“Free wi-fi” or “wi-fi free”? The word order makes a difference.
This is a loosely translated English version of a Japanese article from the CJ Column.
More and more areas in Japan offer free wi-fi, which is typically indicated by signs written in simple English that average Japanese can read. But the English is sometimes wrong.
In English, the word “free” can have different meanings. When placed before “wi-fi”, it means “no payment required”, but when placed after “wi-fi”, it means “prohibited”. So the “wi-fi free” sign above actually indicates that “wi-fi is prohibited”.
This is clearly an embarrassing mistake. But if you really wanted to ban wi-fi in the area, “wi-fi prohibited” would be a clearer choice of words.
A similar problem could arise with smoking signs. “Free smoking” could mean that cigarettes are provided for free, while “smoking free” would mean that smoking is prohibited. Actual signs in English are usually written “smoking area” for areas where smoking is allowed and “no smoking” where smoking is prohibited.
By the way, the meaning of the “charge free” sign on the left sign above is made clear by the image of an electric plug. But the word “charge” also means “fee” in English, so be careful. Customers might think your products and services are free.
If you’re producing signs in English, be sure to have them checked by a native English speaker!