Keep sight of your personal belongings

This is a photo of a sign in a toilet stall in the Lot One shopping mall. It says:

Dear Shopper,
Please keep sight of your personal belongings while in the toilet.
For assistance, dial 5314 6211

This bit of written language inspired several thoughts.

I think “keep sight of” is or has been an idiom in some places, but it did not strike me as apt, though the negative phrasing “do not lose sight of” would have sounded okay. The phrase “keep track of” sounds better, though I wouldn’t expect to see it on a sign.

I’m imagining I hear the voice of the late comedian George Carlin mocking the phrase “personal belongings“. It isn’t as if I’m likely to have brought with me any other kind of belongings, such as public belongings, onto an airplane, he says.

Here, “toilet” is obviously being used not to mean the porcelain commode, but to mean either “restroom” or “restroom stall”, though how you could lose sight of your personal belongings inside a restroom stall is a mystery to me, especially if you have just hung them on the hook just under the sign; if you fail to notice your belongings hanging just below the sign, the sign itself isn’t likely to do you any good! (Some restroom stalls have a shelf behind the commode; the sign would be a useful reminder to check for items placed there. This stall did not have such a shelf.)

Finally, at the bottom of the sign, behold a reminder that we live in the future: it is normal (in a shopping mall in Singapore, at least) for individuals to carry personal wireless communication devices that can at any point be used to summon urgent medical assistance. Or toilet paper.

Dispose vs. dispose of

This bathroom sign says:

Kindly dispose sanitary pads in the sanitary bins provided. Please do not throw them into the toilet bowl as it will choke the sewage sewerage. Thank you for your co-operation.

There are several things I’d like to point out about the sign, including the use of ‘dispose’. See below for details.

Continue reading Dispose vs. dispose of

Maltese for Foreigners

My husband Aquinas brought back this set of learning materials for me from Malta, where he went for a conference.

It’s not that I have any serious intention of studying the language, it’s that I collect language-learning materials. I suspect the fact that Maltese is written using the Latin script would make it easier than other Semitic languages for an English speaker to learn, though.

Semitic? As in, related to Hebrew? Yep! Maltese is not just a popular breed of dog or an infamous falcon statuette, it’s an amazing hybrid of Arabic and Italian, two languages which, frankly, I didn’t know had a non-empty intersection.

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

China in Ten Words offers an astonishing look under the shiny veneer of modern China. Yu Hua’s life experiences make for fascinating, if sometimes gruesome, sad, absurd, or horrifying stories. The essays don’t pull punches.

Yu Hua isn’t technically a Chinese dissident, since in China he enjoys fame as a respected novelist, yet this book was not, could not have been published on the mainland because he talks about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, still a taboo (censored) subject in the PRC.

I’m so glad I read China in Ten Words, because it seems that almost all the other nonfiction books I’ve read about China were written by outsiders. An exception (the exception?) is a book I read in 2013 called Life and Death in Shanghai, a powerful memoir by a woman named Nien Cheng who lived through the Cultural Revolution. She was older and much more privileged than Yu Hua, whose upbringing was rural and far less comfortable, but she suffered more as a result of her special status.

Yu Hua’s book is organized around ten words, but the essays aren’t about the words themselves. The words just serve as concise labels.

More on the ten essays below.

Continue reading China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

Since I’ve read other books about Chinese language and culture, since I’ve studied Mandarin Chinese, and since I live in a partly Chinese-speaking environment, many of the sparkling, shining, fascinating bits of trivia embedded in Dreaming In Chinese were no surprise to me. But even I learned a thing or two.

The author’s words paint a picture of a difficult but rewarding sojourn. The writing is clear and concise, warm and insightful. This is a short, entertaining, accessible book on an interesting topic.

When and Why I Read Dreaming in Chinese

This expat’s view of Chinese language and culture sounded like it would be interesting.

Genre: non-fiction (travel, language, China)
Date started / date finished:  20-Mar-17 to 25-Mar-17
Length: 212 pages
ISBN: 9780802779144 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2010
Amazon link: Dreaming In Chinese

Today Special

Let’s have a look at a strange sentence.

My class today was fun.

Which word is “today” modifying?

It’s an adverb, and the verb is “was”, so “today” must be modifying “was”. Easy, right?

Not so fast!

I think the sentence above is trying to say:

The class I had today was fun.

in which case “today” is modifying “had” because otherwise we’d say

My class was fun today.

So if you say “My class today was fun,” you’re either using Chinese syntax (which requires adverbs to go in front of verbs) to say that your class was fun today, or you’re using the word “today” to modify a verb that’s not technically even in the sentence but buried inside a possessive adjective.

You could say “Today’s class was fun,” using “today” as a noun but transforming it into a possessive adjective; then you’d be missing “my”.

In Chinese, I believe you could say “My today’s class was fun” because apparently there’s no rule against doubling up demonstratives like that; I’ve heard people say things like “my the other one is nicer”. In English.

In Singapore maybe you could also get away with “My today class was fun.” After all, “today” is an adjective on all the signs outside restaurants that say “Today Special”. Such signs are of course attempting to say “Today’s Specials”, but they not only fail to transform the noun “today” into a possessive adjective, they also fail to pluralize “special”, an adjective acting like a noun.

Why do we even have different parts of speech? Words change part of speech constantly, and people “misuse” them, and start fights about whether they are in fact misusing them or not, and yet we all manage to understand each other anyway. Most of the time.

Maybe the concept of parts of speech survives for entertainment value—and to provide jobs for English teachers!

Speaking of which, back when I was a teacher for a company called I Can Read, I posted about using “I can…” to test whether a word is a verb. The word ‘window’ hilariously failed my test.

Or so I thought. Shakespeare would disagree.

Antony and Cleopatra (IV.xiv.72):

“Wouldst thou be windowed in great Rome…?”
It just goes to show:

(a) Shakespeare is awesome,
(b) the internet is awesome, and
(c) you learn something new every day!

Why do we dislike ‘reads’ and ‘eats’ used as nouns?

This sign at Marks & Spencer at Parkway Parade promises a “free $10 food voucher with min $150 spend on apparels and lingerie”.

I have always had a vague antipathy towards the shop that offers rewards for a “minimum spend”, the colleague who apologizes in advance for a “big ask”, the restaurant that promises “good eats”, and, yes, even the website that recommends “good reads”.

Turns out: I am not alone!

Why do we have this yucky feeling?

It’s the tone. These phrases rub us the wrong way because they are aggressively colloquial. Perhaps we feel that we are being disrespected, that the message is invasive in its excessive familiarity (inappropriate intimacy).

Do not think that because we are slightly offended by an informal tone, we are “too sensitive”. In general, being able to discriminate (tell apart) subtle shades of tone is a good thing. Many different words and phrases can designate the same objects and ideas, but a speaker’s or writer’s word choice conveys important subtleties.

Of course, in a truly informal context, an informal tone is appropriate. Whether a particular media channel should be considered an informal context is a separate question.

Which words cause discomfort?

Some words that change from one part of speech to another without changing form are unobjectionable, if not downright invisible.

The annoying phrases I’ve listed are all verbs used as nouns. But so are these:

  • The attacks in the capital shocked everyone.
  • The works in the gallery are priceless.
  • We receive many calls from overseas.

Or are they? There is no rule that says a noun is just a noun and a verb as just a verb. In fact, there are dozens of common words that are both noun and verb.

Some words traditionally considered nouns are controversial when used as verbs, at least in some circles.

  • Feel free to contact us if you have any questions.
  • How do you think the campaign will impact sales?
  • I need to access the file for the project.

Some new usages (such as the verbs “Google” and “friend”) are tied to new tech, which arguably merits specific, new, concise usages.

Some new usages are just trendy (or experimental—new but not trendy) and are unlikely to survive when their novelty, trendiness, or shock value has waned.

Disliking certain usages and not others doesn’t mean we conscientious objectors are hypocritical or inconsistent. It just means we’re linguistically conservative. We accept older usages because they have already stood the test of time. Such usages are unobtrusive. They don’t yank on our sleeve demanding attention like the newer ones sometimes do.

Ironically, sometimes the “new and obtrusive” usages align perfectly with obsolete, forgotten ones that are even older, so it’s dangerous to insist that anything in the English language is better just because it’s old.

“What’s wrong with neologisms? Language change is natural!”

Some readers eagerly repeat hip, new usages, some cringe inwardly, and some sneer. Words, like products for sale, have early-adopters and skeptics. Some never “cross the chasm” and become accepted by the majority.

I think what bothers the sneerers is that not all those who repeat  neologisms understand what they are doing. Ad copy is created for the sake of fleeting expediency. The oblivious repetition of flashy, gimmicky, casual language out of context tends to strike thoughtful, well-read language enthusiasts as callous destruction, not as natural evolution.

Surely, the thinking goes, we should respect existing usage when it makes sense to do so, and welcome change by making considered, conscious choices. Language is a beautiful thing; we shouldn’t tromp all over it with muddy, ignorant boots.

I’m not sure it’s reasonable to insist that languages change only by means of considered, conscious choices. Since not everybody who needs language has the leisure for such consideration, it seems callous to insist on it.

On the other hand, surely the task can be—and already has been—delegated to armies of dedicated culture keepers: writers, editors, and lexicographers who perform both the innovative and the stabilizing functions that ensure we can all more or less continue to communicate with each other effectively and enjoyably.

“Just get over it.”

In general, I don’t mind seeing people bend language into new forms. The conversion of “because” from a conjunction into a preposition genuinely amuses me. Language isn’t just for communication, it’s also for play. I have no problem letting people have a little fun with words—and in any case, I couldn’t stop them if I did!

Even in the awkward case of “eats (n. pl.)” and “reads (n. pl.)”, worries about the risk of permanent damage to the vast and amorphous thing that is the English language are misplaced. We can always find room for different ways to express ourselves.

Still. The niggling discomfort when I hear of “good eats” and “good reads”, now that I know its source, nevertheless remains.

Further Reading

On “verbing”:

On “spend”:

I would rephrase the text to “with a minimum of $150 spent…” so that the idea of “spend” becomes an adjective modifying “dollars”. Using the gerund “spending” is also grammatically correct and seems to be regarded as slightly more normal than using “spend”.

Style by Joseph M. Williams

I never thought I would read the word “turgid” so many times in my entire life. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace repeats the word, of course, because it’s telling you how to avoid writing “turgid prose”.

There’s a lucid chapter on the subject of usage, which deftly cuts through all the normal chatter about what should be a rule and why or why not, but most of the book is not about controversial words and grammatical constructions. It’s about what makes a passage understandable, and it describes the process of transforming one that’s not into one that is. It’s describing the acquisition and communication of concepts and knowledge as much as anything. It’s almost a book of cognitive psychology. I have a lot of books on language and writing, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like this before.

Maybe that’s because it was originally a textbook. It feels a bit strange to watch someone poke sentences and move bits of them around on the page; the skills being described can only really be improved through use. This version of the book is informative, but perhaps not as effective as the versions that give the reader practice writing and revising.

More on what I liked about the book and when and why I read it below.

Continue reading Style by Joseph M. Williams