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Keep calm and carry on

Keep calm and carry on looks at official and instructive language.

Signs and notices, formal letters etc in English have a particular style to them which may sometimes seem at odds with 'normal everyday' usage. How good are you at identifying and making sense of such expressions? 'Keep calm and carry on'!

  1. Choose the Answer which best suits or completes the sentence.
    'We should warn you in advance that this report contains scenes that some viewers ... ... '
    Such an alert during serious television news would need to be short as well as clear, so Answer 1 is the most likely. Answer 2 is grammatically sloppy; Answer 3 is possible but wordy (and may give viewers a moment longer to turn their attention elsewhere); Answer 4 means well but is not very tidy.
  2. Driving a hire-car in Britain (very probably 'on the wrong side of the road' for you), you come out of a complicated and stressful road junction into a length of street where two parallel lanes of traffic run side-by-side. A little further on, this road curves to one side, and you can see ahead of you that its width also reduces to one single lane.
    There is a sign beside the road which says MERGE IN TURN. What does this mean?
    Answer 1 seems clear but frightening (your author knows, from being startled by it, an example of just such a sign at a notoriously busy major-road junction not far from Oxford, and it may not be the only such one). Fortunately, if perhaps surprisingly, it is the wrong answer; No.2 is correct.
    Answer 1 happens not to be wrong, but the primary meaning is as in Answer 2; Nos. 3 & 4 are not true.
  3. Choose the Answer which best suits or completes the sentence.
    'Young children ... ... be carried on this escalator.'
    Answer 1 appears to suggest that the carrying of children is compulsory ('What if you haven't got any?' as George Mikes once asked in comparable circumstances); Answer 2 is the correct one, saying that any such children as there are should be carried rather than riding the escalator directly themselves. Answer 3 is more colloquial than formal; Answer 4 is so weak and vague as hardly to be worth the cost of the signage!
  4. Which of these versions of a sign (at an entrance to a park or, perhaps, a cemetery) expresses its message in a way that is clear and polite, without being too 'wordy'?
    Answer 4 is both polite and clear.
    Answer 1 remains slightly vague; Answer 2 misinterprets the word 'unleaded' ('un-LEDD-id', as in car fuel; not 'un-LEED-ed'): Answer 3 is too wordy.
    'Leash' is a slightly old-fashioned equivalent word for 'lead' in this context.
    Meanwhle you may have noticed that nothing is said about 'assistance dogs' (guide dogs for the blind, and equivalent trained dogs for those who are deaf or have other impairments).
  5. Choose the Answer which best suits or completes the sentence.
    'Passengers are ... ... that due to adverse weather conditions, many services may be subject to delay or cancellation this morning.'
    The announcement is indeed tantamount to a warning (as suggested in Answer 2), but that word in itself is probably regarded as too 'worrying' ~ so transport networks prefer to use the more positive and collaborative term 'advised', and then let their would-be passengers draw their own conclusion as to the seriousness and detail of the impact of the information.
  6. Inside a crowded bus, you can see most of the wording on a warning notice alongside the driver's seat ~ except the first few words ~ as follows:
    ' ... ... speak to the driver while the vehicle is in motion, except in case of an emergency.'
    You have a few guesses as to what the missing words are at the front. Which is the LEAST likely?
    Any of Answers 1, 2 or 4 would be more likely than No.3 ~ which is clear enough, for sure, yet somehow inadequately formal for this context with its serious concerns for public safety.
  7. Formal, 'noticeboard and instructions' English (along with scientific reports) is very fond of adopting the Passive Voice.
    Here is a short extract from instructions offered, in a women's magazine, to new mothers (pre-1952!) about how to use a drinking-bottle safely with their babies:
    'When the baby has finished drinking, it should be unscrewed and left under a tap to rinse. If the baby does not thrive on fresh milk, it should be boiled.'
    Why might some apprehensive readers find this baffling?
    Answer 4, bizarre though it may seem, is correct. Let this be a warning to you about sloppy use of pronouns!
  8. You go to visit a historic building and/or museum, where a notice near the entrance announces:
    'Open 10am - 5pm ; guided tours each hour on the half-hour ; last admissions 20 minutes before closing'.
    What is the latest time that you could expect to go in, either guided or un-guided?
    The final guided tour would set off at 4.30, but the doors are open for un-guided visitors until 4.40 pm.
    (Please re-read the 'notice' if unsure as to why!)
  9. Even where you are seeking advice on how to behave (in Britain or elsewhere), you may find some surprising instructions.
    You have been invited to a fairly formal dinner party, and a friend shows you a page in an Etiquette Book where it says:
    'It is considered poor manners on the part of a guest to crumble their bread or roll in the soup.'
    Your friend laughs at this advice: why?
    There was an (unintended) pun on 'roll' in the original: the writer meant 'Don't break up your bread-roll into little floating chunks', but the instruction could be read as: 'Do not crumble your bread, and neither should you roll (yourself around) in the soup'.
  10. You have been to the cinema to watch a 'thriller' (some kind of psychological drama, involving a lot of tension and/or adrenaline): on your way out, among quite a large and volatile crowd, you pass a doorway ~ presumably leading outside into the open air ~ equipped with a crash-bar and a sign which reads:
    'Emergency Exit Only : This Door Is Alarmed.'
    Your British companion laughs as you point to it: why?
    'Alarmed' is a slightly strange (but reasonably understandable) way of saying, in a clear simple signboard, that the doorway is equipped with sensors and sounders, so that it will start up the sirens if anyone opens it except during a genuine emergency, such as a fire. We do also sometimes describe people, or even animals, as 'alarmed' ('My dog was alarmed by the fireworks next door'; 'Her parents were alarmed to think of her going to live with such a man') ~ so 'an alarmed door' does sound somewhat peculiar.

Author: Ian Miles

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