In the news · Language · Notes from West London

“Dump Rubbish … and we’ll fine you up to £400”

There are signs on some of the busier roads here in West London which read as follows: “Dump rubbish in the street and we’ll fine you up to £400”. The text is laid out rather more dramatically than that, all in upper case, and is printed in different colours and font sizes. It’s on a dark background and is spread out over several lines, like this:

[First, in large red text]
DUMP
RUBBISH

[Then, slightly smaller, white on black]
IN THE STREET
AND WE’LL

[Then, in yellow, the same size as the words Dump Rubbish]
FINE YOU
UP TO £400

[The words “UP TO” are about 20% of the size of the rest of the yellow text]

As noted in this piece, “Reporting anything unusual won’t hurt you”, I have a preference for clear instructions rather than oblique suggestions, but here we have a clear instruction masquerading as something else. If you do what it says (“Dump Rubbish”) you will be fined up to £400. So don’t do it. If you’re a little shaky on your conjunctions you might read it as “Dump rubbish in the street OR we’ll fine you up to £400”, which suggests that you really should do it, or you will be punished.

Rather like the “Harlesdon” sign that I wrote about last month this one preoccupies me for a few seconds every time I see it. How should it be phrased? “DO NOT DUMP RUBBISH”, perhaps, with the words “DO NOT” in the largest font size of all. How about, “The Dumping of Rubbish is Forbidden” or “If you dump rubbish you will be fined up to £400”? Do we really need signs to tell us this?

The principle at work here – an instruction to do something, which is trying to act as a warning not to do it – is not restricted to the UK. The resort of Magaluf on the island of Mallorca has been in the news this month because of a recent poster campaign. In large capital letters, in a variety of colours, and exclusively in English, there are signs being hung from lampposts that read as follows: “DRINK ON THE STREET”, “WEAR NO CLOTHES ON THE STREET”, “DIRTY THE STREET” and “SHOUT, FIGHT OR BOTHER PEOPLE”. In a smaller font size than the first part of the message, but still in capitals, each of these signs contains the following: PENALTY followed by a sum, in Euros. There’s a sliding scale at work here. The penalties are as follows:

“Drink on the street”, 500 Euros;
“Wear no clothes on the street”, 400 Euros;
“Dirty the street”, 200 Euros;
“Shout, fight or bother people”, 400 Euros.

There is nothing to indicate whether multiple transgressions will lead to a cumulative fine. If someone is drinking on the street, and wearing no clothes, will their initial 500 Euro fine cover both misdemeanours, or will they have to stump up an extra 400 Euros? The cheapest option of the four, “Dirty the street”, apparently refers to urinating and defecating in public, for which people will be charged half the penalty incurred if they “Shout, fight or bother people”. That last transgression seems a little vague. Shouting and fighting are clear enough, but “bothering people” could mean any number of things. It looks like a translation of the Spanish word “molestar”, which is a bit stronger than the English word “bother”, but does not translate directly as “molest”. There are plenty of things that bother me as I go about my daily business, including poorly-worded signs, but I don’t expect anyone to be fined for them.

You can take a look at the Magaluf street signs in their multi-coloured splendour here, the first time that I have linked to Metro, London’s free morning paper. And if you’re taking a trip to Magaluf this summer, try not to bother people. It could cost you 400 Euros if you do.

 

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