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’!