Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Unless with Implied Negation

Posted by Neal on August 12, 2009

Hey, looks like Pool 2 is open today!The management of the local swimming pool sometimes don’t say what they mean. They say they’re open at noon every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but I learned different one day near the end of Adam’s kindergarten year. He got out of school just before noon, while Doug didn’t get out until a few hours later. I decided I’d take Adam swimming that day, since the pool had opened up a couple of days earlier, on Memorial Day. I packed our lunches and we went to the pool, only to find out that it was closed!

“We don’t open until 4:00 on school days,” the manager told me.

“That’s not what it said on the information sheet you sent us when we bought our membership,” I said. “It said you opened at noon every day.”

The manager didn’t directly challenge this observation, but instead sat up a bit straighter and reminded me that they did a lot of nice things for their members, like the teen nights and family nights when they stayed open until midnight (not that that held a lot of appeal for me and my elementary-school-age sons). And anyway, she added, the information sheet did say that the pool would not open when there were fewer than twelve swimmers there.

It’s like this between when school starts up again and Labor Day, too, in case you were wondering. The manager didn’t say what would happen if twelve preschoolers, kindergartners, or high-school graduates (or for that matter, high-school dropouts) were to show up early one afternoon during one of these liminal periods.

Why do we keep getting memberships to this place? Is it the flaking concrete at the bottom of the pool? The side rails that are lumpy with the accumulation of fifty years of coats of paint, each one slapped on over the previous year’s peeling layer? (Each one except for the first one, of course, but you knew that.) The high dive that they removed ten years ago because they couldn’t afford the insurance? The tall, rickety metal slide that’s still there, and almost as scary as the high dive? No, none of those things. It’s the only-pool-in-town-ness of the place.

There are actually two pools there, but the management only opens the second one when the day’s crowd is sufficiently big. Twelve people won’t do it. There are also special restrictions on Pool #2, apparently. I saw one of them on a sign posted behind the manager’s desk one day. It said:

Pool #2 is available for cookouts after 5PM, unless it’s a pre-arranged party.

First of all, for any literal-minded readers out there, let’s dispense with the obvious: They don’t have cookouts in the pool itself. The cookouts take place in the grassy area surrounding the pool, with pool polysemously referring to the pool proper and its immediate surroundings. Now, on to what I had in mind: So if it’s after 5PM and you suddenly take a notion to have a cookout at Pool #2, that’s OK, but if you actually make plans to have a cookout at that same place and time, you’re breaking a rule?

It took me about a minute to arrive at what is more likely the intended meaning: If it’s before 5PM and the party’s pre-arranged, you can use it Pool #2 for the cookout. After 5PM, anything goes, whether pre-arranged or spur-of-the-moment, but before 5PM, any cookouts had better be pre-arranged. In other words, they mean what I would have said like this:

Pool #2 is not available for cookouts before 5PM, unless it’s a pre-arranged party.

But the proposition that Pool #2 isn’t available for cookouts before 5PM wasn’t stated; it was only implicated by stating that it was available after 5PM. For me, unless can apply only to what is explicitly stated, not to mere implicatures. I think the sentence on the sign was not actually generated by the signmaker’s mental grammar, but a result of the signmaker starting out with “Pool #2 is available for cookouts after 5PM,” subconsciously supplying an only before after 5PM, and then letting the unless clause apply to that. What do you think? Can you get the (I think) intended meaning from that sign? If so, can you get it in the normal way, or do you get it by thinking, “That can’t be right; let me see what else I can figure out, knowing what I know about swimming pools”?

Well, since school’s starting in a couple of weeks, we’d better squeeze in as many visits to this pool as possible, and have fun whether we’re in the mood for it or not. The more visits we can chalk up, the bigger the denominator will be in the fraction (cost of season pass)/(number of visits). I will say one thing for this old-school pool, though: Not having undergone the kind of massive renovations that other local pools have, it doesn’t have one of those stupid thousand-gallon tipping buckets!

UPDATE, 13 Aug. 2009: Correction apropos The Ridger’s comment.

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18 Responses to “Unless with Implied Negation”

  1. Julie said

    I read it a bit differently…

    Pool #2 is available for cookouts after 5PM, unless THERE’S a pre-arranged party (already using the space).

    Yes, I know ‘it’s’ for ‘there’s’ is an odd mistake, but the sign has an odd mistake no matter how you interpret it.

  2. I think it should be a new rule of the universe that all signs must be worded by literal-minded people. Or each sign should at least have to pass through a proofreading process that includes seeing if the literal-minded can understand it. Ah, how much friendlier a world would that be to me!

    • Faldone said

      Right! And I should be able to buy that big old candy bar that the sign says is .99¢ with a penny and get change back.

      • GPHemsley said

        I’m with you on that. I and a few other people actually went through the supermarket a couple of years ago, creating photographic evidence of the multiple occurrences of that type of mistake.

      • Neal said

        Do you still have the pictures? If they’re on Flickr or somewhere, I could link to them.

      • GPHemsley said

        Unfortunately, they’re on Facebook, and they weren’t taken by me, so I don’t know how much access you may have to them.

        However, here’s the link: Fractional-cent prices.

        If you can’t get in with that, maybe this link will work: A subset of those pictures—the ones with me in them.

        If that doesn’t work, either, then here’s a textual representation of what we found (and took pictures of):

        “Wise chips 5oz.

        “Dr Browns
        2 Liter Soda

        Ooh, this is a good one:


        And again (a different sign):

        “Americas Choice
        Baked Beans 16oz.

        24CT. PLASTIC

        “Mccormick Brown

        And another good one:

        “Capitol pound cakes


        So, not only was their period key acting up, but their apostrophe was flat-out broken. Those are all verbatim from the signs in the pictures.

      • Neal said

        You need to listen to Verizon Math Fail. This is a snippet of a much longer recording on this guy’s blog, but all you’re missing is more of the same kind of conversation, except in the longer conversation he tells the customer service folks that he specifically verified that they really did mean he’d be charged .002 CENTS per kilobyte, as they quoted him, not $.002, before using ~35,000 kilobytes.

      • GPHemsley said

        I actually already have. It’s one of the major reasons I discourage people from using Verizon. In fact, I think I may have related that story while we were touring the supermarket. 🙂

      • The Ridger said

        What coin would you expect? You’d have to buy ten…

  3. The Ridger said

    I read it the same way Julie did. Especially given that Pool 2 isn’t normally open.

    But The cookouts take place in the grassy area surrounding the pool, with pool polysemously referring to the pool proper and its immediate surroundings. – surely you mean “synecdochally”?

  4. Ellen K. said

    I missed the literal parties in the pool reading. I interpreted it as Julie and The Ridger, but I think the other reading (available earlier for prearranged parties) is possible too.

  5. GPHemsley said

    Well, this is certainly a post that proves that you chose wisely when naming this blog, because I interpreted the original message exactly as you thought it should have been worded. But I would like to see publicly-posted signs proofread every once in a while. After all, they are normally intended to be permanent.

    Oh, and for the record, not everybody has a time “between when school starts up again and Labor Day”. Around here, school doesn’t start until the Wednesday after Labor Day (though I imagine it’s a Tuesday in other districts; it’s likely that not everyone has a Superintendent’s Day before school starts).

  6. I remember the marina where my father kept his yacht was full of errors like these. Or really odd phrases of things, like, “Boat owners before noon must register first with the owner’s office before attempting to access dry dock facilities.” I assume they mean, “If it’s before noon, and you need to access the dry dock, you must first register with the marina owner’s office.”

    The worst was their liberal use of quotes as emphasis. Like:

    “Boat owners only” beyond this point.

    As a kid who was as literal as you were, it almost seemed like a wink. Like, “No one is allowed past here unless they own a boat… or at least CLAIM to… nudge nudge wink wink say no more…”

    My mother asked, “Boat owners only” what?

  7. […] by Neal on February 15, 2011 Every summer when Doug and Adam take swim lessons (at the pool I’ve talked about before), I put up with the instructors calling the crawl “freestyle,” bringing up yet another […]

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