Speaking about Cheesesteaks (cross-posted at CT)

The LA Times reports on the Philadelphia cheesesteak place that refuses to serve customers who don’t order in English. The message to customers is This is America. When Ordering “Speak English”. Just a few observations.

  1. I’m not sure what rule of English requires, or even permits, quote marks around the last two words in that sentence. I’m no prescriptivist, so I’m happy to be shown that this falls under some generally followed pattern, but it’s no pattern I’m familiar with.
  2. I’m very pleased that no place had a similar sign when I was trying to get fed in Paris using what could, charitably, be described as schoolboy French, as long as the schoolboy in question spent every class watching football rather than, say, studying French. And that pleasure is not just because if I had seen such a sign I’d have been like, Holy Cow, the Americans have captured Paris.
  3. This being the LA Times, they have to describe what a cheesesteak is: “a cholesterol-delivery device consisting of grilled strips of beef, melted cheese, onions and peppers on an Italian roll.” They also misquote the sign by removing the errant quote marks and adding a ‘please’. Those polite Southern Californians!

6 Replies to “Speaking about Cheesesteaks (cross-posted at CT)”

  1. Most English “speakers” use “quotation” marks whenever they feel “like” it”,” pretty much without “any regard” for whether there is a “rule” or not. It’s not just Philly.

    When I lived in Northampton, MA, a popular diner used to advertise its Sunday brunch. “Sunday Brunch” was enclosed in quotes, underlined, and in a different color. So I don’t know what the heck was going on there..

  2. I think the generally followed rule is this. In many cases — including on signs in Goldwin Smith, often in the English dept — quote marks are used in place of italics. This makes sense of “speak english” and “wash hands”; i.e., if you’re only going to read two words on this sign, I want you to read those ones.

    The perfect 180-degree backwardness of this is really glorious; users of the deviant rule are marking importance and literalness by the quotes, but users of the proper rule are marking ironic distance and nonliteralness by them. It’s like the reversal of meaning of “literal” that one commonly sees (e.g., “His heart literally soared”, “I’ve told you literally a million times…”).

  3. Perhaps we’re reading this all wrong, and the misused quotes are a sign that our missives against plagiarism have finally sunk in, albeit in an unintended fashion. English speakers now seem to add quotes (especially in signs) when employing a phrase that has been oft-used by others in similar situations. This accounts for quotes around phrases like “Sunday Brunch” or “half off.” They do this even when the phrase is being used to convey its literal meaning. A friend of mine once had a repair man come look at an oven that was giving her trouble. The repair man left a note reading, “This oven is ‘broken.’ Do not use.”

    Of course, I have no idea how anyone decides what makes the cut. I have seen restroom signs with quotes around “wash hands” and I have seen signs with quotes around the entire phrase “Employees must wash hands.” If only some of these signs would footnote their source, I could check how much of the phrase is a quotation from the original.

  4. I think there’s a much easier explanation for this phenomenon (and yes, one encounters it a lot in Philadelphia). What happens if you don’t have a full range of typographic marks? If you’re writing a sign longhand, for example, you have to write really really neatly to indicate italics. Some people just use one set of typographic marks to indicate everything from quotation to emphasis.

    I’ll also pass on a joke from an email that circulated a few years ago. How do you know you’re in Texas (assumes you’re from Philly originally)? Your coworker tells you that over the weekend he was grilling steaks, and you wonder how he kept the little pieces of meat from falling into the fire.

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