Thursday, May 29, 2008

Direct Address (a.k.a Vocatives)
‘Relax mom, the next bus arrives in 8 minutes.’

A problem with this SBSTransit ad: it should read Relax, Mom; the next bus arrives in 8 minutes, because the boy is addressing his mother directly (otherwise it sounds like Mom is the object of the transitive verb relax, e.g. Relax your shoulders).

Similarly, when we greet or address others, we need a comma after the greeting:

Morning, Kathy.
Hello, Dolly.
Hi, Yasmin.

Why don’t we use a comma in Dear Yasmin, then? Because dear is not a greeting — it is actually an adjective. Note that we can say My dear Yasmin, which is a typical noun phrase with the structure Determiner + Adjective + Head Noun.

This reminds me of a restaurant in Serangoon Gardens many years ago, which was justifiably very proud of its famous fish-head curry. Unfortunately, however, there was a surly waitress who always greeted you with Hello, Fish Head — making you feel like the missing part of a decapitated salmon. In slightly better English and with better prosody, she might have said: Hello. Fish head curry for you?
The Pleasure of Reading

How not to read or teach reading ...


I was recently asked about these, which appeared in some school worksheets:

(i) You can pay either by cash or cheque.
(ii) You can either pay by cash or cheque.

Sentence (i) was marked ‘formal’, and (ii) as ‘informal’.

Either…or and neither…nor are called ‘correlative conjunctions’: they help us mark out two (and no more) options on offer; i.e. either A or B, neither A nor B.

One thing to note is that A and B should be parallel in structure: if A is a noun, so also should B; if A is a preposition phrase, so also should B.

To illustrate, our options A and B are underlined here: You can choose either to sink or to swim. Note that to sink and to swim are like constituents, i.e. they are both to-infinitives. We do, however, have the option of dropping the second to since it is repeated (i.e. ellipsis) — giving us You can choose either to sink or (to) swim — but some purists would frown upon this. What we can be sure about, however, is that You can either choose to sink or swim is definitely wrong, because either wrongly marks out choose as an option — yet this is probably far more commonly encountered in everyday speech.

Going back to our first two sentences, the clearest way to express the idea is:

(iii) You can pay by either cash or cheque.

However this, for some reason, sounds rather stilted. An improvement would perhaps be:

(iv) You can pay either by cash or by cheque.

Observe that our options, as underlined, are parallel in structure: they’re both preposition phrases (each headed by by).

By contrast, in (i) the options aren’t parallel: by cash is a preposition phrase, while cheque is a noun. Recall, however, that we may argue that the second occurrence of by has been ellipted from by cheque — but recall also that some grammarians would object to this. So, (i) is a little problematic.

Sentence (ii) is even more so, because either is badly placed, marking out pay wrongly as an option.

On balance, I wouldn’t agree that (i) is formal — the honour goes to the rather stilted (iii) and the far more natural (iv). Sentence (ii) is wrong, but perhaps the most natural to speakers.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Denominal Verbs

Lots of denominal verbs here, i.e. verbs derived from nouns — for instance, trantruming from tantrum and meltdowning from meltdown (interestingly, melting down doesn’t have the same force).

This is the same process that gave us access as a verb (e.g. to access a file) and, more recently, to dialogue with someone.


A great comic strip with which to teach the plural.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


Metathesis is a term in phonetics referring, loosely, to swapping sounds around. A good example is the common children’s pronunciation of spaghetti as pasketti, which avoids the problematic initial cluster, /sp/.

Above, we have a particularly cheeky example ... how could anybody take offence!
The Café Lobby

Lately, Café Lobbys have been springing up in urban centres.

Pity the name doesn’t make any sense, however. A ‘café lobby’ is a kind of lobby, not a kind of café, because the head noun is the last noun, in this case lobby. (English noun phrases are therefore said to be ‘head-last’.) Make it The Lobby Café.

Similarly, an English teacher (with primary stress on the noun premodifier ENGlish) is a kind of teacher — specifically, one who teaches English. (If the teacher is of English nationality, English is an adjective, and the primary stress falls on TEAcher.)

Are grammatical transgressions such as the above on the increase … or is it just me? Anyway, this is what I get for my troubles:

Oi! No photo-taking!!

Subject–Agreement Errors

‘The risk of losing their lives or getting into trouble do not matter’ (subhead, Straits Times, 10 December 2007). Make it does, since the head of the noun phrase, risk, is singular.

‘When the prices of new cars rise, the value of used cars rise too’ (Straits Times, 30 April 2008). Make it rises, since the head noun, value, is singular.

‘Six new SBS Transit Services for CBD Commuters Starts Monday’ (Today headline, 20 April 2008). Services is a plural head noun; hence, make it start.
Bad Copy-editing

Here’s proof (Sunday Times, 20 April 2008) that foreign talent doesn’t necessarily mean good English.

Ex-pat is illiterate; make it expat (check, for example, Oxford). And consider this abomination:

‘This is a time of year when Canadians, Americans, Swedes, Fins (sic) and their northern brethren are bombarded with natural cues that signal the end of a long winter.’

Fins? As in what one finds on aquatic creatures?

At least he spelt barbecuing right …
Even More Choice/Choices

Straits Times Digital Life supplement, 22 April 2008

Straits Times, April 20, 2008

Interestingly, reporting on the same news, the Straits Times now appears to waver between the countable and uncountable uses of choice, when the uncountable would do (see previous post).