July 05, 2007

Scriptwriter for the monorail

I am trapped in Munich (eastern Germany) at the moment, stashed in a hotel by an airline that failed yesterday to get me from Toulouse (southern France) to San Francisco (central California) via Frankfurt (central Germany). And one of the travel un-pleasures I have to look forward to today is (under the best case scenario) a very long flight from Munich to San Francisco, followed by a chance to hear this line repeated half a dozen times by a familiar recorded female voice as the monorail starts off from the airport to the giant (and extraordinarily ill-designed) San Francisco Airport Rental Car Center:

Please hold on. Please set luggage cart brake to on.

Get me rewrite! Who was the scriptwriter? First, we don't use please with warnings (Please look out! There's a tiger behind you!). Second, we don't leave out determiners in English speech unless we are Russian or Korean or something: we need a determiner such as your on luggage cart brake. Third, we don't say things like "You're going too fast, daddy! Set the brake to on!". What went wrong here? The scriptwriter should have written this:

Hold on; and if you have a luggage cart, put the brake on.

Why do the people who write scripts for recorded announcements in elevators and shuttle buses and subway trains have such a tin ear for ordinary-sounding English? What is wrong with them? Please set ordinary native command of spoken English to on, or else hire a linguist.

Added later, July 6: I was wrong about how good the best case scenario could be. It turns out that although I did get back to San Francisco (the total time from leaving my Toulouse hotel to arriving back at my Santa Cruz home was a staggering 47 hours), I never did hear the message. My friend Caroline Henton (who is in the relevant industry, working on speech issues for Apple, and sympathized) read the above post on Language Log, took pity on me, and drove up from Cupertino to meet my plane and drive me home (we both live in Santa Cruz), so I didn't need to go to the rental car center and I didn't need to drive. Isn't that cool? The above post now has the special distinction of being the most useful one to me personally that I ever wrote.

One person has now written to me to say that "please" is required because airports have to be polite; but that's nonsense. Announcements like "Hold on!" or "All aboard!" or "Step this way" or "Follow me" or "Mind your head" or "Hang onto your hat" or "Be careful out there" are perfectly polite, given a suitable tone of voice. The occurrences of "please" were in there (and the determiner was missing on "luggage cart brake") because the scriptwriter didn't know how to distinguish natural-sounding speech from brochure prose or written notices.

Another reader asked whether it might have been a translation problem. The answer is no: they announce only in English, and the bad script was written (doubtless by a native speaker) only in English and solely for people who could understand English. This is incompetence, not poor translation skills.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 5, 2007 06:46 AM