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.