Monday, January 7

5 Confusing Signs

Today I’m going to explain the meaning of 5 signs in English. You can find these signs on the street, in buildings, at gas stations etc. So it would be useful to remember their exact meanings.

The signs that we're going to talk about today are:

  1. Smoke-free

  2. Flammable and Inflammable

  3. Out of Order

  4. Proceed at Your Own Risk

  5. Buy One, Take One

You might have already encountered some, if not all, of the signs above. Do you know what they mean exactly?

Let’s start…

# 1. Smoke-Free

all images courtesy of stock.xchng

Opposite to what many non-native speakers think, “smoke-free” doesn’t mean people are allowed to smoke in the area. Rather, “smoke-free” means the area doesn’t have any cigarette smoke.

So we are prohibited (not allowed) from smoking there.

Why? Why does it mean that?

The word “free” has more than one meaning. Its main meaning is connected to the word “freedom,” which means you can do whatever you want to do. This is why many people get confused about “smoke-free.”

But “free” has another meaning like “less” or “lack.”

For example, when you hear or read the words “sugar-free(sugar-free cookies, sugar-free gums), this means that the products don’t contain any sugar. Some people who are worried about their diet especially like these things.

Similarly, you will often see our sign “smoke-free” this way:

This is a Smoke-Free Building

This is a Smoke-Free School

This is a Smoke-Free Facility


So next time you see them, don’t start smoking.

# 2. Flammable or Inflammable?

There’s a bit of confusion between these two words. Before the 1920s, the word “inflammable” was widely used.

But don’t misunderstand. The “in” at the beginning of the word doesn’t mean “not.” Instead, “inflammable” comes from the original Latin word “inflammare,” which means “to kindle (fire).”

But as you know, there’s the very similar Latin prefixin” which means “not” that we use with many words in English.

For example, inexpensive, inappropriate, indecent etc. All of these words have the meaning of “not.”

Inflammable” isn’t like these words.

In short,

Inflammable = does not burn easily  = X

Inflammable = burns easily = Ok

Because of this, in the 1920s, safety officials in the US and UK worried that some people might misunderstand the word. They started encouraging everybody to use the word “flammable” instead. It’s clear and people can avoid confusion and danger.

Finally, “inflammable” and “flammable” have exactly the same meaning: the object will burn easily and so you mustn’t, for instance, smoke a cigarette near it.

(Unless you want to die early.) ;-)

You will often see this sign saying:


If you want to talk about things that do not burn easily, please say "nonflammable." 

# 3. Out of Order

Out of order.” You might see these words near an elevator or a bathroom. When some non-native speakers see it inside a restaurant, they think that they have to go outside to place their order for food or beverage.

This idea is absolutely wrong.

Out of order” is an idiom or fixed phrase which means “broken.” This is why you will often see this sign near a piece of equipment or a machine.

It’s a set of words that always come together and it has no connection with the meaning of “outside.”

So, next time you see this sign, it means that you can’t use something at that time. Because it’s broken.

# 4. At Your Own Risk

When you see this sign around you, watch out or stop. This phrase means “If you do it, you yourself are responsible for any harm or damage that you might suffer.”

You can see it near a dangerous road, a frozen lake etc. You can read the words as:

Proceed At Your Own Risk

Use At Your Own Risk

Drive At Your Own Risk


Basically, these signs mean: Think twice. It’s better if you don’t do it. But if you really, really want to do it, we don’t have responsibility for your safety. It’s your own responsibility. 

# 5. Buy One, Get One

The expression “Buy one, get one” is commonly used for sales promotion. The complete version is: “Buy one, get one free.”  

It’s a marketing technique used by salespeople which allows customers to pay the price of only 1 item, but they can get another item for free.

In other words, you pay for 1 but you get 2.

Usually the 2nd item is completely free. But just check if the seller adds another condition at the end.

Like this:

Buy One, Get One = the 2nd item is 100% free

Buy One, Get One 50% = the 2nd item is 50% free

Buy One, Get One 25% = the 2nd item is 25% free


While some people debate whether or not we should take advantage of this system, my job is just to explain to you what the words mean. It’s up to you whether you will actually believe what the salespeople say.



If you’d like to learn more signs we commonly read on the street and around us, please read the following:

Hope You Learned Something!

Keep on learning !

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