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.
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