The 2017 Bad Grammar Award

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:


6 thoughts on “The 2017 Bad Grammar Award

  1. To me bad grammar/spelling etc is only a problem when it hinders meaning. It would seem that nowadays it’s become a type of elitism and a way of making some sad individuals feel more important than the rest of society.


  2. Hi Bas,
    No doubt these Idlers have nothing better to do, though I, too, hate the kind of impenetrable government logo they refer to on their website.
    It’s interesting that some of the criticism has nothing to do with grammar at all, e.g. things about word choice, and maybe they just don’t understand metaphors. And, personally, I rather like the slogan ‘travel yourself interesting’. No doubt if this were a line in a poem they’d want it to be on the GCSE English syllabus, but because it’s an advert it’s in danger of corrupting the youth of today. To be fair to these people, they don’t seem to be taking themselves too seriously. On the other hand it’s part of a culture that makes me feel very uncomfortable.
    Incidentally, when I saw the fourth example I thought the criticism was going to be about possible ambiguity due to the position of ‘only’. Of course the intended meaning is perfectly clear, but there are no doubt some nitpicking sticklers out there who would claim the meaning to be ‘In an emergency the only thing you are allowed to do is sound the alarm.’ David Crystal once said that the ‘wrong’ position of ‘only’ came third in the top ten of pet hates of listeners to his Radio 4 programme ‘English Now’.


  3. I love the attribution of Pope and zeugma – but that’s me showing my own elite knowledge. ‘Alight’ is rarely used (I suspect) except in train announcements so interesting to see it’s evolving into
    American type usage.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The Idler be criticizing the sign’s grammar (in the broad, hoi polloi sense of “grammar”), not understandability. There seem to be a assumption on your part that “the grammar is bad” should means “the sign is not understandable.” But the idea that “no one will misunderstand the sign’s meaning” is not a measure of a sentences grammaticalness (though in advertising, sometimes it seems like that’s the case). Grammar (and spellling and usage) can still be off — and the sentence grammaticly wrong — without readers loosing the thread of meaning.

    “If I can understand what the sentence means, then it must be okay” isn’t about grammar. Bad sentences, like bad cars, can still get you from point A to point B.

    Case in point: This comment.


  5. As a reader of both The Idler and this blog, I have to say I find it disappointing that you’re challenging The Idler – who clearly care about grammar and language – far more than you’re prepared to challenge those who don’t care as much about the English language and therefore use it… if not ‘incorrectly’, then certainly in a less thoughtful or non-standard way; and particularly when, by your own analysis, The Idler judges are correct on all points.

    There’s also a pragmatic consideration you ignore. Consider the effect a spelling mistake in the same signs would have: it would undermine the authority of the sign and the organisation. Missing commas have the same effect; yet, while the former could make a story for the national newspapers, the latter is brushed aside as seemingly irrelevant. Why is spelling privileged over punctuation?

    This descriptivist approach is just the other side of the prescriptivist coin: if you’re allowing some people to dictate how language is used – even, as in this case, non-specialists – then someone is being prescriptive. I can’t think of another academic pursuit in which non-specialists are allowed to dictate what other people do (‘Doctor, I saw this on the internet…’).

    Perhaps we linguists, or simply lovers of language, shouldn’t be so concerned with being thought of as stuffy or sticklers but should try to help others share our passion. If you’re not thinking about the language you use, you’re not thinking for yourself, as George Orwell knew. Three cheers for The Idler!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s