18, 2018 @ 9:53 pm

    Scott P., Ken:

    The way to avoid liability for a known dangerous condition is to close the road or sidewalk. If my client were hit by a falling rock following a "falling rock" sign, I would point out that the highway authority knew about the hazard, but by leaving the road open they led the public to believe that the road was safe.

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