30 June 2006

The Straits Times as an educational tool

I point out a number of errors in an edition of the Straits Times, not because we should gloat about it, but to signal to ourselves how serious the language situation has become. It's a sad day when bad English creeps into the premier newspaper. It indicates that there is so much of it around us, all the filtering by editors still leaves a noticeable residue. Full essay.


Anonymous said...

The question I would ask is; how many people notice these errors? If most people don’t, then you could say that there is a problem. And how many people really care about this sort of thing, so long as they get the meaning of the phrase or the sentence?

The main reason for this kind of shabby English, I think, is that more and more people read less and less. Reading is dying. Why bother with Shakespeare and Dickens and Jane Austen when it requires so little effort watching some inane programme on the television set? Other than serving as school texts, these great classics are no longer in vogue. More the pity…

nelly said...

Ahem ... YB,

Allow me to indulge in some cheekiness.

1)"attempting to shoot a security guard" is just as awkward as the ST example. Chan did actually shoot the security guard. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on where one's sympathies lie, he missed his target.

"Chan was charged.... with taking a shot at a security guard." is ambiguous in its usage. "taking a shot at (something)" is also used to mean giving (that) something a try.

My preferred correction would be "Chan was charged.... with shooting a security guard."

2)On to the next ST example:

"Multimedia shows will depict the modern Army, marrying displays of SM1 tanks, 155mm guns and UH-1H helicopters, COMPLETE WITH the sound of whizzing shells and the smell of gunpowder."

And your correction, "marrying x with y".

The ST was right in if it meant the marrying was between the displays on the one hand and the sound of y1 and y2 on the other.

In other words, the "with was there. But why the "complete with"?

nelly said...

... (continued from above)

3)Built "along" a lake, or "beside" a lake?

"along" a lake is correct if the architect had designed the building, much like a fence, to line the perimeter of the lake. But I somehow doubt this to be the case, and anyway the phrase would have to be to "along a lakeshore" instead.

4)This comes from the sidebar.

"There were always books to be read, by which one absorbed usage and idiom."

Two parts to this:

a)"books to be read" would be redundant if we assume that reading is the only thing we do with a book. However it is stylistically consistent (and therefore not redundant) with the first clause in the sentence that follows it ("plays to be acted in). But it is not with the second clause ("or elocution contests .. {to be?])

b)"There were always books to be read, BY WHICH one absorbed usage and idiom."

My preferred correction:

)"There were always books, FROM WHERE one absorbed usage and idiom."

Then we're back to stylistic consistency ...

Ok, everyone. Fire away at meb but I'm no English major.

Zut said...

Thank you for pointing out the errors. Truth be told, I would have probably not spotted some of the errors you pointed out if I had merely read through the article.

While I was reading the sidebar in the article, I realised that I cannot recall whether grammar was emphasised in school. I've always based my use of the language on instinct and intuition borne out of watching BBC, CNN as a child.

Unfortunately, any good work executed by the education system comes undone when one goes through army. Army has a pronounced negative effect on the standard of one's English and I have had my fair share of horrendous e-mails and speeches that I could not even understand, let alone identify the individual words!

teck soon said...

I am wondering if media ownership rules and the persistent fear of government reprimand among journalists is indirectly responsible for the poor English that Alex has seen. Knowing that Singapore's press has the dismal ranking of 140th in the world when it comes to freedom, it is doubtful that our journalists will ever have the liberty to write earth-shaking, Pulitzer-quality pieces. What bright student would ever choose journalism as his career in this environment? I would suspect that Singapore's brightest students usually either choose careers in economics or the sciences. Film-making, journalism, and the arts likely suffer under stifling censorship. Having these intellectually-challenged students making their way onto the Straits Times staff may be partially evident in poor mastery of written English. Some will argue that being bright and being able to speak proper English are not necessarily related. I seriously doubt it. Not in Singapore, anyway.

charles said...

Although the Straits Times fares better than 10 years ago, the mangled up grammar often renders the text unintelligible.

As a side note, it was interesting for me to notice that some of the articles were sprinkled by mistakes that French people would make: for example "may" (indicating probability) or "can" (indicating capability) are the same verb.

your obnoxious French,

Anonymous said...

Straits Times is no longer a piece of journalistic product.

It is simply just a PAP newsletter.

What can we expect from a PAP newsletter?

austin said...

You are so right. After reading your article, I went to STI to look at some of the articles. I was flabbergasted to see that many articles written by the local journalists contain clumsy sentences, improper punctuations and repetitious information. Take a look at the article written by Elena Chong.

General manager pleads guilty in drugs case
New Zealander was arrested at his condo; drugs found in many places, including cooler
By Elena Chong

recruit ong said...

TODAY isn't any better. Yesterday's article on Isreal's kidnapped soldier was printed as Iraqis. It's a front page article too. LOL!


The 140th's editors are really snoozing on the job.

ice331 said...

lol ... i cant help smiling when reading this article. great stuffs!

Spunky said...


I don't know why a lot of us are giving excuses for our poor written English. I don't write well, but I seek to improve and strongly believe we should confront this shortcoming instead of hiding behind "as long as the message gets across".
As long as we don't put in effort to get it right, it can only get worse!

I saw this in Monday's TODAY:
"But the SCTV coverage can still be enjoyed by those with an antenna living in the east, central and south-east areas
of Singapore."

Personally I thought "an antenna living in the east" sounded awkward.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you for pointing out the slight errors in The Straits Times. It was certainly a timely reminder to many that we are all but humans and even editors of established newspapers make mistakes. You have indeed encouraged me to be more discerning in language when reading material.

Would like to enquire if there was a minor slipup in the second suggestion of the second error in the first article that you mentioned.

Alternatively, "Chan was charged.... with taking a shot at a security guard."

In the article, please do correct me if my understanding is wrong, it was mentioned that Chan had attempted to shoot the security guard. Meaning that he might have threatened verbally of pointed the gun at the guard.

However that does not seem to imply that Chan had shot the security guard. For if he had, should it not have been phrased, "Chan was charged in February for having shot a security guard at Sun Plaza."

Please advise.

Very sorry for the Inconvinience Caused

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

As commentators here have pointed out, there are quite a few possibilities when it comes to describing the shooting incident.

Nelly (30 June 06:24) preferred "charged with shooting a security guard".

Anon (30 June 13:17) preferred "Chan was charged in February for having shot a security guard at Sun Plaza."

These had occurred to me too but the reason I was cool towards these constructions was that they left unclear whether the bullet hit the security guard or not. The bullet didn't, and I think that was why the ST editors introduced "shoot at".

Despite our different views, I nonetheless see that no one thinks the final ST wording was good in any way.

Anonymous said...

Question, was the guard actually shot? Could "shooting at a security guard" mean different than "shooting a security guard"?

matt said...

Alex, thanks - I read your sidebar with much interest. Thanks for taking the time to enlighten me on this. You are lucky to be in the right environment, and many in the late 40 + age group has great writing skills, even if they left school at O levels. It is so different today - Phua Chu Kang, Police and thief....Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget, the ubiquitious 'branded' goods and parking 'lot'.

Anonymous said...

"Multimedia shows will depict the modern Army, marrying displays of SM1 tanks, 155mm guns and UH-1H helicopters,..."

Could this sentence correctly be describing a three way marriage between SM1 tanks, 155mm guns and UH-1H helicopters?

Anonymous said...

From ST:
The Navy wants a 50-50 mix of fixed and changing exhibits for the museum, which it hopes will draw 30,000 visitors a year, from local and foreign servicemen to students and military buffs.

Changing themes could range from naval battles in history to navy-inspired art; outdoor artefacts could include naval guns and missiles.

Your comment:

The Navy's new museum is not yet built, thus the first of the 2 paragraphs, saying "The Navy wants...." and "it hopes...." is correct.

In that case, the second paragraph should not have used "could", but "may".

My comment:

I think the two instances of the use of "could" in the second paragraph are fine. Their use doesn't necessarily indicate past tense, but the likelihood of something happening. Consider:

1a) It can result in death.
1b) It could result in death.

The use of "could" in (1b) makes the likelihood of something resulting in death more remote than in (1a) which uses "can".

Anonymous said...

this kind of analysis should be done more often, Alex. =) no wonder I find my English standard dropping after reading the local newspapers regularly. =P

Anonymous said...

Well, it sure is fun exploring the mistakes in the Straits Times.

But unless I'm mistaken, the mistakes by themselves are not the main issue. Let's agree on the mistakes and move on. The main issue is that parents and educators would like to use our newspapers as a tool in teaching English.

I should expect that, if our local newspapers are seen to be lacking in standard to do the job, other newspapers would be used to teach our children instead. Now wouldn't this be amusing?

The Straits Times would not find any greater incentive to improve their English than the thought of our schools or parents distributing foreign newspapers instead of local newspapers to our school children. Hmm.. maybe I should keep this to myself.

Robert L

dennis said...

I hope my fellow posters will indulge me:

"about as big as" is neutral on the relative size of the object (except when employed ironically), while "as big as" without the "about" carries the connotation of a large size. I think the article's not in error in this case.

"There were always books to be read, by which one absorbed usage and idiom." - This might not be strictly grammatical, but it's stylistically and idiomatically sound.

"Multimedia shows will depict the modern Army, marrying displays of SM1 tanks, 155mm guns and UH-1H helicopters,..."

Could this sentence correctly be describing a three way marriage between SM1 tanks, 155mm guns and UH-1H helicopters?

I suspect that was the writer's intention. "Marrying X and/with Y" is fine, but it's probably unacceptable to extend the expression to three objects.

"Changing themes could range from naval battles in history to navy-inspired art; outdoor artefacts could include naval guns and missiles." - "May" simply indicates that these are possibilities, while "could" goes further to imply that either 1) these themes are being offered to the reader as tentative options/possibilities to be selected from, or 2) these themes are being speculated on by the reporter, rather than being reported as having being stated by a museum representative. Neither of these implications is appropriate, so "may" should be used.

On the matter of what to do about poor English in the ST - I was just thinking that a website that highlights mistakes and awkward usage in the ST might be both entertaining and educational. The mistakes could be accompanied by short explanations of the correct usage and an example sentence or two. Or does a site like that already exist?

dennis said...

Sorry, missed out one quote:

"A DBS spokesman told The Straits Times that it had done this for its customers whose cards may have been compromised. It is believed no other bank was affected."

Here, "had done" is correct since the sentence is already in the past tense. "Has done" would only be appropriate if the sentence were in the present tense: "DBS says it has done this for its customers..."

Also, there's a second problem with the quote that your post didn't point out - the lack of a comma after "customers".

KiWeTO said...

Zut above pointed out that the army has a deletorious impact on one's command of English.

My personal experience with the army was:

After 2 years of serving the government while having received insufficient training, I transited to NSF status, and upon leaving the gates of the army camp for the last time, recognized the fact that I was completely incapable of piecing together a grammatically correct sentence in English.

All i could muster was a mismash of Singlish, which was more than capable of getting around Singapore, but I was certainly in no intellectual state to attempt any serious studies or job interviews. My command of English (which had been pretty good pre-army) deserted me.

Happy to report that I have since recovered from that malaise, but I believe my experience may have also been similarly borne by many who upon leaving NS, had to pursue intellectual concerns (aka: study).


Singlish is a language that almost every NS man will learn to use during the 2 years of service. It is not the army's job nor mandate to regulate proper use of English.

So who's job is it to be the language police at the end of the day?

Not the MoE, not the government, not the army.... Hmmm... could it be the individual himself/herself?

Time to stop laying all the blame on the systems, and recognize that at the end of the day, its the individual who must take final responsibility for his own erudition.


brick said...

I enjoyed reading articles and books about mistakes made in common usage of English very much.

In your article, I saw one particular usage that seems to have become accepted as the norm, even in mainstream media.

In paragraph 5, you wrote:

"...I believe it can still serve a public purpose by using these examples to illustrate how pervasive are the falling standards of English, such that they are even creeping into the premier English newspaper."

The phrase "to illustrate how pervasive are the falling standards of English" would have been written as "to illustrate how pervasive the falling standards of English are" in those days when we were less liberal with grammer.

I'm wondering if anyone in the language department will care to enlighten us on this.