English underfoot

Why did I do it? Why did I choose to travel by the metro train to my publisher’s office, a good 26 km from home, instead of just driving over? I asked myself this question repeatedly.

  • First, at the deserted reservation counter near Platform 1, where I was told to go to Platform 6 to buy a ticket. 
  • Second, when I was told, after buying the ticket, to return to Platform 1 as the train would arrive there. 
  • And then several times over as I huffed and puffed it back to Platform 1. 

Made it with enough time to buy a Frooti, refusing to think about the calories. I must have lost a few, scampering up and down the foot overbridge.  Yes, foot overbridge. Except that it wasn’t written that way. 

This is what the sign said:  Foot Over Bridge. An ungainly space breaking up what’s legally a closed compound word. And not even a hyphen to bridge the gap. 

What’s the big deal, you ask?

An “overbridge” is a bridge built above and across a railway line, used to cross platforms; a “foot overbridge” is one that you take on foot. A “foot over bridge” is just that – a foot that goes over a bridge.  Not the same thing at all! “Over bridge”should have been hyphenated or closed.

The Chicago, and any other Style Manual you may care to flip through, will tell you that the point of the hyphen is to avoid ambiguity.  For instance, imagine the following without hyphens:

Hands-on applications; Stick-on label

Now, is “Foot over bridge” likely to be misunderstood? Specially considering that the sign is right at the foot of the bridge? One may argue that no literate person who reads that sign will attempt to put foot over bridge. Or imagine a gigantic foot placed, Vamana-like, (nice ethnic touch, eh!) over the bridge, right?

Wrong.

English teachers like me will take it for what it means. No, we don’t see the huge bridge looming across the platform. We are verbal thinkers, not visual ones, you see. Instead, we go crazy searching for that wondrous foot that goes over the bridge. Because that’s what the sign means you see.

Who writes these signs? Why aren’t English teachers/editors/experts consulted?

Or is this a sinister conspiracy? Are there people deliberately, maliciously going around putting up signboards without hyphens? And with misspelled words? So that English teachers are traumatized, robbed of their peace of mind, and thereby rendered unable to teach English? 

Is this a plot to eliminate English from this country? 

I’m going to be lying awake nights wondering. And wishing I had chosen to drive today instead of taking the metro train. 

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