Sunday, December 27, 2009




Can you, at a glance, tell whether each abstract (from Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans) is from a British or an American publisher?

The answer is that (a) is from an American publisher (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000) and (b), from a British publisher (Faber & Faber, 2000).

Quotation marks are usually the most obvious clue: Americans prefer double quotes, whereas the British prefer single quotes: compare interrogating and interrogating, for instance.

A second difference is the placement of the full-stop: compare “such an odd bird at school.” with ‘such an odd bird at school’.  American practice always has the punctuation inside the quotes, even if a fragment is being quoted (as here), whereas in British practice it depends on whether the punctuation was part of the original quote, a grammatically complete sentence, and so on.

A third clue to (a) being American is the full-stop in St. Dunstan’s: American editorial practice generally uses full-stops in abbreviations; by contrast, modern British practice has largely dispensed with them altogether.  In older British practice, however, full-stops were used in all abbreviations except contractions, i.e. the first and last letters of the full word were retained.  Hence, Dr for doctor but Prof. for Professor.  (However, to avoid confusion, St. was used for street and St for saint.)

Surprisingly, the word judgement in the US edition retains the British spelling, with the e as underlined — perhaps to keep the British identity of the protagonist.  In British English, judgement is used in non-legal contexts, and judgment in legal ones.  Hence, In my judgement, this judge is not qualified to pass judgment on this case (but judgment in both instances in American English).
Verb Errors

These are just the first two paragraphs of an opinion piece, but they are littered with elementary verb errors.

In the first paragraph, do is wrong as there is no reason for an abrupt switch in tense from past (spoke, were) to present.

In the second paragraph, poor service standards was not my bugbear is, again, obviously wrong.  Since the plural standards is the head of the noun phrase poor service standards, we need a plural verb, were.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

BBC Learning English Gets Symbols Wrong

I have just discovered the BBC Learning English Pronunciation Tips page, a splendid resource not only for learners of English but also for teachers and anybody wishing to learn IPA symbols for English.  Among other things, it has an IPA chart as well as videos showing how vowel and consonant sounds are pronounced.

I particularly like the chart (Listen to the sounds of English) where each symbol, when clicked, plays the sound it represents.  (This is arguably more effective with vowels rather than consonants.) 

Two elementary errors blight this chart, however.  First, the diphthong given as /ɑʊ/ is wrong: the correct symbol is /aʊ/.  Second, the consonant /l/ is wrongly given as /ɭ/ — this latter sound is the retroflex lateral approximant which one finds in the Dravidian language Tamil; it is, loosely speaking, an /l/ sound produced with the tongue curled back (retroflex). 

What these errors show is that transcribing sounds is an exact business: there is no room for creativity or self-expression, as subtle differences may result in altogether different sounds.  I have written to the BBC pointing out these errors, and hope the chart is amended soon.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Number Of...

In the two occurrences above of the number of cases (Straits Times, 10 December 2009), the writer uses a singular verb is in the first instance (correct) but plural go in the second (wrong).

The rule to remember is this: use a singular verb with the number of ..., but a plural verb with a number of ....

This is because, when we say the number of ..., we are really referring to a number.  Since number is a singular head noun, it accordingly takes a singular verb.

But when we say a number of ..., we actually mean some.  Hence, a number of becomes a complex determiner.  Since the noun that follows of is always plural (e.g. a number of doctors/cases, not a number of *doctor/*case), the verb should also be plural.

It often surprises people that straight-laced is wrong — the correct spelling is strait-laced (US spelling straitlaced). 

The word strait is a noun meaning ‘a narrow passage of water that connects two seas or large areas of water’ (Oxford), e.g. the Straits of Gibraltar, Straits of Malacca, Johor Straits.  There are also figurative expressions, of course, such as dire straits and desperate financial straits.

No doubt the writer was exercising literary licence in her descriptions of Tiger Woods in the above excerpt (Straits Times,12 December 2009), in which she uses the superlative forms cleanest, straightest and goodiest, but straightest shows quite clearly that she has confused the noun strait (which cannot take the suffix –est) with the adjective straight (which can).
The Games Is/Are...

Since the head of the noun phrase SEA Games (South East Asian Games) is the plural Games, the headline (Straits Times, 10 December 2009) ought to read: SEA Games open with a bang.  The same applies to, and is observed with, the Olympic Games.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Kena Passive in Singapore English

In Standard English (StdE), passives are formed using a be passive auxiliary verb or a form of get.  By contrast, Singapore English (SgE), which does not have as complex a system of auxiliary and main verbs, uses kena (a word of Malay origin) to form the passive.  The SgE examples above may therefore be phrased in StdE as I was once fined, I got fined once, or If I was fined.  (The quote may be translated as ‘I was once fined for jaywalking. Quite embarrassing. If I’d been fined for speeding, then that would’ve been cool.’)

Interestingly, the SgE kena passive is what is known as an ‘adversative passive’ — one used for negative or undesirable outcomes.  Hence, The baby kena fed is all right if the baby had been fed poison, but not if it had been fed milk.  Likewise, if one were to say I kena appointed leader, it suggests the speaker did not want to be leader.
A Clarification on Clarify

In Standard English (StdE), the verb clarify is a transitive verb, meaning that it has the pattern ‘someone clarifies something’, or Subject-Verb-Object.

In Singapore English (SgE), however, clarify is usually intransitive, meaning it does not take an object.  We see this very clearly in the above example, taken from a letter explaining overcrowding on the trains:

We hope this clarifies, and thank Dr Lim for his feedback

In StdE, the first half of the sentence might have read: We hope this clarifies the matter.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Passive Construction

It is said that children, once they’ve acquired the passive construction, soon discover its usefulness when they’ve done something wrong and wish to avoid taking responsibility for it.

In an active sentence, the subject (underlined) is the agent or doer of the action: I made mistakes

In a passive sentence, the subject (underlined) is the patient or undergoer of the action: Mistakes were made.  Note that the passive construction allows the speaker to avoid mentioning the agent.  However, the agent may be mentioned using a so-called ‘agent by-phrase’ (underlined): Mistakes were made by me.

This comic strip is doubly funny because Zoё’s utterance sounds very adult.  If it sounds familiar, it’s probably because we associate it primarily with bungling politicians, CEOs, bankers and celebrities who’ve been forced to admit their mistakes publicly!

Edit: A few days after this post, the exact phrase was used by a ‘top banker’ in an interview with the UK’s Sunday Telegraph.  One wonders why he didn’t say, ‘We made mistakes’!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Phonics *Are Interesting

The highlighted verb is wrong (The Times, 30 November 2009).  Since phonics is the name of a subject, it should take a singular verb, is.  It is puzzling that the teacher — if she was indeed quoted correctly — chose a plural verb for phonics but a singular one for maths.  (And while we’re being pedantic, there should be a semicolon and not a comma after excellent.)

Words like mathematics, economics, acoustics and politics take singular verbs when they refer to the name of a subject or topic of study, but they take plural verbs when they refer to aspects, attributes, qualities and so on.  Hence:

Politics is my strongest subject at university.
The politics at work are unbearable.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


A rather unusual typo here: the headline (Independent on Sunday website, 29 November 2009) should have read The war was illegal, with was rather than war underlined for emphasis.  The typo was no doubt due to the superficial similarity of the two words.  (And no, in case you’re wondering, it was not a hyperlink.)

As the first paragraph of the article shows, the issue at hand was the legality of the war:

‘Tony Blair will be quizzed over a devastating official memo warning him that war on Iraq would be illegal eight months before he sent troops into Baghdad, it was claimed last night.’

While it would be possible to stress the word war, the effect would be to contrast it with something else, for example occupation.  This is known as contrastive stress.  But as we can see from the article, there was no such intended contrast.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


The above colon (Straits Times, 6 November 2009) is wrong and should be deleted, since colons are not to be used after linking verbs (in this case were).

Colons may be used to introduce main clauses (i.e. clauses that are grammatically complete and can stand on their own), as in the two examples above (Straits Times, 12 November 2009).  But does one use a small or capital letter after the colon?  Interestingly, in North America, the preference is for a capital letter, whereas British English prefers a small letter.  As can be seen from the above, however, Straits Times (and, by extension, Singaporean?) practice is inconsistent.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Slight Problem

The headline (Straits Times, 21 November 2009) is wrong: make it Sleight of hand.  The expression means ‘skilful movements of [the] hand that other people cannot see’ (Oxford) — in this case the France striker Thierry Henry’s main de Dieu (‘hand of God’), which cost Ireland its place in next year’s football World Cup.

Slight and sleight are pronounced alike, so the misspelling — assuming it was not a weak attempt at a pun — is perhaps understandable.  The formal equivalent of sleight of hand is the French leger de main.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Weak Forms of Function Words

Online discussion forums are a rich source of authentic language data, particularly where linguistically insightful misspellings and other errors are concerned.

In the above extract, the poster (an American) writes would of when he means would have. This misspelling would probably be rather baffling to non-native speakers of English or to speakers of new varieties of English (e.g. Singaporean), but it is very common among ‘traditional’ native speakers such as the British, Canadians and Americans.  In these traditional native varieties of English, the function words of and have have identical weak forms — /əv/ — hence the confusion in spelling.  However, this misspelling does not arise in Singapore English and other newer varieties of English since they do not generally use weak forms of function words.

Similarly, this extract suggests that the poster (British) rhymes you’re (the spelling needed in the first instance) with your.  Again, this is because in British English are has the weak form /ə/ — so both you’re and your are pronounced /jʊə/ or /jɔː/. Likewise, this does not arise in Singapore English since it generally avoids weak forms.

Friday, November 06, 2009


In Singapore, the words scrap and scrape are often confused, with many pronouncing the former like the latter in the context of sending cars to the scrapyard. Still, the mistake in the headline (Straits Times website, 6 November 2009) is surprising, since one would expect a sub-editor to know better.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Comes and Goes

The choice between come and go is often tricky because it depends on who the point of reference is: the writer/speaker or the reader/hearer.

The use of goes in the above example is extremely odd. Here, the headline writer ought to have taken the reader as point of reference because the latter interprets the situation as one in which the vaccine comes to a clinic near her/him from the country of manufacture — hence comes is preferable in this instance to goes.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Pronunciation of –s suffix

This notice, seen in Ikea cafés in Singapore, encourages customers to clear their trays after eating.  As can be seen, in Singapore English pronunciation, trace and trays are homophones (different words pronounced identically): both are /treɪs/. 

By contrast, in other varieties of English, e.g. British, trace would be /treɪs/ and trays, /treɪz/.  The suffix –s, as a possessive (e.g. Chuck’s), plural (e.g. Chucks) or third-person singular present tense (e.g. chucks) marker, is realized as /s/ after voiceless sounds and as /z/ after voiced ones (vowels and voiced consonants).  This rule applies to trays, whose singular form, tray /treɪ/, ends in a vowel (voiced) sound, but not to trace /treɪs/, where the /s/ is not a suffix but part of the root.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Some problems with this advertisement for a pocket ashtray. 

The top line reads: A green way to toss away your cigarette ashes.  Make it cigarette ash, since the word ash is uncountable (hence singular) in the context of tobacco, wood, coal or volcanoes.  The plural ashes is more appropriate for cremated bodies and for buildings, etc. destroyed by fire.

The next line reads: Your environmental friendly Pocket Ashtray.  The compound adjective is more commonly environmentally friendly (adverb+adjective) or environment-friendly (with hyphen).

The last line is the exhortation, Don’t be a Tosser, keep the city clean!  The word tosser is a bit unfortunate here since it is, among other things, a swear word with the literal meaning ‘one who pleasures himself’.

Friday, October 30, 2009


The word premises, meaning ‘the building and land near to it that a business owns or uses’ (Oxford), is always plural. Hence, a plural noun and verb are needed: These are smoke-free premises.
Subject-Verb Agreement

This headline, from the Daily Telegraph website (12 August 2009), is wrong.  Make it:

Thinking of something good that happened the day before boosts happiness.

In Standard English, verbs agree with subjects.  Here, we have a subject in the form of a nonfinite clause, as underlined above.  When clauses function as subjects, they are grammatically singular — hence the singular verb boosts.

The subheading is a little trickier: Smiling and recalling something pleasant from the previous day help to make you happier, according to a new experiment.

The plural verb help, if intentional, suggests that the writer was thinking of smiling and recalling something pleasant from the previous day as two separate activities, hence making the subject plural.  My preference, however, would be to treat it as a single activity, hence Smiling ... previous day helps ....
–ise vs –ize

Are criticize, analyze and televize American spellings?

Some quick answers: criticize is also possible in British English (BrE); analyze is found only in American English (AmE); and televize is possible in neither.

There is a widespread misconception that –ize is AmE and –ise, BrE.  It is worth remembering, however, that –ize has been in the English language since the 16th century — long before the founding of the United States of America as we know it.

While –ize is standard in AmE, it is also used by many BrE writers.  Reputable British publishers such as the Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Longman and Macmillan, and newspapers such The Times, prefer –ize on the grounds that it is closer to the Greek root –izo (whereas –ise is French).

There are many words, however, which cannot, for etymological reasons, be spelt with –ize: advertise, advise, arise, circumcise, compromise, excise, exercise, improvise, incise, merchandise, premise, promise, revise, supervise, surmise, surprise and televise, to name a few.

Another point to note is that words ending in –yse cannot be spelt –yze in BrE, even by writers who prefer –ize: for example, analyse, catalyse, and paralyse.  (These spellings retain the s from the noun forms analysis, catalysis, and paralysis.)  In AmE, however, only –yze is used: analyze, catalyze, paralyze.

Hence, –yze is the only true AmE-only spelling, whereas –ize, though used chiefly in AmE, is hardly an American spelling since it has been in continuous use in BrE for the past five centuries.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pore Over

Unless the New Paper (20 October 2009) really meant that intelligence officers were going to empty liquid on a book, the phrasal verb they were looking for was pore over (‘to look at or read something very carefully’, Oxford).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wendy Saw Joe *Scratched Her Car

Something I shared during this week’s lecture.

Which is correct, (1) or (2)?

(1) Wendy saw Joe scratch her car.
(2) Wendy saw Joe scratched her car.

Most people know that (1) is correct and (2) is wrong. Some teachers, however, are asked so often about (2) that they begin, quite understandably, to believe it might actually be correct. After all, it would seem logical enough that, as saw indicates past tense with the subject Wendy, so also should scratched, with Joe.

The thing to remember here is that, in English, the verb agrees with the subject of the clause (subject–verb agreement). In the main clause, Wendy is the subject, hence saw agrees with it. Scratch cannot, however, agree with Joe since it is the object of the clause. (The clause has the structure S+V+O+Co; Wendy + saw + Joe + scratch her car.) But if Joe became the subject of its own main clause, then the verb would agree with it: Joe scratched the car. Therefore, only a nonfinite (tenseless, agreementless) form of scratch can appear after Joe: either the base form scratch or the –ing participle, scratching.

What, then, is the difference between scratch and scratching?

(3) Wendy saw Joe scratch her car.
(4) Wendy saw Joe scratching her car.

In (3), scratch implies that Joe made a single scratch, and that Wendy witnessed the act from start to finish. By contrast, in (4), scratching implies that the act was ongoing; when Wendy looked, Joe was already engaged in his mischief.

Why, then, is it possible to say (5) but not (6)?

(5) Wendy made her pupils cry.
(6) Wendy made her pupils *crying.

In (5), cry implies that Wendy witnessed the start of the act — indeed, because she was the cause of it. It should be obvious that (6) is impossible since, if Wendy caused her pupils to cry, then they could not already have been crying. The verb made above is called a causative (a person/thing causes another person/thing do something).

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Collective vs Uncountable Nouns

This sign, No Footwears Beyond This Point (Straits Times, 12 October 2009) is obviously wrong — but so also is the analysis of footwear as ‘generic, collective and plural’.

First, in grammar, generic is a term associated primarily with pronouns, not nouns. Generic pronouns are those referring to no specific addressee, like you and one, e.g. You/One should never work too hard. It is not clear what a ‘generic noun’ is supposed to mean.

Second, footwears is not a collective noun; it is uncountable. Uncountable nouns include flour, sugar, salt, bread, patience, food, tea, coffee, metal, furniture, equipment, information and software. They take determiners such as much and less (rather than many and fewer). Uncountable nouns do not (or do not usually) have –s plural forms; hence, *informations and *flours are wrong.

However, some nouns that are normally uncountable also have countable uses, with the meaning ‘varieties of’. So we may say I want some coffee, but also I have tried some of the world’s finest coffees.

The third point about footwear being plural is also wrong. Uncountable nouns are in fact grammatically singular, hence The information/equipment/software/furniture is not very useful; Coffee/Sugar/Salt is bad for health when taken in excess. And, of course, Footwear is prohibited in the prayer hall.

In Singapore, collective nouns are surprisingly often confused with uncountable nouns. This is perhaps due to the misinterpretation of the term ‘collective’ as referring to collections of, for example, shoes (footwear) and tables and chairs (furniture). Note that collective nouns refer to groups of animate beings (see previous post) — those with powers of volition, i.e. the will to act. This will to act enables members of the group (e.g. flock, family, committee, staff, crew) to act as individuals or as a single unit, in unison with the rest. Footwear and furniture are not collective nouns because shoes, chairs and tables do not have powers of volition.

Collective Nouns

Microsoft show ‘faster’ Windows 7, proclaims the headline (BBC News, 2 September 2009).

While this may look like a subject–verb agreement error to many readers, in British English it is in fact correct.

That’s because British English very often uses plural verbs with what appear to be singular collective nouns, where singular verbs would be the norm in Singapore English and American English.

A collective noun is essentially a group of animate individuals, who may function as individuals (+ plural verb) or as a single unit (+ singular verb). Common collective nouns include staff, crew, group, team, committee, family, flock, police, public, audience, police, army, media, class, institution, university, and businesses (e.g. Microsoft above).

British English often allows a choice between a singular or a plural verb. A singular verb is preferred if the emphasis is on the unit as a single entity, e.g. The committee is undecided, while a plural verb suggests that its members are acting as individuals, e.g. My committee are always quarrelling among themselves.

Collective nouns like police always take plural verbs in British English, as do sports teams, e.g. Argentina have qualified for the World Cup. Singapore English generally favours singular verbs, except in sports reporting, in which it is clearly influenced by British English.

Some collective nouns are always singular in form, e.g. police (not *polices). Others are countable (singular or plural), e.g. family/families, group/groups. Yet others are only rarely found in the plural, e.g. staff/staffs, crew/crews, meaning two or more sets of staff/crew (not staff/crew members ), as in The staffs of the White House and Downing Street.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Plural –s

Quite a creative way to make a correction look like an intended part of the design!

This is the cover of a book titled More than Half the Sky: Creative Writings by 30 Singaporean Women.

According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the word writing in the sense of ‘the activity of writing books, articles, etc.’ is uncountable, hence marked [U], as in the expression creative writing.

By contrast, the plural, i.e. countable ([C]), use denotes ‘a group of pieces of writing, especially by a particular person or on a particular subject’, as in the examples His experiences in India influenced his later writings and the writings of Hegel (Oxford).

Hence, the use of writings in the subtitle of the book is non-standard, because it refers neither to the work of a particular person nor to work on a particular subject.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


Here is a typo that has a phonological explanation. Lamenting that many drivers do not know how to maintain their cars, the reader comments: And I have [observed that] that [some/many] drivers don’t change their tyres even though the tyres were bore (Straits Times website, 1 October 2009).

Quite obviously, the writer meant the tyres were bald. What’s interesting is that he may simply have been typing what he heard in his head — and evidently he pronounces bald and bore alike.

But how does bald /bɔ:ld/ become bore /bɔ:/? First, /d/ is lost through the process of final-consonant simplification. Next, syllable-final dark /l/ is deleted. Both are well-known features of Singapore English phonology.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Less Is More

To prescriptive grammarians, 10 units or less would be wrong, since units is countable and would accordingly require fewer. The notice should therefore read 10 units or fewer.
However, this conundrum could be avoided altogether if we simply phrase it Up to 10 units/items.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Negative Dual

In Standard English, both is not normally used in the negative, so the above extract (Straits Times web, 16 September 2009) would read: neither man was dressed and both were foaming.

The so-called ‘negative dual’, as exemplified by the ST extract, is, however, common in Singapore English.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


The use of molest as a noun is usual in Singapore; as it is found regularly in the Straits Times (this example from the web edition, 16 September 2009), one might consider it Standard Singapore English usage.

In other standard Englishes (e.g. British), however, molest can only be a verb. The noun is molestation.

Monday, September 14, 2009

How It Looks/What It Looks Like

The above is from an article about a Singapore mail-order bride agency and its success in attracting overseas customers, owing to its use of English and the web (New Paper on Sunday, 13 September 2009).

Singapore English is often said to be economical and to the point, but this is not always so — how the girls look like has a superfluous like. The standard English expressions would be how the girls look or what the girls look like.

This distinction is obvious in the following excerpts, taken from the same article in the online version of the UK-based CAR Magazine:

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Here is another error that is exceedingly common in the pages of the Straits Times (7 September 2009). Reporting on the launch of this year’s Speak Good English Movement, the newspaper asks young people for their views on whether ‘youths’ are the right target for the campaign.

This use of youths to mean ‘young people’ in general is non-standard. As we can see from the following entry from the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, the word youths as a [C] or countable noun (i.e. singular or plural) can refer only to males, especially teenaged ones involved in violent or criminal activities. However, the Straits Times clearly refers to young people both male and female, engaged in nothing more objectionable than Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Subject–Verb Agreement, Again and Again

This has to be the most persistent error in the Straits/Sunday Times — which, somewhat ironically, fancies itself as the standard-bearer of good English in Singapore and runs a website ridiculing other people’s bad English.

The plural verb characterise is wrong (Sunday Times Lifestyle, 30 August 2009). Make it characterises (singular), since it is inside a relative clause postmodifying the singular head noun friendliness.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

One Of Those Problems...

The Russian pianist Nikolai Demidenko is one of those artists who does not attempt something unless it can be done differently (Straits Times, Life! supplement, 19 June 2009).

It is natural to think that a singular verb should follow one of ..., but in reality the verb is always plural. Here’s how it works:

The underlined constituent in the quoted sentence is a noun phrase, with the structure one of X.

If I were to ask, ‘One of what?’, your answer would be: those artists who do not attempt something unless it can be done differently.

Now, it should be obvious that there’s a relative clause postmodifying artists, and since the relative pronoun who refers to artists, the verb that follows should be plural.

Uncountable Nouns and Agreement

The second bullet point of this notice, by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore, reads:

Do not buy mouldy food as they may contain mycotoxins.

As uncountable (or noncount) nouns are grammatically singular, the sentence should have read, ... as it may contain mycotoxins.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


The spelling cassanova in the headline (Straits Times, Internet edition, 20 August 2009) is wrong: make it casanova. The term is used in English to mean ‘womanizer’, a reference to the eponymous Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt, reputedly the ‘world’s greatest lover’.

In Italian, casa nova would literally mean ‘new house’, whereas cassa nova would mean ‘new cash’ or ‘new (cash) till’.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Well Qualified

‘Could this be Singapore’s most well qualified taxi driver?’ asks the Straits Times (18 August 2009) of Dr Cai Ming Jie, who holds a PhD in molecular biology from Stanford.

This is a misuse of the term well qualified — a taxi driver who is well qualified for his job may have many years’ driving experience, hold certificates in defensive driving, be an approved tour guide, and command some foreign languages in addition to the local languages. But holding a PhD in molecular biology would probably not make him a better taxi driver.

Perhaps the Straits Times meant most highly educated.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Happy National Day

There’re two ways of analysing Happy National Day as a noun phrase.

The more obvious analysis, perhaps, is to treat the adjectives happy and national as premodifiers of the head noun day, hence [ happy national [day] ].

The other is to treat national day as a single head noun, and happy as the sole premodifier, hence [ happy [national day] ]. This is perhaps the better analysis since national day is thought of as a single idea.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Linguistic Coincidence

If you know German, the above headline may be mildly amusing, because Putin is a close rhyme for German Puten (plural of Pute), meaning ‘turkey hen’.

Incidentally, in French, Putin would be pronounced as putain, which means (among other things) ‘prostitute’.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Subject–Verb Agreement

Memories of trainee’s injury still haunts coach (The New Paper, 24 July 2009) is wrong; make it: Memories of trainee’s injury still haunt coach.

In Standard English, when we have a complex noun phrase as subject, the following verb agrees with the head noun, not the noun closest to it — that’s why we need the plural verb haunt to agree with the plural memories, not the singular injury.

The head noun is often (but not always) the most important noun in the noun phrase: if we were to choose only one noun to tell us what the noun phrase is about, we’d pick memories, not injury (i.e. memories haunt him).

Big Sale
The noun phrase the big bra sale in the above sign is ambiguous, in that it has two possible interpretations. The intended interpretation is, of course, ‘big sale (of bras)’, where the adjective big modifies the head noun sale. We can represent this as [ big [bra sale] ]. The unintended interpretation is ‘sale of big bras’, which has the noun phrase big bra modifying the head noun sale: schematically, [ [big bra] sale].
The layout artist who did the following poster was evidently aware of the ambiguity, hence the larger font size for big and sale.

Monday, June 08, 2009


This headline (Sunday Times Lifestyle, 17 May 2009) may sound ‘punny’ to Singaporeans, but speakers of other varieties of English would probably find it rather baffling.

In Singapore English, the vowels /e/ and /æ/are often merged, so that celery and salary become homophones, i.e. are pronounced alike. In other varieties, however, they are not homophonous: in British English, for example, they are respectively /'seləri/ and /'sæləri/.

Of course, context may help: salary collocates or goes with negotiation. But if one doesn’t pronounce salary like celery in the first place, then the collocation probably wouldn’t arise at all, and one would still be left wondering what negotiation has to do with the vegetable.