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A Fun Lesson

“Hey! Ian Aloysius Chua! Come back here now! And stop running!” I hollered while chasing after my best buddy. It was my Show and Tell presentation that Monday morning and I wanted… no, I needed Ian to dress up as a chicken. He, of course, had refused me flatly. There was only one way to get Ian to comply. I threatened to tell our teacher, Mr Soh, that Ian had bullied me previously (actually he did not, but I was feeling mean that day). Ian shot me a disapproving look but finally relented reluctantly. He dragged himself into the washroom to change into the chicken suit I had bought.

“It would be such fun,” I clapped with glee, ignoring the huge sulk on Ian’s face.

“Deston Kang!” Mr Soh’s voice boomed in the classroom minutes later. I was next to present the topic on “My Favourite Animal”. I stood up in front of the class and dragged Ian onto the small platform. He seemed really grumpy. Initially, as I was introducing myself, I kept stealing glances at Ian. He was constantly rolling his eyes and did not seem pleased. Everyone kept laughing at him. I elbowed Ian and hissed. Ian sighed, then started clucking away and walking around the classroom.

It was a riot! The whole class started shrieking and the girls squealed with delight. Surprisingly, I spotted a smile play on Ian’s lips. Even though beads of perspiration formed on his forehead after circling the class several times, I could tell that Ian was beginning to enjoy himself. He was a natural…


~ excerpted from an essay by Deston Kang (Ai Tong School, Primary 4 2015)


Tutor's Comments:

  • Strong personal voice suggests a cheeky yet observant protagonist
  • Use of literary devices eg alliteration, personification, metaphors
  • Detailed description of emotions, actions and reactions of all present to denote the change in the character

Lost in Translation

One of the most famous quotes attributed to Ludwig Wittgenstein goes, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world”. If this is indeed true, then it is truly regrettable that some of the words that we find in other languages have no precise English equivalent. Do have a look at some of the words and their meaning, and see if you agree!

1. Utepils (Norwegian)

This singular word refers to the act of enjoying a beer while sitting outside on a sunny day. Perhaps not too applicable to Singapore since the weather is too hot for anyone to sit in the open?

2. Komorebi (Japanese)

Just as the Italians coined the word ‘Chiaroscuro’ to refer to the artistic interplay between light and dark (the term itself is derived from the Italian words for ‘light’ and ‘dark’, in fact!), the Japanese have a specific term to refer to the sunlight that shines in through forests, creating a scattered or dappled effect. The English have co-opted the Italian word into its dictionary. Might we suggest they do the same for this nifty Japanese term?

3. Tingo (Pascuense)

Do you have an annoying neighbour who’s always borrowing everything from kitchen seasoning to home repair essentials? Be careful! The Spanish have a word to refer to such a person, although it also carries the connotation of “gradually stealing everything out of a neighbour’s house by borrowing but not returning.” One has to wonder, though: what kind of terrible experiences they must have endured to have such a specific word coined!

4. Itsuarok (Inuit)

Are your friends frequently tardy and keep you waiting? Isn’t it a frustrating experience when you wait for 30 minutes, sometimes an hour for a friend who doesn’t seem to respect your time? “Itsuarok” captures this frustration of waiting for someone to turn up, although, given that the word doesn’t have an English equivalent, we might want to just give those friends a piece of our mind instead.

Three Words We’ve Been Using Wrongly

There are, of course, far more than three offenders when it comes to words that frequently get misused in everyday conversation or writing. However, this post would become unreadable if I were to list every single one of them (some of which I am guilty of). Instead, I have chosen three words that fulfil each of these three criteria:

– It is commonly misused.

– I am guilty of misusing this word.

– It should never have been misused in the first place.

1. You mean, we’ve been misusing this word the whole time? – Occasionally

This is a commonly misused word. Many people think that “occasionally” should mean “rarely”. We see this in everyday sentences such as

A) Mr. Grouch is a recluse. Occasionally, he’d grunt a “hello” if you pester him, but don’t expect him to be cordial.

B) The park has been desolate for many years. I have occasionally seen a photographer or two loitering around the spot, though.

In both instances, we think of the word as “on a rare occasion”. In fact, it means “at infrequent intervals” or “every now and then”.

2. Guilty as charged – exponential

A piece of mathematical jargon that found its way into everyday usage, “exponential” retains its mathematical meaning of referring to an increase in the rate of growth (think acceleration). Apart from yours truly, the business world is also one of the most frequent offenders. Look at the two sentences and see if you can spot the erroneous usage:

A) Gaggle Inc. is set to grow exponentially after acquiring Broogle and Bracebook last month. In fact, they have been experiencing rapid growth ever since Michael Max took over as CEO three years ago.

B) The cost of housing is rising at an exponential rate, prompting citizens to scrutinise housing policies.

The answer is (B); The word is misused when talking about change rather than the rate at which things are changing.

3. We’ve got to literally stop misusing this word.

Literally. You see it in print and probably even use it yourself. There are two ways in which you can misuse the word and methinks that’s two too many:

A) As a pointless adverb, such as “I literally could not believe my eyes”.

Adverbs are not your friends. More often than not they clutter prose by providing redundant information. What’s wrong with saying “I couldn’t believe my eyes”? There is no loss in information and more importantly, there isn’t anything of value added by “literally” either.

B) As a rhetorical device for exaggeration, such as “That teacher was hilarious! I laughed so hard I literally peed my pants!” *cue laughter from your friends*

What you mean to say is “figurative”, of course. The sentence above is taken to mean that a teacher was so funny you actually ended up wetting your pants. I don’t think continuing to laugh when one stinks of waste is socially appropriate, nor is it what anyone would literally do under those circumstances, but perhaps times have changed.

Remember, literally means “actually”. Unless you actually did whatever you said you did (wetting pants or otherwise), do not affix this adverb. English teachers worldwide will thank you for it.

Avoiding the Passive Voice: A Model Response

Passive sentences are sometimes used by students in their essays in an attempt to vary their sentence structure. However, this can often lead to rather confusing sentences where it is unclear what is actually happening in the statement. Hence, especially for younger writers, students should strive to simplify their statements by using active and direct constructions.

Avoid: The bag was stolen by the robber who was chased by the lady.

Instead, consider: The lady chased the robber who had stolen her bag.

This way, there is less ambiguity about the actions being done and to whom the actions were done to.

Mini Exercise

Try changing these sentences to active ones

1. The ice-cream was eaten by the monster

2. Many games were played by the girls, and many prizes were won by them.

Scroll down the page for the answers.

Therefore, students should be mindful when using the passive voice and, as far as possible. use the active voice in their writing . If you have not subscribed to our monthly newsletter chock full of English titbits and news discussion prompts, sign up at the bottom of the page today!

For those who are already subscribed, why not try your hand at rewriting the paragraph below, for a start?

Task: Convert the uninspired paragraph below and bring a sense of action using the active voice.​

Exercise

An objective survey of the scene before Sam necessitated the conclusion that escape was all but impossible. Sam’s gun was drawn closer to his chest, not that much relief was brought to him. Still, in moments of peril, one can only clutch at anything that conveys a sense of safety. Suddenly, shots were fired by the enemy. Sam thought instinctively that it was then or never.

Tips:

· Passive sentence structures tend to place the object of the sentence at the beginning.

E.g. “The noodles were eaten by me” rather than “I ate the noodles”.

· In rewriting the paragraph, aim to put the subject and verb in the beginning of the sentences.

E.g. Daniel threw the paper away is preferable to “The paper was thrown away by Daniel.”

Model Response

Sam surveyed the scene before him. He realised that there would be no escape, and drew the gun closer to his chest. It did not bring much relief, but in moments of peril, a false sense of security was better than none. Just then, the enemy fired shots and Sam instinctively ducked for cover.

Compare the original and the improved version. Did you notice that when you use the active voice, you convey a sense of action and movement? Conversely, when sentences are predominantly in the passive voice, did you feel like the story was hardly moving and that the paragraph felt more like an information dump?

Answers for Mini Exercise:

​1. The monster ate the ice-cream.

2. The girls played many games and won many prizes.​​

I hope you've enjoyed trying the exercises!

The Death of Print?

I love my Kindle Fire. Or at least, I used to. I’m not sure anymore.

It’s not that I hate print books. I used to love books so much that any trip that begins in a bookstore must culminate in a purchase, leading to a mini-library of sorts and the eventual realisation that I’m not going to have any more space to accommodate more books. It wasn’t as though I could make space by pulping some of the older books for objectionable content, so I decided, quite reluctantly, to embrace the e-book leap.

Enter the Kindle Fire.

Despite what the detractors say, I found it a cinch to get used to. The benefits were endless:

  • Amazon deliberately prices their books cheaply, and I dedicate a good portion of my money to buying books every month.
  • Lest you think I don’t finish them, I do. The estimated reading speed they give you makes a daunting tome manageable. 12 minutes left in chapter? I could do that.
  • Highlighting the words automatically brings up the dictionary entry for it. This was a life-saver when I ploughed through a collection of pulp fiction from the 1930s recently.
  • Literally hundreds of books that I can carry with me on a vacation!

I thought my Kindle Fire and I would grow old together; I really did… until a trip to Kinokuniya changed it all.

I had been contemplating the purchase of a new release, Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to be Wrong. It’s a nonfiction book of mathematical thinking in everyday life and I liked what I saw on Amazon’s free preview, but I still wasn’t sure, so I made a trip to Books Kinokuniya over the weekend.

There were two versions of the book when I reached the shelf, both hardcover. One was published by Penguin and the other was by Allen Lane (also part of The Penguin Group). At S$45, it was significantly pricier than the e-book and I thought the case was closed until I picked one of them up – the one by Penguin.

While slimmer than its Allen Lane cousin, it had a certain heft to it. The cover was a beautiful turquoise and I fell in love with the feeling of the book in my hand, imagining how easy it would be to spread the book open and not risk damaging the slim volume. The coated paper sealed it for me – I spent 10 minutes flipping those pages. Not reading it, flipping and turning those pages, again and again. It took everything I had to resist buying the book there and then.

My Kindle lies beside my laptop right now, siphoning precious battery juice. Maybe, just maybe if I rearrange the books on my shelf, I can make space for just one more volume.

Gary Provost on Writing: Vary Sentence Length

Writing is an art, but it does not mean that there aren’t techniques that students (and teachers) can learn to make their writing sing! There are many creative writing workshops today for students and professionals that profess to do just that, but as early as 1985, one pioneer set the standards with his book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.

The title may not sound inspiring, but the methods sure are; here’s one excerpt from the 100 Ways:

VARY SENTENCE LENGTH

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.

Did you read it, either aloud or mentally? Was there a difference between the two paragraphs?

I am always pleasantly surprised to come across gems like these. I seek to impart these nuggets of writing know-how to my students; the challenge, of course, being how to deliver it in a way that they can apply to their writing!

Effective Narrative Writing: A Model Response

A good piece of narrative writing evokes the imagination through characterisation, descriptive details and vivid imagery that transport readers into your world and allows them to immerse themselves in rich details. All too often, students’ writings often lack these key ingredients to make their compositions stand out. Let’s look at a “before” and “after” version of a paragraph describing how the protagonist and his friends were chased by a dog.

Before

Since my home gate was locked, we decided to run towards the nearest alley in hope that we would lose the dog. Suddenly, Sean fell flat onto the ground and started crying. “Oh no! Sean!” I shouted. I immediately spun around so I could protect Sean. I immediately charged towards the dog hoping I could scare it off. I accidentally tripped over a stone and landed on the dog. I immediately stood up thinking it would attack, but instead it ran away!

After

I fumbled with the locks on my gate furiously, hoping to get it open before the rabid dog caught up with us. “Jack, forget the lock! Run!” screamed Sean as the mad dog’s barking grew louder. In a moment of haste, I threw my keys to the ground and took off with Sean, hoping to shake off that bloodthirsty hound in a nearby alley. Suddenly, I heard Sean fell flat on his face with a loud thud. I turned back and, to my horror, saw the dreaded mongrel gaining on us. With a loud cry, I charged towards the dog, hoping that my size would be intimidating enough to scare it off. My heart skipped a beat when I tripped over a stone and fell with my full weight bearing on the dog. Fear pulsed through me as I prepared myself for the worst. I’m going to be torn to shreds by those sharp fangs! I thought.

Lady Luck must have been smiling on me that day, however. I heard faint whimpering and opened my eyes to see that the dog had scampered away instead!

Did you add other details that we might have missed out? Leave your model paragraph in the comments section below and let us know!

Forgotten English Words

All languages evolve and change, and English is no exception. Even today, the language is changing in ways we never thought possible (selfie, anyone?). As such, there is a treasure trove of interesting antiquated words which, for one reason or another, have fallen out of favour with the English-speaking masses. Author Jeffrey Kacirk digs out some of these gems. We like to imagine he dusted some really old and musty tomes to uncover these archaic terms!

1. Eye-Servant

When I was serving my National Service, one of the most common terms we threw about was “eye power” – a sarcastic remark intended for someone who watched idly while his friends toiled and got work done. As it turns out, lackadaisical attitudes transcend cultures and centuries! “Eye Servant” describes a servant who performed his duties perfunctorily except when his master was around. As the colloquial “eye power” is limited to a military context, may we suggest replacing servant and master with employee and manager and bring this handy phrase back?

2. Flitterwochen

English is a West Germanic language that came from the amalgamation of related dialects, now collectively termed Old English. Students of literature, when they encounter a text like Beowulf, often remark upon the text’s uncanny resemblance to German. When I first saw this word, I thought it had to be a German word. Alas, it is an Old English expression which literally means ‘fleeting weeks’. The word was used to describe a honeymoon. Poetic aptness aside, I am of the firm belief that everything sounds better in German or its closely-related cousin.

3. Mumpsimus

According to Kacirk, this Middle English word originally referred to an incorrigible, dogmatic old pedant (how specific!), but evolved to mean an incorrect opinion that someone clung to. My long-cherished belief in the beauty of German might be considered a mumpsimus, but at least I’m not incorrigible, dogmatic or old and pedantic!

4. Piggesnye

Moving on to Chaucer’s time, the author of The Canterbury Tales coined this word to refer to a sweetheart. It is said to come from the phrase, “pig’s eye”, however, and I cannot bear any responsibility for what happens to anyone who tries to use this term of endearment on their significant other. Much better to stick to German alternatives like “Zaubermaus” (Magic Mouse) or “Gummibärchen” (Gummy Bear), don’t you think?

English and the Jobseeking Graduate

Things used to be much simpler – study hard, get good grades, graduate from a “good” university and find a decent job where you’ll start from the bottom and steadily progress. Rinse and repeat with your children once you get married. Times have changed since, and it seems we haven’t quite gotten ourselves out of these mentality. Nationwide, the pressure is on to achieve ‘A’s and distinctions beginning as early as primary school. We have produced scores of straight ‘A’ students from cradle to convocation, but for once, the narrative they’ve been led to believe didn’t hold true; months after graduation, cover letters and CVs are still being sent in the desperate hopes that the hiring manager had a great breakfast that morning and was amenable to giving the application a thorough look. Graduates could look at their impressive stacks of certificates, diplomas and letters of recommendations and wonder, what was the point of it all, this paper chase?

We can blame anything, from lax immigration policies to mandatory national service, but the fact remains that graduates are still looking for jobs. As I mulled over the situation with my job-hunting friends one evening, a thought occurred to me – perhaps, one of the things we’ve missed out is the problem caused by this “good-grades, good-jobs” narrative.

I would not venture to say that this is the sole or even the main factor; like many teenagers’ relationship status on facebook, it is complicated. However, it does make sense when we think about it. If a huge number of students had been brought up on this myth and worked hard for their ‘A’s, then at least on paper, there’s really nothing separating these cookie-cutter candidates. Years of rote learning and memorisation have deprived them of their individuality and capacity to learn for learning’s sake. If I were the hiring manager, I’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference too!

Parents sometimes wonder why our students have to do Media Studies or discuss current affairs and interesting news topics in class when it’s not even an examinable component in English. Our response has always been one of the need to prepare students for the challenges of the modern world, to develop them into much more than a straight-‘A’s student and to nurture within them the ability to articulate their points with confidence. We hadn’t thought about job-seeking then, but if our students do become more expressive and differentiate themselves on paper and in person during the interview in the future, then we would have succeeded admirably in our goal.

The Misuse and Abuse of the English Language

Any serious learner of English is bound to have had some mishaps with mispronouncing or misspelling a word or two. What if there were some words we were also misusing some of those words too? Check out some of the most commonly misused and abused words, and see if you’re guilty of any of them!

1. Anticipate

“Anticipate” has the connotation of expecting and preparing for something. We often use the word when we want to talk about precautionary measures.

For example:

“In anticipation of a heavy downpour in the city center later, Gerald brought an umbrella.”

“Civilians were evacuated to the countryside during World War II as the British government anticipated heavy bombardment in major urban cities by Nazi Germany.”

The word is commonly misused when speakers mean to say “expect” rather than “expect and prepare”.

For example:

“We anticipate prices of the new computer will decrease over time.”

2. Behalf

Should it be “on behalf” or “in behalf”?

Usually, we mean to say “on behalf of (Mr. Kim)” as we wish to highlight the fact that Mr. Kim is being represented by someone else, say Ms. Park. However, if Ms. Park spoke in Mr. Kim’s behalf, the sentence is taken to mean that Ms. Park spoke in Mr. Kim’s defence, which is slightly different from representation. Two concrete examples:

Ms. Park is a lawyer hired by Mr. Kim. She often speaks on his behalf during press conferences. (Ms. Park represents Mr. Kim)

The customer was extremely angry at Mr. Kim’s lack of professionalism, and Ms. Park had to speak in his behalf. (Ms. Park defends Mr. Kim)

3. Irregardless

In many business emails and missives, it is fairly common to see people use the word “irregardless”. The problem? It isn’t an actual word.

The “ir-“ prefix usually means “not”. Logically, when you prepend it to “regardless” the meaning becomes “not without regard to”, which is clunky and strange, to say the least.

More often than not, the word we are looking for is simply, “regardless”. Regardless, let’s erase this non-word from our mental dictionary, and stick to the proper word!