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!

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

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?

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

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