London signage 02: Dummy “it” in non-parallel construction.

Deuxième partie de notre série sur les panneaux londoniens. Celui-ci pose un problème de syntaxe.

For our second instalment let’s turn our attention to a bit of syntax. This sign adorns a narrow footpath from Charing Cross train station down to the river Thames:


If we give the first sentence its final punctuation back and try to group together what goes together, we get, on the surface, this:

  • [It [is an offence [to ride a cycle [on the footway]]] and [is punishable [by a £30 fine]]].

Now I know I have a high tolerance for non-parallel constructions in English, but this one bugs me. The culprit? The first and the second instance of “it” aren’t the same: in the first half of the sentence, it is a dummy subject; the only reason it’s there at all is because the sentence needs a subject, however perfunctory. there’s another way of saying the same thing, using the Vb+ing form: Riding a cycle on the footway is an offence. On the other hand, the (virtual) it in it is punishable by a £30 fine replaces the entire referential subject of the first half, riding a cycle on the footway.

But if we pull that part out and front it, the sentence’s okay for me: Riding a cycle on the footway is an offence and punishable by a £30 fine. Weird.

(On Flickr and IRC, the discussion about the grammaticality of the sentence got sidetracked into a) whether cycle is the appropriate word (it is indeed the legal term) and b) whether it makes sense to restrict cycling (in this particular place — a narrow walkway filled with foreign teenagers in London for the first time — I’d say it’s defensible, though the Met’s priorities should lie elsewhere).

[The spell-checker didn’t know: footway.]

What misspellings can tell the reader about the underlying speech: This shop on Portobello Road had three or four hand-written signs indicating the prices of various types of “scalf”:

'scalf' on a sign in London
And even more scalves.

No rhotic speaker (who would pronounce the R in scarf) would have chosen this spelling.

This is London!

Version ramassée : j’ai posé ma tente à Londres, ville où il fait bien vivre ; je présente mes excuses pour la sécheresse blogique par ici ; une petite série légère basée sur mes photos de panneaux londoniens et parisiens devrait réanimer ces pages ces jours-ci.

For once there is a good excuse for this latest bout of silence on Diacritiques: For the last month I’ve been in London, after a somewhat hurried move across the Channel. Indeed, if everything goes well, I’m here to stay. I manage to be insanely busy just settling in, searching for permanent work and in the meantime trying to pick up enough short-term jobs to keep myself financially afloat.#[1]

London is a quiet, relaxed, friendly place full of fresh air and green spaces. I’ve been called a “nutter” a number of times for expressing this view and I can sort of see the point. However, compared to spending many months trying to hang on seriously underemployed in a draughty Parisian flat whose rattling windows exposed me to the traffic noise 24 hours a day, even the state of genteel poverty I’m finding myself in here is preferable. Don’t take me wrong, I miss my wonderful French friends terribly, and Paris is a lovely place — just not a good one for me to be right now.

More to the point — this is supposed to be a language blog after all — London is full of English. Strange English. New English. A whole lot of English!#[2]

I was, for example, completely unaware of the charming use of the verb alight on London buses and the Tube — how do public transport systems in other English-speaking places avoid the informality of get off/out in their announcements (as in “get off the train/tram/bus at station XYZ”)? Exit? So it’s not only pigeons that alight on Piccadilly Circus (though Tube passengers alight there using at).

I’m pretty sure over the last weeks and probably some more time to come my own (English) speech would have made a good object of study for anyone interested in second-language speaker accent adaptation: often it feels as if my accent is changing by the hour, or even minute.

As for the bit of citizen journalism into the speech of East London youngsters, in particular of Bangladeshi ancestry, that our betters at Language Log are calling for, I’m temporarily staying in West London and may move to South London soon; and I’m in a state of major accent-confusion (see above); and I’d need a better recording device. In any event, it is clear from direct observation that there isn’t much of a correlation between ethnic ancestry and accent; or at least not enough to predict anything with a high enough probability (for this particular, often rather delicate, issue).

Right, now I don’t want to promise something I’m not going to keep.#[3] Though in addition to the huge backlog of post-to-write, there’s a number of pictures I’ve taken of signs and other public writings in London which provide excellent blogfodder — and I’ve still a bit of similar material for Paris. So let’s get back to a more regular Diacritiques with a series on London and Parisian signage and its oddities. Upcoming: “The curious phenomenon of the intermittently missing apostrophe (or: why I feel a measure of sympathy for Lynn Truss)”, “What rhymes with calves and halves?”, “What comes after due to?” and various and sundry enigmatic London Transport signs.

Meanwhile, here’s about five and a half minutes of London sound, from the Tube, recorded with the very basic microphone on my Samsung flash player. Featuring the announcements for three stations on the Bakerloo line, various crowd and train noises, and a busker. Not much speech, mostly noise, but it does illustrate the above-mentioned usage of alight.

[As this is the first time I’m using Martin Laine’s wonderful audio-player plugin, please let me know in the comments section if you have any problems with it.]

[My spell-checker didn’t know: nutter, Perl, Bakerloo, Piccadilly, blogfodder, signage and insisted on the spelling draughty; who am I to disobey?]


[1]: So, in case you know of someone who might need a numerate and literate non-developer Internet person please give me a bell; I hold a good science degree and a teaching certificate, speak and write French and (obviously) German, have managed web sites, taught English, translated comic books (into German) and worked in an archive in the past, and can also do software localisation and know what a Bash, Perl or Python script is. I’ll put up my CV once I’m more fully happy with one version; it’s been somewhat in flux and hard to pin down lately. In any event, I’m working on putting the more geeky stuff that might serve as a showcase on the top level of this domain, and that’s where it’s going to live.

[2]: It is also surprisingly full of French. Oh, there are French, German, Italian, Eastern European tourists aplenty, but most of the French I hear on the streets is uttered by residents. I’m clearly not the only one seeking her luck over here.

[3]: And I owe the faithful contributors to the Eggcorn forum a huge apology. For a much too long time I’ve only been able to tend to the spam and do a small bit of housekeeping over at the Eggcorn Database. At least all the contributions are searchable and indexed by the search engines. Then there’s my news aggregator, which just doesn’t seem to fall below 5000 unread messages…