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Help for People Who Make Signs

My friend Margaret sent me two examples of faulty writing on signs. I want to share them to help office managers and others who make signs for visiting customers.

Read the two notices below, and see if you recognize the problem they share. 

  1. In a doctor's office: "In order to better serve you, please turn off your cell phone during your visit with us today."
  2. In a credit union: "For security reasons, please remove sunglasses, helmets, and hoods to better serve you."

The problem is the phrase "to better serve you." The phrase is not connected properly to the main sentence. It dangles there, worrying readers–especially English teachers and copyeditors.

In Example 1, the phrase "In order to better serve you" does not have a subject. Who wants to "better serve you"? Because the phrase lacks a subject, readers expect the subject to come immediately after the phrase, as in "In order to better serve you, we . . . ." But it's not we who should turn off your cell phone–you should. The structure is unstable.

Here are ways to revise Example 1, the sign in the doctor's office:

  • "In order to better serve you, we ask that you please turn off your cell phone during your visit with us today."
  • "In order for us to better serve you, please turn off your cell phone during your visit with us today." (This sentence indicates that the job is for us to serve you.)
  • "Please turn off your cell phone during your visit so we can serve you better."

I prefer the last revision because it is the most concise. (I used can to indicate ability. If you would prefer may, please read my post "Can vs. May–Not So Simple!"

In Example 2, the sign in the credit union, once again it is unclear who is doing the serving. The pronouns we and us do not appear. With we, the structure is solid: 

  • "For security reasons, please remove sunglasses, helmets, and hoods so we can serve you better."

I don't like the solution above, though, because it pulls readers in two directions. Is the reader removing apparel for security reasons or for better service?

The revision below is clearer and more honest:

  • "For security reasons, please remove sunglasses, helmets, and hoods."

If you make signs or know people in your workplace who have that job, please pass on this post.

Margaret, thank you for the instructive errors!

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

5 comments on “Help for People Who Make Signs”

  • Thank you, Lynn, for blogging about this topic. I am quite convinced that you can learn all about grammatical and proofreading errors by reading signs.

    Not only did you correct the grammatical errors, but made it clear that you prefer your sign copy to be concise. Yeah! Along with typos, clarity is often left out of sign copy. The smaller the area you’re filling with text, the more you need to write clearly. That includes signs!

  • Great topic, Lynn. I like your last correction best because you omitted the language about “serving you better.” Maybe it’s just me, but I never like when business refer to how they’re “serving” me — it sounds so cold and distant.

  • Hi, Paula. As a sign-maker, you must feel tremendous pressure to get it right. It’s easy for most of us to just click a key to make a correction. You need to be sure everything is correct because signs are often built to last.

    Hi, JJ. I prefer “serving me” to “servicing me”! Thanks for commenting.


  • Thank you for taking up this issue! The manner in which “to better serve you” is tacked on so awkwardly to these signs illustrates what we all know: that these things are not required for them to better serve us. Actually, these things are required for the people working there to not be annoyed. Whenever I see signs like this, I think that what the staff really wanted to say was, “Turn off your cell phone,” but the boss thought they needed to show some customer concern, so they tacked on “to better serve you.”

    Of course, we all know that we would be served better if we were able to use our cell phones as we pleased or wear our sunglasses. 🙂

  • Katherine, good point about the sign-maker’s true motive! “To better serve you” is often self-serving.

    Yet I imagine employees can often serve customers better when the customers are not on the phone or wearing sunglasses.


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