‘Further action’ and other stock epithets

Notice: Further action may be taken on unauthorised carsI came across two interesting crimes against English on my travels. They don’t at first seem to have much in common, apart from a disregard for the essence of a coherent sentence. But when I thought about it I found there was a link.

In a ladies’ toilet in a Dublin office block I saw this notice: ‘We would kindly ask all users not to discard toilet tissue in the sanitary bins provided.’ The word ‘kindly’ seems a bit out of place here (although it’s nice that they are trying to be polite). That’s not the crime, though.

In a patch of waste ground in Oxfordshire I saw this less polite notice: ‘Car Park for Private Permit Holder use only. Further action may be taken on unauthorised cars.’ I didn’t much like the unnecessary use of capital letters. That’s not the crime though.

Logic often (but not always) gives a clue about why a sentence might be wrong. The bins are not provided for the purpose of not discarding things in them. The car park managers can’t take further action if they have taken no action previously (and it wasn’t mentioned).

But there’s more to it than that. Here’s the nerd note:

If you studied classics, or Anglo Saxon literature, or even if you didn’t, you might have come across the concept of ‘stock epithets’: descriptive phrases that have become through time permanently attached to particular nouns. It’s a technique that made sense when creating oral literature (because it made things easier to remember). And it’s remained popular, because it makes it easy to write without thinking.

In the old days, you might see a ‘wine-dark sea’ or ‘rosy-fingered dawn’. Today, it’s more likely to be ‘sneak preview’ or ‘abject poverty’.

Or, in these cases, ‘further action’ and ‘bins provided’. Whoever wrote those notices was so used to the two words appearing together that they found themselves unable to separate them – even though the result makes no sense.
Notice: We would kindly ask all users not to discard toilet tissue in the sanitary bins provided.

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