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.
Satisfied?

(a)

(b)

(c)

(d)

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/.