Man child, age 6

I would like to point out that this is hilarious. From a certain angle.

From another angle, it is also evidence of a good deal of hard work and bravery on the part of the parent…

Imagine you’ve just moved to another country with your wife and son and you have to function in another language, one that you’ve studied but that you didn’t grow up with. Furthermore imagine that it is one that uses a writing system totally different from your own and contains combinations of sounds you can’t accurately pronounce.

You’re going to send your son to a school that uses your family’s language, but you want him to study the local language, too. You go to a private education provider and find a class suitable for your son’s age and language ability level. You decide to register him for classes there.

Then they give you a form to fill out. It’s not in your language.

Even if it were, nobody likes filling out forms.

Or should you say, filling them in? Or up? Why does English have all these pesky phrasal verbs anyway?

You do your best with the form.

Transitive and phrasal verbs and taxis

The word ‘alight’ didn’t used to really be part of my vocabulary, probably because in the US we had a car and we drove ourselves everywhere we couldn’t walk or fly. In Singapore we use buses, trains and taxis to get around. So now I hear automated announcements that say something like:

The next stop is XXX interchange. Passengers traveling to YYY, please alight at the next station.

Please allow passengers to alight before boarding.

That’s all very well and good. I have nothing against the verb ‘alight’. I don’t think there’s necessarily a better word to use, if you want an expression more formal than ‘get off (or out of) the vehicle’.

No, what amuses me is when ‘alight’ is used transitively to mean ‘drop someone off’. Or when someone means ‘drop you off’ and only says ‘drop you’.

May I alight you here?

May I drop you here?

I don’t think it’s just taxi drivers who use ‘drop’ to mean ‘drop off’, though. I think non-Singaporean native English speakers say that too, don’t we?

This is language evolution in progress. Why shouldn’t any verb be able to take an object? Why shouldn’t we just kill off—I mean, um, kill—all those pesky phrasal verbs? Maybe this is the future.

No Smoking Prohibited By Law

The sign says:

No Smoking
Prohibited By Law

But it should say:

No Smoking
By Law

or

Smoking Prohibited By Law

or

No Smoking
Smoking Is Prohibited By Law

Why? Because it almost sounds as if not smoking is not allowed. In other words, it sounds like everyone must smoke.

Obviously people are not really going to conclude that they must smoke when they see this sign, but all the same, the English is not quite right.

Queue for taxi

at the National Skin Centre
at the National Skin Centre

The sign says “QUEUE FOR TAXI”.

I wonder whether it means “[This is the] queue for [getting a] taxi” or “[Please ] queue [here] for [a] taxi”.

In one case, ‘queue’ is a noun, and in the other case, ‘queue’ is a verb. Actually, I think ‘queue’ is probably a verb.

Not that it really matters.

It only matters if the sign is trying to say, “[This is the] queue for [the] taxis [themselves]” because then it would be a singular/plural error.

The sign should just say “taxi queue” like most of them do.

In the US, we don’t really use the word ‘queue’. Which is fine with me, since as far as I can tell, ‘queueing’ is pretty much the only English word that has five consecutive vowels (HT XKCD).

In other news, ‘strengthlessnesses’ is a plausible hypothetical word with surprisingly few vowels, all of them ‘e’.

On a related note: at some point, Gallup chairman Dr. Donald O. Clifton apparently decided to name his awesome analysis tool  The Clifton Strengthsfinder, ensuring it would be unpronounceable even to native speakers of English and completely inconceivable to anyone else. I mean, ‘strengths’ is bad enough, but to then follow it up with a word starting with ‘f’? What was he thinking? I guess he never taught a small child how to read.

Salt Water Giant Arachnoid

salt-water-arachnoid
at an educational supply store called Nurture Craft at Forum The Shopping Mall

The front of the box says:

Children may be awesome and scary to this direct but simple eight-feet reptile animal. After the fuel battery is activated by the salted water, the metal magnesium plate (3PCS) can successively provide the spider with 4-6 hours of power. Do to it is too real-like, the player may stop it during the time of playing. You can simply remove the fuel battery module and just clean it with running water, hang and dried it. All the material applied on this toy are environment-friendly, safe and clean. There is no any other toxic substance or waste. It won’t produce heat as well, which makes it absolutely safe for the children.

Unfortunately my picture of the side of the box was out of focus, so I can’t show you what it said. I’m sure it was hilarious.

The giant arachnoid is also available on Amazon.

As you might imagine, reviews are mixed.

Happy year of the Caprinae!

year-of-sheep-goat
in Chinatown

According to the Chinese zodiac, most of 2015 is the year of the 羊. The word 羊 (‘yáng’) can refer to both sheep and goats, hence the confusion over what to call this zodiac year in English (sheep/goat/ram). Wikipedia kindly informs me that the most accurate translation of ‘yáng’ would be Caprinae, a Latin word corresponding to the biological subfamily that encompasses sheep and goats.

Therefore, I wish you a happy year of the Caprinae.

Pesky conjunctions

The same taxi had two signs prohibiting eating and drinking. One said “no food and drinks” and the other said “no food or drink”.

“No food and drinks” is wrong. It assumes that the ‘no’ applies to one combined entity, food-and-drinks. One could imagine this syntax being valid if someone said, “You can’t come in, you have no suit and tie.”

It’s also weird that ‘food’ is treated as a noncount noun and ‘drink’ is treated as a count noun. It would sound slightly better, though still wrong, if the sign said “no food and drink”. Then I would, perversely, wonder whether it would be okay to have just food or just something to drink, as long as I didn’t have both. The ‘no’ doesn’t distribute, so “no food and drink” doesn’t mean “no food and no drink”.

Now I wonder why we don’t say “no food and no drink”. And what verb would you use? “No food and no drink is/are permitted in this taxi.”

I wonder why we don’t use ‘neither… nor’ on signs like this. “Neither food nor drink is permitted in this taxi” would be correct.

“No food or drink” sounds normal. At least, I thought it did. Now I’ve been thinking about it too much and everything sounds strange.

“No eating or drinking” would be good. It wouldn’t rule out someone bringing food and drink into the taxi, but perhaps that’s okay anyway. Certainly I’ve transported groceries, snacks and leftovers in taxis.

But not durians! Some taxis have signs specifically prohibiting them:

no-durian-in-taxi
“No Eating / Drinking”. That slash adroitly dodges the whole issue of the conjunction! Well done.

The reminder on the far right to “please state your preferred route” is to protect drivers from being scolded at the end of the trip for taking the surface streets when obviously going by the highway is faster, or for taking the highway when obviously going by the surface streets is cheaper, or whatever.

Signaling tense and aspect

Chinese does not have ‘grammar’ the way European languages do because words are not inflected. There are no plurals, noun cases or past tense. All the memorization of declensions you have to do when you study, say, Germanic, Slavic and Romance languages—that kind of stuff is absent from Chinese entirely (though you would of course be foolish to conclude that Chinese is therefore easy). So how are the relationships between words indicated? Context, adverbs and particles.

Let’s look at verb tense (specifically past tense) and aspect (specifically completed aspect) in Singlish as influenced by Chinese.

Continue reading Signaling tense and aspect