Linguistics of street signs: Compounds

Over the weekend, I collected pictures of signs with compound nouns. Basic combinations of two nouns are hanging everywhere.

But it’s the longer combinations, such as an adjective plus two nouns, that offer a bit of fun — and ambiguity — for the street observer. In the auditory domain of conversation, we rarely hear these long compounds as ambiguous because speakers use emphasis to indicate the grouping of words that they intend (“GREEN house” means a place for plants, while “GREEN HOUSE” means a house that happens to be green). In the visual domain of street signs, however, we do not have this cue. This can lead to ambiguity.

A store that sells old books? Or a book store that happens to be old?

Shops on Green Street? Or street shops that happen to be green?

Interestingly, some signs use visual cues — different fonts or background colors — that mimic the auditory cue of emphasis and direct us toward a particular, unambiguous grouping of words.

Probably not a "room restaurant" that happens to be Athenian

Probably not a “library exit” that happens to be Forbes’s.

One of my favorite signs accomplishes something similar by switching from Spanish to English.

Probably not a rancho tree farm for an always-green Christmas.

For really long compounds, such as those with four words, we tend to group them into two separate compounds, each containing two words. But you can insert mental parentheses to visualize other possible interpretations.

Grafton (Village Cheese) Co.: A company that makes village cheese!

Drinking (Water Supply) Area: an area where you can drink the water supply!

Our tendency to automatically group words in particular ways means that we don’t often notice the ambiguities that lurk in compounds. But the following sign presented an exception for me. I stared at it a long time. I do not actually have a default interpretation for it, probably because I see “piggy back” and “back scratcher” with about same frequency.

For scratching a pig’s back? Or for scratching while riding piggy back?

Analyze some street signs. Take your camera or iPhone on a walk, and see what you find. In a future post, I will include readers’ photos. If you would like one of yours to be included, please email it to me at

This entry was posted in Ambiguity, Compounds, Street signs and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Linguistics of street signs: Compounds

  1. Nick says:

    An unintentionally hilarious ambiguous compound I came across recently: Senior Fantasy Writer (which is actually someone’s title at

  2. Tam says:

    The piggy back scratcher sign was disambiguated for me when I scrolled down to see the rest of the picture and suddenly I saw the back scratchers.

    I think it’s funny that they make back scratchers for pigs. I have the stereotypical image in my head of pigs rolling around in the mud, but I didn’t realize that their backs itched so much that people need to scratch them for them!

  3. Chrissa says:

    I love this (and your whole blog concept). Never thought about the ways we clarify meaning through emphasis in verbal speech, and sometimes through type treatment. If we follow that logic, those scratchers are definitely for use by (or on?) piggyback riders. Yee ha!

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