Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

In which the author finds beauty in how people tell other people what to do.

Month: May, 2013

Don’t Risk Your Life

Nothing_worth_your_lifeThis sign is on the door of the former premises if a tattoo parlour, Durham NC.

The door shown here (like many shop doors, it seems to me) is another example of what I call a ‘normatively rich’ environment, one that subjects the viewer to a real barrage of injunctions and warnings. “No solicitors.” “No smoking.” Plus a warning about 24-hour surveillance video, which is an implicit warning not to get into any mischief.

Most interesting perhaps is this sign, and its implicit death-threat. In terms of normative language, it’s worth noting that the sign is a simple declarative. The reader is left to infer the appropriate normative conclusion.

(Thanks to Wayne Norman for the picture.)

Gas Station Normative Density

car_van_postHere’s an example of what I like to think of as a “normatively rich” location. Alternatively, you might think of it as a clusterfuck of signage. The picture was taken at a gas station in Mitchell, Ontario. Not surprising to find normative richness at a gas station, really. After all, it’s one of the few public places that allows the public to play with explosives.

Anyway, this cluster of signs is worth breaking down and looking at one by one.

Here’s the first sign, which helpfully tells both van and car drivers that they are welcome to use the pumps on either side. What it doesn’t mention is trucks, which are presumably excluded (but permitted at other pumps, according to other signs not shown here).


And here’s the second, which asks customers for what is really basic courtesy. In particular, it asks them not to leave their cars parked beside the gas pumps — blocking other customers — while they go inside use the washrooms, buy gum, or whatever.

Finally, here’s a warning sign. You have to love a warning sign with footnotes. You can click on the image to see a larger version, and if your eyes are good you can read the footnotes. But really, who cares? The point is: footnotes? Seriously?

(Thanks to Tracy Isaacs for this photo.)

Falling Snow From Roof

snow_falling2This one really is like poetry.

“Falling Snow From Roof” sounds like a fragment of a normative haiku of the 5-7-5 (syllables) kind. A very Canadian haiku, that is.

I mean, it has to be poetry, since the more natural bit of prose would reverse the words “falling” and “snow.” “Caution: Snow Falling From Roof.” Or maybe it needs punctuation. “Falling snow! [From where?] From roof!”

Seeking Disabled, Non-Smoking Females?

female_disabled_nonsmokingThis one (submitted by Tracy Isaacs) is from a courthouse in London, ON. It’s noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, its use of the word “female” (rather than “women”) is unusual though not unique.

Second, the combination of signs is interesting: female (with the stereotypical skirt-wearing woman pictogram), and the ‘disabled’ logo, and the ‘no smoking’ logo. When I first saw this sign, I was genuinely baffled as to whether the prescription here is a conjunction or not: is this a bathroom only for disabled women? Or is it for women, including those who are disabled? Tracy says it’s probably the latter, given that it’s the only women’s washroom around, and is of the multi-stall variety. Either way, no smoking!

An Obey the Signs Sign

obey_signs2I love this sign, which is posted near the building formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens, on Carlton St in Toronto.

It’s a sign that encourages pedestrians to obey traffic signals, which are of course themselves a kind of normative sign. So, it’s a sign telling you to obey signs. Philosophically, that makes it a meta-normative sign.

I have to wonder about the likely effectiveness of such a sign. I mean, if a pedestrian wasn’t already disposed to obeying signs and signals, would they be disposed to obeying this particular sign? Maybe there’s a kind of bootstrapping at play, here: its a verbal reminder to obey other kinds of visual signals. So maybe (another metaphor) it serves to ‘prime the pump.’

Ashtray Gets All Ironical

no_smoking_ashtray2My pal Jim sent this one, taken in a hotel room (in Luxembourg). It’s an ashtray with a “no smoking” sign in it.

Is this a mixed message? A form of tacit permission to break official rules? A way of taunting the addict? Or (more likely, I think) a way of catching smokers’ attention, by putting the ‘no smoking’ sign in the one place that every smoker is bound to look?

Life Preserver — Life in Prison?

bluemountainsThe picture was submitted by David Groskind, who says it was taken at a dock near Collingwood, Ontario, and that the “life-saving device” was missing when the picture was taken. As he points out, it looks like the very severe penalty threatened by the sign — life imprisonment — was insufficient deterrent.

David and I both had doubts that the stated penalty is accurate. But apparently we were wrong. According to a lawyer friend:

Criminal Code of Canada Section 430(2) Every one who commits mischief that causes actual danger to life is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for life.”

It Might be Illegal to Throw Stuff from Balconies

no_throwingHere’s an instance of a normative sign that apparently attempts to gain additional legal leverage by means of legal sleight of hand. It’s on the window of a hotel room — presumably hundreds of hotel rooms — in South Carolina.

The first sentence says,

Throwing items from balconies is a criminal offence punishable under South Carolina law and will be prosecuted to its fullest extent.

The second sentence says,

South Carolina Criminal Law states that ‘Any attempt to cause unwanted contact by any object that is thrown can be construed as Assault.’

But wait! The first sentence was presumably about throwing anything from the balcony. The second sentence is only about throwing stuff at people. So, launching beer bottles into the pool from the 7th floor at midnight? Go for it!

(Note also the faulty punctuation — the quotation marks. Does no one proof-read a sticker that’s going in a few hundred windows?)

Thanks to Wayne Norman once again.

No Parking Any Time or Anytime


It’s not my intention to make this into a “grammar nazi” blog, but I couldn’t resist here. The two signs above — one correct (on the left) and one incorrect (on the right) are physically located about 30 feet apart, on Bond Street in Toronto. Presumably they mean (or are intended to mean) the same thing.

Parking Suspended

parking_suspendedThis lovely sign was shot in London, by Nancy Walton.

What’s of interest here is the polite footnote, which reads “If this suspension is unclear, or is not being used, please call…” and gives a phone number.

I love the commas (students, take note!). And I love the invitation to, you know, give us a call if anything should be unclear. What’s unclear to me is what it would mean for a parking suspension not to be “used.”