Strange signage

I was riding through the city of Darebin last week when I saw a road sign which said: NO RIGHT TURN BANS AHEAD. My immediate reaction was that it was wrong, or at least seriously weird, but why?

I quickly figured out that part of what troubled me was that there are two parses possible for the string with different scope for the negative quantifier:

[NO RIGHT TURN] BANS AHEAD

and

NO [RIGHT TURN BANS] AHEAD

It’s pretty clear that the second possibility is irrelevant – why would anyone bother telling me not to expect bans on turning right? Being able to turn right is a default expectation. But the first parse is still unsettling for me, and I think the bracketing tells us why this is the case. A ‘ban’ already contains the meaning that something is not permitted, so a [NO RIGHT TURN] BAN should (logically at least) be a ban on NOT turning right. Clearly, that’s not the intention of the sign….. I can see what they were thinking, but it didn’t really work.

This seems like another example of the phenomenon which our friends at Language Log have termed over-negation. What seems especially interesting here is that one part of the negation is hidden inside a lexical item – I haven’t looked through all the LL material to see whether such examples have been discussed there.

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