Beware of ‘fallen rocks’: A phrasing conundrum

How do you think a sign alongside a Texas highway should read?

There’s no easy way to admit this: Sometimes I obsess about word use in the most ridiculous ways.

A recent example of this involves a road sign that I pass every day on my commute. The sign says “Fallen rocks,” and it’s on a section of highway surrounded by short cliffs. Over the years, rocks and boulders have fallen from the cliffs, and those rocks and boulders now sit on the side of the road. Occasionally, rocks will still fall from the cliffs, so the sign is there to warn motorists.

The issue I have—as well as the reason I’m writing this post—is that I question the wording on the sign.

Instead of saying “Fallen rocks,” shouldn’t it say “Falling rocks”?

Perhaps it’s ridiculous, as I said, but let me explain.

Why do you need a sign to warn drivers about rocks that have already fallen? Doesn’t the threat come from the rocks that could fall?

I recently discussed this with my friend and fellow wordsmith Beth. Here’s how that conversation went. (Full disclosure: We talked about this over drinks.)

Me: “But why would they warn you about rocks that have already fallen?”

Beth: “Because they could be in the road.”

Me: “But they’re not in the road. They’re on the side of the road.”

Beth: “But they could fall in the road. And that would be a hazard.”

Me: “Then the sign should say ‘Falling rocks.'”

Beth: “But that doesn’t cover the rocks that have already fallen in the road.”

Me: “But there aren’t rocks in the road. If they fell onto the road, they’ve already been removed.”

Beth: “Maybe the sign isn’t meant to warn drivers. Maybe it’s just there to describe the rocks as ‘Fallen rocks.'”

Me: “As opposed to rocks that didn’t fall, but just occur there naturally?”

Beth: “Can rocks occur unnaturally?”

Me: “Maybe the sign should say ‘Rocks could fall.'”

Beth: “Or how about, ‘Beware of rocks.'”

Ragan readers, can you solve this one for me? Should the sign say “Falling rocks” or “Fallen rocks”? Why?

Laura Hale Brockway is writer and editor from Austin, Texas. Read more of her work at Impertinent Remarks.

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