Category Archives for English Essentials

Creative Writing in Singapore

Parents are always on the lookout for that extra edge for their children, whether it be academic subjects or enrichment activities. One of the top things on their agenda is boosting their child’s “Creative Writing” skills. However, in Singapore, “Creative Writing” tends to overlap with PSLE Composition Writing. In this article, we hope to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding the notion of “Creative Writing” in the context of the primary school syllabus in Singapore.

Myth 1: Creative Writing means learning new ideas to write more interesting PSLE compositions

Often, parents enquire about creative writing classes for their children, with a view to preparing them for the national examinations.

In practice, there is a slight difference between the PSLE composition writer and the creative writer. Most parents are aware of the stringent requirements of the PSLE composition component. Students must adhere very strictly to certain rules, such as the grammatical rules of sentence construction. Hence, parents look for ways in which their child can inject fresh ideas to make the composition stand out, thereby garnering higher content marks. Creative Writers do not necessarily have such constraints; they are free to break the established rules, if it adds a new dimension to their writing. Thus, the creative writer does not necessarily do well at the PSLE.

At Creative Campus, our teachers often brainstorm content and plotlines with the students and where applicable, incorporate some of the techniques of creative writers, for instance to foreshadow events, set up expectations or introduce a new twist to their story.

Myth 2: Creative Writing means “using big words” in writing

There is no doubt that a good command of the English language and vocabulary is crucial to a writer’s craft. In some circles, this has been misconstrued to mean that a good piece of writing depends on how many bombastic word one can use.

This is a dangerous myth that must be debunked. Creative Writing, and writing well in general, requires sensitivity to the language. Tutors are not doing their students any favours when they provide lists upon lists of synonyms and “creative phrases” to be used for some of the more common scenarios that pop up in the examinations.

The teachers at Creative Campus are well aware of this, and make it a point to go through the nuances of language during class. In this way, our students do not leave the class with the mistaken notion that they must memorise phrases to regurgitate in their composition. In fact, forcing “big” words and phrases into their writing without a good understanding of some basic language structures can result in oddly worded, even illogical compositions.

Myth 3: Creative Writers can hammer out a perfect first draft

Some people conceive of the writer as an inspired artist who, chancing upon an idea, writes furiously and comes up with the perfect novel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Creative Writing involves a great deal of planning, even for the most seasoned writer. The PSLE composition writer also has to do the same. However, whereas the PSLE student has to get his draft right during the course of the examination, the creative writer is not constrained by time; the latter can finish a draft, come back to it in a few days and revise it to his heart’s content.

To expedite the process of constructing and delivering a well-crafted composition, our teachers go through some of the most important techniques students need to craft the best composition they can under examination conditions.

Furthermore, at Creative Campus, compositions are written on a regular basis, which gives the students ample practice and allow teachers to impart crucial writing skills by building upon previous work. The result is a student who can plan and draft an A* composition when it really counts.


Are some people naturally talented at writing? What really is Creative Writing, anyway?

While it is true that some people take to the English language quite naturally, it doesn’t mean that Creative Writing is beyond the reach of students. Thus far, we have discussed the differences between Creative Writing and PSLE writing. Now, we need to also be aware that fundamentally, sound writing is about technique, and anyone can learn techniques.

The PSLE student learns the techniques and applies them in his writing.

The Creative writer applies the techniques in his writing, and experiments with breaking some rules to see how it affects his writing.

If you are looking around for a “Creative Writing” class, do take a moment to ask yourself if you are looking for classes that will teach techniques and ideas, or if you are looking for classes to develop a good writer into a mature one.

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.

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:


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!

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?

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!

Bring back the Shakespearean insults!

When we think of Shakespeare, we think of a stuffy, English bard toiling away at his plays, writing in meandering sentences such as “conceal me what I am” rather than the modern, straightforward “hide me!” It might surprise you to know that in between the meanders, the rhymes and the puns, there exists a treasure trove of insults, some too racy to be produced here! Perhaps we can look at working some of these into our conversations next time, when the occasion arises:

1. I must tell you friendly in your ear, sell when you can, you are not for all markets.

Where it occurs: As You Like It, Act III, Scene 5

It’s Valentine’s Day today, and if you have the misfortune of checking your Facebook feed, you are bound to come across an acquaintance who’s holding out for just the right partner. Ideally, you’d like to say, “please just settle – you’re turning 30!” but that would be extremely unkind. Perhaps the same words, couched in the bard’s magic, might do the trick?

2. You scullion. You rampallian. You fustilarian. I’ll tickle your catastrophe.

Where it occurs: King Henry IV, Part II, Act II, Scene 1

Maybe it’s the obsolescence, but there is something oddly charming about these insulting terms that make them much more endearing than their modern equivalents. I am reminded of a short story by Mark Twain, wherein the narrator, having botched the job as an editor of an agricultural journal but who fancies himself having done a great favour instead, lashes at his friends in what can only be described as a litany of punny vegetarian insults: “Tell you, you corn-stalk, you cabbage, you son of a cauliflower? It’s the first time I ever heard such an unfeeling remark.” If we try hard enough, rapscallion might find itself back in common usage to describe mischievous boys again!

3. I wonder that you will still be talking. Nobody marks you.

Where it occurs: Much Ado about Nothing, Act I, Scene 1

It’s a very handy way to tell people that they should stop talking, and that whatever they are saying is so worthless that no one is listening.

4. Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit, for I am sick when I do look on thee.

Where it occurs: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1

Uttered by Demetrius to Helena, this line essentially mean “don’t push your luck; I feel sick whenever I look at you”. However, if you are looking to comment unfavourably on someone’s looks rather than their very existence, read on.

5. They lie deadly that tell you you have good faces.

Where it occurs: Coriolanus, Act II, Scene 1

I remember how, during our secondary school days, girls would react in mock indignance whenever they were described as “cute”. “It means I’m adorable but ugly, right?” I also remember the days when I was too polite to abandon the connotations of adorable-ness yet in want of a better adjective to describe a girl. Now I wished I had read Coriolanus.

6. More of your conversation would infect my brain.

Where it occurs: Coriolanus, Act II, Scene 1

Also in the same scene (and by the same character, Menenius), this insult can be reserved for vapid rants that quickly degenerate into conspiracy theories about how society and the new bourgeoisie are in cahoots with the government to bring you down.

7. I do desire that we be better strangers.

Where it occurs: As You Like It, Act III, Scene 2

To round up our insults, let’s go back to where we started. I suppose if you actually do have friends who dabble in conspiracy theories and genuinely believes that Bruce Lee faked his own death so that he could retire from showbiz to work as a waiter in a Hong Kong restaurant, this last insult would sound more like a plea.

In all seriousness, The Bard was a great master of storytelling and the written word. That his works have endured is a testament to his genius, even if the works are seemingly unapproachable. I hope these diversions will get people less apprehensive about Shakespeare and realise that he, like so many writers before and after, was simply spinning a tale with great finesse. If this enterprise proves popular, perhaps we could have a post on Chaucerian insults!