"Sign" language

One of the unexpected joys of international English is finding humorous mistakes made in it. Like a good joke, they go a long way. So let’'s have a little fun. Work with the text as you read it; there are no exercises at the end of this article.




Think before you speak! This saying is true in any language of course, but even more important to remember when you are using a second language or foreign language. The dangers of ending up with your foot in your mouth are much bigger when you are still learning the language. International English is the main lingua franca in the world and this leads to all sorts of interesting English being used. Below we look at some examples of not so proper English that appear on signs around the world.


These signs have mistakes in their English. Perhaps the biggest mistake is to put too much blind trust in your dictionary. The dictionary will often give you more than one choice for a word, and the word you find may not be the right word for your context. For example, one pupil used her dictionary too quickly and wrote this: “There was a sprout from the revolver.” After wondering what the pupil was trying to tell her, the teacher realized the Norwegian sentence was: Det kom et skudd fra revolveren. Another example is if you want the English word for slange, the dictionary will say snake and hose; the right word depends on what you are talking about.


If we look at this menu from a Polish hotel, we can see that the translator has been using the dictionary very much, but rather indiscriminately, we might add:

Salad a firm’s own make; limpid red beet soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger; roasted duck let loose; beef rashers beaten up in the country people’s fashion.

Try to translate into English what you think they are trying to say.


But perhaps, in the end, we are still so unsure of what they are trying to tell us that we decide to try another hotel. If that is the case, do not choose this hotel in Romania or you will probably be using the stairs after reading this sign:

The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.

 Now look up the word unbearable in your English dictionary. What does the sign mean by “unbearable” and what does your dictionary tell you “unbearable” means? Rewrite the sign so it makes better sense.


Here is another example of overuse of the dictionary from the sign on a Belgrade hotel lift:

To move the cabin, push button for wishing floor. If the cabin should enter more persons, each one should press a number of wishing floor. Driving is then going alphabetically by national order.

Try to make sense out of that by rewriting the sign into understandable English, and while you are at it, try to make better instructions below for the person who has just rented a car from a Tokyo car rental firm:

When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.


But dictionaries are not the only source of foot-in-mouth disease. Sometimes we really want to say the right thing, but it just does not come out right. Like this laundry service in Rome that really wants ladies to escape the drudgery of washing clothes all afternoon:

Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.

Now rewrite that so it makes a little more sense and is a little less shocking.


Some hotels are obviously worried about people having sex in private:

Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.

The language here is not bad, but it still does not come out right, does it? Rewrite the sign so it says what they really want to say.


In the following example the sentence structure creates the problem. In the lobby of a Moscow hotel across from a Russian Orthodox monastery the sign says:

You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists, and writers are buried daily except Thursday.

We wonder, are Thursdays special in Moscow? Are there many artists and writers left in the country? Rewrite the sign so it makes better sense.


Here is an example from a health poster where the problem is in the tense …

It is dangerous to smoke while you are becoming pregnant.

Why does the present continuous tense confuse the issue here? Rewrite the text so it says what it really wants to say.


Sometimes we hear the word in our head, but we spell it wrong so it has unforeseen results, as in this text a Norwegian student wrote in his essay about the wilds of British Columbia in Canada:

There are only maybe five thousand beers left in B.C. This is a very serious problem… I think maybe we should only let very small people go beer hunting every year.

Of course the problem here is not only the hungry and vicious “beers”, but the small people as well …


And finally we would like to repeat that it is important to stop and think before you write. Have you got the right word? Have you spelt it right? Have you checked your context? Does the word perhaps have an unfortunate double meaning? Have you got good sentence structure so you do not say the wrong thing because, for example, you put an adverb in the wrong place? Remember to keep all this in mind, if you do, you might avoid making a mistake like this Italian doctor made on his sign:

Specialist in women and other diseases.