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Yesterday I came across a road-sign (just coming onto the M40 at the Oxford services, if you're interested!) that seemed to read rather strangely. It read:

Picking up your litter puts road-workers at risk.

I think I can work out what it is meant to mean ("Don't drop litter on the motorway so other people have to pick it up- it's dangerous!"), but probably only because I had a fair idea in advance what it was likely to mean.

It's hard to put my finger on exactly what is wrong with it. Do others agree that it is phrased oddly? Is it grammatically correct? What would be a clearer and equally succinct way to say this.

Update: Just noticed this article about this sign (and others). Seems like I'm not the only one who finds the sign confusing.

Driver Rob Davis says... "In future, I won't pick up my litter. I certainly wouldn't want to put any workers' lives in danger by doing so."

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It's not strange to me, but I was wondering why picking up your litter makes some other people at risk? –  Thursagen Jul 13 '11 at 8:27
    
That's precisely my point. It's actually saying that "when road-workers have to pick up your litter, it puts them at risk". The implication being that you shouldn't be dropping litter at all. Guess you'll agree it's not clear then. –  Urbycoz Jul 13 '11 at 8:32
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It's certainly ambiguous. My first read was "When you pick up your own litter, road-workers are put at risk." Removal of the "your" would clear it up. –  Chris Cudmore Jul 13 '11 at 13:26
    
I read it the right way the first time. It is my personal opinion that litterers do not generally pick up their own litter. –  horatio Jul 13 '11 at 13:44
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@BlueRaja Your sentence is not ambiguous unless your uncle chooses to spell his name with a lower case "J". –  Urbycoz Jul 14 '11 at 8:34
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6 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Yes, but it's not really good English.

A participial phrasal noun ("picking up your litter") has been used as the subject of the main verb ("puts"). That's fine, grammatically.

The problem is that the phrasal noun is ambiguous, because it does not specify who would be doing the picking up. This is particularly bad for cases like this, where people are driving past the sign, and should not be taking the time to work out the exact meaning.

To remove the ambiguity, you can:

  • Name the actor: You picking up your litter / Road workers picking up your litter / The queen of Sheba picking up your litter. These forms are awkward.
  • Remove the genitive: Picking up litter puts... . This form removes the It's your fault! implication.
  • Scrapping the whole sentence and starting again, but this time, saying precisely what you mean, using clear, unambiguous phrasing; e.g.: If you drop litter, people risk their lives picking it up.
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Comment from @nohat to a post of mine I deleted : "I think in terms of trendy linguistic terminology, this sentence is more like a 'crash blossom'—where the obvious syntactic interpretation is wrong and strange and kind of funny, and the correct interpretation is not obvious" –  cindi Sep 20 '11 at 17:39
    
@Cindi, thank you for introducing me to the term "crash blossom". –  Brian Hooper Oct 30 '11 at 17:44
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I don't see why @cindi's answer was deleted - OP's example is indeed a garden path sentence.

That means it's grammatically correct, but stylistically questionable because many people will initially assume an implicit "You" before the first word. When we read...

"smoking harms the unborn child"

...we know the unborn child doesn't "smoke", so an implicit "You/Your" makes sense, but with...

"smoking cannabis is damaging your teenage son's mental health"

...we'd normally assume it's the son who's smoking cannabis and thereby frying his brains.

I think in practice you'd have to be a bit dim to actually misinterpret OP's example once you'd read the whole sentence. Perhaps whoever designed the sign used slightly quirky phrasing specifically in order to make people take more notice.

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"(Picking up your litter) puts road workers at risk."

Grammatically it's fine; there's nothing wrong with the noun phrase "picking up your litter" in that sentence.

I think the wording seems strange because picking up litter is only indirectly the cause of the risk. Traffic puts road workers at risk. Being out on the road puts road workers at risk. And if you get right down to it...

Littering puts road workers at risk.

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Here's my amateur theory of what's going on here.

All our lives we are told to pick up your litter, put it in the bin, don't be a litter-bug, littering is a sin. You, you, you.

And then this sign goes and reverses the usual pattern (of making you the subject) and addresses you indirectly through an appeal based on the risk to road-workers. Instead of you, it's them.

So while technically it is comprehensible, it is awkward since nearly everyone will see the word litter and anticipate the familiar pattern of admonishment, which is why nearly everyone (who cares) will experience a double-take.

They could have made this less surprising by putting the word litter last, as in

Road workers are put at risk when they pick up your litter

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ah, so you're saying they purposely chose these words to make you remorseful? –  shinynewbike Jul 13 '11 at 9:01
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+1 for actually coming up with a sensible, short and clear sentence with the intended meaning. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Jul 13 '11 at 21:36
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It's correct, but not clear, ambiguous. They should have tried something like:

You put road-workers at risk, if they have to pick up your litter.

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That's good. It makes the point pretty clearly. Why not add "you dirty s*d" at the end too. It's clearly what they're thinking anyway. –  Urbycoz Jul 13 '11 at 8:56
    
"Your littering puts road workers in danger." --(Of course if no one littered, we'd have no need of said roadworkers, so I'm not certain I follow the logic...) –  Bob Aug 2 '12 at 17:29
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When I first read it, I thought it refers to "you" as the subject who is "picking up the litter". Then I realized it refers to the "road workers".

I think it is grammatically correct but is not written with the subject first and that causes slight confusion.

I'm surprised the authorities thought this is an effective way to get the message across, rather than directly say

"Don't Litter ! It puts road workers at risk"

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They might have been afraid that the logical conclusion of "if I litter, road workers have to pick it up, which puts them at risk" is not obvious to people. So they chose to make the last step explicit. –  Joachim Sauer Jul 13 '11 at 8:46
    
I agree. Very surprising- your wording seems much clearer. Maybe it's a case of over-thinking the problem. –  Urbycoz Jul 13 '11 at 8:59
    
@Urbycoz: maybe they deliberately pick a strange wording to confuse people so the message sticks in their head for hours and then they asked about the strange wording in an online Internet forum. –  Lie Ryan Jul 13 '11 at 15:12
    
@Lie Maybe. But I think we're most likely giving them far too much credit. :-) –  Urbycoz Jul 14 '11 at 8:35
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