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.