Monday, December 22, 2008

Fishy Business

Interestingly, the same advertisement uses a different plural form of fish on each panel: If fish could talk ..., but Guess the number of fishes.

According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the usual plural form is fish. However, the old-fashioned (e.g. Biblical) form, fishes, may be used to mean varieties of fish.

To illustrate: there may be 20 fish swimming towards the tank; but if there are equal numbers of salmon, trout, plaice and halibut, then there are four fishes.

Perhaps Tetra should make it clear which sense of fish/fishes they intend ... or perhaps this contest is a test of one’s knowledge of grammar rules rather than one’s counting/guessing ability?
Let’s Be Funny

It is the policy of this blog to avoid making fun of low-proficiency users of English because, apart from providing some mirth, their mistakes don’t actually teach us anything.

But this one is too good to pass up, because of the delicious irony: it is on an educational toy that supposedly teaches young children spelling, vocabulary and mathematics, among other things.

Past Perfect

‘A light fixture had fallen from the ceiling at Tampines Safra last Thursday’ (The New Paper, 25 November 2008).

Wrong use of the past perfect: make it fell (simple past).

In Singapore newspapers this is a very common error, one presumably due to a misunderstanding of the notion of ‘remote past’. In Standard English, the past perfect is used when referring to the earlier of two past events, but many Singaporeans (e.g. the media, teachers, students) evidently believe that it is used with any event that took place ‘a long time ago’ (e.g. last week, seven years ago).

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

An Before Vowels

Some teachers blindly teach (and pupils blindly learn) the rule that the indefinite article an should be used before all nouns beginning in vowels.
This needs to be qualified: an is used before nouns beginning in vowel sounds — so the rule applies to pronunciation rather than spelling.
New Paper columnist Santokh Singh gets only one out of five attempts above (27 November 2008) right — a Eurasian, because the noun begins /ju/ and not in a vowel. Either he doesn’t know the correct rule or he pronounces Eurasian wrongly.
Hard to Get Right

The writer evidently meant hard to miss (New Paper, 25 November 2008).
Topic–Comment in Singapore English

The two highlighted extracts from the New Paper (25 November 2008) illustrate the phenomenon of topic–comment in Singapore English: this is a sentence construction where the topic is mentioned, and a comment is then added to it.

In the above, the topics (all civil servants across the board, administrative officers, et al.) are marked by for. The comments begin with a pronoun referring to the topic: this is called a resumptive pronoun.

Singapore English is more topic-prominent than Standard English, where the preferred construction is simply subject + predicate: in the above instances, for and they would be deleted.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Nice to know that good the object pronoun whom is still going strong in some quarters!
Weasel Words
The Land Transport Authority and Nets claimed (Today, 1 November 2008) that problems with cashcards were due to ‘incompatibility’.

They must think Singaporeans are fools. If the faulty cashcards were indeed ‘incompatible’ with in-vehicle units, then what exactly were they compatible with?

Gone are the days when things just worked.
Punctuation Matters

It does. Not sure about you, but I had to read this two or three times to understand it. Hyphenating the adjectival would have made things a lot clearer and helped the reader to parse the sentence:

I have that just-devoured-a-polluted-city taste in my mouth.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Live vs Life

I don’t think Mrs Ann Wee is going to be very thrilled to see this!

In the poster, she is referred to as a live member of the Singapore Children’s Society (opposite: dead member). In this noun phrase, the premodifier live is an adjective, e.g. live prawns, live wire, live connection.

Mrs Wee is in fact a life member, where the premodifier is the noun life and the expression means ‘member for life’.

When we have an adjective+head noun combination (here, live + member), it is usually possible to reverse the order and insert a linking verb: the member is (a)live. But when we have a noun+head noun combination (here, life + member), we can very often reverse the order and insert a preposition: member for life.
More ST Fluff

Since fluff is an uncountable/uncount/non-count/mass noun, another fluff in the headline is wrong: make it more fluff, perhaps.

Contrast this with the letter writer’s own expression: another piece of fluff. Unlike the ST sub-editor, the writer knows that fluff is uncountable and so needs a partitive, piece.

More ST Fluff

Since fluff is an uncountable/uncount/non-count/mass noun, another fluff in the headline is wrong.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Subject–Verb Agreement, Again

Here’s a grammatical error by a professor of international relations — in the very first paragraph of a comment article, yet missed by ST’s sharp-eyed editors (Straits Times, 27 October 2008).

In the subordinate clause How the two candidates view the world are starkly at odds, the subject is the embedded noun clause how the two candidates view the world.

Since noun clauses are treated as singular, and verbs agree with subjects, the linking verb should be is, not are.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Try two, get one right...

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Surely they meant fewer US high school grads.

In Standard English, lesser means ‘not so great or so much as the other (of two) in worth, degree, size etc: the lesser of two evils; one of the lesser-known modern poets’ (Longman, 2005).
Rongal Reagan

Rongal Reagan (Straits Times, 21 October 2008)? As in Rongal McDonald? More pertinently, how did that get past the Straits Times editors?

Rongal Reagan

Rongal McDonald

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

If At First You Don’t Succeed ...

... try and try and try again.

Amazingly, this article from the Times (London, 22 October 2008) has the compound adjective high-visibility spelt three different ways in the space of two short paragraphs. Guess their strategy is: try every single permutation under the sun and one of them is bound to be right.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Spelling and Hyphenation

Curiously, the Straits Times spells thunderstorms as thunder-storms, which has a whiff of the eighteenth century about it.

While there is often a choice between spelling a compound as separate words (with or without a hyphen) or as a single word, some commonly used compounds are fixed.

If in doubt, always check a good dictionary, since spelling conventions are not always rule-bound, logical or predictable.

For the careful editor or writer, the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors is indispensable. As the extract below shows, thunderstorm is the only possible spelling and thunder-storm is wrong.


This is a quote from a National Library spokesperson (Straits Times, 16 October 2008), after a disgruntled library user, angry that his illegally parked bicycle had been chained, locked the main entrance to the library.

Let’s consider this sentence: By locking even one door, it inconveniences members of the public.

It doesn’t work for structural reasons. First, by locking even one door is an adverbial of cause/reason. If we move it, we get It inconveniences members of the public by locking even one door — which shows more clearly how bad the original sentence was.

Second, what does the subject it refer to? Most definitely not the non-finite clause before it. Hence, make it: By locking even one door, one inconveniences/you inconvenience members of the public or Locking even one door inconveniences members of the public.


This headline (ST Web, 16 October 2008) should read, Keep cool, Lewis: Hakkinen. A comma is needed before vocatives — when a person is being addressed directly.

Similarly, we ought to write Hi, Lewis — but this is decidedly rare in these punctuation-shy times.
Subject–Verb Agreement

From the Straits Times website (16 October 2008). Make it Interest in CNG cars loses steam, because the head noun interest is singular.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Ambiguous Sentence

This Straits Times (9 October 2008) headline, though perfectly grammatical, amused me because I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that the writer meant he spotted a very young insect (e.g. baby fly vs adult fly). This interpretation has the noun phrase a toddler fly, with a as determiner, fly as head noun, and toddler as noun premodifier.

The intended meaning was, of course, that the writer saw a toddler go up in the air when turbulence hit the Singapore–Perth flight. Here, the noun phrase is a toddler, and fly is a non-finite verb.

Monday, September 29, 2008


Looks like this (rather opportunistic) ad congratulated the wrong person.

Make it:

New Moon congratulates Singapore on F1’s first-ever night race.

Or perhaps:

New Moon celebrates Singapore’s 1st night race (actually F1’s too).
So Many News

I’ve been inundated with so many F1-related news (Today, 27–28 September 2008)? This sentence doesn’t work for two reasons.

First, news is an uncountable noun, so we’d have to use much. However, it is followed by the countable nouns events and invites, both of which can take many, so this presents us with the problem of how to combine them.

Second, the word inundated already carries an implication of excess, so too much/many is clearly redundant. The writer should simply have said: I’ve been inundated with F1-related fashion news, events and invites. And not an iota of meaning would have been lost.
Subject–Verb Agreement

Make it the costs of securities trading in Singapore have risen, because the plural head noun costs needs a plural verb.
This error is the reverse of what we normally see — i.e. a singular head noun wrongly taking a plural verb because of other nouns nearer the verb (e.g. *the problem of rising costs are...).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One Of Those Problems...

I must be getting pretty obsessive if I cannot let even an error in a comic strip pass ...

But here goes. The first speech bubble should read: Mom, I never thought I’d be one of those parents who are always screaming no at her kids.

That’s because the speaker is One of X, where X is those parents who are always screaming no at her kids.

In grammatical terms, who are ... her kids is a relative clause, and the relative pronoun who refers, of course, to the plural head noun parents — hence it takes the plural are rather than singular is.

This is quite a common conundrum in primary school English.

We need to combine Let under-16s watch film and Let under-16s learn from film. Note that the joining point, i.e. where the later comma should go, is just before the word film and not before from.

Therefore, the headline should be Let under-16s watch, and learn from, film — or simply Let under-16s watch and learn from film.
Subject–Verb Agreement

Seen in Challenger, Funan Centre.

Make it Consumption of food and drink is not allowed in Challenger, since the verb has to agree with the singular head noun consumption.

(The rule of proximity — the verb agreeing with the noun nearest to it — does not apply here.)
Principle vs Principal

Make it principal, since it means ‘main’ (i.e. Mrs McCain’s main car is a Lexus).

The confusables principal and principle confound many people, as this extract from the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph (23 September 2008) shows.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Less vs Fewer

Less tourists head to Thailand’ (Straits Times website, 0705 hours on 19 September 2008).
Make it fewer tourists, since tourist is a countable noun. Use less only with uncountable nouns, e.g. less salt.

[Update: headline was amended at 0918.]

Simple Past vs Past Perfect

‘About a month ago, I had written in this column about ....’ (New Paper, 14 September 2008). Make it About a month ago, I wrote in this column ....

In Standard English, the past perfect is used when one is relating a past even that took place before another past event. These events may have happened only minutes ago: Tim rang a few minutes ago, but May had already left.

Since a specific time point was mentioned in the article (i.e. last month), the simple past (wrote) is appropriate.

The reporter’s error appears to be the result of grammar books wrongly stating that the past perfect is used for events that happened a long time ago. This misconception is so pervasive in Singapore that this error crops up frequently not only in the New Paper, but also in the Straits Times.
Live vs Stay
Interesting that the same writer uses live and stay interchangeably in the same article, just two lines apart (Straits Times, 16 September 2008).
The correct word in this instance is live, which (among other things) implies a more permanent residence than stay. It should also be noted that even for a semester’s residence in a student hall, the appropriate word is live rather than stay.
In Singapore we overwhelmingly prefer the word stay, and we’re not alone — so do the Scots.

In addition we tend to use the progressive aspect, saying I am staying in Clementi rather than I stay/live in Clementi. In Standard English, stative verbs like live are not usually used in the progressive. Other common stative verbs include have, know, understand and love. However, stative verbs may be used in the progressive to convey the meaning ‘at this very moment’, e.g. I was fine this morning but I’m having a headache right now.
The McDonald’s slogan i’m lovin’ it does not follow the rules of Standard English grammar — would one declare one’s affection with I’m loving you? — but its deviance is perhaps what makes it appeal to its target audience.

Monday, September 15, 2008


This example is from the Straits Times Life! supplement (13 September 2008).

Unless the writer is referring to the fruit, he needs to write Blackberrys (name of electronic device). Similarly, we write the two Germanys; I know three Jerrys; He had two Bloody Marys.

It seems spelling is not this writer’s strong point (he is, incidentally, a British native speaker of English). Here’s another blunder from a year ago (Weekend Today, 18–19 August 2007):

Make it formerly, not formally.

‘Only a few are culpable, most are decent folk’ (Straits Times, 13 September 2008).

The comma is too weak a break; use a semicolon instead. Or join the two clauses using a conjunction: Only a few are culpable but most are decent folk.
The Gap Have Narrowed [sic]

‘The gap between them and those paid by ez-link cards have since narrowed’ (Straits Times, 13 September 2008).

Make it has, since gap is the head noun and it is singular.

This is an exceedingly common mistake in the Straits Times, and so easily avoided if one were only to exercise a little extra care when writing a sentence with a complex noun phrase as subject.

This is from the Straits Times Digital Life (DL) supplement (10 September 2008).

The English in DL is usually quite appalling, and this example is typical. Software is an uncountable noun, meaning that grammatically it is treated as singular. Hence, the two instances of they above are wrong: use it instead.

When counting the individual items that make up uncountable nouns, we need a partitive like piece: e.g. pieces of software, furniture, equipment.
Seen Anythibg Suspicious?

Spotted at Outram Park station. No doubt this was the result of n and b being adjacent keys on a qwerty keyboard.
Locative Inversion

‘... deep underground lies tonnes of contaminated waste’ (Today, 12 September 2008).

This is an example of ‘locative inversion’, meaning that the phrase indicating location is inverted with the subject.

When we convert the sentence into the default word order, we see that lies in the original sentence is wrong because the subject is plural: Tonnes of contaminated waste lie deep underground.

Hence: Deep underground lie tonnes of contaminated waste.

Nature’s Way To Beautiful

This message, seen on a Body Shop employee’s T-shirt, probably sounds odd to most of us.

That’s because we’d expect a noun to follow a preposition, i.e. Nature’s Way to Beauty.

However, it would be churlish to object to Body Shop’s slogan since, often, it is linguistic deviance that makes slogans so catchy and memorable.

So this example isn’t so much ‘bad’ English as ‘Body Shop’ English.

Since Young

‘I have been a James Bond fan since young’ (reader letter, New Paper, 7 August 2008).

Since young is a very common expression in Singapore, but it’s actually non-standard, since in Standard English (StdE) a preposition (in this case since) is normally followed by a noun, pronoun or some other constituent functioning like a noun. The StdE equivalent would be since my childhood or since I was young.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Youth vs Youths

‘Many youths here have their sight set on non-prescription glasses — all in the name of fashion ... [Valerie] Teo is one of the many youths wearing glasses as a fashion statement ....’ (Sunday Times Lifestyle, 7 September 2008).

The word youth is one that the Straits Times never seems to get right. (It was also a problem for the Ministry of Education master teachers when they started the Sunday Times English as it is Broken column two years ago.)

In Standard English, the word youth has four different senses. The two that concern us here are (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary):

a. [C] (often disapproving) a young man: The fight was started by a gang of youths.

b. (also the youth) [pl.] young people considered as a group: the nation’s youth, the youth of today, youth culture, youth unemployment.

The word youths, as used in the ST article, is plural, which means it is intended to be countable (e.g. a youth, many youths), and includes females (Valerie Teo). This is Singapore English usage.
Contrast this with Standard English, where the countable use of the term has negative overtones and refers only to males (Sense (a) above).

The article clearly does not intend to refer to ‘young people considered as a group’ either, so Sense (b) is out too.

The most appropriate phrase is, simply, young people:

Many young people here have their sight set on non-prescription glasses — all in the name of fashion ... [Valerie] Teo is one of the many young people wearing glasses as a fashion statement.

I’d also change sight to the more idiomatic sights. (If sight was intended as a pun, it was a rather lame one.)
There Have Been A Mistake Here [sic]

‘For over 30 years, there has never been any quarrels’ (Straits Times, 2 September 2008).

Make it have, since the dummy pronoun there is itself neither singular nor plural, but takes on the number (singular/plural) of the following noun phrase (quarrels is plural).
Global Singaporeans, Local Food

‘Would you believe that most Norwegians take a four-week summer vacation every year? But do not go packing your bags just yet, especially if you love local food’ (Sunday Times Lifestyle, 7 September 2008).

By which the writer meant Singaporean food. Are we Singaporeans so globalized, that everywhere else in the world is we go is local?

For some reason, many Singaporeans equate the term local with Singaporean, forgetting that it takes its reference from the context in which it appears (in the extract, it has to be Norway, since we are talking about Norwegians).

Seems you can take the Singaporean out of Singapore, but not the Singapore out of the Singaporean.
Along With

‘The 36-year-old, along with his brothers Sam, 48, and Don, 42, own the Akashi restaurant chain’ (Sunday Times Lifestyle, 7 September 2008).

Make it owns, because along with is not a conjunction. What this means in terms of grammar is that the subject of the sentence is singular (the 36-year-old), not plural, and requires a following singular verb (owns, not own).

The expression along with ... Don, 42 has no bearing on the grammar of the sentence. Indeed, we may move it around, or remove it altogether:

i. Along with his brothers Sam, 48, and Don, 42, the 36-year-old owns the Akashi restaurant chain.

ii. The 36-year-old owns the Akashi restaurant chain, along with his brothers Sam, 48, and Don, 42.

iii. The 36-year-old owns the Akashi restaurant chain.

Similar expressions include those beginning in including, together with, as well as and plus.

Incidentally, this is a favourite PSLE (Primary Six Leaving Examination, Singapore) question ... but it seems to be a little beyond the competence of our ST editors, some of whom are native speakers of English from countries such as New Zealand and the United States.