Friday, November 2, 2007

Before you hang that big ole sing, proofread it first

You’ve done it — you’ve driven innocently along a road and glanced over to read a huge sign with some horrendous language error proudly displayed. It’s one thing to make mistakes in private, but to pay someone to make a mistake on a sign … and then to display it? Well, that’s another story.

For a long time I’ve enjoyed going along Market St. downtown and seeing the big banner shouting about the wonderful “Condo’s” for sale. (I think it’s gone now.) Let’s talk a little about plurals, shall we? Do you think that the same people would offer dog’s for sale? Or cat’s? What in the world inspires some people to add an apostrophe to plain ole words? Do those people buy ticket’s for a show or get meal’s to go?

As I said, it’s one thing to do that unthinkingly, but don’t PAY a sign maker to do it, and — worst of all — don’t put it on display. Check with someone first. Go online and look it up, use a dictionary, ask an English teacher. (N.B., I did not say to ask a columnist.)

A long-standing and common public error occurs on signs and in menus. You’ll often see restaurants bragging about their special “dinning room.” I have noticed that misspelling so much that at home I now tend to call it that, rhyming it with “winning.”

Mistakes happen. My strong advice is to ask someone before you take your print job to the printer. Shoot — ask the printer!

There’s a private college in Greensboro that has signs in many of its toilet facilities, and the signs read, “Please flush comode.” At least the signs say “please”; they could have just issued a comand.

Oh — you know the apostrophe-for-plurals mistake we began with today? I think we should talk about a similar error that you might have made yourselves: your mailbox. All right, it might be a freestanding sign in your front yard. Let’s see if you have it right.

Let’s say your last name is Smith. Let’s also say you have a family with people using your last name, and they live in your house. Would that make it a house containing Smiths, or would it give us a house filled with Smith’s? Remember the dog-and-cat rule: one dog, two dogs; one cat, two cats. It applies here, as well: one Smith, two Smiths. Simple.

So why do some Smith people put out signs saying Smith’s? You see it all over — Hudson’s, Wilson’s, Johnson’s, etc. Interestingly, apartment dwellers (I was tempted to write “dweller’s” just to keep you alert) don’t seem to suffer the same plural problem. On their mailbox plates, they tend to write Hudson or Johnson or whatever, in the singular. As in, this is the Smith apartment.

Maybe the Smith’s people think that their apostrophe shows ownership. You know, the Smith family members own this house, so it is the Smith’s house. Unfortunately, if that’s the desire, then Smiths’ is the way to go. Make it plural first, and then show some possession.

Enough. Let’s drive along some more streets and laugh at more commercial signs. You have to love the ones enticing you to “pre-register” for something. Another favorite of mine is when a new complex puts up a banner screaming that it is “pre-selling.”

You do see the problems, yes? No one is going to pre-register. You simply register. And how can you pre-sell something? You simply sell the darned thing. I get mail announcing that I’m “pre-qualified!!” No, I’m put out. Stop the pre-nonsense.

We all goof up when we’re in a rush, but please try to be extra careful before you go public. Also, try to remember that if you have a simple noun or a simple name, odds are that the way to make it plural is just to add an “s” at the end. If it already ends that way, “es” is the way to go (the Jones family, the Joneses). And if you want clients to register early, say just that.

Gotta run — we’ve finished pre-cooking our steak’s so I’m off to the dinning room.


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