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

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:

OPEN EVERYDAY FROM 9AM

It should say:

OPEN EVERY DAY FROM 9AM

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”.

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!