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.