Street Sign Styles
Style is an important element in how well information is conveyed, though most people don't notice this on a concious level. This page presents examples of different styles and explains some of their advantages and disadvantages.
I should perhaps add that I see no reason to use English on street signs -- romanization of Mandarin is quite sufficient. Thus, I prefer "Nanjing Donglu" to "Nanjing E. Rd." But it may be too late for this sort of practice to catch on in Taiwan, which has embraced the mixed style. I hope that cities in China, where most signs have been purely in romanized Mandarin rather than in a mixture of romanized Mandarin and English, will not start putting English on street signs (though English on much other signage would be appropriate and welcome).
Clean, simple, and easy to read -- this is the best style when both romanized Mandarin Chinese (Nanjing) and English (E. Road Sec.) are used, as long as this is large enough to be read from a distance. This also takes less horizontal space than all of the other styles, an important consideration in places where space is at a premium. The font used here doesn't have long descenders, which means that, for example, the j and the g don't descend very far below the line on which the other letters sit; this is good for saving vertical space, which is important, because signs need to have both characters and romanized forms.
Unfortunately, however, I have seen some new signs in this style in which the type has been so small that one practically has to be next to the sign to make out for sure just what street's name is given there.
Acceptible -- but only if the above style isn't practical
Formerly I complained about this style for several reasons:
- Using all capital letters is almost always a bad thing.
- This style takes the most space -- an important consideration on street signs.
- The differences between letters are less distinct in upper than in lower case.
- The use of only capital letters is an impediment to quick and accurate reading.
Then I saw just how tiny some sign designers in Taiwan were making new streetsigns.
This takes up the most space and is the hardest to read. And yet many signs are in just this style. Bad, bad, bad.
Bad, bad, bad, bad
Taipei did everyone a wonderful service when it switched to Hanyu Pinyin. Unfortunately, however, it hampered the usability of the system by adopting InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion, a practice that began during the Chen administration of the city but was little implemented. I'm afraid there's no gentle way of putting this: UsIng This Style Is A HorrIBle MisTake. Contrary to what some people think, adding extra capital letters does not make words easier to read -- quite the reverse. Some have said that this points out the syllable divisions, though they fail to explain why this is more important to do in Mandarin than it is in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Russian, and almost all other languages written using an alphabet. Actually, it's very easy to tell syllable divisions in Mandarin in any written form, including Hanyu Pinyin -- much easier than in English. This style is part of a fad with origins in DOS-style file names. This is not an improvement on the normal style of writing used in five hundred years of the printed word; it is, as I said before, a fad. And fads become dated and look foolish. It's bad from another very important standpoint as well: It treats words as groups of syllables rather than the words they are. Don't use this. I've touched on only a few of the reasons this style is wrong, wrong, wrong. There are plenty more; but that's a subject for a different page.
People who put up such signs are perhaps laboring under the absurd notion that street signs are not for helping communicate locations and directions but for providing foreign drivers with a means to study the pronunciation of individual Chinese characters. There is nothing good to say about this style.
So bad it's embarrassing
The whole purpose of using romanization on street signs is to allow even those who do not read Chinese characters to be able to read that name and communicate with others using it. There is nothing particularly difficult for foreigners about saying "Nanjing." Most problems in the bad old days of Taipei's street signs before Mayor Ma started fixing the situation were rooted in poor and inconsistent use of romanization. Putting a number on a street does nothing to aid communication if nobody knows what the number refers to. These numbers are also useless for addresses because they have no section numbers or even indications of east or west, north or south. The "nicknumbering" project was a colossal waste of time, money, and effort.
Some other styles:
Although tones are an essential component of Mandarin Chinese, street signs need to be able to be read in a single, quick glance. Tone marks could lessen legibility in this case. This is something that deserves further study.
This is a full pinyin version -- not a mixed Mandarin and English sign. (A variation on this sign would be to to use "Sì" instead of 4.) Although this is longer and quite possibly clunkier, it is more accurate for being in just Mandarin and would thus aid communication more than the others. This style deserves consideration.
Here is a version in full romanization. Note how even though the sign uses the Roman alphabet, there is absolutely no English here, just as the street signs in Paris, Berlin, Madrid, and Rome are not in English either. Thus, it would be wrong to call such signs "English" just because of romanization,
Here using an abbreviation for "Dong."
This page last updated on May 13, 2005.