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The other day I saw a sign in a restroom saying:

Wash your hands thoroughly to kill bacteria and serve safe food

It struck me as wrong somehow, since it gave me the immediate humorous mental picture of the very act of washing somehow actually serving food at that moment, just like the bacteria killing. I also think the point is not to "serve safe food" but rather "safely serve food."

Am I correct that this is wrong, or at least awkward? What would be a better way to say it?

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Looks ok to me. You serve food that can be safe or not safe. –  Optimal Cynic Feb 23 '12 at 8:19
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2 Answers 2

It’s grammatical, and the meaning is clear enough: ‘washing hands will result in the killing of bacteria and the serving of safe food.’ But is it true? Washing hands thoroughly will, I imagine, kill bacteria, but doing so will not necessarily result in the serving of safe food. The food may be unsafe for other reasons. So, some recasting of the sentence might be advisable in the interests of veracity. Perhaps something like:

Please wash your hands. This will kill bacteria and help ensure the food you serve is safe to eat.

There’s a second, and more important, reason for amending it along these lines. The purpose of the notice is to get you to wash your hands. You, at least, have been distracted by the style of writing from the message it is trying to convey and to that extent it is ineffective.

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I suspect most readers would never notice let alone take exception to such a subtle error. So I doubt it will distract anyone from washing their hands. In any case, can you suggest a much shorter sign-suitable alternative that, even if brusque or terse, is still accurate? –  ErikE Feb 23 '12 at 7:51
    
Could we chat about this please? –  ErikE Feb 23 '12 at 8:02
    
People who don't bother to wash their hands aren't going to bother to read any sign with more than about three words on it. –  user16269 Feb 23 '12 at 8:07
    
@DavidWallace: I agree. Most public signs serve the purpose of the writer rather than the reader. People rarely read them, and, if they do, they take no notice of them. –  Barrie England Feb 23 '12 at 8:12
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@FumbleFingers: Eton boy who sees Harrow boy not washing his hands after peeing: ‘At Eton they teach us to wash our hands after we pee.’ Harrow boy: ‘At Harrow they teach us not to pee on our hands.' –  Barrie England Feb 23 '12 at 16:00
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Food Safety is the issue and the motivation:

Practice Food Safety: Wash hands thoroughly to kill bacteria.

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It could also be argued that food safety is just the means for serving the real issue/motivation of preventing the spread of disease. Though I like your "out of the box" approach to the question. –  ErikE Feb 23 '12 at 8:09
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