Monday, July 07, 2008

Bad English on the Buses

Seen on a Tibs bus: ‘To find out more about paying correct fares, it is available at...’

Make it To find out more about paying correct fares, visit or call...

The sentence as originally worded is reminiscent of topic–comment in Singlish, Chinese and Malay, where the topic is first stated (paying the correct fare) and a comment or more information is then added (it is available at...).

Other, perhaps more typical, examples include Japan, you can’t live cheaply (‘You can’t live cheaply in Japan) and My neighbour, he owns a famous restaurant (‘My neighbour owns a famous restaurant’).

Often, the comment portion has what is called a resumptive pronoun, which may be either a subject or an object — in the last example, the subject pronoun he refers back to the topic, my neighbour.

In our original example, we have a subject resumptive pronoun, it. But what does it refer to? Presumably the topic: loosely, finding out about paying correct fares.


xapaga said...

I think the French have a great preference for what you call "subject resumptive pronoun". This makes me reminiscent of Gustave Flaubert (1821-80) saying to a journalist in 1857, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi!" (meaning "Mrs Bovary is me"). German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) in his book _Parerga und Paralipomena: kleine philosophische Schriften_ (1851) condemns the then fashionable German tendency to imitate the degenerate French taste in writing. Amongst others he picks up the expression, "Diese Menschen, sie haben keine Urteilskraft" (These people, they have no ability to judge) instead of the correct "Diese Menschen haben keine Urteilskraft" (These people have no ability to judge).

Project Gutenberg offers the English translation ( by a Mrs (i.e. the wife of) Rudolf Dircks, but her rendition of this particular part "Ueber Schriftstellerei und Stil" ("On Authorship and Style") is only about a half of the original in quantity and completely omits the cream of this writing. One of her notes remarks:

[7] Schopenhauer here at length points out various common errors in the writing and speaking of German which would lose significance in a translation.--Translator.

The Grammar Terrorist said...

Good to hear from you again, xapaga! Thanks for your comments -- as learned as ever.

Yes, resumptive pronouns in Chinese and Singlish always remind me of French (although topicalization takes place in a much more limited way in French).

Topics and resumptive pronouns are close to my heart, even though they caused me many years of PhD misery!