Comment: The odd language of signs


We British are always good at mocking ourselves, so what better way to have a laugh this festive season than look at some of the traffic industries most obvious calamities. Signs!

You may be aware of the obvious faux pas, such as the ‘Welcome to Swindon, for town centre, follow “Town centre”’ signs on approach to the Wiltshire town, and of course sign 619 from TSRGD (the motorcyclist jumping over the 1950’s era Hillman car), from the pick-pocketing OAP to the man with the umbrella! However you may not be aware of some of the standard signing we have around the UK that would give any linguist in English language, spoken and written, a cold sweat.

It may also drive you crazy once you realise some of these symbols on our roads are just wrong. For example, our national treasure Stephen Fry, once stated he didn’t see the point in No Motor Vehicles signs (TSRGD diag no 617) when they had the plate underneath stating ‘Except For Access’. “Of course” he states “I am accessing the street, there is no other way in. The fact I’m also exiting at the other end is irrelevant.” Good point Stephen!

Sign 953.1 is the blue roundel with a white tram. Or as a colleague of mine pointed out, a tram with a gymnast doing leg stretches on the roof.

The goods vehicles loading only sign (diag 660.4) has a man about to make an amazing hockey shot!

The brown tourist sign for a zoo is an elephant. Please, tell me how many zoos in the country have elephants in them. Who thought that animal was common enough in a zoo to use as a symbol. I bet a discussion on whether it’s an Indian or African elephant took place.

The amusement park sign, has two trees and the world’s most boring merry-goround between them. One giant horse on a tiny radial carousel? Think I’ll give that a miss thanks.

The motorway sign requesting you leave room for the motorist ahead states ‘Keep Two Chevrons Apart’. Now the English on this is appalling, and is pointed out a lot on web forums. Some state that it should say keep a gap of two chevrons from the vehicles in front. I believe the word minimum is missing. Without that, this scenario could play out: ‘Yes officer, I was doing 102mph, but I was trying to catch up with the Porsche so I was only two chevrons from him as the sign states’.

When a sign is upside down it contravenes the road traffic act and is not enforceable. It may alarm you when I estimate 50% of the blue mini-roundabout roundel signs (sign diagram 611.1)  are upside down! It’s a "happy sign" -meaning two arrows should be at the top and one at the bottom centrally located. The way to remember this is it’s a smiley face! So next time you look, try and spot where your council has not made your roundabout a happy place. It’s more common than you realise. Write to them, tell them to turn that sign into a smile!

My favourite is specific to a location. On the Brighton & Hove By-Pass while travelling at speed, I notice upon the central reservation - so this makes me focus my attention to the right - a simple plate sign that states ‘Look Left’. Oh, thanks for that great advice!

Mark Ralph is managing director of Traffic Solutions and director of Find The Engineer. 

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