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

Between/to vs between/and vs from/to

Take my word for it, this sign is about a discounted movie screening that is taking place “between 1pm to 3pm”.

Using “to” with “between” sounds terrible, but I know why people write this way because I’ve done it. You start out thinking about two times in one sense, then your thinking unaccountably changes before you finish writing what you set out to write. Gah!

When stating a range of times, here are some acceptable formats to use:

We are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. [from/to]
We are open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. [to]
We are open 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. [en dash, not hyphen]
Drop off your donation between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. [between/and]

In the case of a movie screening, I definitely wouldn’t use “between/and” because the movie isn’t happening at one point between the two times mentioned, it’s happening for the entire length of time. I probably wouldn’t even use from/to, though. I’d probably use “start at” and “finish at”.

The movie will start at 1 p.m. and finish at 2 p.m.

Everybody Writes by Ann Handley

Everybody Writes is a book that Derek Zoolander would recommend to “adults who can’t write good and want to do other stuff good too”. If you’re one of those, then, by all means, share and enjoy.

It’s not, or not entirely, Ann Handley’s fault that I found her book disappointing. For one thing, I had high expectations. I eliminated at least a dozen books on blogging from my Amazon cart before I decided to buy hers. For another thing, I was, simultaneously, reading a book on writing I much preferred, an erudite tome called Style by Joseph M. Williams. And anyway, I am probably not in the target audience. The subtitle of Part I, “How to Write Better and How to Hate Writing Less”, should have been an obvious red flag: I don’t hate writing.

The book has a lot of good reviews on Amazon, so some people seem to have found it useful, and even I got some use out of it—just not as much as I was hoping to.

More on what I disliked about the book as well as when and why I read it below.

Continue reading Everybody Writes by Ann Handley

Apparels vs Apparel

This sign at Marks & Spencer at Parkway Parade says:

20% off Ladies’ printed apparels & bras

It should say ‘apparel’, not ‘apparels’.

The sign also says:

Image for illustration purpose only

We can say “for the purpose of illustration only”, but because there’s no article, “purpose” should be plural in this case.

Upshot: The total number of letter s’s on the sign is correct. They just need to move the ‘s’ from ‘apparels’ to ‘purpose’.

Wait, I take it back. The word ‘apparels’ is on there twice. Gah!

Just so we’re absolutely clear:
Do not ever put an ‘s’ on ‘apparel’.
Or ‘clothing’.

‘Apparel’ is a mass/non-count/uncountable nouns (like equipment), and thus does not have a plural form.

Clothing shops sell apparel, not apparels, no matter how many individual items they sell or how many kinds of items they sell (ladies’ apparel, men’s apparel, kids’ or children’s apparel).

I suppose maybe it’s possible you could talk about a business importing a variety of ‘apparels’ from different countries, just as a chef could study the ‘cuisines’ of different countries, but I’m not sure whether anyone actually uses the word in this way.

Just assume that if you see the word ‘apparels’, it’s wrong. The word ‘apparel’ should be used instead.

Oh well. At least they didn’t write ‘lingeries’!

Ship or Sheep?

Earlier I wrote about the “his/he’s” distinction in Singapore, which corresponds to the “ship/sheep” distinction this pronunciation book refers to.

Apparently people have been struggling to differentiate these two words at least since the time of George Eliot. This is a passage from Middlemarch, published in 1872.

“I hate grammar. What’s the use of it?”
“To teach you to speak and write correctly, so that you can be understood,” said Mrs. Garth, with severe precision.
“Should you like to speak as old Job does?”
“Yes,” said Ben, stoutly; “it’s funnier. He says, ‘Yo goo’—that’s just as good as ‘You go.'”
“But he says, ‘A ship’s in the garden,’ instead of ‘a sheep,'” said Letty, with an air of superiority. “You might think he meant a ship off the sea.”

Here’s a more modern take: a pun that requires the conflation of “Griddy” (the name of an F&B outlet at Our Tampines Hub) and “greedy”:

Arrival (2016)

I’m so glad a friend who wanted to see it it invited me along or I would surely have overlooked this gem.

In Arrival, lonely linguistics professor Louise gets called in by the top army brass alongside your more typical math/physics guy to try to figure out how to communicate with the aliens in one of twelve lens-shaped black ships hovering over different parts of the world (the answer: coffee rings!), but the clock is ticking because the win/lose approach favored by the Chinese (and by some rogue American soldiers, for that matter) could result in catastrophic alien retaliation.

Arrival is not very actiony; there’s a lot of quiet drama in with the sci-fi. There are a couple of nice themes, but nothing overbearing. The film never even gets near the “hold hands and sing kum ba yah” cliche, which I perhaps was dreading. The black lenses recall Arthur C. Clarke’s monoliths, but that’s the only similarity Arrival has with 2001:A Space Odyssey. Nor did it have the nonsensical transcendent mystery of Close Encounters. Nor was it anything like Independence Day (1995). The movies it’s being compared to are all movies I haven’t yet seen (Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian).

The movie has been described as “sophisticated”, “intellectual”, “thoughtful”, “pensive”, and “cerebral”. That’s great. Quibble how you will about inaccuracies in the depiction of linguistics, the fact that Hollywood deigns to depict a linguist at all is nice.

I further approve of this movie because it didn’t announce that it has a heroine (rather than a hero). Arrival contains absolutely no obtrusive feminist rhetoric, spunky, defensive or otherwise. There’s just a likable woman smack at the center of the story. The heroine is played by Amy Adams, seen ten years ago in Disney’s Enchanted. The male scientist (played by Jeremy Renner, Marvel’s Hawkeye) for all his supposed skills, is just along for the ride.

It’s a wild ride, difficult to describe without giving the game away, somewhat like Predestination (2014). I’m also reminded of The Three-Body Problem, which also dramatizes the effect of aliens on humanity.

Since the not-fictional Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is part of the backdrop of the movie, I would like to point out that learning a new language—learning anything—does change your brain, but not like science fiction (or even the real Sapir and Whorf) would have you believe.


Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Also see below for a brief comparison of the movie and the short story it was based on.

Continue reading Arrival (2016)