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.