My Plan To Save America: Bowie, Wyoming
Review of the Astrohaus Freewrite

Bad Writing in the Arnold Arboretum

This morning, I happened upon an egregious example of bad writing.

When most people hear "bad writing," they think of writing that is unclear or doesn't follow conventions of spelling, punctuation and usage. This sign, which greets visitors to Boston's Arnold Arboretum, is clear, and, except for one missing comma, follows Standard English spelling, punctuation, and usage.


Good writing, as your English teacher may have told you, is appropriate for its purpose and its audience, and this is where this sign fails so spectacularly.

Let's start with the purpose: I assume the purpose is to convince dog owners to leash their dogs. Now, some people will do what they want regardless of what any sign says. Others will rigorously obey every rule. And the majority of people are somewhere in the middle. So those are the people you want to convince. 

This sign's failure begins with the topmost all-caps pronouncements. First of all, the word "menace." In a document meant to persuade, you've opened with namecalling. This is unlikely to get people on your side.  Also, I don't know if it's due to the fact that it's J. Jonah Jameson's favorite word in Spider-Man comics, but calling someone a menace suggests nothing so much as slightly comical impotent rage. 

There is further all-caps yelling down below, which again serves to remind you that someone is very angry about all this. I have no opinion about whether this anger is justified. But parading it out at every entrance to the place is not helping persuade people to do their part to take care of the place. As anyone who has spent any time on the internet knows, "I AM VERY ANGRY" is not a message that has ever persuaded anyone of anything. 

My visceral reaction on seeing the sign was,  "I haven't done anything. Why are you yelling at me?" I was on my bike and not with my dog, (and I never take my dog there) but the sign did not make me want to comply with anything it says. Its assertion of angry authority made me want to defy that authority. Maybe that's more about me than the sign, but I know I'm not alone in this. If you want to change people's minds or behavior, you have to talk to them like they're people. 

If you use the Arboretum at all, it's in your interest to have it remain nice, and there's a strong case to be made here that unleashing your dog undermines that interest. But this sign isn't making it.

So, the sign is failing at its ostensible purpose. And it's failing so spectacularly that it's actually succeeding at other purposes. To wit: it's communicating that the Arboretum is beset by a VERY SERIOUS PROBLEM. (we get the word problem in all caps twice, so you know it's a big one.) It's pretty much not safe to walk or do anything in there because of the packs of rampaging dogs, or so the sign (and the absence of other signage conveying welcome) suggests.  (I biked through the whole place and saw one unleashed dog--an elderly basset hound who moved like he was under sedation.) So it is, in effect, warning off potential visitors who might be put off by its alarmism. 

It's also undermining its own message. Note that if you unleash your dog, which is a PROBLEM, you are "subject to fines and legal action including being banned from the grounds." But note, at the very bottom, if you tamper with the sign in any way, YOU WILL BE PROSECUTED TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE LAW. So, the sign suggests, the problem the sign is supposed to address is actually less important than the sign itself remaining unmolested.

The sign's ultimate effect is simply to communicate this: THIS PLACE IS RUN BY DICKS. I suspect this was not the sign's intended purpose. I hope they will take these signs down and replace them with competently-written ones. 

The Arbortum, by the way, is managed by Harvard University, which just goes to show you that bad writing is everywhere.