My pet peeves about poor English

I’ve been wanting to write something to the papers recently but this Forum letter today beat me to it.

Let students have a taste of good Standard Singapore English

I FULLY agree with Ms Pek Siok Lian’s view of a ‘half-baked Mandarin and half-baked English’ situation in Singapore (‘My bigini is BOOMZ’, Sept 13). We only have to open our ears in food centres, shopping malls and school canteens, and we get a constant aural assault of sub-standard Standard Singapore English (SSE) and Standard Singapore Mandarin.

Most of us are competent in neither English nor Mandarin. We have become a nation of half buckets, as the Mandarin saying goes.

As one of Ms Pek’s former teachers in primary school, I can attest to the genuineness of her crisp diction. Although she may have forgotten me, I remember wondering: ‘How on earth does an 11- or 12-year-old learn to speak consistently like that?’ Ms Pek revealed that it was learnt unconsciously, by reading and having a real interest in the language for the love of it, not for economic gain.

Before the onslaught of tech toys and mobile communication tools, we had only the good old radio and black-and-white TV. Life was so much simpler then.

Communication meant we really engaged in conversation and story-telling. We picked up the phone and spoke to real people at the other end. Now we TET – text, e-mail and Twitter. Perhaps we should start a ‘No TET Day’ or ‘No TET Hour’. Switch off the TV too and just talk to one another.

We used to listen to the BBC and local radio stations that had role models of good SSE speakers. Compare them with the present lot of TV personalities and one can see what sets them apart: garbled vowels and smothered initial and final consonants.

Put good role models on TV. We are not short of local talent, but watching Mark Lee and Patricia Mok in English sitcoms makes me switch to Channel 8. But the Mandarin half buckets elevate Guo Liang and Quan Yifeng to demi-god status.

Bring back educational TV programmes, but in a fun way. We need to strike a balance between the spoken and written form of any language. We cannot sacrifice one for the other.

Not all native speakers are good role models. So let’s not rush to import foreign talent just yet. Let’s tap the pool of local talent first. We can start with our politicians. Examples of speakers of good spoken SSE include Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee: nothing ostentatious, just good spoken SSE that makes you feel comfortable.

Ellen Toh (Ms)


You know, I couldn’t agree more.

When I became a journo intern in 1998, I was surprised to have so many grammar and English mistakes pointed out to me by editors and copy editors. So much for studying in an elite English-language school! The pervasiveness of poor English (and Mandarin) is so deep-rooted that many of us don’t even know how to discern between the good and bad.

One thing to note is that it takes considerable effort, even for good English speakers, to constantly speak and write good English. Especially when we are in an environment such as Singapore where poor English (not merely Singlish, mind you) prevails. We start to speak what we hear on a daily basis, and that’s why so many foreigners say they can’t understand us. We speak too fast, and we don’t think hard enough about what we’re about to say.

I’ve been told by friends I write well on my blog. That’s because I spent a long time in the newsroom honing the ability to write simply and coherently. When you can string your thoughts and sentences in the simplest possibly way, that’s when you communicate clearly and you’re perceived as a good writer. It’s not about using big words or complex sentence structures.

However, I think I write much better than I speak, so there’s still a long way to go.

My kids have also picked up Singlish and poor English at school too, and we spend a lot of time correcting them before releasing them back into the school den. I also bought them DVDs of the old Sesame Street and Electric Company (from the 70s) to help make their learning fun while focusing on accurate basics. (Still, they prefer to watch Pink Panther)

I’ve listed a few pet peeves of mine, which are probably yours too. I don’t speak out on when these mistakes are made, even though I should, largely because I don’t want to embarrass people and I’m not exactly an English teacher, am I?

Their – For some reason, many teachers in Singapore like to pronounce “their” as “they-are”.

Finishing the word right – I scratch my head at this – folks who cannot seem to complete words that have “s” or “ing”.

For example. “He manage the business.” “There are many device in the storeroom.” It sounds so wrong when you realise the mistake, but you’d be surprised how people actually use this in conversations and on emails.

Wrong/fake accents – It’s a colonial hangover, but a lot of Singaporeans feel an incredible need to put on a fake accent when speaking to foreigners and Caucasians. It’s as if they will sound more coherent if they start lifting their intonations in the wrong places.

There’s nothing wrong with sounding “Singaporean”, but what’s more important to non-natives is that they understand your sentence structure. Cutting out the “lors” and “lahs” helps a bit, but it’s not as bad as using terms like “my ownself”, or “faster go switch off the light”.

What pet peeves do you have about poor English in Singapore? Feel free to comment.

Post image above from Oxford Dictionaries website.

12 Replies to “My pet peeves about poor English”

  1. The misuse of the word ‘revert’. We should all revert to listening to BBC on the radio. THAT’S the correct use of the word! Not ‘I’m waiting for him to revert to my email’.

  2. As is commonsensical, there is a time and place for everything. Plain speaking in the most prosaic of prose is applicable in most instances for the laity. That said, the English dictionary will not have more than 50000 entries if there is no beauty of expression in the rarefied atmosphere of the recherche or the exotically rare word. Interesting turns of phrases cannot be achieved through constant repetition of well known cliches, transparent though their meaning may be.

  3. If people think there’s nothing wrong with speaking Singlish, then there’s definitely something. I personally make a point to use proper English when writing, even on chat messages, SMS, emails, forums, etc. For speaking, it’s really hard because we’re surrounded by people speaking sub-standard English. People will pick it up subconsciously. That’s… Read More how language is learned: Use it or lose it. To fix the problem is really very simple, correct it all the time, every single time, until it becomes a chore to speak Singlish.

  4. Dear hostcd,

    Interesting use of the language, but do watch the grammar in your phrase “the English dictionary will not have…if there is no beauty…”.

    Should have been “would” and “were”.


  5. Good grief! I could go on all day about this!

    I totally agree on the mispronunciation of the word “their”!!! What about other words like “salmon” or “won” or “photographer”?

    Another thing that really annoys me is when people say “irregardless” or “in regards to”.

    My latest gripe is what I’ve been hearing lately in office – “I’ll scan the document to you”.


  6. I can appreciate Singlish, …the lahs, leis, issits, etc. What gets my goat tho is the inability to pronounce common words and the difficulty in stringing grammatically correct sentences together.

    I’ve had conversations with a couple of English teachers, and their use of the language was shocking to say the least. It’s no wonder children (and adults) are speaking the way they are.

    I often find myself having to correct missing, misused or simply made up tenses. The compulsion to begin sentences with “Later” boggles me – “Later I take my bag and then we take taxi” or “Later make sure you call me go play football”.

    That said, “sellmun” (the fish) doesn’t bother me too much as it’s a pretty common error, but the following (to mention a few) drive me absolutely nuts:

    • “Chalve, thirten, fourten, fifften, sixten, ….”
    • I can on “sutturdae, munndae, choosedae, ….”
    • She so “pohhhlite”
    • I fail my “compohhhsition”
    • I order “spAAghettee” for you
    • You play my thing “spoy” ady
    • You got “ploblum” issit
    • Later my “chooshen” start six fiften
    • Ees you a player?

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