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

I’ll Tell You Mine by Pip Harry

Clearly I need to read more Australian books. The vocabulary in I’ll Tell You Mine felt quite alien. I’d say everything (apart from “daggy”) is pretty clear from context, or from conversations I’ve had with Australians and New Zealanders I’ve met in Singapore.

Still, I had no idea until I looked it up why a truck would be called a “ute”. (It’s a strange word, one that would sound like Vinny in My Cousin Vinny saying “youth”.) The first time I saw “ute” on the page, it looked like a typo that was meant to be a longer word, or an acronym that was meant to be put in all caps, or at least a brand name that was meant to start with a capital letter. But no, “ute” is a word that’s short for “utility”. Apparently it refers to something that might be a pick-up truck or something like a cross between a normal car and a pick-up truck. Such vehicles are said to have “trays”. Learn something new every day.

Other stuff that sounds weird to an American, even one with expat friends:

  • chemist (pharmacy)
  • lollies (any sweets or candies)
  • bogged (rather than “bogged down”)
  • pies (for savory meat pastries)
  • jumper (sweater)
  • to dob (to snitch or tell on someone)
  • schmick (new/stylish)
  • tatty (opposite of schmick)
  • living out of home (living away from home)
  • holidays (vacations)
  • cuppa (cup of presumably tea)
  • a chinwag (a chat)
  • a barbie (a barbecue grill, or the event)
  • brekkie (breakfast)
  • bikkie (biscuit, which might or might not be a cookie)
  • loos (bathrooms/restrooms)
  • mates (friends)
  • plaits (braids)
  • dodgy (sketchy)
  • pinboard (bulletin board, cork board)
  • tuckshop (snack bar/convenience store)
  • texta (permanent marker, like a Sharpie but not)
  • turps (turpentine, for cleaning off Sharpie writing)
  • shops (stores)
  • bathers, swimmers (bathing suit, swimsuit)
  • daggy (okay, I can’t really explain this one; ask Wikipedia)

I love the word “dodgy”, but I dislike all the Ozzie diminutives. I’ve pretty much stopped saying “vacations” since no one around me says it, and as I’ve mentioned, it’s getting harder for me to call a place where you buy something a “store”.

I’ve left out (or “missed out”) words relating to school stuff (Year Elevens), place names (Wagga Wagga), and sports (netball).

These days I don’t even notice most British spellings (organisation, centimetre, flavour), though “gaol” is still pretty strange.

I wish I’d kept a list of interesting words and expressions as I was reading the book. The list would be twice as long!

When and Why I Read I’ll Tell You Mine

This Australian author is in my YA writing group.

Genre: fiction (Young Adult)
Date started / date finished:  28-May-17 to 29-May-17
Length: 254 pages
ISBN: 9780702239380
Originally published in: 2012
Amazon link: I’ll Tell You Mine

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”.

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

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!

https://www.quora.com/Besides-me-who-else-hates-the-plural-nouns-reads-and-eats-and-why

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”.