Turn on headlights when raining

I saw this message displayed on a programmable sign over a highway, prefaced by the notation “Georgia Law”.

Obviously, the message is

Turn on [your] headlights when [it is] raining.

The intent is clear, but the syntax is awful.

Syntactically, the implied subject of both the verbs “turn” and “rain” is “you”, so technically the sentence means:

Turn on [your] headlights when [you are] raining.

I don’t have any particular suggestion for how to “improve” the sign. Signs aren’t written in normal syntax because of space constraints, so any alternate version would have to be really short. Writing “If it is raining, turn on your headlights” is obviously longer and not obviously better, because even when space is not limited, we expect signs to be written in a terse style that lacks pronouns.

Ah well. Pronouns in English are problematic anyway.

Best Mad Libs story ever!

If you’ve never heard of Mad Libs, it’s basically a kind of kids’ activity book that helps you create silly stories. The booklet asks for examples of different kinds of words (parts of speech like “adjective” or more specific kinds of words like “color”). The words will be used in a specially written story, but you don’t know exactly how they will be used. After all the words have been written down, you copy them into the story and read it aloud to see how it sounds.

Every once in a while, I tell someone the story of the time my mom and I did a Mad Libs story that made us laugh like crazy. In fact, there’s already a blog post about it. See below for more on that story, which I rediscovered on my recent trip to Atlanta.

Continue reading Best Mad Libs story ever!

Zero-inflection plurals do not include cucumber.

This package of Japanese Kyuri from Malaysia says:

Rich in nutrients, Cucumber are excellent in salads, sandwiches, stir-fry and sushi.

Here, the fact that the singular is being treated like a plural makes it sound as if cucumbers are exotic animals like bison or buffalo.

Recently, though I don’t have a photo, I saw a sign in front of some model planes (in the Tin Tin shop strangely located on Pagoda St in Chinatown) that was advertising “aircrafts for sale”. Ack. No.

For a variety of historical reasons, English has many kinds of nouns that are annoyingly difficult to pluralize, and Wikipedia helpfully lists them.

Interestingly, the cucumber package shows ‘salads’, ‘sandwiches’, ‘stir-fry’, and ‘sushi’ all in the correct form, even though ‘salad’ requires an ‘s’, ‘sandwich’ requires ‘es’, and ‘stir-fry’ and ‘sushi’ are uncountable.

Why, then, was it so hard to give ‘cucumber’ its plural ‘s’?

And why is it capitalized?!

Downstairs vs under

When my husband took me to a squinchy Japanese restaurant that had high chairs at a bar-style counter, the server laconically instructed me to put my bag “downstairs”, which meant “on the shelf under the seat of the chair”.

I have heard English teachers eager to hold students accountable for their spoken language deride this common Singlish use of “downstairs”, but it’s wonderful (and typical) in its succinctness.

If you use the preposition “under”, you have to include a noun for the preposition to be, well, positioned in front of. If you use the adverb “downstairs”, you’re just saying something needs to go below something else, and letting context do the work of indicating what the something else is.

Chinese has a phrase approximately meaning “down side” which can be used the way the server was using “downstairs” to adverbially indicate “under something”. It also has phrases meaning “up side”, “behind side”, “opposite side”, etc., and you can say “located opposite side” without needing to say “located opposite the hotel”, for example, the way we can say in English that “the receipt is in the bag” or just “the receipt is inside”.

I get the sense that Chinese relies on context more than English, or at least relies on context in ways that English doesn’t, since a large proportion communication in any language is always shared context.

Plural noun adjuncts again

This sign in the lift at Kent Vale says

Pre-loved Items Collection

Which sounds weird to me because I would have said

Pre-loved Item Collection

even though obviously they will be collecting more than one.

It’s an example of a tendency to pluralize nouns being used as adjectives, which I’ve posted about alreadytwice.

Pierre Cardin and the Apparels of Ecclesiastical Vestments

This sign at OG says:

Pierre Cardin

Now, I used to think that the word “apparel” had no legitimate plural form, but it appears I was wrong.

Google’s dictionary says:

However, I don’t think Pierre Cardin is offering 20% off embroidered ornamentation on ecclesiastical vestments. I think they’re offering 20% off men’s shirts.

I was wrong, yes, but the sign was also wrong, unless “apparels” is a verb, and the sign is really saying that someone named Pierre Cardin is in the habit of appareling or clothing others… which, in a sense, he is, I suppose.

Below is an example of writing that uses the word “apparels” in the technically correct sense. Note that the plural does not refer to the ecclesiastical vestments or articles of clothing themselves, only to some bits of decoration on them.

While embroidered pieces known as apparels were used on albs, dalmatics, and tunicles to represent Christ’s stigmata when placed at the end of sleeves and at hems, the practice of incorporating this form of ornamentation on vestments was gradually replaced by the use of lace in Western vestments during the sixteenth century.
Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion

So unless you are knowledgeable about albs, dalmatics, and tunicles, steer clear of the word “apparels”.

English Is Not Easy by Luci Gutierrez

If you are looking for an illustrated, sexually explicit, New York–themed guide to learning English as a second language, look no further than English Is Not Easy.

The pages include generous amounts of whitespace, the lettering is varied and attractive, and the examples and red-and-black illustrations are… memorable.

When and Why I Read English Is Not Easy

This book was a gift.

Genre: non-fiction (language/reference)
Date started / date finished:  29-Aug-17 to 30-Aug-17
Length: 335 pages
ISBN: 9788494140945
Originally published in: 2013/2017
Amazon link: English Is Not Easy

Dispose your unwanted items

This sign in the Kent Vale lift says:

Residents can dispose
their unwanted items at
3 locations from
9AM – 5PM

It should say “dispose of” for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere.

Also, the number 3 should probably be spelled out.

The sign avoids saying “between… to” though! Wait, no it doesn’t.

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!