Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

At the Water Park

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2010

No tipping buckets at MY water park!

During our trip last weekend, we stayed at one of these combination hotel-and-indoor-water-parks that have come into existence in the last decade. This one was in Sandusky, Ohio, and was one of three such operations that I saw while we were there. OK, only two if you don’t count the one that had gone out of business. That one had a Hawaiian theme, with a big tiki statue in the parking lot and the name “Maui Sands” readable through the white plastic that had been put over the sign. Of the three, it was the only one that had a theme even close to appropriate for a water park. The one a block away from us was called Kalahari! The one we stayed in was (and is, for that matter) called the Great Wolf Lodge, with a faux Pacific Northwest Indian theme. The Pacific Northwest is a wetter environment than the Kalahari desert, but still not one that makes you think of splashing around in a bathing suit.

Personally, I’d prefer a water park with no theme at all. It just adds to the expense of designing the place, and keeping it in good repair. If you have mannequins of Native Americans, or Old West settlers, even if they don’t look corny to begin with, they detract from the theme when they’re covered in dust after a few years. Yep, if I built a water park, there’d be no theme, just fun water rides. And since I’d only put in the fun stuff, and not the irritating stuff, there’d be no play structures that sprayed, squirted, or sprinkled water. I like hot showers, but I don’t like getting sprayed with cold water, not even in a water fight when I’m already in a swimming pool. I don’t like the feeling of cold drops of water on otherwise warm skin. So, no playsets with hoses and faucets for ambushing people, no curtains of dripping water that you have to pass through to get to the slides, and especially no tipping buckets! I don’t know how these gimmicky items got so popular, but it seems nobody can build a water park these days, indoor or outdoor, without installing a thousand-gallon giant bucket on an axle on top of the central play structure. Water is piped up to the top to fill the bucket, and every five minutes or so, the bucket tips over and pours it all out. At least there’s usually a bell that gives you a warning. A warning for normal people, that is; not for those who take it as an invitation to hurry over and stand on the floor in front of the bucket. What is wrong with these people?

In my waterpark, you’ll be allowed to ride your inner tube facing frontwards or backwards, on your back or on your stomach. Hooking your tubes into a chain? Not a problem. There won’t be rules like this one, on a sign posted next to the “Totem Towers” slide complex:

So if you were wondering what linguistic point I was going to make, here it is. Though I disapprove of this rule, it’s a great example of how subject-verb agreement can sometimes make a semantic difference. If it had said, “Stopping, changing positions, and forming chains is not permitted,” we’d have had a much more lenient set of rules. Stopping? OK. Changing positions? That’s OK, too. Forming chains? Go right ahead! You could even stop and then change positions; or change positions while in motion in order to form a chain; or stop and form a chain while maintaining your starting position. The only thing that you couldn’t do would be the dangerous triple threat of stopping, changing positions, and forming a chain all in the same ride.

But no; they said what they really meant by choosing the plural form are. Stopping is not permitted; changing positions is not permitted; forming chains is not permitted. Any combination of two is doubly forbidden, and the compound action involving all three is right out.

What if they’d said, “Stopping, changing positions, or forming chains is not permitted”? That would have been strange, as if one of the three were forbidden but they couldn’t tell you which one. Maybe on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, stopping isn’t permitted; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, changing positions isn’t permitted; and on weekends, forming chains isn’t permitted. Of course, it could just so happen that they’re all forbidden, but the more precise choice in that case would be to use and and a plural verb, as the sign actually does.

However, if they’d said, “We don’t permit stopping, changing positions, or forming chains,” that would have meant (close enough to) the same as “Stopping, changing positions, and forming chains are not permitted.” Weird: Usually there’s no difference in meaning when you change a clause from active voice to passive, but there is in this one. Why? That’ll have to wait until another post, but the semantics works out pretty straightforwardly.

But enough hypotheticals. The Great Wolf Lodge management did a competent job of phrasing their crummy rule, and didn’t get confused and write something like … something like … uh-oh. Something like the rule on this sign, posted next to the Alberta Falls slide complex:

“Stopping, changing positions, or forming chains are not permitted”? If you use an or to connect a singular subject and a plural subject, as in Mom or her friends are going to be there, you can use a plural verb. But all three items here are singulars: stopping, changing positions, forming chains. The writers here got confused by the plural noun chains at the end of the singular phrase forming chains. This sentence is just a mistake, and if we corrected it by exchanging are for is, we just get the strange, “one of these things is forbidden” sentence I was imagining for the first sign.

I guess you just have to go with your knowledge of our litigious society and consequently overcautious businesses to arrive at the intended meaning. But it’s pretty sloppy.

I saw one more semantically strange sign in the play area:

It starts out: “No rider shall…” OK, so far, so good. We can predict that what follows is a list of things no rider shall do.

No rider shall fail to…” Oh, man. Now we’ve got two negations in the sentence. It’s not ungrammatical, but we’re getting dangerously close to overnegation territory. Let’s skip over the “do any of the following” and jump to the first list item. That gives us, “No rider shall fail to heed all written warnings.” All right, not too bad. On to the next one.

No rider shall fail to refrain from behavior or acting in any manner that may cause injury…” This is bad. Three negations in quick succession? This often results in the writer saying the opposite of what they meant, and even if it doesn’t, the reader has to carefully work their way through the negations to make sure of the meaning. In this case, the writers got it right, but I was standing in front of the sign for a minute, thinking to myself, “OK, so if you fail to refrain from dangerous behavior, you’re engaging in dangerous behavior. No rider shall engage in dangerous behavior. All right, that makes sense.”

But why would they say this in such a difficult way? Why not just say, “No rider shall engage in behavior or act in any manner that may cause injury”? Well, that would mess up the first item, because then we’d have “No rider shall heed all written warnings.” So how about: “Every rider shall heed all written warnings… and refrain from behaving or acting in any manner that may cause injury”?

That’s right; there’d be no signs with ambiguous rules in my water park. And you could carry in your own food, subject to a reasonable limit on cooler size. And the food we’d sell wouldn’t be overpriced crap! And there’d be a rope swing! And no tipping buckets! (I can’t emphasize that enough.)

Maybe I chose the wrong career path.

10 Responses to “At the Water Park”

  1. Isn’t the real mistake in the difference between rule 3 and rule 4 that one has “and” (which is clear) and the other has “or” (which is ambiguous)? The “is”/”are” hypothetical does not come into play.

    As for the double negation, I think the sign was designed in such a way that you could ignore the title and all of the rules would still make sense. (Granted, they could have simplified it by having the title read something like “All riders shall do all of the following” or somesuch.)

    • Neal said

      Right; the or is the main problem; the lesser one is the subject-verb disagreement.

    • The Ridger said

      Right: ignore part of the sign and you’re right. But why write it that way? You could still ignore the “All riders shall” header – but if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be in the trouble you are with “Don’t fail to refrain”…

  2. Jonathon said

    I also found the singular “arm” and “leg” in the first picture somewhat strange, especially since “feet” and “ankles” are plural. Can you actually cross one leg?

  3. Ran said

    Totally off-topic, but I encountered an interesting WTF coordination today:

    > The quest to both internationalize (i18n) and localize (L10n) software is hampered by computers designed for the English alphabet, but other major languages, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, have different requirements.


    I’d encountered this construction before, but it wasn’t until today that it suddenly “clicked” for me what was going on. Or rather, what I now think is going on. I think it’s “[…] is hampered by { { computers designed for the English alphabet }, but { other major languages, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, have different requirements } }”, coordinating a noun-phrase with a sentence. Before today, I would have fixed it by changing “but” to “since”, but now I think the best fix (as in, the closest to the original intent) might be to convert the noun-phrase into a sentence; maybe something like this:

    > The quest to both internationalize (i18n) and localize (L10n) software is hampered by the fact that some computers are designed for the English alphabet, while other major languages, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, have different requirements.

    • Neal said

      You’re right. This is like one of the “wide-scoping operator” coordinations I’ve been collecting, but there’s nothing taking wide scope over both conjuncts. I think your analysis is right. I also agree with your choice of how to correct it to conform to standard English syntax.

  4. Glen said

    In your water park, would I be able to take a number for a particular ride, then relax by the pool until my number came up instead of waiting in a super-long line? Because that would be awesome.

  5. Ellen K. said

    Schlitterbahn allows food brought in. Our Schlitterbahn is just down the road from out Great Wolf Lodge. It’s not indoors, though.

  6. China said

    The perfect gesture to thank people for attending. 3 hours ago via TweetDeck Reply Retweet
    Favorite powered by socialditto JordyHamrickJordanHome Depot.

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