Bewitched by your own language?

I thought I was so good at understanding poor English that I found myself transfixed by a series of black and white signs as I waited in line at a Post Office the other day.

Sometimes I find that having studied languages is a great help, certainly when there’s some element of culture or language which might be responsible.

Even some knowledge of cryptic crosswords can be useful. But here was a message for the public which was so important that someone in authority had posted several of them in large typewritten block capitals around the branch.

I stood there like the song – bewitched, bothered and bewildered, looking from one sign to the other in the hope that the one I’d looked at first had some crucial error which was defeating me.

No, there they were, all identical, all printed on similar paper, all giving every sign of having been written by someone sharing my own native tongue, yet all impossible for me to decipher:


Maybe I was being stupid, but surely it should say “YOUR STAFF”, not “YOU STAFF”? And even then, were we being asked to be just polite and engaging, or offer some practical or financial support?

Only when I’d cast around for further enlightenment did the penny finally drop. There at the counter was a customer with a red and white Royal Mail postcard headed “Something for you”…

Ah! And you have to produce some ID for that to be exchanged, do you? Strange, I can’t remember ever having to do that – maybe it was always some other type of card I’d had.

I wish I could say that I didn’t feel a bit of a dope after struggling so long with the signs. But surely a couple of quotation marks or some underlining could help the poor literalists among us?

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