Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Waste or Recycle, Please

Posted by Neal on July 29, 2012

Elliot Anderson sent me this picture from a trip to Disneyland or Disney World (he didn’t say which), and told me, “I didn’t know whether I should waste or recycle.”

As I wrote in response:

I think either of these messages would be OK on its own, but together, they generate the kind of puzzlement you experienced. When I’m in the post office and I see the trash can labeled “Waste,” I get a micro-chuckle about imagining that they’re encouraging me to waste stuff, before coming back to the message of “(Put your) waste ([noun] here).” I would do the same thing at Disney World for a trash can by itself. But right next to a recycle bin with a similar message, you get the interference. Unlike waste, recycle cannot (yet) be used as a noun, so you’re forced to interpret the message as an explicit command. And then by association, you want to do the same with the garbage can, essentially being forced to give it the stupid reading.

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2 Responses to “Waste or Recycle, Please”

  1. Glen said

    I especially like it when I see a bin labeled, “Put litter in its place.” At which point I am tempted to drop my trash on the ground, since litter’s place is by definition *not* in the trash can.

  2. Nice one. I think a solitary can labeled ‘waste’ will be understood, but it’s a slam dunk next to a ‘recycle’ can. As for the micro-chuckle, if it gets people to be more conscientious about waste, it might be worth it to induce one deliberately. What say?
    I got here from the grammar girl podcast. Your comments help.

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