Saturday, January 15, 2011

pragmatic ambiguity?

Last weekend was the annual LSA meeting, and so I drove to Pittsburgh, PA to spend a few days carousing with linguists. On the PA Turnpike there are a number of tunnels through the mountains in central PA. Naturally, you should have your headlights on when driving through these tunnels (though they are somewhat lit). Signs just before the tunnels instruct you to do so: "Turn on headlights". However, I was more puzzled by the signs after such tunnels: "Headlights on?" I knew how to answer the question: "Yes." But why was it being asked? Clearly the designers thought it was an obvious question to ask, but I was more confused. Were they making sure I still had my headlights on, because I was going to be going through another tunnel soon? This doesn't seem right, because I'm pretty sure the signs appeared after every tunnel, including the last one coming through the mountains. But in that case it would seem they're asking to make sure I remember to turn them off. This seems odd because daytime running lights are a common safety feature on newer vehicles, and in fact some areas of the country require you to drive with your lights on all the time, since it increases the visibility of your car. So I'd be surprised if they were reminding me to turn off my lights. However, I can't really think of any other options. It seems insane to say that they're just calling my attention to the state of my lights so that I can adjust them as I see fit. What else is there?

8 comments:

Steven Cater said...

I think they go back to the days before lights were kept on; I seem to remember them as a kid.

linguistlessons said...

Yeah, that's really the reading that makes the most sense -- a "headlights on" command before the tunnel followed by "headlights off" after. I suppose I'm just used to the modern tendency to leave headlights on all the time (though I don't usually do so). I think it's interesting that the former is an instruction "Turn headlight on", while the latter is merely a question, with only an implied instruction if at all "Headlights on?"

q-pheevr said...

When you're headed into a tunnel, you should definitely make sure your lights are on. After you leave a tunnel, you might want to turn them off (if it's daylight), or you might not (especially if it's dark out). So they're reminding you to make sure that you don't leave your lights on unintentionally, but they're not telling you to turn them off, because that might not actually be the right thing to do.

vp said...

What q-pheevr said

depthsounder said...

They are reminding you to turn off your headlights if you forgot to do so.

depthsounder said...

The signs are leftover from when the highway was young. They are to remind you to turn off your headlights if you forgot to do so.

Abe Rosner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Avrum Rosner said...

Here in Quebec, there used to be post-tunnel signs reading simply, "Vos phares?", meaning "Your headlights?" They likely dated from the days when cars didn't all have electronic devices warning you that your lights were still on when you turned off the ignition. I found them very thoughtful. :)