Possessive adjectives in child Singlish

The kids I used to teach had trouble producing the sound of short “i”. It comes out as long “ee”. (In linguistics, this ee and i are a tense/lax vowel pair.) Thus, as I tell new teachers during training, there are no fish in Singapore. They’re all feesh.

That means that “ship” and “sheep” are homophones. The fact that “ship” and “sheep”  are not actually the same word is really confusing to kids who are learning plurals and collective nouns (fleet of ships, flock of sheep).

Another significant effect of this problem is that “his” and “he’s” sound exactly the same. The obvious effect of this confusion is that kids often write one of these words when they should be writing the other one. The more subtle effect of this confusion is that kids sometimes assume that there exists a possessive adjective “she’s” which means “her”.

Here’s what they hear here:

He is a boy. That bag is he’s bag.

Therefore, by analogy, they want to say:

She is a girl. That bag is she’s bag.

I wish English were that logical!

I think (I hope?) most Singapore kids grow out of saying “she’s” as a possessive adjective but they don’t necessarily learn to pronounce lax vowels as lax vowels. The adults here also say “feesh”.

The “oo” in “moon” and the “oo” in “book” are another tense/lax pair, which explains why kids (and adults) say the word “book” with the vowel sound that’s in “moon”.

Healthy yet delicious Korean food

Whoops! The sign in front of this shop in the basement of United Square is implying that healthy Korean food is usually not delicious. I mean, okay, maybe, but that’s not what you want people to be thinking when they’re standing in front of your Korean restaurant at lunchtime.

What if they used “and” instead?

Healthy and delicious Korean food

Well, now it almost sounds as if they’re offering two different kinds of food, healthy Korean food and delicious Korean food, which still implies that “healthy” and “delicious” are incompatible.

They should just put the two problem adjectives in front of Korean with just a comma:

Healthy, delicious Korean food

The reverse order sounds okay too:

Delicious, healthy Korean food

Signatrer Dishes

Well, the photo is gorgeous, and the restaurant should definitely get credit for correctly pluralizing “dishes”, but that is not how to spell “signature”.

I think the mistake is a phonetic spelling mistake and not a manual typo. The consonant combination “tr” often sounds like “ch” (listen to yourself saying “treasure” or “train”), so I can imagine someone coming up with this by trying to spell what the word sounds like. The “tu” spelling pattern found in words like “nature/natural”, “picture”, and “adventure” is not all that common.

I took this photo outside a restaurant on Mosque Street in Chinatown. I think the restaurant was Chong Qing Grilled Fish. These onions are probably for flavoring the grilled fish.

In one corner of the menu were a bunch of Chinese characters and the English brand “Classical aftertaste”. I think “Classical flavor” was probably more like what they were aiming for. Or “Classic taste”, maybe.

IKEA opens daily

I’ve posted about errors in signs declaring business hours before. A giant European home furnishings company you may have heard of is among the businesses that have gotten it wrong.

Why should the phrase be “open daily” and not “opens daily”? Because one is idiomatic and one isn’t; or if you prefer, “open daily” has been idiomatic longer, since the sign is, itself, evidence that “opens daily” has become idiomatic in Singlish.

The best I can do for a usage citation is a couple of dictionary entries for “daily”, which give “open daily” as an example, suggesting that this is the most natural and intuitive phrase, as far as dictionary writers are concerned.

Then there’s the fact that the phrase “opens daily” gets Google 253,000 hits whereas “open daily” gets 10,800,000. The images for “opens daily”, in comparison to the images for “open daily”, are telling, too.

(New can of worms: I see that there are signs for “open everyday”, which should be “every day” because “everyday” is an adjective…)

Leaving aside calls to authority and statistics, the syntactic difference is interesting. “Open daily” uses “open” as an adjective, and “opens daily” uses “open” as a verb. We want to know when the business is open. We do not care when the door of the business is opened by some employee with a key. The emphasis is misplaced.

There is a further confusion lurking under the surface, which is that when we do use “open” as a verb for a business, we sometimes mean it in the sense of “to launch” or “to open for the first time”. So the phrase “opens daily” makes it sound like maybe the business is having a grand opening every day, which is ridiculous. Grand openings are not everyday occurrences.

You can use “open” as a verb if you really want, especially in a sentence rather than as a notice on a sign. But I think the verb needs a strong contextual justification.

Example Business
Opens at 9:00 a.m.
Closes at 5:00 p.m. Monday to Thursday
Closes at 3:00 p.m. on Friday


The Ikea sign is particularly bad because of the colon.

Opens Daily: 10am to 11pm

The text suggests that the door is opening (and closing) continuously from ten in the morning to eleven at night! Why? Because there are two adverbs modifying the verb “opens”: the word “[once] daily” and the phrase “[from] 10am to 11pm”. The first can legitimately indicate when the business opens; but the second is meant to say when the business is open.

This is what I think the sign should say:

Open Daily
10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Please tear sideway

Georgia-Pacific is a paper company headquartered in my hometown, Atlanta, Georgia. The Georgia-Pacific Tower, a pink granite building shaped like three tiers of steps, came into being about the same time I did. It’s my favorite skyscraper in the city. I was in it once, way up high, for a job interview.

Now. The sticker that says “Please tear sideway”, spotted on a Georgia-Pacific paper towel dispenser in a restroom in the Singapore General Hospital complex, did not come from where I came from. I don’t know where it came from, but it did not come from Georgia.

Wear and use your personal protective equipments

Pluralized uncountable nouns are a pet peeve of mine. The one that’s most frequently publicly wrong is ‘equipments’ because it’s posted at every construction site, and there are a lot of construction sites.

cuisines (meaning ‘dishes’)
slangs, jargons

I’ve also noticed uncountable nouns being used in the singular, which is just as wrong.

a bread (meaning ‘a bun or roll’)
a paper (meaning ‘a piece of paper’)

There are many words that are countable about half the time and uncountable about half the time, which I’m sure doesn’t tend to help people to understand the underlying distinction.

effort / efforts
content / contents
experience / experiences
praise / praises
detail / details
instruction / instructions
input / inputs

Recently I saw an email from a marketing agency in which the text of the ads was referred to as ‘ad copies’ instead of ‘ad copy’. Ack, no.

Fighting such errors may be impossible in the long run, because in principle there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to say ‘equipments’, and obviously people here already feel perfectly free to do so. Until uncountable nouns die off completely, though, you’re better off knowing how to use them correctly.

Main Wait

National Heart Centre Singapore logo

  • Nice new 12-story building? Check.
  • Nifty quasi-anatomical logo? Check.
  • Building signs checked by English expert? Nope.

The signs in this waiting area at the National Heart Centre Singapore say “Main Wait” when they should say something like “Main Waiting Area”.

To be fair, “wait” can be a noun as well as a verb (but I don’t think it means what you think it means). Also, the signs are totally intelligible, so… close enough, I guess!

No, actually the real problem is that there’s ample waiting space in some parts of the building and not enough in others. My guess is, it’s easy to design a building, but hard to design a building that is used by people. Which is every building, actually.

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.

Mind your steps!

Broken idiom alert. This sign at the National Skin Centre pharmacy says:

Tripping Hazard.
Mind Your Steps!

I think in the US we’d be more likely to say “watch your step” rather than “mind your step”, but pluralizing ‘step’ would be wrong in either case.

Sure, it’s logical that you’d want to be careful over the course of many steps, but conventionally, that’s not what we say.

I think we use the singular noun because this ‘step’ really means ‘manner of walking’. Here are some examples that showcase this singular sense of ‘step’.

The job promotion put a spring in his step.

The dancer has a graceful and lovely step.

The thief listened for the confident step of the policeman.

There is room for confusion because ‘step’ more often means ‘footstep’, and footsteps are often potentially plural, even when they are not syntactically plural.

The craftsman hoped his son would follow in his (foot)steps.

The sound of (foot)steps faded away down the hall.

Every (foot)step brought her closer to her goal.

Now that I think about it, the noun ‘stride’ has a similar duality: the singular noun means a manner of walking and the plural noun is used to refer to a series of individual movements.

I think there’s also pressure to pluralize ‘step’ coming from the common use of ‘steps’ to mean ‘stairs’.

The spilled water cascaded down the steps.

Anyway, the upshot is that the warning to “watch your step” or “mind your step” means “pay attention to your manner of walking”, not “pay attention to each of your footsteps”.