How many of us pay that much attention to road signs when out and about on our daily business on foot as pedestrians?

I mean really pay attention, not just to the instruction being given or the advice being offered by the road sign itself, but the actual words used.

Take the two examples below, both taken during this past week on the streets of Bristol. Both are on a part of the highway used by pedestrians and generally referred to by the general public as the pavement (on which more anon. Ed.). But which – if any – is the correct term? Are footways and footpaths the same?

Composite image showing 'Diverted Footway' and 'Footpath Closed' road signs

Left, Newfoundland Road = correct. Right, Lansdown Road, Easton = incorrect.

To answer the second question first, no; they are not the same.

If there’s one thing many decades of being a linguist has taught me, it is that terminology is important – the correct word used in the right context.

One generally has be a legislator, highway engineer or transport campaigner to know the difference between a footway and a footpath.

Fortunately, it is clearly defined in legislation, in this case the Highways Act 1980, which provides the following definitions:

โ€œfootpathโ€ means a highway over which the public have a right of way on foot only, not being a footway;
โ€œfootwayโ€ means a way comprised in a highway which also comprises a carriageway, being a way over which the public have a right of way on foot only.

In addition, Cheshire East Council provides the following information on its webpage entitled “What Are Public Rights of Way?

You should be careful to distinguish between ‘public footpaths’ and ‘footways’. Pavements beside public roads are not public footpaths – it is better to refer to them as footways or simply pavements.
Footways are not recorded on the Definitive Map as Public Rights of Way. A footway is really a part of the main highway which has been set apart for pedestrians.

Nevertheless, a caveat needs to be added to the clause where Cheshire East Council advises that “it is better to refer to them as footways or simply pavements“.

The caveat is that there’s a world of difference between what “pavement” denotes to ordinary mortals and professionals such as civil and highway engineers: for the former it’s the footway; for the latter more specialised use, Britannica gives the following definition:

Pavement, in civil engineering, durable surfacing of a road, airstrip, or similar area. The primary function of a pavement is to transmit loads to the sub-base and underlying soil.

Who would have thought two words on two such simple temporary road signs deployed for road works could be such a terminological minefield? ๐Ÿ˜‰