Friday, December 21, 2007

Disallow‘Students of a girls’ school go into a rant over their principal’s decision to disallow visit by an American boyband’ (subhead, Sunday Times, 4 November 2007).

Sunday Times, 2 December 2007

Sunday Times, 2 December 2007

In Singapore English, the opposite of allow is disallow. (And why not, since the opposite of agree is disagree?)

In Standard English, however, the word disallow is used when a referee refuses to let a goal stand, or when an appeal or objection to authority is rejected (see Singapore English in a Nutshell by Adam Brown).

Shutter Bus

Interestingly, the sign says ‘shuttle bus’ but the graphic on the left reads ‘shutter bus’.

A knee-jerk analysis would be to treat this as evidence of the writer pronouncing /l/ as /r/, and vice versa.

However, that would be fallacious because, in the pronunciation of many Singaporeans, neither /l/ nor /r/ are sounded in shuttle and shutter — the result of the deletion of syllable-final dark /l/ (especially in the speech of Chinese Singaporeans) and the fact that Singapore English is non-rhotic (/r/ following a vowel is not sounded).

Hence, shuttle and shutter are homophones (pronounced alike) for many Singaporeans, and the issue of /l/-/r/ confusion does not even arise because they are not sounded in these words.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Topic–Comment in Singapore English

‘As for filters wise, get a UV filter if you wish to protect your lens’ (DP Review, retrieved 22 November 2007).

On reading this, I suspected the poster was Singaporean; this was confirmed by a click on her/his profile. Why? Because the sentence structure — namely topic–comment — is characteristically Singaporean.

A topic–comment sentence is one where the speaker/writer starts off by explicitly naming the topic of the sentence, and then adds a comment to it. In the above example, the sentence topic is filters.

What is interesting is that, in Singapore English, topics may be marked with Singlish-type particles such as ah and ha, or with English-type markers such as for, as for, regarding, with regards [sic] to, and –wise. Some examples, with topics underlined:

My teacher ah/ha, she always scold us.
As for me, I don’t like swimming.
For teachers, they should always help weaker students more.
Regarding/With regards [
sic] to your enquiry, we are still investigating.
Colleagues-wise, I like my new school.

Note that this is similar to varieties of Chinese, which have topic markers such as a, ha and ne. (This appears to be as much an areal as a linguistic feature — languages such as Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, Burmese, Japanese and Korean also have topic markers.) The example quoted at the start of this post is fairly unusual, however, in having a doubly marked topic: as for filters wise.

Topic–comment is such a pervasive feature of Singapore English that it extends even to formal writing. One way of checking if a marked topic is non-standard is to move it to the end of the sentence and see whether it makes sense. If it doesn’t, then the marked topic is non-standard (as indicated by *):

For teachers, they should always help weaker students more.
*They should always help weaker students more, for teachers.

By simply removing the marked topic and substituting the resumptive pronoun they with Teachers, we get a Standard English sentence:
Teachers should always help weaker students more.

Topic–comment is not generally regarded as an unmarked (default) structure in English, but it is in fact quite common in colloquial American English. However, there are interesting differences between topic marking in American English and in Singapore English. For one, American English allows topics to be marked with –wise wherever they may be in a sentence, while in Singapore English, the topic is necessarily sentence-initial (i.e. it must begin a sentence). Hence, the following is good in American English but not in Singapore English:

I like my new school, colleagues-wise (AmE/*SgE).

Monday, October 29, 2007

Nike People

Before Nike people began walking, what did they do — crawl?

(OK, admittedly a comma after People messes up the typography somewhat — but as it stands, the message is ambiguous.)
Locative Inversion

‘To Lausanne goes Singapore’s hopes’ (Today headline, 24 October 2007).

Goes is wrong; make it go. In English, the verb agrees with the subject; here, the subject is the plural noun phrase Singapore’s hopes, hence the plural verb go.

Despite coming before the verb, To Lausanne is not the subject but an adverbial of place (i.e. a ‘locative’). In the headline, the subject and the adverbial have been inverted; the normal word-order is Singapore’s hopes go to Lausanne. This phenomenon is technically known as ‘locative inversion’.

Other common examples: Down the hill ran the sheep; Into this crowded market segment comes Fuji’s latest offering; On the wall hangs a masterpiece by Holbein the Younger.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

‘Banish cultural bias: A woman’s dressing should not be seen as an invitation to harassment’ (Straits Times caption, 15 October 2007).

It may come as a surprise to many Singaporeans that the word dressing, as used above, is typically Singaporean. In Standard English, dressing means, among other things, ‘the act or process of putting on clothes’, ‘a sauce added to a dish/salad’, and ‘material to cover a wound’ (Merriam-Webster).

Often, Singapore English dressing may be replaced with clothes, clothing, dress sense, taste in clothes, etc. Thus, the caption might have read: A woman’s suggestive/revealing/provocative clothes/dress sense should not be seen as….

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

More Errors

‘I gave it back to the Chinese national, whom I was helpfully told is married to a Singaporean’ (Sunday Times, 30 September 2007).

An exceedingly common error in the Straits Times. Note that I was helpfully told is parenthetical matter; hence we ought to be able to remove it without affecting the grammar of the rest of the sentence. However, doing so would give us:

*I gave it back to the Chinese national, whom is married to a Singaporean.

Whom is therefore wrong — make it who. Bear in mind that who is the subject of is married, not the object of told.

‘… the common perception of lawyers was that they were straight-laced and serious’ (New Paper on Sunday, 30 September 2007).

Make it strait-laced. The words strait and straight are etymologically unrelated. Amongst other things, strait can be an adjective meaning ‘tight, narrow, close, severely regulated’, or a noun meaning ‘narrow or tight place’, ‘strait of the sea’, ‘distress’ (OED). Hence, we also have the Straits of Johor, the Malacca Straits, straitened circumstances, and strait jacket.

Growing up in Bangkok, Mrs Forest Leong remembers her chef father coming back from work and whipping up meals for the family’ (Sunday Lifestyle, 30 September 2007).

The non-finite clause, Growing up in Bangkok, should refer only to the period when she was growing up (e.g. Growing up in Bangkok, Forest enjoyed helping out in the kitchen). Hence, make it:

Having grown up in Bangkok, Mrs Forest Leong remembers …


A colleague recently asked about the pronunciation of Tan, the commonest Chinese surname in Singapore. Specifically, he wanted to know why some Singaporeans pronounce it with a long vowel (as in barn), whereas most non-Singaporean native speakers of English rhyme it with man (i.e. the way tan is pronounced in English, since it is an English word).

It is worth remembering that Tan is merely an approximate transliteration (as most transliterations tend to be) of the Teochew or Hokkien variant of the surname, the pronunciation of which is closer to ton/tonne with an unaspirated /t/. The other two pronunciations are spelling-pronunciations — that is, pronouncing a word or name according to how it is spelt.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Vunerable [sic] Dark /l/

For some time I’ve noticed British speakers (BBC) pronouncing the word vulnerable as ‘vun-rable’ (with deleted /l/), but this is the first time I have firm evidence in print, in the form of a misspelling — so often a reliable indicator of mispronunciation by a writer.

The deletion of (syllable-final) dark /l/ in vulnerable is an instance of language change observable in our lifetime. It is consistent with what has been happening throughout the history of English: words like balm, calm, chalk, talk and names like Falklands, Falkner, Holmes, Walker all have deleted /l/ after a back vowel.

In Estuary English, which many believe is supplanting Received Pronunciation (RP) as the prestige British accent, syllable-final /l/ is vocalized (i.e. it becomes a vowel, roughly short ‘u’ ), such that dole, doll and doe all sound alike.

In Singapore English, syllable-final /l/ is vocalized after most vowels, in words such as bill and bell; and cull becomes homophonous with cow. After schwa (underlined vowel in asleep) and the short and long ‘o’ and ‘u’ vowels, however, it is deleted — such that pool sounds like poo and school hall sounds like school whore!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Welcome vs Welcomed

‘… the English-language China Daily said the apology was welcomed despite its lateness’ (Straits Times, 25 September 2007).

Make it welcome, because it is an adjective; welcomed can only be a verb. This contrast is more clearly illustrated in the following examples:

(i) Sanjay welcomed the visitors. (verb; active voice)
(ii) The visitors were welcomed by Sanjay. (verb; passive voice)
(iii) The visitors felt very welcome. (adjective)

One test to use if you can’t decide whether a word is an adjective or verb is to place very before it: if this is possible, the word is an adjective. Otherwise it is a verb, for verbs cannot be intensified with very. Hence:

(i) *Sanjay very welcomed the visitors. (verb)
(ii) *The visitors were very welcomed by Sanjay. (verb)
(iii) The visitors felt very welcome. (adjective)

(Note that * denotes an ungrammatical sentence.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Spot The Errors

‘[Alex] Man’s behaviour offscreen, like his off-colour remarks to show host Quan Yifeng, have also ruffled feathers’ (caption, Straits Times Life!, 21 September 2007).

Make it behaviour ... has: Man’s behaviour offscreen ... has ruffled feathers.

‘Her œuvre of work ranges from race relations to domestic politics’ (Today, 21 September 2007).

Œuvre in French means ‘work’; as a borrowing into English it means ‘the works produced by an artist, composer, or writer, regarded collectively’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Hence, the tautologous œuvre of work means ‘work of work’. What the writer wanted was body of work (or simply œuvre).

‘Porn and racist websites raise eyeballs’ (Today headline, 21 September 2007).

At least this one’s funny. Make it raise eyebrows.
Collective Nouns — What Are They?

Family on tour: South Bank, London, May 2007

A collective noun is one that refers to a group of people or things — such as family.

Collective nouns may be used with singular or plural verbs, depending on whether you’re thinking of the group as a single unit (+ singular verb) or as a number of individuals (+ plural verb). To illustrate:

(i) The family is on tour. (singular: touring as a single unit)
(ii) The family are having a good time. (plural: they are all having fun)

Similarly, (iii) below emphasizes that the committee is making the decision as one, whereas in (iv) the emphasis is on members as individuals:

(iii) The committee has finally reached a decision. (singular)
(iv) The committee are always squabbling. (plural)

The names of organizations and sports teams are often collective nouns, especially in British English. Hence:

(v) Scottish Water are based in Edinburgh. (plural)
(vi) Chelsea are fast losing their competitive edge. (plural)

Here is a list of common collective nouns:

aristocracy, army, audience, cast, choir, committee, community, company, council, couple, crew, enemy, family, flock, gang, government, group, herd, jury, management, media, ministry, navy, opposition, orchestra, police, press, public, school, staff, team, youth

Note that police never takes a plural –s ending but is always followed by a plural verb (e.g. The police are investigating the incident). Other collective nouns like staff, crew and public rarely take the plural –s; but this is possible when referring to two separate sets (e.g. There is some friction between the staffs of the White House and Number 10; The book was a hit among the Singaporean and Malaysian publics.) Yet others are used as partitives; e.g. a flock of birds, a gang of thugs.

Bear in mind that some collective nouns have countable counterparts with different meanings. Consider:

(vii) The youth of Singapore are our future. (collective noun)
(viii) A youth is/Some youths are loitering outside the cinema. (countable noun)

In the collective sense illustrated in (vii), youth never takes an –s ending but takes a plural verb: it means ‘young people’ considered as a group, and refers to both females and males. In (viii), however, countable youth(s) is either singular or plural, and is a disapproving term referring only to males — the closest equivalents in Singlish are probably samseng and pai kia (‘hooligans, deliquents, gangsters’). Hence, if you find yourself referring to a young person or young people as (a) youth/youths but don’t mean to call him/her/them samseng or pai kia, then the term you probably need is either the youth or simply that: (a) young person/people.

For more information on collective nouns, read either of these excellent books: Collins Cobuild English Grammar or Practical English Usage (by Michael Swan).

Friday, September 21, 2007

Fish and Fruit

Fishes or fish?

Fruits or fruit?

Is there anything wrong with the following sentence?

We need to buy some fishes and fruits.

Let’s take a look first at fish. What’s the plural form of fish? While some dictionaries list the plural as fish or fishes, there is evidence that fishes is dying out (and we don’t mean fish stocks!). This is language change happening in our lifetime. Indeed, Collins Cobuild English Usage (CCEU) states that, ‘in modern English, the plural of fish is fish, not fishes’ (p. 196), while the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) observes that ‘Fish is the usual plural form. The older form, fishes, can be used to refer to different kinds of fish’. (Indeed, in older translations of the Bible, fishes is the preferred form, while fish is found in more recent translations.) This is presumably the result of speakers regularizing it by analogy with many other names of animals and fish used as food. Salmon and trout, for instance, never take the –s plural suffix: I love salmon/trout (food); He caught three salmon/trout.

Now, let’s look at fruit. According to CCEU, fruit is usually an uncountable noun (like tea/coffee/flour/oil/water); hence, some fruit is the usual expression. If we have to count, however, we can use partitives, e.g. a piece/slice/serving of fruit. The form fruits does exist, but it refers to ‘kinds of fruit’ (hence, it is like fishes) — this is why we refer to the durian as ‘the king of fruits’.

Thus, the sentence is more properly:

We need to buy some fish and some fruit.

In summary, fish is the usual plural form nowadays. Fruit is usually uncountable; hence we normally say either some fruit or two pieces of fruit. The forms fishes and fruits, however, have more specific meanings that are less often needed in everyday life.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Funny Accent You Have

Everyone has an accent … except me!
Even You Are Human

‘Even if many [Indonesians] are maids and contract labourers, they are humans and should be treated with fairness and dignity,’ says Mr Zainal Abidin Mohd Zin, the Malaysian ambassador to Indonesia (Today, 11 September 2007).

This is clumsily (and not entirely accurately) paraphrased in the headline as:

Even maids, labourers deserve ‘our respect’

Even maids and labourers? As if it wasn’t insulting enough for them to have to be acknowledged as human! Imagine someone saying to you: ‘Even YOU are human, and deserve respect’. Even is a loaded word and should not be used lightly. On a similar note, I leave you with this Peanuts cartoon:

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Reptilian Environmentalist?

Don’t know about you, but on seeing this sunbathing reptile I was immediately reminded of the somewhat derogatory term tree hugger — meaning ‘an environmental campaigner, especially one who aims to restrict logging’ (Wikipedia).
Speak Bad English Movement?

This ad, for the Speak Good English Movement’s year-long programme to promote good English at gigs, asks:

What are you doing on Wednesdays?

Bad, bad English. What it meant to ask was:

What are you doing on Wednesday?

Since the activity takes place every Wednesday, the most natural question to ask is what the reader is doing this Wednesday. (If she/he is free, she/he might consider heading to Timbre, the venue.) If the intended question was indeed what the reader generally does on Wednesdays, then it should be phrased thus:

What do you do on Wednesdays?

How ironic that much of what currently goes out in the name of ‘good English’ is itself in such execrable English.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

More Straits Times Blunders

Think the Straits Times is the premier English language broadsheet in Singapore, JB, ... and some say Batam? Think again…

Trodding the path (Straits Times, Aug 24, 2007)? Goodness, no: make it treading. This is an irregular verb with the forms tread, treads, trod, treading, and trodden. Hence:

Pat tries to tread carefully. (to-infinitive; base form)
Pat treads carefully. (present tense)
Pat trod carefully. (simple past)
Pat is treading carefully this time. (present continuous/progressive)
Pat has trodden carefully this time. (present perfect)
Pat shunned the well-trodden path. (–en participle as adjective)

His daughter, whom was now holidaying in South Africa (Straits Times, Aug 16, 2007)? Wrong. Make it: … his daughter, who he pointed out was now holidaying in South Africa.

News have been making headlines (Straits Times, Aug 25, 2007)? Do we say The news are brought to you by the BBC or No news are good news?

Surely not. Make it has and is, since news is a non-count (uncountable) noun and hence always singular. News is, therefore, like information, furniture and equipment.

So, is the Straits Times the world-class broadsheet that it claims to be? And is it in any position to help ordinary Singaporeans ‘speak good English’, when it can’t even get primary school-level grammar right?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Spot The Mistakes

Can you spot the errors in these extracts, both from the Straits Times Digital Life supplement?

Example A
Let’s start with this one: If you think you’re smart, there are 10,000 people just as smart — or smarter — than you are.

The writer tries to be clever and straight-talking, but he/she is not very smart either. Here we have parenthetical matter, enclosed within dashes: we should be able to remove this without affecting the rest of the sentence.

But if we do so, we end up with the bizarre *There are 10,000 people just as smart than you are.

Hence we need to rewrite it as If you think you’re smart, there are 10,000 people just as smart as — or smarter than — you are. In this properly constructed version, we can remove the parenthetical bit and be left with the perfectly grammatical If you think you’re smart, there are 10,000 people just as smart as you are.


Example B
Now let’s look at this one: We’re also looking for people whom we think would fit well into the Google culture.
The qualification we think is a parenthetical thought: again, we ought to be able to remove it without affecting the rest of the sentence.
But if we do, we end up with *We’re also looking for people whom would fit well into the Google culture. Sounds strange? Yes, because who is the relative pronoun subject of would fit — hence we need the subjective pronoun who, not the objective whom.
Don’t Porget
This was taken by a friend on a visit to Sumatra. Why porget? Because Malayo-Polynesian (like many other language families) has /p/ rather than /f/, and /b/ rather than /v/.

In the Malay/Indonesian-speaking countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, words and names with /f/ are primarily of Arabic and (to a lesser extent) European origin; and /f/ is often replaced by /p/, giving pairs such as Sufian~Sopian and Mustafa~Mustapa. Telephone is rendered as talipon.

In the Philippines, Spanish /f/ becomes /p/, hence Pilipinas/Pilipino/Pilipina.

And in both Malay and Tagalog, handphone may be rendered as handpon.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Diving To Serve You BetterFirst they were bus drivers, then bus captains ... now they’re multi-tasking bus divers (Today 10.08.07).

No wonder they say we’ve got a world-class transport system.
Just One Of Those Things …
Quiz time. Which is correct?

(1) Hafizah is one of those rare people who love grammar.
(2) Hafizah is one of those rare people who loves grammar.

It may be something of a surprise that (1) is technically more correct. Most speakers, however, would prefer (2), presumably because one appears to be singular. But the way to look at it is this:

Hafizah is one of X.
X = those rare people who love grammar.

Now it is immediately obvious that the relative clause who love grammar postmodifies people — hence the plural verb, love. The scope of the plural people applies only within the embedded noun phrase, as indicated by X, and does not extend to the larger sentence. Now consider this:

One of the books you ordered has arrived.

This is correct, because the head of this noun phrase is the singular one.
Imperfect Tenses
Another howler from the Straits Times (09.08.07), one of several that day — and nothing unusual.

In the caption, the past perfect is wrong:

Chng had carjacked this Premier taxi early Tuesday morning and sped off, but died when the vehicle hit a brick wall.

In Standard English, where there is a specific time expression (here, early Tuesday morning), the simple past is preferred:

Chng carjacked this Premier taxi early Tuesday morning and sped off, but died when the vehicle hit a brick wall.

The past perfect would have been needed only if the later events were told first, then the earlier ones: Chng died in this Premier taxi when it hit a brick wall early Tuesday morning. He had earlier carjacked the vehicle.

When events are retold in chronological order, they are usually expressed one after another in the simple past. For that reason, we don’t tell stories like this:

Once upon a time, there had lived (wrong) a beautiful princess in a castle far, far away. One day, she was walking in the woods when an ogre suddenly appeared before her …

If even the Straits Times can’t understand something as elementary as using tenses correctly (this is primary school stuff, mind), why do we bother teaching at all?
Perhaps more pertinently, why are they publishing a book and regular column on good English?
Crucial Years
The policy of this blog is not to make fun of poor English — that would be self-indulgent and mean. (As an example, see the rather pointless print edition of the Sunday Times’ English as it is Broken column). Instead, we try to point out and explain mistakes we can actually learn from, particularly when they’re from people who should know better, such as — irony of ironies — the Straits Times.

Hence, the above, seen at the atrium of a shopping mall, is fair game. It is something of an irony that many who are in the business of education cannot themselves string together a simple sentence. The deliberately alarmist:

The first six years of a child’s life is crucial!

should read:

The first six years of a child’s life are crucial!

This is because, in English, the verb (is/are) agrees with the head of a subject noun phrase (years), and not the noun closest to it (life). Remove the postmodifier and we have The first six years are crucial.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Worse-Than-Expected English

If the Straits Times is supposed to be the standard-bearer of good English in Singapore, this is not always obvious. Every single day there are elementary errors in its pages, whether print or electronic, and it is not too hard to spot them.

In the above, from the online version (10.8.07), the hyphens in the adverb phrase, faster-than-expected, are wrong. Any of the following would be an improvement:

Economy Grows Faster Than Expected
Economic Growth (Is) Faster Than Expected
Economy Grows More Rapidly Than Expected

Hyphens are needed only in attributive adjective phrases — that is, adjective phrases that come before the head noun within a noun phrase.

To illustrate, in the noun phrase faster-than-expected economic growth, we have two adjectives, the compound faster-than-expected and the simple economic. Together, they modify the head noun, growth. The hyphens serve to indicate that the three words faster, than and expected function jointly as a single adjective.

Likewise, we write the three-year-old boy — but The boy is three years old.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Recommended English Language Dictionaries and Reference Books

Have a question about English grammar or usage but don’t know where to find answers? Here’s a shortlist of dictionaries and reference books no student or teacher of English should be without. If you haven’t studied grammar before, David Crystal’s Rediscover Grammar (Pearson Longman, 2004, 3rd ed.) and George Davidson’s Phrases, Clauses and Sentences (Learners, 2002) are excellent introductions that will equip you with an understanding of the necessary terminology and of how grammar works.

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD)
Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (CALD)
Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (MEDAL)
Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture (LDELC)

Do not underestimate advanced learners’ dictionaries — they are perfect if you’re a teacher or student of English because they take nothing for granted, hence are exceptionally clear and address learners’ errors and difficulties. All of the above are excellent. As well as giving you the meaning of a word, a good dictionary should provide copious examples, tell you whether a verb is transitive or intransitive and which preposition(s) go/goes with it, whether an adjective is used attributively or predicatively, whether a noun is countable or uncountable, whether the noun is usually plural or singular, whether it is used with a plural verb, typical errors to avoid, etc. The LDELC lists people, cities, institutions, etc. which have a special place in English-speaking cultures — what, for example, is an 18–30 holiday, the Bloomsbury Group, or Remembrance Sunday?

Both OALD and MEDAL have International Student Editions (ISEs) costing about half the standard editions. CALD is very affordable too and comes with a CD-ROM. It is best to choose a dictionary that uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to transcribe pronunciation, as do all dictionaries listed here. (For this reason, avoid most Oxford dictionaries except the OALD.) And remember that you need an advanced learner’s dictionary (not a learner’s dictionary).

Practical English Usage
by Michael Swan (PEU)
Collins Cobuild English Usage (CCEU)
Collins Cobuild English Grammar (CCEG)

PEU is a book teachers and teacher-trainers swear by. (Go for the ISE — it costs half the deluxe edition, which has more colour but exactly the same content.) CCEU has a Usage section and a Grammar section, and comes with a CD-ROM. Some questions addressed in these books: Do we say Chris is one of those people who sleep like a baby (or sleeps)? Why? And do we say The committee are unable to agree (or is)?

Do note the titles exactly: Collins Cobuild produces a variety of different grammars, not all of them useful as reference works.

Singapore English in a Nutshell
by Adam Brown
English Language Myths: 30 Beliefs That Aren’t Really True by Adam Brown
What You Need to Know about British & American English by George Davidson
Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson

The first is exceptionally useful if you wish to know the main differences between Singapore English and Standard English. The second is invaluable because it deals with mistaken beliefs about English — many perpetuated by the teaching profession! The third is an extremely clear and comprehensive account of the main differences (spelling, grammar, vocabulary) between British and American English. The last is very helpful if you aim to be a careful writer.
Next Available Count

Count Dracula’s consultation hour?

Monday, July 23, 2007

HDTV — A or An?
This appeared in ST Life! on July 21, 2007. Can you spot any errors?

Let’s start with the most obvious: all instances of a HDTV are wrong. Since the abbreviation is unpronounceable (hence, it is not an acronym), it is read out in full, as ‘aitch-dee-tee-vee’. Because the string begins in a vowel, we need the indefinite article an rather than a: hence, an HDTV. Similarly, we ought to say an HDB flat, not *a HDB flat.

The writer’s use of a suggests that, like most Singaporeans, he pronounces H as ‘haitch’. (This pronunciation is Irish, and is often attributed to the Irish nuns teaching in Singapore schools in colonial times.)

Things are a bit different, however, if an abbreviation is not intended to be read out the way it is written. To illustrate: StdE feature and SgE feature are intended to be read out as ‘Standard English feature’ and ‘Singapore English feature’, not ‘ess-tee-dee-ee/ess-gee-ee feature’. Therefore, a StdE/SgE feature is preferred, not an StdE/SgE feature.

The other errors in the article concern modals. The Standard English versions are given in brackets: You’d also need (You’ll also need); you don’t get (you wouldn’t/won’t get).

Monday, July 16, 2007

Dodgy English ‘Experts’ … Again

Looks like everybody’s getting into the ‘English expert’ act these days. For the past several weeks, 8 Days magazine has been running an English: Get It Right column. Last week’s started out promisingly enough, but then came this clunker:

A disinterested media watchdog would have wondered what all the fuss about Paris Hilton going to jail was about.

What they meant was, of course:

what all the fuss was about Paris Hilton going to jail.

Looks like their ‘experts’ are in need of grammar help themselves!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Kevin The Pampered Daddy's Girl

In the above tribute (The New Paper, Sunday, 1 July 2007) to her husband, a New Paper reader writes:

Being a pampered Daddy’s girl, Kevin has been very tolerant and patient with my 101 unreasonable requests now that we are living under the same roof.

Kevin is a pampered daddy’s girl? Oh my word. What his grateful wife should have said was I am a pampered Daddy’s girl, but Kevin has been very tolerant… OR Being a pampered Daddy’s girl, I greatly appreciate Kevin’s tolerance of my… .

The above is an example of a dangling modifier, where a badly placed element (here, the non-finite clause Being a pampered Daddy’s girl) ends up modifying the wrong noun, noun phrase or pronoun (here, the proper noun Kevin). Dangling modifiers are exceedingly common, but not usually as glaring as the above example. Most people, for example, would have no problems with the following:

Having waited two hours for a taxi, it was clear that Singapore’s taxi system is the worst in the developed world.

However, the non-finite clause having waited for two hours actually modifies the dummy pronoun it: in effect the sentence is saying, ‘It waited for two hours’. Hence we need to say something along these lines:

Having waited two hours for a taxi, we concluded that Singapore’s taxi system was the worst in the developed world.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ze Importance of Sinking

This has got to be one of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen. The joke derives from the fact that many Germans cannot pronounce the voiced and voiceless interdental fricatives in English (as in this thing), replacing them with /z/ and /s/ respectively. (So it’s not just the French.) Hence, the young German mistakes ‘thinking’ for ‘sinking’.

Incidentally, years ago I had a lecturer, originally German, who taught radio production. Although he had a reasonably good American accent, there were some English sounds he simply couldn’t master. One morning, during a lecture on speaking and breathing techniques, he took in a deep breath ... held both hands up to chest level ... and bellowed: ‘Hold your bress!’ I’ll never forget the laughter that ensued.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Cultural Learnings For Make Benefit The Foreign Learners Of English

Spotted this rather amusing exchange in an online camera forum. Some background: Cristox (German) is complimenting Linda (English) on her fine cat, a picture of whom (left) she posted to demonstrate the abilities of her new camera.

"Cristox wrote: > BTW nice pussy you have linda."

"Thank you. His name is Micky. ... perhaps in future you shouldn't compliment an English woman on her pussy. Her husband might get quite the wrong idea!"

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Adjectives in French

This sign was seen in Chartres Cathedral in France. Particularly interesting is the error, technicals reasons.

Why technicals? Because in French the adjective agrees in number and gender with the noun — as seen in the French adjective techniques and the plural noun raisons. The writer obviously assumes the same rule applies in English, hence the plural –s ending on technicals.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Happy Birthday, William!

Today, April 23rd, is a triply important date.

Not only is it the day William Shakespeare died (in 1616), it is also reputedly the day he was born. (Why reputedly? Because in those days it was the custom to record the date of baptism — in Shakespeare’s case, April 26, 1564 — rather than the date of birth.)

That’s not all. Today is also St George’s Day. St George, as you may know, is (among other things) the patron saint of England.

If you’re a student or teacher or lover of English, there can’t be many dates more significant than this!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Exquisite English

I have the good fortune of knowing an emeritus professor of English, whose e-mail messages — in lyrically beautiful prose — are always such a delight to receive. The following (names changed/deleted to protect the guilty) is elegant and precise without being verbose or bombastic — the last often the mark of an immature writer. Who says ephemeral, electronic communication has to be in a degraded form of English?

My dear _______,

Is it true that the space bar gets more use than any other key on the board? Certainly in this cybercafé the space bars often seem defective, and the other day I sent a message that turned out to consist of a single enormous word! I say this by way of prefatory apology for any eccentricities in this letter, or any more than usual.

So you are, in a sense, a free man until 12 January, I think you said. This is a vacation of astounding dimensions, though I know not a vacation in the literal sense of emptiness as far as you are concerned. Still, a change is said to be as good as a rest, and I hope you will find some satisfaction in getting back to writing.

All continues well here. Firoz is away in Delhi for a couple of days on business. Last weekend we were at his house on the beach, which seems a thousand miles away from the hurly-burly of Bombay though it is only twenty or thirty. The gardener’s wife cooks plain but wholesome food, we sit and watch the grass grow, and walk on the beach early in the morning and towards sunset, it being too hot to venture far in the middle of the day. My tour of Sri Lanka is now confirmed, departing on 22nd, and I look forward to it very much. I am going with a Hindu friend, Viswa, a devout fellow who gives me insights into religious culture that I would certainly not get from my less godly friends!

No need to reply to this, of course.

Yours ever,

Friday, April 13, 2007

What do you call this communication device?

If you’re Singaporean or Malaysian, it’s most probably a handphone to you. If you’re British, either a mobile phone or mobile; if American, a cellular phone, cell phone, or simply cell. (And if you’re Russell Crowe or Naomi Campbell, it’s something you hurl at people you don’t like.)

Many ‘posh’ Singaporeans, however, avoid using the term handphone on the grounds that it is i. non-standard (hmm ... whose standard are we talking about, when even the Brits and Americans can’t agree?), or ii. illogical (‘Of course, you hold any phone receiver in your hand!’). So it might be news to them that even the precision-minded Germans call it a Handy (no prizes for guessing the donor language), eschewing the formal, clumsy Mobiltelefon or Handtelefon.
Speaking of which, handphone is commonly pronounced in Singapore as henfoon. I became aware of this only after reading a cartoon by Colin Goh (who, despite spending most of the year in New York City, has an amazing ear for Singlish). Incidentally, I’ve also begun noticing people pronouncing don’t as doon and won’t as woon.

But back to terminology. Whereas we say ‘Henry SMS-ed me last night’ and ‘Jenny will send you an SMS’, the British use text in both instances (verb and noun): ‘Henry texted me last night’, ‘Jenny will send you a text’. This has the advantage of brevity — it’s one syllable, not three. Since we’re so obsessed with making our utterances as compact and efficient as possible, it’s a wonder we haven’t adopted this usage yet.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Colourless Green Ideas

In his seminal Syntactic Structures (1957), the great linguist and political thinker, Noam Chomsky, devised this brilliant piece of nonsense to demonstrate that sentence meaning and structure were quite separate:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Although clearly nonsensical, it is grammatically perfect in English, as any speaker of the language would attest. We observe that each successive word contradicts the former: If something is green it cannot be colourless; ideas are abstract, hence cannot be green or any other colour for that matter; ideas cannot sleep; and one may sleep fitfully but not furiously. Absolutely brilliant stuff.

In Singapore we do not need a Chomsky to coin these sentences for us ... for we have our very own Ja!

Impossible Is Nothing

So declares Adidas’ gung-ho and rather meaningless marketing slogan, obviously a play on ‘nothing is impossible’.

In this connection, haven’t we all at some point or other been exhorted to ‘do the impossible’?

If, as Adidas tells us, impossible = nothing, then it should logically follow that ‘do the impossible’ means ‘do nothing’!

Friday, March 30, 2007

‘Local’ RevisitedRemember we saw a few posts ago that some Singaporeans feel ‘local’ wherever they are in the world? Not because they are bicultural, or multicultural for that matter — but simply because they don’t understand that the term changes its reference according to where the speaker is.

In the above article (New Paper, March 24, 2007), proprietor Mr Ronald Lim observes of his new restaurant in London called ‘Kiasu’:

‘Tourists from Singapore visit the restaurant because they feel at home and they can savour their favourite local dishes. Londoners, on the other hand, are curious what “kiasu” means and what’s on the menu. It’s a cultural experience for everyone.’

Hmm — so if Singaporeans eat ‘local’ food in London, does that then make Londoners outsiders in their own city, and their food ‘international’?

Excuse Me, Are You A Nigerian?

This excerpt from an article by Samuel Lee (ST Life!, Saturday, March 17, 2007) caught my eye. Interviewing a Nigerian musician wary of his country’s media, Lee was probed whether he was a countryman, prompting him to wonder: Do Singaporeans speak English like Nigerians?

Yes, we do. There is a strong superficial similarity between our accents, and it has to do with intonation — specifically, what are known in Phonetics as level tones and contour tones.

In British and American English, which have contour tones, the ‘tune’ of a speaker is generally fluid, with one pitch blending seamlessly into the next for the most part. It is like the undulating peaks and falls of a mountain range.

In a level-tone language, however, each syllable has its own pitch, largely unaffected by its neighbours’. Hence, the appropriate analogy is steps rather than slopes. Singlish and Singapore English have mostly level tones — this is almost certainly an influence from Chinese (specifically, Hokkien), in which most words have inherent tone. (However, it should be pointed out that Standard Mandarin is more ‘contoured’ than Singapore Mandarin.)

Where does Nigerian English come in, then? Well, some African languages (including, possibly, those spoken in Nigeria) have what is called ‘downdrift’: The speaker utters syllables that are alternately high and low, continuing on a downward slide towards the end of the utterance. Each successive high-low pair is lower in pitch than the last. You can picture this as a downward zigzag (or a rather depressing sales chart!). It is likely that the English spoken in Nigeria and also Ghana inherited this feature in the form of level tones.

So, Nigerian English and Singapore English do sound superficially similar — and that is because they both have level tones.
‘Cher’ and ‘Mee’

In Singapore, pupils often call their teachers ’Cher. And in Chinese- and Singlish-speaking homes, kids often call their mothers Mee (with a rising intonation). Contrast this with English-speaking societies, where mothers are called Mum/Mom, and, in colloquial American English at least, a teacher is Teach.

All this has to do with stress. Not the stress that comes with being a mother or a teacher, of course, but where the stress/accent falls in a word. Because teacher and Mummy are stressed on the first syllable in Western native varieties of English (i.e. British, American, Australian, New Zealand, South African), it is this syllable which is retained when the word is abbreviated. In Singapore the opposite holds true: teacher and Mummy are stressed on the second syllable; hence it is these that survive.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Singlish got grammar one, leh!
(‘Singlish does have grammar’)

Think Singlish has no grammar? This charming cartoon by Iskander shows otherwise. How many times have we had well-meaning foreign friends trying to talk like us but ending up making us laugh?

Although Singlish is very different from Standard English, that doesn’t mean it is completely haphazard. It has its own rules about what goes where, and when; and what you can or cannot say — in other words, its own grammar.
Pronunciation Traps

Two abbreviations seem to give BBC announcers rather a lot of grief.

First, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) — I can’t imagine them being very popular at the Beeb, because great care is needed to deliver this string of closing diphthongs and high vowels comprehensibly, without sounding like one of Old MacDonald’s farm animals. Many announcers slow down noticeably in anticipation of this minefield and suspend the expected liaisons (‘eye-yay-yee-yay’), beginning each syllable instead with a laboured hiatus. A reasonable compromise, I suppose, would be to put the hiatus right down the middle (‘EYE-yay, EE-yay’).

And then we have the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) — a rebel organization who are a constant thorn in the sides not only of the Colombian government, but also of the often prim and proper BBC announcers. This one needs no elaboration!

Speaking of which, the Scottish surname Farquhar — known in Singapore via William Farquhar (first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore, 1819–1823) and generally pronounced ‘fah-KWAH’ — is more correctly rendered ‘FAR-ker’ or ‘FAR-kwer’.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Do You Speak Technobabble?

Surprisingly, MS Word's spellchecker doesn’t recognize the word blog!
Teaching and (Not Necessarily) Learning

As a linguistics student in the UK, I was one of a handful in my class who could produce every single sound on the IPA (International Phonetic Association) chart. After all, being able to pronounce (if not necessarily speak) English, Singlish, Mandarin, Teochew, Hokkien, Malay, Tamil, German, Italian and French does widen one’s phonetic repertoire considerably. Not knowing Zulu, Xhosa, Hausa, Swahili, Luganda or any other African language, however, meant a big gap in that knowledge. The sound I found hardest to do was the ingressive click; and I am not sure if I ever mastered the voiced fricative ‘r’ (Czech ř, I believe).

The British have a reputation for being monoglots, and my classmates didn’t disappoint. Try as he could, one of my friends couldn’t pronounce the rounded front vowel /y/ (in Mandarin Chinese qu ‘region/song/go’; French brut ‘rough/raw’; German Küh ‘cow’). This prompted our professor to ask, ‘Didn’t you learn French in school?’ To which my friend blithely replied, ‘Well, I was taught it!’

He had no recollection of the episode when I mentioned it to him a few years later, but said it must have been a rare moment of lucidity. Anyhow, this drives home the importance of teachers taking time to reflect: ‘Yes, I have taught — but did they learn?’

Monday, March 12, 2007

Questions And (Not-So-Good) Answers II

This ad, by ComfortDelGro’s in-house advertising arm and intended to persuade advertisers to place their ads on its buses and trains and in stations, is a rather lame attempt at witty, in-your-face creative humour. I may be wrong, but somehow the question and answer seem curiously mismatched.

Since the question is How did the Dinosaur become extinct?, the reply ought to be either By not getting out enough or It didn’t get out enough. (Better still, make the question Why did the Dinosaur become extinct?)

If the reply must be It should have got out more, then the question should ask, What should the Dinosaur have done to avoid extinction/becoming extinct?
Excuse Me, Are You A Singaporean?

This ‘friendly’ salutation by a clipboard-wielding teenager must strike terror into the hearts of thousands of Orchard Road shoppers every weekend.

Quite surprisingly, few, if any, seem to ask ‘Are you a local?’ — considering that, in Singapore, local and Singaporean are often treated as synonyms.

Local is, of course, a relative term. In Britain it has a narrow scope, usually meaning ‘of this village or county or region’, and rarely ‘of this country’ (except when contrasting with foreigners). It can even be used as a noun to refer to the village pub. The connotation is thus a provincial one: In regional newspapers, one sees headlines like ‘Local girl interns at NASA’ and ‘Local man in Bali bombing’, meaning that they are local to the county.

In Singapore, by contrast, local has a national reach — a reflection perhaps of the country’s small size? Not only that, it is sometimes used to mean ‘Singaporean’ even when the point of reference shifts. Overseas, it is not uncommon to hear Singaporean students saying: ‘We don’t like hall food, so we Singaporeans always get together to cook local (i.e. Singaporean) food’!

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Whatever you think of the British gutter press, you’ve got to admire them for their utterly brilliant wordplay.

This was the cover of the Daily Mirror on January 6, 2003, two months before the disastrous invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies. Rather than a blunt, insipid headline screaming ‘It’s All About Oil’, the paper very cleverly crafted a message around the names of the big petroleum companies. The last sentence is, of course, The message is I’m a-coming to kick your ass, Saddam — in a Texan drawl.