This is a sign in the bike park at Cambridge Station. Now, this bike park is a great thing and a long time coming – it’s dry, lit and features plentiful CCTV. What’s more, parking your bike here is actively encouraged, to avoid clutter around the station. But then when you get in, you are confronted with this sign: any bikes parked here will be removed. What are you to do? (apart from feel a bit confused). It gets me every time, at least, but maybe you didn’t find it so confusing.
The thing is, I think what is meant is ‘bikes left against this column will be removed’. It’s that little word ‘here’ that’s causing the bother. You see, on its own, how do we know whether it refers to the column, the level of the bike park, the whole bike park, the station vicinity, Cambridge, England, the earth… ? Its meaning is context-dependent – we know that it pertains to a particular locality, but the size of that locality varies depending what we’re talking about.
The name for this kind of word is an indexical. Other examples are ‘there’, ‘now’, ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’ and pronouns like ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’. ‘There’ and ‘now’ are a bit like ‘here’, in that the scope of them can vary in size; ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ do refer to a particular day (usually – but can you think of exceptions?) but which day in question depends on when the speaker is speaking; and then for the pronouns it depends on who – or what – is being pointed to, for instance.
These commonplace words are just one of many clues that point to how context-dependent language is: whenever we hear or read something, we can’t work out what the speaker means unless we take into account the context in which it was uttered – when, where, who, how. The amazing thing is that we usually manage to do this really quickly and subconsciously – so smoothly that we don’t even notice. We only do when we occasionally get it wrong – in the case of miscommunication – and we have to go back (in the case of reading) or ask for clarification (in the case of speaking) to get the speaker’s meaning. When was the last time that happened to you?