Except for access

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Jonathan Smith spotted this photograph of a sign in Hong Kong that is part of a blog post decrying impenetrable official language:

The Chinese part of the sign reads thus:

qián wǎng cǐ qū zhě bù zài cǐ xiàn


The meanings of the individual characters are:

before / front | to / toward | this | area | nominalizing particle | negative particle | at | this | limit

Don't be embarrassed if you can't make sense of the Chinese; few native speakers understand what it means either.

This general lack of comprehensibility is made explicit in the caption beneath the photograph:

Bìxū xiān kàn Yīngwén, zài zìxíng fānyì chéng Zhōngwén, cái néng kàn dǒng zhège lùpái.


"It's necessary first to look at the English, and then do your own translation into Chinese before you can understand this road sign."

But there's a catch here, since the English doesn't make any sense either! — at least not to a speaker of American English like me.

As a matter of fact, I could sort of force a meaning out of the strained Classical Chinese on the sign (which is neither in vernacular Mandarin nor colloquial Cantonese), but the English left me staring dumbly. Working back from my forced Classical Chinese interpretation, I was able to surmise that the English meant something like "the only people who can come in here are those who need access to this area," but I wasn't entirely confident that this is what was intended. Suspecting that it was English from somewhere else than America, I did a web search for "except for access", and I found that in England it seems to be a fairly common traffic sign.

Judging from web discussions and explanations, "except for access" is not all that transparent even where it is in use. It also seems to be highly unenforceable, as is evident from this dialog between a police officer and someone who got pulled over for breaking the "except for access" law. There's even a band called "Except for Access".

Further proof that the Chinese sign does not make sense to Chinese speakers (except those who composed it!) comes from Mandy Chan, who grew up in Hong Kong:

That road sign! It's been around for as long as I've lived!! As a young child, I always pondered what that Chinese saying means — my English was non-existent then.

Those signs have been there for several decades; it's not a recent production! The government people in Hong Kong write in a special way (both Chinese and English) — they are educated and have no problem speaking the languages otherwise… they just write in a strange way. I am from a family of civil servants so I know… their personal correspondences are sometimes unreadable… I have had many WTH moments….

All things considered, I conclude that "except for access" is the equivalent of the American traffic sign "local traffic only".

We may say that, although there are a lot of words — in Chinese and in English — on the sign pictured above, its meaning is not very intelligible for a large proportion of the people who see it. In that sense, the "Wordless traffic signs in China" that we examined earlier may actually be more effective than this wordy sign — though the wordless signs, as we have seen to our bewilderment, may also sometimes be rather opaque.


  1. Isoraķatheð Zorethan said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 1:53 am

    "Except for Access" generally means something like "if you don't need to pass this road to get to your destination, then please don't."

    The English is weird, I agree; I conjecture that it is made by removing lots of words off what I can presume is the phrase "Except for (when you need to [gain) access (to] this location [in order to reach your destination])". "不在此限" is one of those weird technical jargon-like things that old folks tend to say to sound stately – I know public examinations don't shy away from using this phrase either.

    (In context: the Chinese public examinations in Hong Kong limit the names you are allowed to use for fictional characters (as in a story) to ten first names, but "you are not to be limited under this restriction if you are using names of famous and/or historical people as attribution of quotes, actions and statements". The exact quote is, "惟倘因描述或引述古今中外知名人士的言行而需使用其真實姓名者,則不在此限".)

    I know not, however, where this comes from. It has probably been turned into a black-box word, to be analyzed as a unit rather than its components.

  2. Joe Green said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 1:57 am

    "Except for access" is certainly not simply the equivalent of "local traffic only" (or at least not in the way which I understand the latter). In itself it is as meaningless as you surmise; normally it would always appear below a pictogram indicating what rule it was providing an exception to. (Often this indicates "no entry" or "no entry to a specific class or classes of vehicle".) Indeed in this photo you can see that there is another sign immediately above it, and it's pretty clear to this Brit that you would need to see the *whole* sign to make sense of it.

  3. Terry Collmann said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 2:01 am

    Yes, it's quite a common road sign in the UK: it appears to be used when the authorities cannot say "no through road", because there IS an exit at the other end, but they want you to take another route, because too many people have been using the road as a rat run. What is more odd, to me, is that in the UK, as your link shows, the sign for "no motor vehicles", and indeed all road signs that indicate a prohibition, is a red ring with a picture of what is prohibited, but no bar through it: to me, only a bar indicated prohibition.

  4. Joe Green said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 2:02 am

    And BTW as frequently exposed to standardised wordless (pictographic) signs as all of Europe is, we don't find them opaque or bewildering at all. I for one found the meaning of the "exploding car" sign pretty obvious. As a non-speaker/reader of any Asian language, I'm very happy to see such standardisation spread.

  5. Isoraķatheð Zorethan said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 2:15 am

    Perhaps it may be better by indicating another similar suffix sign: "except with permit" (written "except permit holders" in the UK apparently), meaning "if you have a permit then you're allowed to violate the stipulations the sign posted above indicates". You can see this sign in context if you go to Google Maps and search for "61 King's Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong" in Street View.

  6. Daniel Tse said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 2:23 am

    As for 前往此區者不在此限, a little pondering yields the interpretation "People passing through this area are not restricted to this point", which is at least closer to the intended meaning, if not a strange way to put it. However, my Classical Chinese being rusty/non-existent, I'm not sure if it's the actual meaning.

  7. B.Ma said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 2:27 am

    This is simply HK showing its British roots. As we can see, Joe Green and Terry Collmann had no problem understanding the sign, which is basically an extension of a prohibiting sign which has been cropped from the photo:

    The vehicles listed in this sign are prohibited… except for access [to this area].

    The problem is that "except" does not translate well into Chinese, unless you use "unless" which would need to be placed above the prohibiting sign. The government does not like making separate signs for English and Chinese, thus we have the unwieldy Chinese translation:

    The vehicles listed in this sign are prohibited… those proceeding towards this area are not limited by this.

  8. Barrie England said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 2:53 am

    ‘Except for Access’ would make perfect sense displayed along with a ‘No Entry’ sign, but the normal sign in the UK states ‘Access Only’. It’s the English equivalent of German ‘Zubringerdienst gestattet’ and French ‘Sauf riverains’. The first is a qualification of a No Entry sign, and means, pretty much, ‘except for access’. The second is a similar qualification, and means ‘except those who live here’.

  9. Caroline Devitt said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 3:01 am

    Just to agree with previous posters: "(No entry) except for access" is a common road sign in the UK, and it wouldn't confuse a Brit.

  10. Ceiswyn said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 3:07 am

    What do you have against UK road signage?

    I mean, I find US signage utterly baffling, but I don't write LanguageLog posts about it :) Road signage is like any language; you can't really expect it to be fully comprehensible without studying it, so one could expect different countries' signage to be mutually confusing (though Europe, India, and some other countries all use variants of the same system).

    The interesting issue in this post isn't the 'except for access' , which is a standard phrase and quite clear in context (which it is not in this photo; where's the prohibition sign that forms the first part of the sentence?), but why the Chinese translation is so roundabout. Fortunately commenters have taken a stab at that :)

  11. Barrie England said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 3:36 am

    I'd correct my previous post if I could. I believe the normal sign in the UK is indeed 'Except for Access', and not 'Access Only'.

  12. David Morris said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 3:41 am

    "Local traffic only" is used in Australia, though I wonder how it is enforced.

  13. LDavidH said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 3:46 am

    FWIW, as a Swede living in the UK, I never struggled to understand a prohibition sign with the "Except for Access" qualifier. But I realise that on its own (as in the photo), it makes no sense whatsoever!

  14. Jon Hanna said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 4:42 am

    "It also seems to be highly unenforceable" doesn't make a lot of sense on it's own either, therefore this entire post is impossible to comprehend.

  15. Laura S. said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 4:49 am

    As a point of information, Except for access is explained by the Department for Transport's Know Your Traffic Signs, on page 18, where it is listed as a [plate] used to indicate exemptions from prohibition signs, meaning, [No entry/(motor) vehicles e]xcept for access to premises or land adjacent to the road, where there is no other route.

    However, I think that an important aspect of UK (and, apparently, HK) road signs is being overlooked: They are iconic. Primarily they are pictorial, using words only where a visual representation is impossible (or at least too complex for viewers moving at speed). But even when words appear, they too are iconic, referencing a specific explanation in the Highway Code. Therefore attempts at linguistic analysis are problematic. Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

  16. The Ridger said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 5:04 am

    @Ceiswyn: the top sign has been cropped out of the photo; I believe the prohibition was on that one. It makes more sense to create two sets of standard signs – one with the prohibitions, probably several different signs with different groups of vehicles, and one 'except for' – and add the second to the first, than to try and anticipate all the possible variables.

  17. Jon said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 5:07 am

    I'm baffled that Americans apparently find this usage baffling.
    'No entry…Except for access' seems to me as transparent and concise as it could be. No previous experience required.

  18. Paolo said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 6:30 am

    I am Italian, and like other European readers, I was quite puzzled as I had no problem interpreting the meaning of "except for access".

  19. Simon P said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 6:38 am

    Seeing as it's a Hong Kong sign, I'm slightly put off by the transcription into Mandarin Pinyin rather than Cantonese Jyutping or a combination. The person who wrote the sign and the intended audience would read it as "cin4 wong5 ci2 keoi1 ze2 bat1 zoi6 ci2 haan6" (yes, Jyutping is unfortunately written with syllabic spacing and tone numbers). To me not including the Cantonese transcription is a bad gesture of Mandarin dominance, but then I'm sensitive towards these things. Except for that, though, great post as usual.

  20. mollymooly said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 6:44 am

    US road signs are somewhat more likely than European road signs to use words rather than icons. I wonder if this means Quebec and Mexican truckers have proportionately more accidents in the US than EU_X truckers in EU_Y. Too many other variables to control for, probably.

  21. Brian T said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 8:58 am

    If you hadn't seen it a thousand times before, a "No Through Trucks" sign would probably be equally mystifying.

    (Off topic: In the original post, a commenter said "I have had many WTH moments," which prompted the oddest feeling of "He said 'WTH' — isn't that adorable …")

  22. Joe Green said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 9:22 am

    @Brian T:

    If you hadn't seen it a thousand times before, a "No Through Trucks" sign would probably be equally mystifying.

    I've never seen one (is this a US thing?) but it's not mystifying in the least. "Trucks allowed on local business only". Clear as anything.

    Thanks to Isoraķatheð Zorethan I can see that the main sign says (in standard UK/EU/HK iconography) "no motor vehicles", which is exactly what one would expect to see in the UK above an "except for access" qualifier. (This is not the same as "no entry", which bars *all* vehicles including bicycles.)

  23. Barbara Partee said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 10:44 am

    To try to reply to Jon about how an American could be baffled: I was baffled last summer when for the first time I saw a sign that said something like "No entry except for access" in a town in Russia. It seemed to me that it was saying "You can't come in here unless you want to come in here," and I wasn't sure what sort of pragmatics would turn that into some more sensible prohibition.
    My cautious interpretation was analogous to 'if you have to ask the price, this is too expensive for you.' I.e. if I don't already know that I'm permitted in there, I'm not.
    (I was looking for a parking spot and really to this day don't know whether it would have been legal to go in that road to get access to a parking spot. I didn't try.)

  24. Mark Liberman said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

    @Barbara Partee: There's a similar puzzle about the Heavy English equivalent of the common sign "Authorized Personnel Only", as a result of which I was once instructed to make several large signs reading "PERSONNEL WHO ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO BE IN THE HANGAR ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO BE IN THE HANGAR". See "Those who are not authorized are not authorized", 8/9/2003.]

  25. Ellen K. said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    Jon, take a look at the photo in the original post. Perhaps we Americans could make sense of "except for access" in it's proper context, but that context is not there in the photo. It looks like a complete statement, and it's frankly quite meaningless as a complete sentence. And, also, on it's own, meaningless as a traffic sign. And I say that based on what others familiar with the signs have posted in comments. It's meaning coming from it being a modification of what another sign says.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

    I'm very grateful to Isoraķatheð Zorethan for directing us to the exact street address where, with the help of Google Maps Street View, we can observe for ourselves in context a specimen of the sign under discussion in this post.

    What do we see? Four signs, one above the other, affixed to a pole. The one at the top is a round, wordless sign showing an arrow indicating a left turn.

    The next sign down says:

    Except buses and public light buses
    bāshì jí gōnggòng xiǎobā lìwài

    The sign below that says:

    Except with permit
    yǒu xǔkě zhèng zhě 有许可证者
    bù zài cǐ xiàn 不在此限

    The bottom sign says:

    Except for access
    qián wǎng cǐ qū zhě bù zài cǐ xiàn (Mandarin)

    If we go on down the street about 50 feet (I think that it may be 69 King's Road), we have the same complex of signs, except that the round, wordless sign at the top shows a motorcycle and a car crossed out, in other words, no motorcycles and no cars are to enter this area. The other three, quadrilateral signs are identical with the three I've given above for 61 King's Road.

    We may note that lìwài 例外 on the first of these three signs means the same thing as the bù zài cǐ xiàn 不在此限 of the bottom two signs, viz., "are excepted; except for". The lìwài 例外, however, is much clearer than the bù zài cǐ xiàn 不在此限. Finally, regarding the complex of signs at 69 King's Road, the first quadrilateral sign is redundant with the round, wordless sign at the top, which already tells us that cars and motorcycles are excluded from entering this area.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

    @Simon P

    Point taken.

    I always try to include Jyutping for colloquial Cantonese, but it takes considerable effort, since my Cantonese is not very good. Consequently, I very much appreciate it when someone like yourself adds the Cantonese (or Taiwanese or Shanghainese or whatever is relevant) in comments.

    Thanks for your commendation.

  28. Ted said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

    Here's another American agreeing with Barbara Partee: if you aren't accessing the road, you don't need to enter it, so "no entry except for access" sounds like either an internal contradiction, a blurt of meaningless nonsense, or both. The US equivalent is "No Through Traffic" or "Local Traffic Only," both of which seem quite clear.

    On the other hand, as a child I was deathly afraid of signs saying "No Outlet," which I thought meant I would be trapped forever.

    What, incidentally, is a "rat run"?

  29. Richard Wein said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 1:09 pm


    It's not the same thing, but this reminds of early editions of the card game Magic The Gathering, where, for example, the Regeneration enchantment card had the following text: "Regenerate target creature Regeneration enchants". Later editions reduced this to the more comprehensible: "Regenerate enchanted creature." The reason for the cumbersome earlier wording was the worry that an unprincipled player (or "rules lawyer") might insist he could use this ability to regenerate any enchanted creature, and not just the one which had been enchanted by the Regeneration spell. They made the card incomprehensible to new players for the sake of stopping the rules lawyers.

  30. CLP said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

    Speaking of "highly unenforceable" prohibitions on signs, what about this one: "DON'T EVEN THINK OF PARKING HERE"?

  31. AndrewD said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

    In the UK a rat run is a route through residential or back streets used to avoid heavily trafficked or obstructed main routes. These routes cause congestion in areas where the roads are not designed for the traffic, they are not short cuts (in deed they are often longer) but generally allow the motorist to continue moving rather than having a stop go journey. Much effort is put in by traffic engineers to block rat runs as they are a big irritation to local inhabitants.

  32. boris said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    In the US (or at least in Philadelphia) we have signs, sometimes long ones, describing parking restrictions at adjacent parking meters. They invariably say "Except Sundays" at the bottom. This is completely opaque. Do you do the reverse of what the sign says on Sundays? Are you not allowed to park there on Sundays? Completely opaque to anyone who doesn't know that it is a Philadelphia statute that Sunday parking at parking meters is always free. Of course, once you know that, you don't need to be told about it by the sign, so that phrase is still useless except as a reminder.

  33. LDavidH said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

    @Ted: it's not access to the road itself, but to houses etc along the road, that the "Except for Access" refers to. I.e. if you don't need to drive down that road to get to your final destination, don't take that road. So it means "You can't drive in here unless you need to", not "unless you want to".

  34. Richard Wein said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 2:08 pm


    Yes, I think the spirit of the rule is that your destination must be in the street. But not necessarily a building. We wouldn't want to prohibit road maintenance vehicles and AA assistance to cars parked in the street. ;)

  35. Avinor said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

    @Victor Mair: "Finally, regarding the complex of signs at 69 King's Road, the first quadrilateral sign is redundant with the round, wordless sign at the top, which already tells us that cars and motorcycles are excluded from entering this area."

    No, the round sign is "no motor vehicles" (cars, buses, motorcycles…). The first quadrilateral sign then makes an exception for buses.

  36. Chris Waters said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

    Count me as another American who finds "No Entry Except for Access" fairly incomprehensible. Access to what? My first guess would be something like "Service Personnel Only"; i.e. it's ok for mailmen/meter readers/maintenance workers, etc., but not for visitors. If I were visiting someone behind such a sign, I would try to find an alternative route, and if I couldn't, I'd probably stop and call for help.

  37. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 5:09 pm


    The round sign I saw showed only motorcycles and cars. Just as in Philadelphia and other American cities, there are streets in Hong Kong that are reserved for buses.

  38. Ken Brown said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    Another Brit who has no problem with "except for access". Not the same as "local traffic only". Its more like "Only pass this sign if there is no other way to get in to your…" house/street/shop/carpark/yard/whatever.

  39. Ken Brown said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

    I'm in a pub in London right now. I just asked people what "except for access" means. A taxi driver says it means only drive in for dropping off or picking up. Says he once got caught on camera passing such a sign and police tried to fine him but he got off because he was taking a passenger there. Another man says there is a sign that says that on his street because there isn't enough room for anything larger than a small car to turn round.

  40. Mandy said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

    @Chris Waters

    I too think that the word "access" is the reason why "Except for Access" could be confusing to some people (myself included), even *with* the accompanying prohibition sign(s). My instinctive reaction after reading that sign is that it refers to "access to the actual road," as I would not have made the association that it actually refers not to the road itself, but to the premises situated along the road.

    We can now understand the meaning of that particular road sign because it has become a set phrase or formulaic expression. I'm a non-natve English speaker, but would native English speakers truly understand what that sign means without any ambiguity whatsoever reading it the *first time*? I've had the same question since I was a Form 3 (9th grade?) student in Hong Kong.

    Here is the "official" meaning of the sign from the Hong Kong traffic restrictions websit:

    "An 'Except for access' plate allows a vehicle to pass to gain access to premises and land adjacent to the road, or roads, to which the ban applies, where there is no alternative route.


    The Chinese is a lost cause! 不在此限 is the crux of the problem. The issue has nothing to do with Cantonese or Mandarin or classical Chinese, but semantically, the phrase makes no sense. All they need to do is to add three more characters to make it comprehensible: [側]不在此限[制內], if the concern is not being able to fit all 7 characters onto the sign; then just add one character 制 and change 在此 to 受 to become 不受限制 will retain the same amount of characters but the phrase will be written in natural/standard written Chinese understood by all!

    It's one of those things that the locals would just have to learn to accept…

  41. Isoraķatheð Zorethan said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

    @Victor Mair: "Finally, regarding the complex of signs at 69 King's Road, the first quadrilateral sign is redundant with the round, wordless sign at the top, which already tells us that cars and motorcycles are excluded from entering this area."

    That particular sign you mentioned which appears to be redundant is not so, as it turns out that although only a car and a motorbike is depicted in the sign, the sign asks you to generalize and actually means "No motor vehicles", which basically means anything with a combustion engine, so buses, minibuses and vans are also prohibited. Without the exception sign given at the bottom, the bus routes that depend on this road (and there are a lot!) will be disrupted.

  42. Matt said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

    The Chinese is a lost cause! 不在此限 is the crux of the problem. The issue has nothing to do with Cantonese or Mandarin or classical Chinese, but semantically, the phrase makes no sense.

    Does it really have nothing to do with classical Chinese, though? Wording like "… no kagiri ni arazu" ("… are excepted from [this] restriction") is quite common in Japanese legal writing (which in turn was and remains heavily influenced by the kanbun tradition of reading classical Chinese), and you can see how that would correspond to 不在此限 — if you allow 不在 for "arazu" rather than 非 or something.

    Here's an example from the Meiji constitution:

    第62条. 新ニ租税ヲ課シ及税率ヲ変更スルハ法律ヲ以テ之ヲ定ムヘシ
    (2) 但シ報償ニ属スル行政上ノ手数料及其ノ他ノ収納金ハ前項ノ限ニ在ラス

    Article 62. The imposition of a new tax or the modification of the rates (of an existing one) shall be determined by law.
    (2) However, all such administrative fees or other revenue having the nature of compensation shall not fall within the category of the above clause.

  43. Avinor said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

    Isoraķatheð Zorethan is absolutely correct. This is one of the internationally standardized signs and the full meaning has to be learned, as you cannot infer it from the pictograms.

  44. Eric P Smith said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

    I was a driving instructor in the UK for 12 years, and I can confirm that LDavidH and Richard Wein's explanation is exactly correct. The instruction "No entry, except for access" is common in the UK and immediately understandable to a Brit. It means "no entry to this road, except for access to a destination on this road".

  45. Garrett Wollman said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

    @Eric P Smith and others: and that is exactly what is meant by the U.S. road sign "Local Traffic Only" (in some places, "Abutters Only", and if applied to a truck prohibition, "Except Local Deliveries"). These signs are more commonly used, however, as temporary traffic controls in a construction zone, than as permanent installations.

  46. Mandy said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 10:25 pm


    Your point is well taken, and coincidentally, it is in a legal context in Hong Kong that 不在此限 appears in the highest frequency, like 與公務無關者不在此限 (an extremely common phrase).

    From the context, if you read it as Classical Chinese, one can "force" the meaning of 不在此限 as "not at this limitation." In natural English, it would be something like "the exception to this limitation." Of course you can say 在此 and 此限 but for some reason 在+此限 together sounds unnatural to my Cantonese ears. Even in Classical Chinese, 在+此限 is not a common construction (I think?) — I'm not a linguist nor an expert in Classical Chinese, so this is the extent that I can explain things!

    At any rate, this 不在此限 phrase is uncommon in the Mainland, except in Hong Kong and Taiwan (in a legal context).

    The road signs on King's Road are notorious!! One often finds four to five road signs being stacked on top of each other on a single post — the most confusing combo is all of the above signs plus a gigantic "No left turn" sign. I don't live on the Hong Kong side so sometimes I don't know what other alternative roads can be used to reach the same destination — it involves a split second decision, while trying to avoid being hit by the trams. By the time you figured out the meaning of those 千層疊 signs, congratulations! You've already entered into the restricted road! And then you just sweat your way through, hoping that no cops would see you…

    One can't just drive through without unloading passengers/goods or entering into a building; but if you accidentally get into a dead-end street, you can try to pretend looking for a parking spot, but this obviously would only work if there are meters…and one does actually have to stop to "check" for meters; if not, there will be traffic cop(s) and a HKD450 (~US$60) ticket waiting for you when you get out of the street.

    This experience is not unique, ask any HK locals, regular or taxi drivers, they would tell you that those signs are there to confuse…

  47. Just another Peter said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 11:56 pm

    @boris: I wouldn't have any problems with the "Except Sundays" part on those signs. In Australia we have several parking restriction signs which specify times (e.g., 1P 9am-6pm Mon-Fri) and parking is only restricted during those times. Outside of those times no parking restrictions occur unless there's another sign (e.g., Taxi Zone All Other Times). I would read the "Except Sundays" part of the signs you cite the same way and, judging by the rest of your post, that's the intention.

  48. Just another Peter said,

    November 20, 2012 @ 11:59 pm

    In addition: I found the sign in the OP opaque as well. I suspected it was an "except authorised vehicles" meaning until reading comments and the linked discussions.

  49. Victor Mair said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 12:30 am

    Our Hong Kong "Except for access" sign is also featured in this blog interview about dubious Chinese sign language:


  50. Simon P said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 1:07 am

    Well, I might as well add Jyutping for the other signs, too, for those who are interested:

    Except buses and public light buses
    baa1 si6*2 kap1 gung1 gung6 siu2 baa1 lai6 ngoi6

    Except with permit
    有许可证者 jau5 heoi2 ho2 zing3 ze2
    不在此限 bat1 zoi6 ci2 haan6

    (Did it really say it in simplified characters?)

  51. LDavidH said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 3:42 am

    When it comes to parking restrictions, I think my native Sweden has the most interesting convention: a No Parking sign might be accompanied by a rectangular sign indicating when the sign applies. It might say: in black print "7-18 (7-15)" and in red print "8-15". This means: weekdays no parking 7.00-18.00, Saturdays no parking 7.00-15.00 and Sundays no parking 8.00-15.00. The same system is used to indicate when you have to pay to park. If the red numbers are missing, the sign does not apply on Sundays.

    So times in brackets apply to Saturdays and times in red apply to Sundays (and other public holidays). Would this be understood anywhere else?

  52. Victor Mair said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 5:17 am

    @Simon P

    The added Jyutping is VERY MUCH APPRECIATED!

  53. Victor Mair said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 5:28 am

    If you Google on "no access", you will see some interesting signs, some of which relate to the issues raised in Mark Liberman's "Authorized Personnel Only" sign.

    Also relevant to this discussion is the common traffic expression "access road", but not "access ramp", which is directed at persons in wheelchairs, and "access denied", which is used in computing when you try to open certain files or folders that are off limits to you.

  54. Avinor said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 5:44 am

    @LDavidH, I think the only other place where I've seen it is Norway. There, they even use it for store opening hours:


  55. John Swindle said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 6:18 am

    In trying to understand “不在此限”, should we read “此限” or “在此”? My Chinese isn't very good, and somehow I thought “不(在此)限”。Is that grammatically even more impossible?

  56. Victor Mair said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 6:41 am

    @John Swindle

    Simply from the fact that you are asking such intelligent questions about the construction of “不在此限”, you'd probably make an excellent student in my Introduction to Classical Chinese course.

    Incidentally, I just did a Google search on “不在此限” and received an astonishing 122,000,000 ghits (can that really be true?). Glancing over those that show up on the first page of the summaries, one begins to see how challenging this expression is. Another curious feature of the articles and documents in which “不在此限” occurs is that people often seem to feel the need to resort to English to make sense of it. Some of the English renderings and explanations include "omission", "omissions excepted", "omissive", "exception", and "not to subject to the limits or restrictions; not to apply".

  57. pj said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 7:01 am

    You see 'local traffic' in the UK as well, (e.g. painted on the left-hand lane here; I can't muster an image of a sign with it on without long searching, though I'm pretty sure they exist too). However, I don't think I've ever seen 'local traffic only', certainly not on a style and colour of sign that suggests it's a mandatory instruction, rather than 'directional' advice. Here 'local traffic' tends to be an informational thing rather than an exemption to a prohibition: it helps you take the best route.
    I also get the impression that our 'local' is not so, well, local as in US signage? I'd expect to see 'no vehicles, except for access' type signs referring to a single street, or a very few; whereas 'local' traffic can be traffic destined for or moving within a whole town or even wider area, as distinct from traffic that just needs to bypass or traverse it.

    So in the image at the link, there's no prohibition on being in that left-hand lane if your destination is not local: it's just that it is shortly going to filter off that main road and take you into the suburbs of south-east London. If you choose to drive through Bexleyheath or Eltham and pick your own indirect, traffic-light laden, single-carriageway route towards central London instead of using the A2 that's perfectly legitimate – only, in general, it would be daft, and you'd be better advised to get in one of the other two lanes and stay on the main route.

  58. ceiswyn said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 7:18 am

    I don't think 'local traffic only' is any clearer than 'except for access' without further context.

    My interpretation of 'local traffic only', had I not just been told what it means, would have been 'only go down this road if you're travelling to a location in this town (rather than heading through it to somewhere else)'. The meaning of 'local' is, after all, usually not restricted to a single street.

    I don't think there is any way to fit the 'only go down this road if your destination is on it' instruction into three words and not have it be confusing/ambiguous; we're all just familiar with what our version means.

  59. Victor Mair said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 8:39 am

    @John Swindle, part 2

    I was hoping that someone else would answer your question concerning how to parse “不在此限”. Since no one else has risen to the challenge, I will explain it thus: "do not lie within (i.e., are not subject to) this limitation / restriction", where "this limitation / restriction" refers to a prohibition indicated on another sign in the immediate proximity of the one bearing this supplementary qualification.

  60. Ellen K. said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 10:24 am


    "Local traffic only" is certainly clearer as a stand alone sign than "except for access" would be, if used on its own. You were able to make sense of "local traffic only", and even semi-accurate sense. "Except for access" is both ungrammatical and meaningless on its own. Only someone already familiar with it who could assume the "no entry" part could possible make sense of it if it was on its own.

  61. Victor Mair said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 10:30 am

    from Mei Danli:


    Intuitively I got the idea of the Chinese right away, but I may have been helped subliminally by the English, so your expanatory caption makes sense.
    The English is clunky but close enough to "Local Access Only" that I can get it.


    This is true of many individuals who think they grasp the meaning of the Chinese on the sign; they do so intuitively, but they can't explain the grammar, and they generally admit to being helped by the English.

  62. Ben Hemmens said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    I think we've had this point before, but a relevant point about these texts is that they are not just meant to be spontaneously understood by people with no training: they are addressed to drivers of motor vehicles who have a driver's license and therefore have passed at least some kind of exam on the system of signs.

    On the other hand, wouldn't it be nice if they were easier to understand? Well, yes. But if they do contain expressions that seem odd, it is often because there is pressure from the lawyers to use the exact words used in the law behind each sign, and of course legal language has its own set of constraints.

    Whenever they decide they need a distinction, they have to invent a name for it. So when it comes to the equivalent of your sign in Austria, "ausgenommen Anrainerverkehr", it's important to know that this applies to anyone who is going to visit an address in the street, "ausgenommen Anrainer" means that only the owners of the houses in the street may drive in. And in Germany it would be "Anlieger frei".

  63. Ellen K. said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 11:16 am

    One more note on what makes the sign unintuitive for Americans. Besides the fact that we aren't familiar with these signs and that the sign above it isn't in the picture, there's also the fact that we don't expect one sign to modify another sign. Not that it never happens, but it's rare. (There's "4-way" and such below stop signs but that's the only example I know of at the moment, and is a small sign, much smaller than the one it modifies, and also matching the unique red color of the stop sign).

  64. John Swindle said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

    @Victor Mair: Thank you for the compliment and the clear explanation of “不在此限”。I did study something like Introduction to Classical Chinese with Professor Hsin-Yi Hsieh many years ago, but I don't think that phrase was in the book!

  65. PaulB said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

    Decades ago when I first visited the USA there was a road sign outside my hotel reading "Mass pike exit". Which then as now made me think of a shoal of fish leaving a river to swim up the tributary of their birth.

  66. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    from Nathan Vedal (for specialists only):

    It looks to me that 不在此限 has been a part of Chinese legalese since at least the Tang dynasty as it appears throughout the Quan Tang wen in over 100 edicts and other official documents.

    If its usage in Zhuzi yulei is any indication, the phrase may have even been reasonably intelligible in colloquial Chinese in the middle period. Zhu Xi says "「三年無改」,謂是半上半下底事,在所當改者。但不可怱遽急改之,若有死其親之心,有揚其親之過之意。待三年然後徐改之,便不覺。若是大故不好底事,則不在此限耳" This last sentence with 不在此限 is very colloquial considering its 大故 'especially' and possessive 底. So perhaps comprehensible at least in some form of 12th century spoken Chinese.

  67. Brett said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 10:00 am

    @Ellen K.: You're right that U.S. signs do not modify each other, and I would say that this is true of the "4 WAY" (or "3 WAY") sign below a STOP sign as well. The sign doesn't change the rules for the STOP sign; it merely provides additional information about what other people will be behaving.

  68. John Swindle said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 7:22 pm

    @Brett: In downtown Honolulu, Hawaii, there are add-on signs that say "EXCEPT CITY BUSES AND BIKES" or "EXCEPT CARS AND SMALL TRUCKS." They modify prohibited turns.

  69. Richard Gadsden said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 6:21 pm

    @EllenK The Euro-standard roadsigns are one instruction per signpost, so if they wanted to put up more than one instruction, there would be multiple signposts. If there are two signs, one above the other, then they *must* qualify each other.

    Also, we have to pass a written test on roadsigns before getting a driving licence, so the symbolic language has to be explicitly learned. The basic symbolic rules are easy: red circle: prohibited, blue circle: compulsory, red triangle: warning. The white rectangular signs under a symbolic sign are exceptions. [Directional signs are a completely different language]

    The scariest exception signs I've seen are the ones under traffic lights in Milan "eccezione autobus taxi". Which means exactly what you think it means – buses go straight through red lights.

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