Mind the Yellow Lorem Ipsum

The Bus Tunnel is a stretch of road running beneath downtown Seattle that is reserved for public transit, a straight shot five-stop subway system that can be used by busses as well as trains. Along the edge of the roadway is a two foot wide bright yellow rubberized strip dotted with circular speed bump nubbins. It’s pretty clear that this is a danger zone you’re supposed to stand behind when vehicles are pulling up, but just in case there are signs warning you to “Stand behind yellow, textured strip until bus stops”. Presumably a lot of thought went into that wording, but it seems like a mistake to me. What it should say instead is “Stand behind yellow line until bus stops”. First because the phrase “Stand behind the yellow line” is universal subwayese. (Am I correct in my perception that these lines are always yellow?) But more importantly because you’ve gotten your message across once you’ve said “Stand behind the yellow…”. The yellow what doesn’t matter–there’s only one yellow thing in the station.

You can imagine the reasoning that led to this particular copy. The author probably started with “Stand behind the yellow line” but then decided that, strictly speaking, the danger zone wasn’t a “line”, maybe because having width is essential for its function. A natural term to fall back on for “linear thing that is nevertheless not one-dimensional” is “strip”. But I’ll bet “Stand behind the yellow strip” felt wrong. “Strip” puts me in the mind of something papery and adhesive, and if you say “yellow strip” I immediately start looking around for caution tape. So “yellow, textured strip” is the most terse completely accurate description of the situation, but it comes at the cost of using the word “textured”, which is way too obscure for public signage.

I’m interested in tradeoffs, and usually in language there isn’t one between accuracy and communicative effectiveness. In this case, however, the physical surroundings carry most of the communicative burden, so you’re better off with the less precise but simpler text.

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5 Responses to Mind the Yellow Lorem Ipsum

  1. Alan McConchie says:

    Is that warning also announced over the loudspeakers? My hunch is that the “textured strip” wording is for the blind, and the “yellow …” is for the sighted. But that doesn’t explain why it needs to be written on a sign with that phrasing.

  2. W.P. McNeill says:

    You may be onto something. This message is also periodically announced over loudspeakers with the determiners inserted (“Stand behind the yellow, textured strip until the bus stops.”) You can see how this would be useful to blind people in a way that “Stand behind the yellow line” is not. Though of course the word “yellow” is still useless to them. (However, I’ll bet that blind people are more familiar with the term “textured” than the general populace, so it’s not too obscure a word choice for them.) The question then becomes, is it too aesthetically jarring to have one printed message and a slightly different spoken one?

    From poking around online, it looks like the rubberized yellow nubbin strips are standard equipment. Here they are in my old stomping ground, Market East station in downtown Philadelphia. I wouldn’t be surprised if the speed bump texture is for blind people.

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  4. W.P. McNeill says:

    There’s actually two recorded messages. The first is an injunction to stand behind the yellow strip that happens intermittently, just kinda FYI. When a train is actually pulling into the station, the same voice says, “Train now arriving; please stay behind the yellow line.” I am happy to report that no confused commuters then proceed to hurl themselves on the tracks.

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