Fix that sign

Stomp is running a contest to spot bad English around Singapore. I submitted my entry this evening. I bet they didn’t expect mine. Full essay.

32 Responses to “Fix that sign”

  1. 1 quirkyhill 26 September 2009 at 00:49

    “The problem stems from the fact that very few here are native speakers.”

    are you sure? in linguistics, a native speaker is someone who speaks X language since birth. therefore anyone who speaks english since she was born, is a native speaker – it’s not just someone with blond hair and blue eyes. and there IS an increasing number of singaporeans who are speaking english to their children. in fact didn’t you just post a graph on that in your previous post?

  2. 2 ILMA 26 September 2009 at 01:11

    This article made me chuckle, but also pause and reflect. As a Singaporean graduate student here in the US, I find it astonishing how little Singaporeans read compared to the Americans. I am not sure if its a time issue. But we really read so little compared to them, and this is reflected in our pathetic language skills. Even if we speak grammatically correct English, the content is frequently lacking. We are unable to express our thoughts well because we have seen, read and heard so little! Our book industry is really the “assessment books, true singapore ghost stories and adam khoo motivation books” industry.

    Very sad indeed.

  3. 3 Saint Splattergut 26 September 2009 at 01:52

    I think the sign with Rosie might actually be delibrate :X

    Good job with the first sign though.

  4. 4 yawningbread 26 September 2009 at 09:29

    quirkyhill – I get your point. I would however add that, yes, many Singaporeans are native speakers… of Singlish, not English.

  5. 5 Larry 26 September 2009 at 11:13

    Perhaps a little more formal, but I might have used “Let me exit first.”

  6. 6 George 26 September 2009 at 12:12


    The MRT example,in a word, ‘Singlish’, lah!? 😉

  7. 7 liew kai khiun 26 September 2009 at 12:13

    uh. YB, even the linguistic standards of the the so call native speakers in Britain and North America are rapidly deteriorating. I do not think you want kids to be exposed to those so call English language environments in Eastern London or even the streets of Washington DC.

    And, have you collected your $400 from Stomp?

  8. 8 aha 26 September 2009 at 12:28

    Just wondering if you could help me with the following, since you’re on the correct use of English:

    1) In their mind, they were thinking about something else altogether.

    Question: Is it “mind” or “minds”?

    2) There are around ten species of elephant.

    Question: Is it “elephant” or “elephants”?

    3) They looked at each other’s design.

    Question: Is it “design” or “designs” (Context, two persons A and B each having a design to show the other).

    Thank you so much 🙂

  9. 9 yawningbread 26 September 2009 at 15:29

    A reader wrote in to say that even “Let me get out first” is not the best, because “get out” is usually associated with expulsion. “Let me get off first”, or “Let me off first” was suggested instead. I think he’s right.

    • 10 bradleyf81 5 October 2009 at 10:40

      Perhaps “Allow me to alight before boarding.” Though, I’m not too sure on “alight” because it’s not used very often in American English. I suppose you could change out “alight” with “exit” and if you wanted to make the whole thing more formal you could change out “before” with “prior to”. That sentence would feel a bit choppy when spoken though.

  10. 11 yawningbread 26 September 2009 at 15:31

    George said “The MRT example,in a word, ‘Singlish’, lah!?”
    That’s half the problem, isn’t it? People see Singlish all around us, thinking it is English. No wonder they can’t do any better.

  11. 12 yawningbread 26 September 2009 at 15:46

    aha – Minds. Elephants. Designs. On your second question, I’d say the answer is not quite cast in stone. In modern usage, we tend to use the plural when saying “x species of elephants/orchids/eels”. There are however some English words that denote not individual organisms, but a generic class/substance e.g. pine, deer, lettuce. In such cases, you would say “x species of deer”. To make things even more confusing, there are words that do both – denote individual organisms and denote generic class, e.g. buffalo, and honestly, I don’t think there is well-established convention as to how to deal with such situations. Personally, my instinct is to say “x species of buffalo” but I have no way of defending such use.

  12. 13 aha 26 September 2009 at 16:10

    Thank you so much, yawningbread.

    I’ve home across usages such as:

    4) Their body is covered with a layer of oil to protect them from the sun.

    Question: Why is it that the singular (and generic) use of “body” is acceptable in (4) but not in (1) as exemplified in my earlier post? This is what really confuses me…

    Sorry for turning this into a question-and-answer thing 😉

  13. 14 yawningbread 26 September 2009 at 16:22

    aha – Sentence (4) is plain wrong. I would edit it to “Their bodies are covered with oil to protect them from the sun”, or better yet, “Their bodies are covered with oil for protection against the sun”. By doing so, I keep the subject of the sentence consistent – the plural “bodies”. And “a layer of” is redundant.

  14. 16 yawningbread 26 September 2009 at 16:42

    Aha – I thought the “their” in your example referred to discrete individuals. Now I see where you’re coming from. In the examples you found from googling, “Their body” refers to the generic body of an entire group. The generic body is singular. The word “their” in such cases refers to a class as a whole or a group of indeterminate count, as opposed to a collection of discrete individuals of countable number.

  15. 17 aha 26 September 2009 at 16:53

    So back to (1), reproduced below:

    1) In their mind, they were thinking about something else altogether.

    Is the use of “mind” acceptable as a reference to a generic group of men or people? If not, is there a rule to help us decide when the generic use is acceptable and when it’s not?

    Many thanks 🙂

  16. 18 Teck Soon 26 September 2009 at 17:32

    I work for a large multinational corporation in Singapore. When I get job applications from Singaporeans, I have to discard about 75% immediately. When I spot grammatical errors in a CV or cover letter that native speakers would never make (and according to liew kai khiun above, Singaporeans are native speakers), I have to assume that the applicant rarely reads books. We like to hire people who are good readers because they tend to be smarter. Although the jobs are technical in nature and don’t require much English, I’ve found a correlation between English ability and technical ability. If anyone arrogantly claims to be a “so call native speaker” rather than a “so called native speaker” then I would toss that application immediately. We never have that problem with American, British, Indian, or Australian applications, and many Malaysian applications are well-written too. The problem in Singapore is a serious one, and Yawningbread’s commentary is spot on.

  17. 19 Ryan 27 September 2009 at 00:57

    This article is hillarious. Thanks for the good read.

    I was quite surprised when I first saw the Stomp advert. I also felt that their English is a little odd. It’s about time they taste a little of their own medicine.

    Being one of the editors working in Singapore, i.e. people who are paid to spot and correct spelling mistakes etc, I must admit that despite our job scope, many of us are not trained well. The industry is experiencing a high turnover rate due to the heavy workload so we don’t have many skilled and experienced people working on published materials.

    Sadly, speaking good English can also lead to other people branding you as snobbish, prententious or trying to behave like an ‘angmoh’. I suspect speaking Singlish is a way to reaffirm one’s national identity as a Singaporean, i.e. ‘angmohs’ speak proper English while Singaporeans speak Singlish.

    *sleepy now – do I make sense?*

  18. 20 Robert L 28 September 2009 at 00:13

    Thank you for a great article, YB. You’ve spotted something that took me quite a while to understand.

    In a different manner, the mother of all gaffs that I’ve ever encountered came from Channel News Asia in it’s early days in the 2001’s. It was a self promotion, using a famous personality of Japan. It went like this:

    “Just don’t read my books, watch Channel News Asia.” Spoken by Kenechi Ohmae. Now, you might argue that it’s Japanese English, not Singapore’s fault, but nevertheless, that in-house commercial was broadcast repeatedly for over more than 6-months in Singapore.

    While I fully expect the majority of Yawningbread readers to spot the mistake in the commercial, nevertheless for the English-challenged, I’ll repeat the commercial with the correct version that Channel News Asia was unable to produce:

    “Don’t just read my books, watch Channel News Asia.”

    Ha! Ha! I hope readers will find it hilarious how the relative positions of two words can change the meaning so drastically.

  19. 21 tk 28 September 2009 at 13:14

    all that being said, english (like every other language) is in a constant state of change. compare a shakespearean play to one by say tom stoppard or david williamson, compared to a facebook update from a sub-continental friend or lyrics by dizzee rascal (all native english speakers btw).

    the point being that there is really no “wrong” way to write or speak english, just appropriate ways for appropriate contexts. (so that it wouldn’t be ‘correct’ to write “i can haz job pleeeze? money no enough” on a cover letter for a job application, even though the HR person would [probably] understand what you mean.)

    but now i’ll chip in with my pet peeve – the singaporean use of “would” when they mean “will” eg: “i would save my business money by using both sides of the printer paper.” ok well if you “would” save money, why don’t you!? i always feel like saying, pettishly 😉

    oh and ryan (27/9, 0057) what do you think about ang mohs such as myself and several friends who enjoy using and have adopted just a few choice singlish phrases and verbal hiccups such as ‘lah, lor, mah’, ‘can’ and ‘cannot’, ‘blur like sotong’, ‘maio (sp?)’ ‘damn shiok’, ‘alamak!’ ‘potong potong potong’ and my favourite when things go wrong – ‘wah lan, ah!’

    i say live and let live. i mean can you imagine the howls of laughter in oz if Krudd tried to get people to stop saying things like ‘fair suck of the sauce bottle’ ‘i’m as dry as a dead dingo’s donger’?

  20. 22 Anonymous 28 September 2009 at 17:02

    Ryan at 27 September 2009 at 00:57:
    speaking good English can also lead to other people branding you as snobbish, prententious or trying to behave like an ‘angmoh’.

    Yes, I experienced it too. I was even branded “jiak kang-tang”, i.e. “eat potatoes”. That’s when I learnt Singlish to fit in with my colleagues. I’m Singaporean born-and-bred, just lucky to have had good English Language teachers.

  21. 23 Tuck 28 September 2009 at 23:09

    One can be pedantic and insist on:

    “Snap a photo of one of these signs with wrong use of English.
    Correct the errors on the photo
    Submit your photo to…”

    Different rules apply for varieties of written texts. I doubt there is a style guide for billboards. Perhaps they should all be haikus.

  22. 24 Anders 29 September 2009 at 11:06

    “Clean public toilets are possible. Let’s make them happen”

  23. 25 AH 29 September 2009 at 20:45

    It’s worse than a one word mistake. In my opinion the whole sentence is mangled and should be rephrased.

    Snap photo (one or more photos?) of sign (what sign?) with wrong (eee, makes me cringe) usage of English.

    Something like:

    “Snap a photo of the sign with poor English”.

    Is more preferable.

    Dam Gahmen kenna get Ingrish correct lor? Waat to doo?

    From an, uh Englishman.


    • 26 bradleyf81 5 October 2009 at 10:37

      “Snap a photo of a sign with incorrect usage of English and submit it!”

      Sounds best to me. Or:

      “Snap a photo of a sign with an incorrect use of English and submit it!”

      Also sounds ok to me.

  24. 27 AH 29 September 2009 at 20:46

    Oops, A spelling mistake in the Singrish:

    Dam Gahmen kenna ge Ingrish correk lor? Waat to doo?

    Sorry, sorry, must study harder.

    • 28 yamezt 30 September 2009 at 09:20

      AH said:
      Something like:

      “Snap a photo of the sign with poor English”.

      I would suggest “-a- sign” as oppose to “the sign”. “The” suggests a specific sign 😛

  25. 29 Pedant 1 October 2009 at 18:07

    The sign is also ambiguous and could mean:” take a photo of a sign while using bad English”.

    Also you need to say “submit it to”…, not “submit to”, which means something else entirely.

    An idiomatic English sign would be more likely to say:

    1. Take a photo of any sign that is in bad English
    2. Correct the English on the photo
    3. Submit it to….

  26. 30 bradleyf81 5 October 2009 at 10:27

    I’m a native English speaker. In fact, it’s the only language I speak. I think your correction to the sign is wrong. I think it was correct to start with. I can’t dive into the mechanics of it, but it just sounds better when “usage” is used. Also, language is all about patterns (grammar). The same patterns are used over and over. “Use” is applied more to thinks like a butter churn, or a camera, or a single application tampon. You get one “use” out of it.

  27. 31 anony 12 October 2009 at 09:22

    My pet peeve phrase among Sporeans is “faster, faster” which is a direct translation from Hokkien phrase “kah kin, kah kin”. Used frequently by adults, teens & kids.

    If I am not wrong, the proper phrase is “hurry up, hurry up”.


  28. 32 Bob35 22 October 2009 at 21:13

    And Nevile sure as hell shouldnt be curing them. ,

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