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June 6th, 2007

Restaurant language / men's and women's staff?

by Barbara Wallraff

Jo McDonald, of Auburn Hills, Mich., writes: “Before I am finished eating in restaurants, waiters and waitresses frequently ask, ‘Are you still working on that?’ Are they trained to ask this question? Can’t they see I am not yet finished? What does ‘working on that’ mean?”

Dear Jo: I think it’s intended to be facetious -- or anyway, that’s what’s intended by people who pay any attention to the words that come out of their mouth. Note to restaurant employees: Nobody likes this phrase, and Jo is only one of many people who actively dislike it. Saying “May I take your plate?” would be better. And waiting to say it until the person is finished eating would be best of all.

While we’re on the subject of things that are annoying to hear from restaurant personnel, a few others are as follows: “Enjoy!” when the waiter puts a dish on the table. Grammatically, that’s a command -- which suggests what’s wrong with it. Don’t tell me what to do! I’d rather hear “I hope you enjoy your meal.”

Another irritant is “you guys” used in reference to a mixed-sex group, as in “How are you guys doing?” It’s true that we have just one pronoun, “you,” for the second person, whether it’s singular or plural. (Southerners had the problem solved, with “y’all,” until they started using “y’all” to refer to one person. Now they’re in the same boat as the rest of us.) Well, “you” is what we have to work with, so let’s everybody go ahead and use it: “How are you today?”

Finally, there’s “No problem,” “Not a problem” or (this one takes the booby prize) “No worries” when, for instance, a diner asks for a glass of water. The implication is that a lesser person or establishment might indeed have a problem fulfilling the request -- which is absurd. “No problem” should be reserved for situations like “I don’t like the $400 bottle of wine I ordered, and I want you to take it back” or “Excuse me, waiter, I seem to have set the table on fire.”

Readers, do you have any peeves about restaurant language? If so, please send them along in a letter or on my Web site, and I’ll share them in a future column.

Steve Holtzman, of Madison, Wis., writes: “Our local elementary school has signs on two doors outside the teachers’ lounge reading ‘Men’s Staff’ and ‘Women’s Staff.’ But upon entering each room, one finds a lavatory, not a staff. Do you find those signs acceptable?”

Dear Steve: No. In fact, I find it scary that people who educate children haven’t objected and had them changed. The only reason they haven’t, I imagine, is that “staff” starts with “S,” and the sound of it blurs the sound of the possessive “S,” so it isn’t as blindingly obvious that the phrases are wrong as it would be if the signs read “Men’s Teachers” and “Women’s Teachers.”

What should the signs be changed to, though? “Men Staff” and “Women Staff” seem a bit peculiar. “Male Staff” and “Female Staff” might be better. But can the intent really be to keep out adult visitors as well as students? If not -- and assuming that the students’ bathrooms are labeled “Boys” and Girls” -- “Men” and “Women” might be best of all.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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