July 27, 2006

Stupid self-defeating warning label nonsense

I have been, for many years, a student of the language found in the stupid warning labels that grace increasing numbers of products in this increasingly litigious society. I have written before about the ultimate arch-warning that said "Do not misuse." But that one is rather like the sign Mark was once asked to make, saying that those who are not authorized are not authorized, or the "Do not use in the shower" label on Susanne Goldmann's hair dryer, or the warning that Peter-Arno Coppen saw quoted from a bike manual (in the excellent Dutch language magazine Onze Taal) to the effect that "Removing the wheel can influence the performance of the bicycle", or the astonishing sign that Barbara Phillips Long saw in an elementary school in Ithaca, N.Y., that said "Do not use elevator when no one is in building": cases like this may seem intuitively unnecessary, but ithey certainly imply directives that absolutely everyone is well advised, even obliged, to agree with and obey. However, I have recently been noticing warning labels that are impossible to obey without ruining the usefulness either of the label or of what it is attached to.

Just yesterday I received from some music club a sheet of stick-on security labels saying "This CD is the property of Geoffrey K. Pullum", and the sheet also carried a warning: "Do not affix directly to CD." Think about that. They have made me some free labels to mark my CDs as my personal property and warned me not to put them on them. (Yes, I know I could put them on the boxes. It would be great to be confident that those empty boxes would always be returned to me.)

And today, as I approached an automatic sliding door at an Office Max store that opened in response to a motion detector set to activate fairly close in, I noticed a bold sign on it saying, "Automatic door — Keep clear." Are people actually thinking about the sentences they put on such things? Or do they just (unlike Mark) make whatever signs they are told to make, no matter how ridiculous the assignment?

Just two more things about warning labels and then I promise I'll shut up. I know you want me to, but just two things. They aren't anything to do with the theme of this post, about language that clearly and necessarily defeats its own purpose (like "I am not moving my lips"); I just want to say these things and then that'll be that, OK?

1.  Just once, I would love to use a stepladder that did not bear a label warning me not to treat its top step as a step. Just make the thing robust and leave it to me how high I want to go.

2.  I still think the all-time most insane warning message I ever saw on anything anywhere was the message on a windshield-size folding cardboard sunscreen that I bought. (Let me just explain to residents of the Falkland Islands that the idea is to block out the rays of the sun from the front of your car while it is parked, so you don't burn your fingers on the steering wheel when you come back after a few hours in the hot California sunshine and try to drive off. You must understand that — while the weather is gorgeous in Santa Cruz — earlier this week in the town of Bradley, an hour or two to the south of here, the temperature hit 120°F in the shade.) On the rear (inside) surface of the opaque cardboard it said: Do not drive with shield in place.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 27, 2006 06:23 PM