Great Moments in Public Signage: “Thefts Have Occurred”
Here at Carnegie Mellon University, thefts have occurred. I know this because I’ve been reading the signs—real actual signs, not the metaphorical kind. They’re all over the place, and they all say the same thing: “Thefts Have Occurred.”
Thousands of people read these signs. But what are they really saying? The signs do more than just warn us. They quietly, yet dramatically transform the meaning of theft. They silence important questions we should be asking.
The signs make theft into an event or thing rather than an action. “Thefts” is a nominalization, a verb that has been transformed into a noun. Instead of writing “People Are Thieving,” our sign-writer chose to say “Thefts Have Occurred.” The former describes an action (verb); the latter describes an event (noun).
The choice of “occur” as a verb is also downright weird. Accidents occur. Bad weather occurs. But, unlike these unpleasant but inevitable aspects of life, stealing is the direct result of human agency. Theft only happens when an individual or individuals commit it; theft only happens when people steal.
You might also have noticed that “people” are conspicuously absent from “Thefts Have Occurred.” All of these signs speak in passive voice. In other words, “Thefts Have Occurred” provides neither an agent (to do the stealing or thieving) nor a direct object (a person or object that is being stolen or stolen from).
But so what, right? Maybe the sign-writer just wanted to save on words. Maybe they saw similar signs somewhere else and repeated the phrase without thinking about it. Maybe the sign-writer spends all day writing in passive voice because their job calls for it. Whatever the reasons behind the phrase, it has some troubling implications.
Making theft into an agentless event that has occurred in the past lessens its severity. “Thefts Have Occurred” is much less threatening than “Thefts Are Occurring” or “People Are Stealing, and They Might Steal From You So Watch Out!” Omitting the agent makes our thieves either non-human (like a force of nature) or else an amorphous, unknowable group. Moreover, the more abstract the agents behind the thefts are, the less responsibility the owners of the garage have. People will steal, or so they say. What can one university do to change human nature?
When I called CMU’s Parking and Transportation Services to ask about the signs, I was told that the break-in problem was an epidemic among parking facilities all over the city and state and, for all we know, country. The signs, they said, are to encourage people to put their valuables out of sight and lock their doors. Prudent actions indeed, and ones I take every day. But, at some point, shouldn’t we ask, why have these thefts become so commonplace? And why must they go on forever? Don’t forget that these signs are made out of metal and bolted to the wall, the implication being that thefts have occurred and will be occurring for some time.
The motives behind the signs are probably good. The police can’t be everywhere. They’re only asking us to do something that is common sense, to take responsibility and protect our own possessions. But what the signs don’t do (and what we should be doing) is asking, why? Why is it that people have become so desperate? What kinds of social conditions have created a car theft epidemic? Is it just something that happens, or might its increasing severity tell us something about the relationship between the rich and poor in our society? I think the passive, agentless and inevitable tone of these signs discourages these kinds of questions.
Of course, rhetorical effect is a tricky thing. I have no evidence that people think about theft in a particular way because of these signs. But whether or not we are affected by these signs, we are exposed to them. Every day. That makes them worth thinking about, at the very least.
If you want to know more:
- I relied heavily on style maven Joseph Smith’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace and Barbara Johnstone’s Discourse Analysis to make sure my grammatical claims held water. I hope they still do.
- I did not quote the employee with whom I spoke at CMU’s Parking and Transportation Services because, when I called, I didn’t identify myself as a journalist doing research; I merely asked about the signs.
- We’re thinking about making “Great Moments in Public Signage” a recurring feature on The Silver Tongue. You’d be surprised how much meaning can be packed into a couple of phrases on a billboard. Our readers are welcome to submit suggestions, so long as they remember that the Internet already has plenty of “hey look at those dumb signs” websites.