I’ve been impressed with King County Metro’s handling of right-left ambiguity and took minor issue with some of their signage wording, but I had overlooked the most striking linguistic oddity associated with my city’s public transportation system, and unfortunately this one’s a clear failure.
Metro’s motto is “We’ll get you there”. This is a prominent part of their branding–it appears on busses, station signage, employee uniforms, and the website. As a motto there’s plenty to recommend it. It’s short, colloquial, easy to remember, and directly promises individual members of the public that Metro will fulfill their core mission. It’s great on paper. The problem is, it’s only great on paper. Try saying “We’ll get you there” out loud. I can’t make it sound nice. My default pronunciation has a feel like, “Yeah, we’ll get you there, buddy–so siddown and shut up.” I tried the old linguist trick of permuting the stress–“We’ll get you there”, “We’ll get you there”, “We’ll get you there”, “We’ll get you there”–but couldn’t come up with anything that conveyed the sense of amiable reliability that is so clearly the intent. I would hate to be the voice talent on a radio ad that used this slogan. (And to my knowledge none has ever been made.) The best prosody I can come up with stresses the “We’ll” by raising its pitch. Accompanied by a wrinkled brow and and a slight nod, I can manage to communicate a kind of avuncular confidence, but only in the sense of “Despite your entirely reasonable fear that you will never reach your destination, I can assure you that, ultimately, we will get you there” which is not the idea you want to introduce into the minds of harried commuters. Metro seems aware of the problem, because in their signage they put the “you” in a large font–“We’ll get YOU there”–in what to me seems like a clear attempt to goose the voice in your head into the most charitable stress pattern. But even this doesn’t really work. Prosodic stress is generally a cue for one of two things: contradiction of a presupposition (“Pay no heed to the naysayers who tell you that you’re not allowed on our buses”) or the introduction of new information (“Everybody knows we got your neighbor there, but we can also get you there too.”) Neither of these make any sense for a public transit system.
I think Metro fell into a Gricean trap here. Obviously they’ll get us there–that’s what all the busses and trains are for, right? Since the literal content of the motto is trivial (specifically, it flouts of the maxim of quantity) the hearer must go casting about for an illocutionary payload. Metro was hoping that payload would be slangy familiarity, but I think where it actually lands is on the presupposition of doubt.
My alternative: “Getting you there”. Shorter, just as punchy, and without the subject you don’t open the whole can of worms of what “our” attitude towards the act of getting you there might be. Sadly it’s too late–the signs have already been printed. King County Metro, I have nothing but praise for you as a transit system. I rely on you daily and you do, in fact, get me there. But linguistically you’re one for two.