Plural noun adjuncts

I have seen this sign hundreds of times. It says:

24 Hours Hot Line

That’s a perfect example of a plural noun being used to modify another noun, like “cutleries station”, except that “hours” is a legit plural and “cutleries” is not.

I think the sign should say

24-Hour Hot Line

or maybe

24-Hour Hotline

because I think it’s better to modify nouns with singular nouns, even when there are twenty-four of the noun in question.

On an unrelated note:

I don’t know why Singapore phone numbers often don’t have hyphens where I’d expect to see them. I think we Americans pretty consistently put a hyphen in 1-800, and we put them after the first three digits of a seven-digit phone number, so I always expect to see one after the first four digits of the eight-digit phone numbers here. Sometimes there’s a space, sometimes there’s a period (“full stop”), sometimes there’s just nothing.

The missing epicene pronouns of English

This advertisement depicting a couple on a cruise ship says:

Where Everyone Gets What They Need

As a writer of English curriculum materials for kids, I’ve become incredibly sensitive to singular/plural agreement. I think demonstrating careful matching between subject and verb (or pronoun and antecedent) is particularly important in a place where plurals are often neglected (due to the influence of Chinese, which mostly doesn’t have plurals).

If I weren’t so sensitive, I might not have noticed that “they”, which is grammatically plural, refers to “everyone”, which—despite sounding vaguely plural—is grammatically singular.

We tend to be forgiving of this kind of thing, if we even notice it, because it’s hard to phrase the underlying idea any other way.

Shall we have a go? We can stick in singular pronouns, or we can make everything plural.

Where Everyone Gets What He Or She Needs
Where All People Get What They Need

Yuck. Neither of those is half as natural as the original, though it would help if in the second one “people” were changed to something like “travelers”.

It gets worse if there’s a possessive. Imagine if the sign said:

Where Everyone Gets What They Need On Their Holiday

Now we’ve got a whole new problem:

Where Everyone Gets What He Or She Needs On His Or Her Holiday
Where All Travelers Get What They Need On Their Holidays

The double pronouns are now even more cumbersome. No marketer cares enough about syntax to prefer the “or” version. Even I don’t like it.

Meanwhile, in the pluralized version you start to have problems matching up travelers and holidays. They don’t necessarily all need the same thing or go on the same holiday, but some of them do, so are we considering them as individuals or as a group? It’s ambiguous.

There exists Y such that for all X, X is at Y and X gets what X needs on X’s holiday.

Less ambiguity is exactly what we’d have if mathematicians wrote ad copy, and this precise version is lovely in its own way, but they don’t.

All this awkwardness is the fault of English for not having “epicene” (gender-neutral) singular pronouns—words that mean “he or she”, “him or her”, “his or her”, “his or hers” and “himself or herself”. We used to use masculine pronouns in a kind of universal sense, but whether or not the masculine pronouns are still intended to be heard as universal, they no longer are.

People have invented new pronouns to fill the gap, but unless and until some particular set catches on, we’re going to keep seeing the plural gender-neutral pronouns used as a singular ones.

I can accept singular “they”, and singular “them”, “their”, and “theirs” along with it, I suppose, but it will require a whole extra level of tolerant laxity for me to be able to countenance the ugly chimera “themself”. If “they” can be singular, surely “themselves” can, too!

The Complete Plain Words (2nd edition) by Ernest Gowers

Reading this British book published in 1978 (a revised version of the 1948 original) was like going on an archaeological expedition in a foreign country. The English recommended by the author differs from my own for reasons of both time and place.

In some passages, the author of The Complete Plain Words speaks of the changes in the language that will inevitably take place in the decades to come; it’s almost as if he’s conversing directly with me, forty years in his future, at the same time that he’s conversing with his predecessor, thirty years in his past.

Our national vocabulary is a democratic institution, and what is generally accepted will ultimately be correct. I have no doubt that if anyone should read this book in fifty years’ time he would find current objections to the use of certain words in certain senses as curious as we now find Swift’s denunciation of ‘mob’. (53–54)

See below for what I learned, what stood out, and what I heartily agree with, as well as when and why I read the book.

Continue reading The Complete Plain Words (2nd edition) by Ernest Gowers

Lehigh mug is lihai.

The Mandarin expression 厉害 (lìhài) means ‘awesome’ or ‘powerful’, among other things.

I heard the expression several times while watching Kung Fu Yoga, so when I next looked at this mug, I saw it in a whole new light, even though I’ve had it for years.

I toured the New Jersey plant belonging to Lehigh Press (a Von Hoffmann company) at some point when I was working in the production department of Princeton University Press (2005–2008).

The place was full of huge, expensive German printing machines and stacks and stacks of different kinds of paper.

The company printed the book cover (but I think not the pages) for some of our titles. They also printed Harry Potter book covers!

Before we left, they gave us some company-brand swag stuff like this mug, plus samples of things they’d printed with fancy techniques.

Lehigh Press closed down in 2008.

It was home to the country’s largest vacuum collator, an assembly-line machine that uses suction force to stack sheets of printed paper or plastic film in order.

That was awesome.

Kung Fu Yoga (2017)

In Kung Fu Yoga, the greatest treasure isn’t gold and jewels. It’s seeing Jackie Chan, playing an archaeologist named—uh—Jackie Chan, do a Bollywood dance number in a movie that pays homage to Indiana Jones. If seeing this legendary 62-year-old Hong Kong action star dancing around in Indian clothes with a big goofy grin on his face doesn’t make you smile, you and I are made of different stuff.

That being said, you have to sit through over an hour and a half of astonishingly wooden acting on the part of Jackie’s co-stars, plus far too many scenes with awkward CGI animals, to earn that final dance scene.

Released during the Chinese New Year period, the movie more than earned back its budget despite poor reviews. Ticket sales were weak in India, but strong, or strong enough, in China. Jackie Chan traveled to Singapore to promote the movie, and it did well here compared to others.

I hope Jackie Chan had fun making the movie (in spite of endangering himself during filming for the umpteenth time). I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need money, so he must be making movies because he wants to—or to promote his country’s political goals.

The fight scenes are okay, but the English/Mandarin script and the plot are disappointing. I can’t really recommend it. I can summarize it for you, though.

Keep reading for a catalog of all the unnecessary CGI animals as well as a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Kung Fu Yoga (2017)

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

I’d bet far more people have heard of this influential Chinese classic than have read it.

The military strategist to whom The Art of War is attributed is known in English as “Sun Tzu”, which I’m guessing most people pronounce like “sun zoo”, but which is actually supposed to be something more like “soon dzuh”. (The pinyin is Sun Zi, and the characters are 孙子.)

I’m a poor historian, so it’s hard for me to judge the impact of Sun Tzu’s text either on the battles of his own time or on those fought in the centuries since then. Its impact on the world of contemporary English-language publishing, however, is readily apparent thanks to the proliferation of books that bear titles such as The Art of War for ExecutivesThe Art of War for Small Business, and even The Art of War for Dating. Surely the work that inspired all these copycats is worth a look.

The edition I read is based on the 1910 translation by Lionel Giles, and contains his notes inserted directly in the text. The notes explain or expand on the advice in more detail or give examples from world history of the situations described, showing how the advice applies in specific instances.

Hannibal defeated the Romans because breakfast.

I found the translation suitably dignified but modern enough to sound sensible. The version I read (ISBN 9781444727364) was edited and has a foreword by James Clavell, author of Shogun and a series of other long, popular novels set in Asia.

Here are some links to free versions of The Art of War at gutenberg.org:

Click to read my post on The Art of War over at Asian Books Blog to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should bother, or how to talk about it even if you never do!

Meanwhile, China, realising that sometimes cultural products are famous for being famous, has attempted to capitalise on The Art of War by using its fame as a lure for tourists… and to buttress its image as a cooperative world power. It’s worth a try, I guess.

The Bar Code Trilogy by Suzanne Weyn

There are some interesting dystopian sci-fi ideas in this trilogy. They sort of trail off into a kind of Childhood’s End–kind of human psychic evolution mysticism, though, which I think is a pity.

In the near future, albeit one that seems to lack smartphones, a giant corporation allied with government connections all over the world is starting to require adults to be tattooed with identifying bar codes that can be connected to bank accounts and medical records—for convenience, obviously. Nothing ominous about it! Right?

Except there is. The bar code seems to be the cause of personal disasters ranging from job loss and bankruptcy to madness and suicide.

The teen protagonist Kayla smells a rat. Can she withstand the pressure to conform and get the tattoo (which she needs if she wants to go to art school)? Will she go mad if she gets one? Do the resistance groups, whether violent or not, have any chance of success defending citizens’ right to choice? What is the corporation hiding? Why is the corporation looking for her specifically, and who’s that girl on TV who looks just like Kayla? How can anyone survive off the grid in a world where everyone is ID’d and tracked? What if experiments with human genes stand in the way of amazing natural evolutionary breakthroughs in human potential?

Read the series and find out.

It reminds me vaguely of the movie Gattaca, the television series Orphan Black, and the YA novel series Bzrk.

It’s frustrating that the third book and the first two are different sizes. I had no idea when I ordered the third book on Amazon that it wouldn’t be a match. I thought, Oh, my mistake, I ordered the wrong one. However, as far as I can tell, there is no edition of the book in the mass-market paperback size.

When and Why I Read The Bar Code Trilogy

Re-reading this trilogy now that I finally have the third book. Annoyingly, the third paperback is a different size.

Genre: fiction (young-adult sci-fi)
Date started / date finished:  08-Jul-17 to 11-Jul-17
Length: 719 pages
ISBN: 0439395623, 9780439803854, 9780545425308
Originally published in: 2004, 2006, 2012
Amazon link: The Bar Code Tattoo

Man of Steel (2013)

What with all the Michael Bay–style explosions and destruction, you might not have noticed that Man of Steel is a thorough dialectical exploration of the nature/nurture debate. It totally is, though.

I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t think I was going to like the movie at all because I didn’t remember hearing good things about it. It was fine, though, apart from being longer than I realized it was going to be, clocking in at almost 2.5 hours.

For what it was (a superhero origin story that could have been its own miniseries), it was really pretty good. It painted a clear and thematically strong picture of an admirable character and how he got to be who he is. In this rendition, Superman is not a lighthearted, perfect figurehead who proclaims belief in “truth, justice, and the American way”. He is a sensitive and largely anonymous but steadfast protector who stands for hope and choice. (I much prefer these kinds of themes to the ones associated with Spiderman, which tend be things like sacrifice and duty.)

I generally liked the sharply contrasting sci-fi and Kansas sets, the cast, and the costumes, though I always imagine Lois as Teri Hatcher, and until now I’d never imagined Kal El’s suit as made of the same stuff as those grippy rubber things you use to open jars.

No thanks, I got this one, Kal.

If you have a long enough attention span for another 4000 words on this movie, keep reading for more on the nature/nurture theme and some other thoughts as well as a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Man of Steel (2013)

Frozen (2013)

Oh, where to start. I’m stuck. I am, as it were, frozen.

Right. Well, when all else fails, go back to the beginning.

Frozen, like The Little Mermaid, is a Disney adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen story. As a child I watched the low-budget Faerie Tale Theatre Snow Queen, which is a lot closer to the Andersen story. The Disney version of the tale has some stunning visuals and one good song, but—for reasons having nothing to do with other versions—I think its story is deeply flawed.

Though some say it’s a story about the problematic relationship between two sisters, I’d say Frozen is one girl’s coming-of-age tale or rite-of-passage story. Rite-of-passage stories have a life problem, a wrong way of addressing it, and a moment of acceptance. Anna’s problem is her sister’s unwillingness to face the world. Anna spends the whole movie wrongly acting as if she can soothe her sister’s fear, and totally fails because Elsa has to master her fear herself. Anna grows up when she accepts her sister as-is. Seems simple, right? Disney went and made it all complicated.

See below for more on why I thought Frozen was disappointing, including a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Frozen (2013)

The Ghost Who Bled by Gregory Norminton

I haven’t read many short stories, I think because I prefer immersion in long epics to skipping across a series of unrelated tales, especially when the tales are ambiguous rather than fully self-contained, but I enjoyed The Ghost Who Bled (or at any rate, parts of it) more than I expected to.

Check out the Asian Books Blog Q&A with Gregory Norminton.

When and Why I Read The Ghost Who Bled

So what IS a short story, anyway, apart from the obvious? Maybe I’ll learn something.

Genre: fiction (short stories)
Date started / date finished:  30-Jun-17 to 03-Jul-17
Length: 184 pages
ISBN: 9781905583560
Originally published in: 2017
Amazon link: The Ghost Who Bled