July 09, 2004

Only lane bike: road surface psycholinguistics

I have remarked elsewhere that I have often been puzzled by seeing ONLY written under a left-pointing arrow. But now here is the single most puzzling practical linguistic thing I know of in any domain. Why the hell do all the authorities who put signs on road surfaces in the USA make the completely false assumption that you are going to read the words in the order in which your front bumper arrives at them? It is madness; psycholinguistic bunk. That is not what happens for me. I can't believe anyone has a different reaction. As soon as you see the block of words, you instinctively read them all, from the top. Look at this, which is painted on a road surface on my campus:


What do you see? ONLY LANE BIKE, right? It's the same with XING PED; it's the same with AHEAD STOP; it's the same with CLEAR KEEP. The way they lay them out, backwards them read you. Impeded is comprehension. Am I the only person in the whole United flaming States smart enough to have noticed this and to have realized what the problem is and what the solution would be? Like I say, I'm baffled. Psycholinguists, check your pagers. The state highway authority needs your advice.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 9, 2004 12:06 AM