General Waste

This is the door that covers the rubbish chute on my floor in my building. It says “general waste”.

Every time I see it, I think of a joke which I somehow can’t find online anywhere, probably because the world moved on ages ago…

There used to be some kind of “blue screen of death” error that said “GENERAL EXCEPTION”.

I once saw a joke response that said:

Who is General Exception and what is he doing in my computer?

So now, EVERY TIME I go to throw stuff away, I invariably think:

Who is General Waste and what is he doing in my lift lobby?


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

Why does a hamburger symbolize food?

I don’t know what the English text of this blurry “no food or drink” sign says, but I don’t care; I’ve covered the text aspect of these signs already. I took the photo because I wanted to talk about the food and drink symbols.

The bigger sign features a double burger; usually the burgers on these signs only have one layer between two buns.

The smaller sign features a stemmed glass with a bent straw, suggesting an alcoholic cocktail; usually the drinks on these signs are trapezoids with straight straws that suggest sugary, carbonated soft drinks.

Both of the stickers, thus, differ in interesting ways from the canonical or prototypical “no food or drink” sign.

Still, I wonder how the prototypical “no food or drink” sign came about! I’ve seen similar signs all over the world, in places where a hamburger (or for that matter, the fast food restaurant in general) is presumably not a domestic cultural touchstone, but a relatively recent foreign import.

These stickers are not what you think of when someone says “globalization”, are they? Yet their spread must be attributable to the increase in international trade and communication in the decades since the hamburger was invented.

When and how (and where) was the hamburger invented? I don’t know. Wikipedia has some guesses. If you’re really curious, I hereby inform you that are at least two entire books on the subject (neither of which, in all likelihood, I will ever read):

I’d say the second one is more likely to explain why, all over the world, those black/red/white signs depict “food” as a hamburger.

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.

Phone zombies, beware!

This sign warns pedestrians to pay attention near the entrance to a construction site between West Coast Plaza and Clementi Woods Park.

Forget your fear of swimming near sharks or camping near bears; walking around holding your phone under your nose is much more likely to kill you!

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sign like this before, but perhaps such signs will become ubiquitous, like the mobile phones we are apparently obsessed with.

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!

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”.

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.