The Design of Everyday Deposit Slips

I was depositing a check the other day. The deposit slip looked like this.

Bank deposit slip

Reading down the right hand column I paused in confusion. “What kind of check is a ‘List’ check?” I wondered. “Is that what I have?”

What happened is that I parsed the first line as [NP [A Total] [N Cash]]. The second line is actually an imperative–[VP [V List] [N Checks]]–but I blithely assigned it the same analysis as “Total Cash” and so was flummoxed by the mysterious adjective “List”. This isn’t strictly speaking a garden path, but it is an interesting case of priming.

If I were redesigning this slip, I would write “Checks” instead of “List Checks” because then the right hand column of the slip would contain nothing but noun phrases, and it’s reasonable for a reader to make an assumption of default parallelism and expect that text appearing in visually similar environments would have the similar structure.1 Now in defense of the current layout, this parallelism may already be violated. “Deposit to Savings” and “Deposit to Checking” read as much like instructions to the teller as they do descriptions of deposits while “Payment to Loan/Other”, on the other hand, can’t be anything but noun phrases.2 Maybe, but as a communicative move, adhering to a default is clearer than flouting it, and anyway, who reads past the first two lines of the deposit slip? I didn’t until I started to write this paragraph.

1 I’d also move the “$”s for the two additional checks from the gray boxes into the white to make them line up with the others.

2 For that matter, the “Total” in “Total Cash” could also be a verb–e.g. “The hostess totalled up the night’s receipts”–but that’s not the reading I leap to.

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