Grammar, Independent Clause, Linking Verbs, Poor Editing, Present Participle, Sentence Diagram, Word Ambiguity

Ambiguous Germs


More than one error lingers in this display of public error; however, I feel that focusing on just one would be most beneficial for this post. In this hand-washing reminder I found in a bathroom, we have a case of ambiguous word usage, and the culprit lies with the phrase ‘are annoying travelers.’

If we zoom in on the first independent clause in this sentence, Germs are annoying travelers, we will likely read this to mean that germs are types of travelers that are particularly annoying. In this clause, we have:
noun + linking verb + subject complement (which is is being modified by an adjective)

Because my heart leaps at the opportunity to diagram a sentence and use it to illustrate what I’m talking about, I have (with glee) taken the liberty to do so.


This structure is similar to ‘I am an aspiring grammarian’ or ‘Wands are fascinating tools.’ In all of these cases, the present participle (-ing word) is being used in a unique way to play the part of an adjective. Germs are types of travelers. What types of travelers? Annoying ones.


This same present participle can function in a different way! Participles are magical creatures, you see. They can serve as adjectives, indeed, but they can also do the verb thing when duty calls. And – incredibly – in this sentence, both are possible.

Some readers could understand ‘are annoying’ to be the full present-progressive verb phrase. It’s similar to a sentence like ‘I am writing this blog post.’ If this is how a reader constructs meaning, we have a sentence that consists of:

noun + verb phrase + direct object

Again, I find a diagrammed sentence most helpful.


In this situation, the noun (the germs) is doing something (annoying) to someone or something (travelers). Perhaps this reader thinks that germs are aggressively and unabashedly annoying the living daylights out of those who are traveling.

And, lo and behold, we have a case of word ambiguity.

The duality of meaning can confuse readers, and it’s usually best to create sentences that will not lead to potential ambiguity. So, here is a possible solution to clear things up:

No one likes traveling with germs, so please wash your hands!

Bonus: Can you find the other error lingering in this compound sentence?


2 thoughts on “Ambiguous Germs”

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