Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Let’s do our part, switch off your lights, the above exhorts.

It sounds strange for two reasons. For one, the first clause is in the first person plural (us, our) while the latter is in the second person (your) — so there is an abrupt and puzzling shift in perspective from inclusive (speaker + addressee) to exclusive (addressee) pronouns and determiners.

For another, without a context given, switch off your lights seems to suggest that the addressee has lights on him/her. (However, with context given, it would sound less odd, e.g. You forgot to switch off your lights when you left last night.)

The message might have read:

Let’s do our part; switch off the/all lights.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Misplaced Quotation Mark

This has been appearing in the Singapore Ministry of Education’s latest series of recruitment ads.

Something is not quite right here: the quotation marks suggest that ‘Teaching As A Profession Seminar’ is a title. They also mislead the reader into thinking that profession somehow premodifies seminar, making her or him wonder, at least for a second or two, what on earth a profession seminar is.

The reason for all this confusion is the badly placed closing quotation mark, which should come before, not after, Seminar: ‘Teaching As A Profession’ Seminar.

Now we instantly see that this is a seminar whose title happens to be ‘Teaching As A Profession’.

Monday, March 16, 2009


OK, this one isn’t even about English but it concerns something that crops up often enough in English newspapers to merit a mention: Sueedeutsche Zeitung is wrong; make it Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

When German words and names containing vowels with umlaut (a pair of dots) cannot reliably be typset (for example, in non-German news reports and in Internet addresses), the convention is to add an e after these vowels: hence Kaese, Loesung and Fruehling for Käse, Lösung and Frühling (meaning, respectively, ‘cheese’, ‘solution’ and ‘spring’).

Hence, Süddeutsche (south German) is spelt Sueddeutsche, even in the online version of the German newspaper (and indeed its URL,

In German, the umlaut indicates that a vowel is fronted, e.g. from back rounded /u/ to front rounded /y/, the result of an historical process of assimilation.

However, in other languages, for example French, the umlaut indicates that two adjacent letters are not digraphs (two letters giving a single sound), but pronounced separately, e.g. naïve, Citroën. This convention was once even extended to English, so that cooperate was typeset as coöperate in order to indicate that the first syllable was not to be pronounced coo. Nowadays, this function is, of course, more commonly served by the hyphen.
Where To?

Here’s one I’m not totally sure about.

The headline Where the $40 million went to (Sunday Times Lifestyle, 15 March 2009) sounds non-standard to me; my preference would have been What the $40 million went to or simply Where the $40 million went.

Perhaps this is because what is an interrogative pronoun and hence typically stands in for a noun, e.g. to school (to + what?).

On the other hand, where is an interrogative adverb; hence to school (= to + what?) is an adverbial that answers a where? question.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Abbreviations/Initialisms, Contractions, Acronyms

The New Paper writer SM Ong complains that ‘[PMET is not] even a word, but an unpronounceable acronym’ (New Paper on Sunday, 1 March 2009).

Of course it’s unpronounceable — it’s not even an acronym!

‘Abbreviation’ is the general term for any shortened word. It comprises contractions, abbreviations/initialisms, and acronyms.

Contractions are words that have been shrunk in the middle, e.g. Prof, Mr, Adm. (American usage has a full stop at the end of all of these, whereas conservative British usage uses a full stop only if the full form of the word ends in a different letter: hence Prof. for professor and Adm. for admiral, but Mr for mister. Current British usage, however, has largely dispensed with full stops.)

Abbreviations formed from initials and which are not pronounced as words are known simply as abbreviations or initialisms. In Singapore, common abbreviations/initialisms include ERP, MRT, PAP, CPF and COE.

Acronyms, on the other hand, are abbreviations/initialisms which are pronounced as words, e.g. NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations).

Some abbreviations in Singapore are initialisms for some speakers and acronyms for others. For instance, some people say ‘mert’ for MRT (apparently in jest) and ‘nell’ for NEL — for them, these would be acronyms rather than initialisms.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Against the Objectification of Women

To mark International Women’s Day on Sunday, 8 March 2009, the Sunday Times ran several articles honouring women in Singapore.

So it was somewhat ironic that an unrelated article carried the headline, Imported wives suffer the crisis. The word imported can only suggest that the wives in question are material goods to be traded, owned and even discarded.

The headline could have read: Foreign wives suffer the crisis. It would have been a little less precise, but a whole lot less offensive and dehumanizing.

Monday, March 09, 2009

/l/-vocalization in Singapore English

‘If you are a Tampines resident clamouring for “mall, mall, mall” so as to enjoy greater shopping choices, ...’ (Sunday Times, 8 March 2009).
Obviously this was a pun on ‘clamouring for more’: in Singapore, the words mall and more are homophones for many speakers because the final /l/ consonant in mall is deleted or vocalized (i.e. becomes a vowel).
This phenomenon, known as /l/-vocalization, appears to be most common among ethnic Chinese speakers of English because, in Mandarin and the more common ‘dialects’ (e.g. Hokkien, Teochew), /l/ is not possible in the coda of a syllable. Contrast this with Malay and Tamil, which have words and indeed names like pukul and Tamil.
A grammatical error crops up later in the same quote: greater choices. Since choices here is used here as a countable noun, it should read more choices.
No doubt greater can mean ‘more’, but in this sense it goes only with uncountable nouns, e.g. greater choice/variety. (Choice can be used either as a countable or an uncountable noun.)

‘SBS has received “a handful of feedback” concerning the steps’ (Sunday Times, 8 March 2009).

Terrible English. Feedback is an uncountable noun, so the quote should have read some feedback or a handful of comments.

No doubt the reporter was quoting the SBS Transit spokesperson verbatim, but some light editing, rephrasing, or even a disclaimer in the form of [sic] would have been in order. The blandness of the quote also makes one wonder why the reporter thought it necessary to quote the spokesperson in the first place.

Friday, March 06, 2009


An interesting typo in the Independent (5 March 2009, online): a harrowing site instead of the correct sight.

We know that site and sight are homophones (words that sound identical), but since the incident involved a bulldozer, was the writer thinking of construction site, perhaps?

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Third Age

The name of this Singapore-based organization, Council for Third Age, has always struck me as somewhat illiterate: it cries out for a definite article, the, before the ordinal third.

Compare this with the UK-based University of the Third Age:

Why Second Life and not The Second Life, then? Probably because it is considered to be a proper name, making the definite article redundant or wrong — for the same reason that we wouldn’t normally say *The George is coming. We could, however, say You are not the George I used to know, but this would be a special case of treating George as a common noun rather than a proper noun.