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.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Error on BBC Learning English

About a month ago I wrote to point out two errors on a clickable IPA chart on the BBC Learning English Pronunciation Tips page.  Sadly they remain unchanged after all this while, even though I immediately wrote to the BBC via its Contact Us page to alert them to the errors.

I’m glad the eminent phonetician, Professor John Wells, agrees with me.  (I’d written to him about the errors, seeing that his help had been acknowledged on the BBC site.)  Here’s an excerpt from his blog post of 7 January 2010:

Look at this chart of phonetic symbols for English (RP type). It is a pop-up that appears if you go to the BBC World Service learning English site and click on Listen to the sounds of English. Do you notice what is wrong? Compare it with the correct chart found on that page itself.  There are two discrepancies. One is that the MOUTH vowel is written as ɑʊ rather than, which is something that could perhaps even be defended as a preferable notation for the diphthong in question (though here it is unquestionably just a mistake). The other is a straightforward error: ɭ (retroflex lateral) instead of l (alveolar lateral).  Thanks to Ludwig Tan for this.

Professor Wells’s Phonetic Blog is probably a little too advanced for most undergraduate students of phonetics, but it is always fascinating.