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.
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.
One of my favorite signs accomplishes something similar by switching from Spanish to English.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.