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.

Reading Magic by Mem Fox

Reading Magic promotes the idea of teaching literacy from the top down rather than from the bottom up. The author believes parents and teachers should start with stories, then sentences, then words, then letters; that children who can sound out words in a book but who don’t understand them aren’t reading, but that children who tell a story using the pictures on the pages to make their own meaning are.

Although I don’t think Mem Fox is all wrong, I think she’s misguided.

I definitely believe parents should read to their children, and that amazing, wonderful, terrific things can and do happen when reading is part of the family routine. “Read to your kids” is a message that deserves to be shouted from the mountaintops, and to be listened to and enacted.

However, while it may be the case that literate, supportive families can immerse children in books to such an extent that some bookwardly inclined children learn to read effortlessly and joyfully—accidentally, even!—at age 3 or 4, that is not a helpful one-size-fits-all solution to the general problem of literacy instruction, and in particular, encouraging children to interact happily with texts until they get the hang of reading is not a practical strategy that teachers can implement in their classrooms. Teachers really are better off with “letter A makes a as in ‘apple’, letter T makes t as in ‘table’, and when you put A and T together, you get ‘at’.”

The tone of the book is self-congratulatory and anecdotal; there’s no science or statistics here, so I don’t feel there’s much reason I should believe what Mem Fox has to say, even if it sounded intuitively correct, which it doesn’t; in fact it contradicts my experience as a reading teacher.

For more on what I liked and disliked about the book and why, see below.

Continue reading Reading Magic by Mem Fox

Accumulative Man Hours

This is a sign at the entrance to a construction site on West Coast Road at Clementi Woods Park.

I’m happy that there have not been any accidents. I know that because the number of accidents is zero, and also because the number of hours and the number of accident-free hours are the same.

What they call the number of hours, however, is hilarious. See below for why I think so.

Continue reading Accumulative Man Hours

What a difference an ‘s’ makes!

Citibank just sent me a new debit card. The tagline on the enclosed letter says:

For all the things life has in store.

My thought was that it should say:

For all the things life has in stores.

If English were to lose its plural inflections (which are already by no means required in Singlish), this pun would be even more apparent; as it is, “what’s in store” and “what’s in stores” mean totally different things!

Cutleries Station

I took this (lousy) photo of a sign that says “Cutleries Station” at Soup Spoon in Novena.

In modern standard British and American English, “cutleries” is not a word. (Neither is “equipments”.)

What makes this example interesting is that it raises another issue: whether we use singular or plural nouns as “noun adjuncts” or “attributive nouns”.

In other words, which is correct?

Drinks Machine
Drink Machine

Obviously, the machine would contain more than one drink, so using the plural is more “logical”, but it sounds horrible to me. Wikipedia says that the singular (or the possessive) is traditional in most cases, but that plurals are gaining ground.

I’ve seen several (many?) signs in Singapore that say “Children Playground” rather than “Children’s Playground”, which is doubly silly since those signs should probably just say “Playground” anyway.

(This one is in the complex where I live. At least “Residents’ Lounge” is correct.)

If you think “Children Playground” sounds awful, don’t laugh too hard. Whoever named the 2002 romantic comedy Two Weeks Notice neglected to include an apostrophe after “weeks”, unleashing a wave of scornful critique from movie-going fussbudgets. Apparently, educated native speakers working in the media and entertainment industries, even if they don’t misuse singulars and plurals, still struggle to distinguish plurals from possessives when modifying nouns with other nouns.

English is not easy!

Further Reading

Everyday vs. every day

My husband and I sometimes eat at Wild Honey. On our last visit, I was struck by this error on their new menu:


It should say:


The space between “every” and “day” is missing.

Now, you may be thinking, “Hang on, ‘everyday’ is a perfectly good word!”

Yes. Yes, it is, but it’s an adjective, and what’s needed in this and similar contexts is the two-word adverb phrase.

Here’s an example showing how to use the one-word adjective in front of a noun and the two-word adverb at the end of a sentence to modify the verb:

These are my everyday shoes. I wear them every day.

Now, can anyone tell me why there’s no such word as “everywhen”? We have “everywhere”, and “everything”, not to mention those vaguely plural singular words “everyone” and “everybody”.