Wednesday, December 15, 2010


In Singapore English the verb keep has the meaning of ‘to put away’ — as was obviously intended in the excerpt above.

In Standard English, however, keep describes a state and not an action; and, as noted by Adam Brown in his excellent Singapore English in a Nutshell, it is very often synonymous with possess, remain or retain.

In Standard English, the term marketing refers to ‘the activity of deciding how to advertise a product, what price to charge for it etc, or the type of job in which you do this’.

In Singapore, as the above article (Sunday Times Lifestyle, 28 November 2010) interestingly shows, marketing is used to mean both that and the activity of shopping for groceries.  The latter meaning is in fact also old-fashioned American English.

For some mysterious reason, the Straits Times seems never to be able to handle the collective nouns the young and youth.  Both expressions refer to young people considered as a group, and are grammatically plural.  Hence, make it Young Prefer Newspapers.

What, exactly, is a slight change in venue? Getting people to move from the left side of the room to the right, perhaps? (No, it was a complete change, from one lecture theatre to another.)

The use of slight above is an example of a hedge, i.e. ‘a mitigating device used to lessen the impact of an utterance’.  Using it probably made the writer feel there was no need for an apology.

The verb give is wrong; it should have been giving (Straits Times, 27 November 2010). 

This is because the final clause shares an auxiliary verb with the preceding one, and since it is understood it may be omitted (or ellipted): he is not heeding her words and he (is) not giving in to his grief.
Sentence Construction

The above sign would be improved by the insertion of a definite article before elderly:

This restroom is for people with disabilities and the elderly.

This would make it clear that the restroom is for (i) people with disabilities, and (ii) the elderly.  The definite article would help mark the start of a new, separate noun phrase, so that elderly would not be construed as being part of the postmodifier of the head noun people.  Of course, we might also choose to repeat the preposition (i.e. for the elderly), but perhaps an even clearer way of wording the notice would be:

This restroom is for the elderly and people with disabilities.

The noun phrase a elephant in the cartoon above (19 November 2010) looks like an error arising out of ignorance. However, a more plausible explanation is that the cartoonist had merely been very careless. As an amateur calligrapher myself I know all too well how easy it is to misspell even the simplest of words — and even one’s own name! — when writing (and typesetting) a piece very slowly and deliberately by hand, especially in capital letters.

The second sentence (Sunday Times, 21 November 2010) might have been punctuated better as follows:

They are the first, and only, women to date to break into these two male-dominated elite frontline combat units.

This sign, spotted in a supermarket in Singapore called Giant, is perfectly punctuated (the apostrophe applies, in each case, after the plural forms children, ladies and men have been derived).  In the UK, where I lived for eight years as a student, such a sign would almost certainly have been mispunctuated.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Phonics by Kelly Chopard

The above is a description of a phonics course. As can be seen from the title and body text, the instructor suggests that the pronunciation of phonics as /ˈfəʊnɪks/ is Singaporean and wrong.

Well, here’s an opinion from somebody who knows better — Professor John Wells, possibly the world’s foremost authority on English pronunciation, and writer of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (LPD).

Below is his entry for phonic. (The ~s means that, in terms of pronunciation, phonics differs only in that one detail from the headword, phonic.)

Unsurprisingly he prioritizes the more common pronunciation, /ˈfɒnɪks/, but also lists /ˈfəʊnɪks/ as a variant for British Received Pronunciation (RP). The same pattern is observed in the General American pronunciations, given after ||.

The fact that /ˈfəʊnɪks/ is not prioritized does not mean it is non-standard. In the LPD, non-standard (i.e. non-RP) pronunciations are marked §, as we can see in the following discussion of /wɪθ/ in Britain:

It is unclear on what basis (apart from irrational prejudice) Kelly Chopard believes that /ˈfəʊnɪks/ is a Singaporean, hence undesirable, pronunciation worthy of ridicule, when for millions of British and American speakers it is perfectly acceptable.

It is also interesting to note that she labels this pronunciation as ‘Singlish’, a usually dismissive term for colloquial Singapore English. However, one should point out that this term refers not so much to the Singapore accent as to other features such as lexis and syntax.

Indeed, the instructor’s misuse of linguistic terms, obvious misunderstanding of issues, and stilted English should make any knowledgeable reader question her credentials.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

An interesting spelling error in a BBC headline today (8 November 2010): Aborigenes should, of course, be Aborigines.  One wonders if the headline writer, it not merely careless, was thinking of Classical Greek names (e.g. Diogenes) when she or he typed this.

Saturday, November 06, 2010


This is from the official English As It Is Broken website. 

The anglicized pronunciation of the Classical Greek name Persephone is /pɜːˈsefəni/.  Interestingly, the answer respells the second syllable as SAF rather than SEF, suggesting that for most Singaporean speakers the vowels /e/ and /æ/ are merged. 

It also shows that so-called phonetic respelling is an often maddeningly inexact way of indicating pronunciation, since different readers will assign different sounds to the same letters and to combinations thereof.  In fact, I suspect that most Singaporean readers would be baffled to learn that FUH is supposed to give /fə/ rather than /fu:/.
Ambiguous Headline

This headline (Straits Times web, 6 November 2010) is probably baffling to the reader, until she or he works out that police is not a noun but a verb.

Because headlines need to be brief, words that are understood or recoverable from context are usually omitted.  Function words are usually the first casualties, such as the underlined definite article: Peer pressure to police the deal.

The headline above (Straits Times web, 20 October 2009) is unintentionally ambiguous and amusing.

The noun phrase ageing panel is intended to mean ‘panel that works on issues involving ageing’ (ageing is a noun here), but arguably the more obvious and natural reading would be ‘panel of ageing members’ (ageing as adjective).
Past Perfect

In the article above, the writer recounts — in the past tense, naturally enough — her maiden experience at a casino.

The use of the simple past in the last sentence, however, is non-standard: since the realization that she had ‘had enough’ took place before her suggestion to H that they leave, she should have used the past perfect: I had had enough of the casino.

The word verbal is often imprecise in meaning. Most people use it to mean ‘spoken’ or ‘oral’, so a verbal agreement is one that is spoken and not written down.

Pedants, however, insist that technically it means ‘involving words’ — that is, it may be spoken or written. This broader meaning of verbal may be usefully contrasted with non-verbal, for example a nod to indicate ‘yes’.
Good Winds

I don’t know Portuguese, but I do know enough to work out that bom vento is singular; hence a more accurate translation of the highlighted phrase would be ‘house of good wind’ rather than ‘good winds’, as in the article above (a restaurant review). Presumably, in Portuguese the plural would be bons ventos.

Perhaps the name is in Kristang, the Portuguese-based creole?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


There is no such word in English as scruffle; make it scuffle. As a verb, scuffle means ‘to have a short fight that is not very violent’ (Longman).

Speakers sometimes inadvertently blend words when they cannot remember them accurately or are not careful. I had a university lecturer who said she once referred to somebody as portulent, when she had meant to say either corpulent or portly — but not both at the same time.

Monday, September 20, 2010

SubjectVerb Agreement

The verb were is wrong (Straits Times, 17 September 2010). 

Since the noun phrase the Singapore universities’ drop in rankings has a singular head noun drop, it needs to be followed by the singular verb was.
The Young

The headline above (Straits Times Online, 13 September 2010) contains a subject–verb agreement error; make it S’pore young worry MM.

The relevant sense of young here is ‘young people considered as a group’, hence it is equivalent to (one of the senses of) youth and is a collective noun.

How could we find out the grammatical properties of a noun, or indeed of any other grammatical category?  Here’s where a good learner’s dictionary comes in handy.  The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, for example, marks young as ‘[pl.]’, meaning that it is grammatically plural; accordingly, it should be followed by a plural verb.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Children Sold Here

This sign, which tries unsuccessfully to combine two noun phrases — children’s books and Chinese books — was spotted in a bookstore in Singapore.  It implies erroneously that children are sold here, in addition to Chinese books!
Past Perfect

I was recently asked which of the following was correct:

(a)  Before I left the room, I switched off the lights. (simple past)
(b)  Before I left the room, I had switched off the lights. (past perfect)

My reply was that (a) was correct, but I was told that (b) was given as the recommended answer in a primary school English exercise.  However, I have no doubt that (b) is definitely wrong.

In Standard English (StdE), the simple past is used for events that may be represented as a single point on a time line showing present time and past time.  It tends to be used when there is a specific time expression, e.g. yesterday, three hours ago.  If we represent this on a time line, we need two points: one indicating present time, and another indicating yesterday or three hours ago.

The past perfect, by contrast, is used when referring to the earlier of two or more events. If on a time line we have three points A, B and C, where C is present time, the later past event B will be expressed in the simple past, whereas the event that preceded it, Event A, will be expressed in the past perfect.

The past perfect is properly used below:

(c)  He popped by, but I had already left the room.

In Singapore, the past perfect is often incorrectly used, perhaps because of a poor understanding of what constitutes an ‘earlier past event’.  Admittedly, it is not always easy to determine what an earlier past event is, and the proposition expressed in (a) and (b) is a good case in point: doesn’t switched off the lights qualify as an earlier past event, since it took place before left the room?

The explanation is not so straightforward, and lies in the fact that before I left the room counts as a specific time expression — hence the use of simple past switched as in (a) rather than past perfect had switched as in (b).  Note that before I left the room is a subordinate clause; it cannot stand alone and has to be attached to a main clause, in this case I switched off the lights.  Note also that, as is typical of subordinate clauses, it can be moved around: I switched off the lights before I left the room means the same thing.  Another thing: it is an adverbial, like so many subordinate clauses are, and as it conveys time, it is a adverbial of time.

Contrast this with (c), which has two main clauses, He popped by and I had already left the room, either of which can stand on its own.  Unlike subordinate clauses, main clauses cannot be inverted freely, hence *I had already left the room but/and he popped by is ungrammatical, or at best very odd.  Hence, either main clause expresses an independent past event; neither serves as a time adverbial to the other.





The above are extracts from two articles published side-by-side in the Straits Times (26 August 2010).

I think most readers would find satisfaction over transport very odd indeed because of the choice of the preposition over.  However, this appears twice on the same page, as (a) and (b) show.

Then we have Example (c) — satisfaction for its services — which is just as bad, if not worse. 

In only in one instance, Example (d), is the correct preposition, with, used.  Indeed, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (5th ed), indicates that satisfaction should be used [+with], and gives the example Finance officials expressed satisfaction with the recovery of the dollar.

It should be no surprise that we use with with satisfaction, since we would say We are satisfied with public transport in this country, and not satisfied for or satisfied over.
No Outside Food

In Singapore, signs like the above are very common.  You’ll find them in restaurants and cafés whose owners, perhaps understandably, want to restrict the use of their tables to their customers.  In this context, the term outside food refers to food bought elsewhere, i.e. not from the restaurant or café displaying the sign.  It may also be used as an antonym of home-cooked food.

Among campaigners for good English in Singapore, there is a sense that the above message is non-standard and hence to be discouraged.  The following sign appears to be an attempt at expressing the same message in Standard English.

I am not entirely sure that this is an improvement, for it does not sound very idiomatic either, i.e. not something a native speaker (however you choose to define her or him) would say.  Perhaps it is necessary to recast it more radically, as any one of the following (or variants thereof):

These tables are for the consumption of food purchased/bought here only.
These tables are for our customers only.
Only for the consumption of food purchased here.
Only for food purchased here.
Not for the consumption of food bought elsewhere.

You’ll probably agree that this little exercise is a good example of a cure being worse than the original ailment!  Note that, by comparison with any of the above, the original message, No outside food allowed, is beautifully concise, precise and immediately comprehensible, at least in Singapore.
Although ...

The sentence beginning with the highlighted word is incomplete, giving the reader the impression that it is left hanging (Daily Telegraph, 29 August 2010).

This is because the entire sentence is a subordinate clause, and subordinate clauses ordinarily cannot stand alone and need to be attached to main clauses.  One obvious way to ‘rescue’ it is to end the previous sentence with a comma, and to tack the subordinate clause on at the end:

Demand is highest in Germany, Austria, Poland and central Europe, although the powerful light ... in historic homes.

Another solution is to change the subordinating conjunction although to the adverb however:

However, the powerful light ... in historic homes.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Subject–Verb Agreement

The subheading above, in The New Paper (20 August 2010), contains a subject–verb agreement error.  Since the subject is the noun phrase frequency of cases, whose head is the singular noun frequency, the following verb should be singular prompts and not plural prompt.

It is worth remembering that, even though we call it ‘subject–verb agreement’, the agreement is between the verb and the head of the subject noun phrase (if it is complex), and not with the noun nearest to it (so the verb doesn’t agree with cases).

A similar problem is seen here (same newspaper, same day).  The subject is the non-finite clause locating the best places ... for effective exposure.  Like all non-finite clauses functioning as subjects, it should be treated as singular, hence ... is all in a day’s work.
What?  Wot?

This is from Metro, a free newspaper distributed throughout London (23 June 2010). 

The headline, Water way to set a record, would probably be puzzling to many speakers of English, unless they realize that water way is supposed to be a pun on what a way.  Since water and what a are pronounced /ˈwɔːtə/ and /ˈwɒtə/ respectively in many varieties of British English, they are reasonably close rhymes.

But of course this doesn’t work for many American speakers, most of whom are rhotic (i.e. pronounce the /r/ at the end of water), pronounce wh as /hw/, and use /ʌ/ in what.

Like the Americans, most Singaporeans pronounce what as /wʌt/.  In fact, most would be surprised to learn that what is pronounced /wɒt/ in British Received Pronunciation — the pronunciation model traditionally adopted in Singapore schools (but which is evidently on its way out) — and that wander is pronounced as /ˈwɒndə/. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Seen in City Square Mall, which professes to be the first ‘eco-mall’ in Singapore. 

The subject pronoun of the second sentence, They, is wrong.  Since the antecedent is the uncountable noun grass in the preceding sentence, we need a singular pronoun.  Make it It helps to curb soil erosion.
Thumbs Down

This headline (Straits Times website, 13 July 2010) is wrong: the correct expression is thumbs down, not thumb’s down.
Noun Phrases and Pronouns

Reading the short introduction above, one might wonder why the name of the product is repeated throughout, rather than being replaced by pronouns.  Indeed, the piece sounds a bit odd, since it lacks the cohesion that pronouns usefully lend to a text. 

Presumably, this is because, the more hyperlinks a webpage contains, the more likely it is to be picked up by a search engine.
Subject–Verb Agreement

This is from the New Paper on Sunday (28 February 2010).  Is the highlighted verb correct? 

One might assume it is, considering that the subject, over 17,060 kilometers, is plural, hence the plural verb separate.

However, over 17,060 kilometers actually represents a distance, hence a single entity, so it requires a singular verb here, i.e. separates.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


This is the packaging of a car-care product.  What could conditional possibly mean?  It turns out that this product is actually a conditioner.  Quite obviously, the misspelling arose because the owner of the business, or the person in charge of marketing the product, does not pronounce syllable-final /l/, hence making conditioner and conditional homophones in his or her speech.
Barbeque (sic)

No, it’s not barbeque — the correct spelling is barbecue.  This has got to be one of the most commonly misspelt words in English.

Friday, May 07, 2010


The first highlighted word, incidences, is wrong; make it incidents (Straits Times, 27 April 2010). 

An incidence is ‘the extent to which something happens or has an effect, e.g. an area with a high incidence of crime’ (Oxford Advanced Learner’s). 

By contrast, an incident is ‘something that happens, usually something unusual or unpleasant, e.g. His bad behaviour was just an isolated incident’.

The above are publicity banners for an exhibition on William Farquhar, who, as every self-respecting student of Singapore history would know, and as the banners helpfully inform us, was the first Resident and Commandant of Singapore, 1819–1823.

In Singapore, the Scots surname Farquhar is usually pronounced /fʌkwʌ/ or /fɑ:kwɑ:/ — the usual pronunciations taught in schools.

So it invariably comes as a shock to Singaporeans to learn that it is pronounced in standard British English as /ˈfɑ:kə/ or /ˈfɑ:kwə/ (Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd edition).

However, considering that most Singaporeans do not consistently distinguish between the vowels /ʌ/ and /ɑ:/, it is perhaps wiser to stick with the Singaporean pronunciation than to insist on the standard.  Or if the standard pronunciation is indeed important, then teach the variant with /w/, i.e. /ˈfɑ:kwə/ rather than /ˈfɑ:kə/.

The highlighted word above (The New Paper, 14 April 2010) should, of course, be cost rather than cause.  As with so many typos, this one seems to have a phonological basis. 

But how do cost and cause end up as homophones (or at best near-homophones) in Singapore English when, in British Received Pronunciation (RP) for example, they are /kɒst/ and /kɔ:z/? 

The first factor is the neutralization of distinctions between vowels that are differentiated in other varieties of English: here, the distinction between short /ɒ/ and long /ɔ:/, which is responsible for pot/port being a minimal pair in RP.

The second is the phenomenon of final fricative devoicing, where /z/ becomes [s], which leads to course and cause being /kɒs/ or /kɔ:s/ in Singapore English, whereas in RP they are /kɔ:s/ and /kɔ:z/.

And finally, the simplication of consonant clusters, leading to the loss of /t/ in cost.

Sunday, April 04, 2010


The headline above, old no!, is intended to be a pun on oh no! (Straits Times, 3 April 2010).  While it may work for Singaporean speakers of English, this would probably be quite a stretch for speakers of most other varieties of English.

In British Received Pronunciation (RP), old no is pronounced /əʊld nəʊ/, and oh no as /əʊ nəʊ/ — so they are really quite different. 

In Singapore English (SgE), a realistic standard pronunciation might be /oʊld noʊ/ and /oʊ noʊ/ respectively, assuming that a diphthong is more desirable than a monophthong in each word (incidentally, the diphthong /oʊ/ is usual in American English). 

How do old no and oh no become rhymes in SgE?  First, the final consonant cluster /ld/ in old is simplified, leaving [l].  And since SgE vocalizes or deletes dark /l/, we end up with [oʊ] for both old and oh.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Subject–Verb Agreement

The highlighted verb is wrong (Sunday Times Lifestyle, 14 March 2010).  Make it is, because the subject of the sentence is making reservations at high-end restaurants, a non-finite clause and hence grammatically singular.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


An interesting typo that gives a clue to the caption writer’s pronunciation (Straits Times online, 1 March 2010). 

Obviously the writer meant former’s, but the fact that he typed formal’s suggests that both words are homophones for him.

One might surmise that he pronounces /l/ and /r/ alike, but this would be wrong.  Rather, the phenomenon that is relevant here is /l/-vocalization (or ‘vowelization’ of /l/), which means that dark /l/ either becomes a vowel, or is deleted — in other words, /l/ disappears.  And since Singapore English is non-rhotic, /r/ is not pronounced after vowels; in other words, is it not even present.  Hence, /l, r/ confusion does not arise.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Regret About/For

Here are two examples of superfluous prepositions in Singapore English (SgE), the first from the broadsheet The Straits Times (15 February 2010) and the other from a notice at one of Singapore’s more popular museums.

In Standard English (StdE), regret as a verb is transitive, meaning it takes a direct object (underlined) and no preposition, e.g. He regretted his indecision over the sale.  Similarly, StdE would have He regretted what had happened and We regret (any) inconvenience caused where the SgE examples above have regretted about and regret for.

In SgE, the use of prepositions with (what in StdE are) transitive verbs is very common.  Typical examples include discuss about, emphasize on, source for, relook at, rework on, study/research on, partner with, demand for and request for. 

On the other hand, SgE uses some verbs transitively where in StdE they would be intransitive and require a preposition.  Hence, in SgE one may apply leave and reply him, whereas StdE would have these as apply for leave and reply to him.

Friday, January 29, 2010

If She Were...

The above is an excerpt from a cross-examination in a law court (Straits Times, 26 January 2010).  Interestingly, although the lawyer asks, If Nellie Huang were your mother, the doctor twice replies, If [she] was my mother.

In hypothetical conditional clauses, i.e. those expressing an unlikely or imaginary situation, either the hypothetical past (was) or the past subjunctive (were) may be used.  The past subjunctive were is more formal and likelier to be found in formal writing, whereas the hypothetical past was is more common in speech.

The past subjunctive is, however, generally used in American English, which in many ways (e.g. grammar, punctuation) is more conservative than British English. 

Likewise, where American English would have We suggest that he leave soon, British English is more likely to have We suggest that he leaves soon or We suggest that he should leave soon.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


In Standard English (StdE), youth as a countable noun — that is, singular a youth or plural some youths — refers disapprovingly to young males, usually teenagers, engaged in antisocial or criminal behaviour.  It is therefore often found in collocations such as a gang of youths.  (This is different from the collective-noun sense of the word, e.g. the youth of Singapore, meaning ‘young people in Singapore taken considered as a group’.)

In Singapore English (SgE), however, youth as a countable noun refers to nothing more than ‘young people’, both female and male.  As the extracts above show (Straits Times, both 11 January 2010), the word has no negative connotations: in fact the photographs show young people, female as well as male, doing good deeds.

A linguistic purist might put the SgE usage down to sheer ignorance, but a descriptive linguist would probably argue that it is simply a feature of SgE which sets it apart from other varieties.