Sunday, August 14, 2011


When teaching grammar, and in particular passive verb groups, I’ve often found it useful to use the Singlish passive marker, kena — this is because many students have great difficulty telling whether a clause is in the active or passive voice.

In English, the passive voice is usually formed with the appropriate form of be or get:

(1)  Shirley was/got promoted last week.
(2)  Shirley was/got cheated last week.

Using the passive marker kena is a useful test for the passive voice: if it can be used in place of be/get, then the clause is probably passive.  However, the ‘kena’ test has an important limitation: it can be used only with outcomes considered to be negative or undesired:

(3)  * Shirley kena promoted last week.  (positive outcome, ungrammatical in Singlish)
(4)  Shirley kena cheated last week. (negative outcome, grammatical in Singlish)

Leaving aside the issue of preferred verb forms in Singlish (kena cheat is more likely), we note that (4) is good because it describes an event considered negative or undesired (i.e. nobody likes to be cheated), but (3) is definitely out because most people would wish to be promoted.  For this reason, kena is said to a marker of the adversative passive.
How Come You Never Call Me?

To many people in Singapore, Peppermint Patty must sound very Singaporean in the first panel.

For starters, how come? is widely believed to be a Singlish expression, but it is not, and is in fact very common in colloquial American English (Peanuts is, of course, American).

Furthermore, Peppermint Patty’s utterance differs from Singlish in two important respects.  First, as is obvious from the subsequent panels, she really means ‘Why do you never call me?’ whereas in Singlish never is often used as a simple negator, so the most obvious meaning to most Singaporeans would be ‘Why didn’t you call me?’ 

Second, Peppermint Patty would probably never drop you, whereas for most Singaporeans it is redundant and stylistically heavy since Singlish is a pro-drop (null subject) language and subject and object pronouns need not be expressed if their referents (here, Chuck and the speaker, Peppermint Patty) are understood or recoverable from context.  In other words, the most natural formulation of the sentence in Singlish would be Why never call?  (Call in Standard English may also be intransitive, in which case Why don’t you ever call? does not have a missing object pronoun, me.)

This is one I cannot be absolutely sure about, but I suspect the highlighted verb ought to be sits rather than sit since the noun railway as used in this sense is noncount, hence singular (Straits Times, 16 June 2011).  Similarly, we would say Six cups of coffee a day is excessive, not are.
18 Years Old

Make it 18 years old, without any hyphens (New Paper, 9 August 2011). 

The rule to remember here is that if the compound adjective comes before the noun, it should be hyphenated (as if to show it functions as a single adjective), and that the unit of measure is singular (year): an 18-year-old student

However, if it comes after a linking verb (in this case be), it loses the hyphens and the unit of measure becomes plural: He may only be 18 years old.  (Pedants might also point out that only should precede 18 rather than be, since it modifies the age rather than the verb.)

If used as a noun in its own right, it is hyphenated: Even as an 18-year-old, Jim was incredibly mature for his age.

The verb needed in both cases was defused (Today 27 June 2011).  Both diffuse and defuse are commonly confused, almost certainly because they are near-homophones.

Defuse (/ˌdiːˈfjuːz/) means ‘to stop a possibly dangerous or difficult situation from developing, especially by making people less angry or nervous’ (Oxford Advanced Learner’s), and is clearly the meaning intended here.

Diffuse (/dɪˈfjuːz/), on the other hand, means to spread something or become spread widely in all directions’.
Subject–Verb Agreement

The verb are above is wrong; make it is (Straits Times Life! 26 May 2011). 

In English, the verb following a subject should agree with the subject; but if the subject is a complex noun phrase (in this case, TV drama Skins, which shows teens doing drugs and binge drinking), the verb almost always agrees with the head of that noun phrase.

The headline writer has presumably made the verb agree with the plural Skins, but the head of the noun phrase is in fact the singular drama.
Sink, Sank, Sunk

The highlighted verb is intended to be in the simple present tense, so it should be sank (Straits Times online, 12 August 2011). 

Sunk is, of course, the –en/ed participle of the verb sink, which has irregular past (sank) and –en/ed participle (sunk) forms, so we do not say His heart *sinked/*has sinked.

The –en/ed participle is more commonly known, especially in schools, as the past participle, but this is inaccurate since past tense is not inherent in the verb form, as the following examples illustrate:

(1)  The yacht has sunk.  (present perfective)
(2)  The yacht had sunk.  (past perfective)
(3)  The yacht will have sunk.  (modal perfective, referring to future time)

Note that, in all three cases, the verb sunk remains unchanged and any tense marking is left to the other, auxiliary verbs.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Noncount Nouns

This an advertisement on the Straits Times website.  The noun stuff is noncount in Standard English, but in Singapore English is often used as count (as the plural –s suffix suggests).

Other common noncount nouns used as count in Singapore English include markings (e.g. As an English teacher, I have lots of markings to do), junks, jargons, terminologies, and slangs.
Worse, Worst

The superlative worst above is wrong (Straits Times Life! supplement, 19 February 2011).  Instead, the comparative worse was needed here since the writer meant that there was no time ‘more bad’ than that referred to in the article.

Perhaps there is a phonological explanation for the above: worst ends in the consonant cluster /st/, and since the following word begins in /t/, the writer would probably have dropped the first /t/ in speech, and allowed this to influence his spelling. 

The deletion of /d/ and /t/ in rapid speech is in fact very common, even among BBC announcers; see, for example, David Deterding’s article.
Subject–Verb Agreement and Inversion

The verb comes above is wrong (Straits Times Life supplement, 22 January 2011). The writer probably assumed that the singular noun consumption was the subject of the sentence, but it is in fact the plural noun emissions.

This is because the sentence has an inverted order Adverbial + Verb + Subject, whereas a normal SVA structure would give us Carbon emissions come with low fuel consumption.

In Singapore schools we are often taught to use the indefinite article an before words beginning in vowels, and a elsewhere. However, many teachers seem unaware that this rule applies at a phonological level and not an orthographic one — in other words, it applies to sounds, not spelling.

This misunderstanding of the rule has probably led to the error in the caption above (Straits Times online, 14 February 2011): a NTU Linguistics student ought to be an NTU ..., because NTU begins in a vowel sound, /e/.