This year The Idler magazine’s Bad Grammar Award went to Transport for London (TfL) for five violations of the rules of English grammar in their public announcements. Here they are:
“All the doors in this carriage will not open at the next station.”
“Spotting a ticket inspector is easy. They look just like you!”
“If you are feeling unwell get off the train and speak to a member of staff who will assist you”
“Only use the alarm to alert the driver in an emergency. The train will continue to the next station where assistance will be available.”
“Take care and attention as you board and alight the train.”
What did the judges think was wrong with these announcements?
Let’s look at them one by one.
The first announcement, one jury member said, is “misleading and wrong.” I have some sympathy for the claim that it could be misleading, because one of its readings is that ‘none of the doors will open’. ‘One of its readings?’, I hear you ask. Yes, because the sentence is actually ambiguous. The other reading (presumably intended by TfL) is ‘some doors will open; some doors won’t’. If you don’t see the ambiguity, try pronouncing the word all with a heavy stress on it: ALL the doors won’t open. This gives you the reading ‘some doors will open; some doors won’t’. If you pronounce it without the stress you get the reading ‘none of the doors will open’. This ambiguity always happens in English when you have a quantifying word like all or every at the beginning of a sentence combined with a negation further down. The sentence is only misleading if people take it to mean ‘none of the doors will open’, when in fact TfL intended it to mean that ‘some doors will open; some doors won’t’. The sentence isn’t wrong, because TfL did in fact intend to communicate one of the two legitimate meanings.
What about the second sentence? The judges said: “They’ve got their plurals and singles mixed up, … [and] should have written ‘spotting ticket inspectors is easy.’” Yes, true, there is a number mismatch here, but would anybody misunderstand this announcement? The answer is ‘no’, so this is sheer pedantry.
The jury disapproved of the third sentence because members of the public are in danger of asking a member of staff who is not willing to assist for help. The point they are trying to make is that, without a comma after staff, who will assist you is a restrictive relative clause, and identifies a particular individual, namely a helpful member of staff, as opposed to an unhelpful member of staff. But you can’t know in advance which members of staff will be helpful or unhelpful. The problem could have been avoided, they say, by using a comma. However, here again, the intended meaning is perfectly clear, and having a comma will not make a blind bit of difference to most people.
The fourth sentence is similarly flawed according to the judges because there should have been a comma after station. “In its current state, this sentence means that the train will continue to station after station until it finds one where assistance is available.” Again, in reality no one will misunderstand this sentence, because most people will interpret the phrase the next station unambiguously as ‘the next one down the line’: their knowledge of the world tells them that assistance is available at all stations, so insisting on having a comma is pointless.
With regard to the last example, the judges say that taking attention is unidiomatic, and the alight “is not a transitive verb; it has to be followed by a preposition.” The issue with take care and attention seems to be that it exemplifies zeugma, similar to what we have in these lines from Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock:
Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.
What is happening here and in the TfL announcement is that the authors are using the verb take with two different senses. In the case of the TfL example these senses are ‘apprehend’ and ‘require’. The second sense is exemplified in Boarding and alighting a train takes attention. The announcement is perhaps a little bit clumsy, but as before, the intended meaning is clear.
As for the verb alight, it is being used transitively here, without an intervening preposition, because it is coordinated with the transitive verb board. This transitive use is attested (just Google it), so this is just a case of language change in progress.
If you want to read more about the jury’s deliberations, see: https://idler.co.uk/article/transport-for-london-wins-2017-bad-grammar-award/