À la carte, à la, Al

In my previous blog post I introduced Al the principal, as part of a mnemonic to help distinguish principal from principle. Here is another Al, not imaginary this time, but more mysterious. If he was a chef at this restaurant, or its owner, there might be an acceptable pun in this sign, but as a misspelling for À it doesn’t cut the mustard.

Stan Carey - a la carte, al la carte

À la is short for à la mode de, which means “in the manner of” or “in the style of”. U.S. English often drops the grave accent (`). In French the preposition is followed by a feminine noun (the masculine form is au, a contraction of à + le), but as an English compound preposition it is independent of gender:

He staged a thrilling comeback à la Rocky.
The city plans a bicycle rental scheme à la Vélib’.
Their goodbye was bittersweet, à la Casablanca.

À la carte roughly means “by the card” or “according to the menu”, and implies that the customer can select from a choice of items, each of which is priced separately — as distinct from a menu with set meals and fixed prices (table d’hôte or prix fixe). The phrase may act as a noun, i.e. as shorthand for an à la carte menu or meal, but its adjectival and adverbial uses seem more common — an impression borne out by a search at the British National Corpus).

The menu is à la carte (adj.)
Shall we eat à la carte? (adv.)

À la was first used in English at the end of the 16th century, while à la carte appeared in 1826. The latter is one of many food-related à la… phrases imported from French and now thoroughly integrated into English. Sometimes à la carte has nothing to do with food. Neither à la nor à la carte needs to be italicised; I do so here only when discussing them in the context of their usage.

The widespread use of à la and à la carte makes one wonder how the misspelling “Al la carte” arose. An apostrophe is missing from “childrens”, and there is a strong case for making “menu” plural, but these lapses are so frequent in signs as to be mundane; it is the appearance of “Al” that makes it irresistible.


12 Responses to À la carte, à la, Al

  1. Claudia says:

    Please, don’t tell Fáilte…It’s too much fun! I googled the restaurant in Toronto. It lost its accent on the a, and became an Irish Pub: “No better way to experience Ireland”, it says. The menu is gorgeous. I might go with a friend. I’ll tell the owner ‘who’, and ‘what’ sent me to his place!

    Meanwhile: À la vôtre, M’sieur! Thank you for the post, and the links.

  2. Stan says:

    À la vôtre, et de rien, M’dame! Be sure to report back on the biachlár (menu) à la carte.

    Clarification: Fáilte is not the name of the restaurant, just an Irish welcome. I have no wish to embarrass anyone.

  3. Al La Carte certainly gave me a chuckle. And the missing apostrophe is par for the course (no pun intended, and I also got a chuckle from your post on apostrophes. I hope they don’t disappear; I like’s apostrophe’s lot’s, and get great amusement from their misuse!). But I feel that “children’s menu” here should be singular, as it’s a menu specifically for children, separate from the adults’ menu (unless there’s two different children’s menus).

  4. Stan says:

    Misused apostrophes amuse me too, Doubtful – it seems a healthier reaction than apoplexy.

    I’m sure there is just one children’s menu, but there is also an à la carte menu, making at least two menus: “À la carte & children’s menus”. Alternatively, “À la carte menu & children’s menu”, but that would be redundant and it would spoil the isosceles trapezoidal arrangement on the sign.

  5. Claudia says:

    Most people reject Vikipedia as an honourable source of knowledge. Yet, in 5 minutes, it explained to me what an isosceles trapezoidal arrangement is. I thought only an einsteinian mind could comprehend the term. Exciting that, tru Email, all your visitors also knock at my door!…

  6. I stand corrected (unless the Al La Carte & Childrens Menu are printed on one sheet of paper, perhaps?). Can I also mention one of my own personal dislikes: people who use ‘&’ in place of ‘and’ while writing? As in “I went to the shops, & bought two pints of milk.” ‘And’ is hardly a difficult word to type! I work in an office, & it’s something I come across all the time. I can see why they’d use it in the sign above (the isosceles trapezoidal arrangement & all that; I used to work in a restaurant & can say that the owner was always very concerned with geometry) but otherwise it irks me. Irks me, I tells ya! Anyway, I’m glad to get that off my chest…

  7. Stan says:

    Claudia: For all its faults and limitations, Wikipedia certainly has its uses. Isosceles trapezoids sound exotic, but they were among the set of geometrical shapes we learned in school. Well, almost – we were taught trapezoids and isosceles triangles.

    Doubtful: Since “menu” is defined ambiguously, as the card or the list on the card, putting the à la carte menu and the children’s menu on the same sheet might justify the singular. Even so, it seems more natural to me to refer to them as separate menus. This is why I didn’t say that “menu” should definitely be plural, but that there was a strong case for it.

    It’s funny you should mention the ampersand, because I was reading about its history yesterday (my life really is that exciting). It doesn’t irk me as it does you, but I tend to avoid it wherever “and” seems more appropriate. Another grey area! So “&” will receive the spotlight of a future blog post.

  8. The problem with such truncated sentences, as in the sign, is that they lead to such ambiguity. Is it “[We have an] Al La Carte [and a] childrens menu[, which are] available all day” or “[We have both] Al La Carte [and] childrens menu[s, which are] available all day’? And I think I’d better go and do some work rather than worrying about this… I look forward to the ‘&’ post!

  9. Stan says:

    ‘The problem with such truncated sentences, as in the sign, is that they lead to such ambiguity.’

    Yes. The sign is unlikely to lead anyone astray, but the same problem occurs frequently in newspaper headlines and can be funny or a bit more problematic.

  10. “City ducks vote on transportation fee” A classic!

  11. Sharon Sweeney says:

    That sign’s not really up in a public place is it? When you see a ‘Professionally’ done sign like this, don’t you wonder how many people looked at the sign between point of order and delivery, and wonder whether ANY of them attended school at all?

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s possible that not many people – fewer than a handful, say – saw the sign during production. And maybe some of them didn’t complete school education, for which I wouldn’t judge them. But it is a pity they didn’t get a proofreader to look it over first.

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