Issues in Chinglish: Singular vs Plural

Chinese is a different language than English in that it makes basically no distinction between something that’s in singular form versus one that expresses plurals. Thus, whereas in English we have one form, two forms, in Chinese it’s 一个表格,两个表格 — note that the Chinese for “form” (表格) remains the same!

In actual fact we do have something which closely resembles the plural — the character 们 (men). This is used when more than one item is referred to — so when we address our pals, we often say friends, not friend. Here, we add 们 to indicate we’re addressing more than one person.

However, in Chinese, plurals are added much more sparingly. Therefore, two forms would sound weird to a local in China if we used 两个表格们 — that is, if we added the at the end!

The only bit in English that’s anywhere close to the same are the irregular exceptions — like one fish, many fish and so on. Even here, these are exceptions to the rule.

Hint to Chinese students learning English: Understand that most of the time, you need this thing called plurals in English. At times they’ll be anything other than an S — classic case studies are terminus — termini, vertex — vertices, crisis — crises and chairwoman — chairwomen. The best advice is to read through authentic English texts — and find out the differences for yourselves…

What it should have read: Platforms 2-12

Politically Incorrect Chinglish

Students I teach are often tested onstage to make sure they have what it takes to be orators. If they tremble onstage in front of the mic, that’s not the end of the word: this is why we have Nobel-grade scientists and world-class TED speakers, both on the same planet!

However, amplified Chinglish should be banned. What’s tricky is they’re everywhere, and they’ve had, as I’ve discovered, a tendency to even get political. Here’s just a selection of the most politically incorrect Chinglish I’ve heard from my students…

“Democracy People’s Republic of Korea”

When discussing issues over north Korea, some used the “official”, long title of the country, which in reality is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Long name, I know. I wish it was all of the above instead of the Kimland that it is today.

But onwards. That’s a grammar mistake. Democracy describes a current state of political affairs, or the attribute of a modern nation-state. The adjective democratic should be used here instead.

“Community Party of China”

This is not a new-born / illegal party in the Middle Kingdom — it’s what students erroneously refer to as the ruling party, the Communist Party. The trouble is — they have a hard time trying to make “community” and “communist” sound different.

It’s also worth pondering how the party’s name is written in English. I favour the verbatim translation, making it the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but I know Beijing’s approved version is a little different — the Communist Party of China (CPC). It’s also a case of how you translate the official name of the country — if it was a verbatim translation, the People’s Republic of China would have become the Chinese People’s Republic. The fact that most Western news outlets use CCP instead of CPC means that when talking about this to Anglophone audiences, for example, they’d be probably more familiar with the CCP than the CPC, although the two are much the same.

“Unit States of America” / “Unit States of American”

They also at times have trouble pronouncing the official country name in the States. Unit States sounds just so wrong — they’d have ideally added the -ed at the very end.

There’s another big problem in Chinglish country names: some of us make little distinction between a country name and its adjective. Hardest hit are Germany – German, Switzerland – Swiss as well as that impossibly-hard-to-understand trio — United Kingdom / Great Britain / England. If they’re not referring it in Chinglish to Englishland or English, they’re assuming “UK = England”, which would make those of us in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland look at those poor, innocent students funny.

Chinglish Alert! “Columbus is the first guy to land in the America land”…

Chez nous it’s orals time again… that time of the year when students are tested by standing in front of a microphone, mastering Keynote / PowerPoint presentations, and telling others their own stories they’ve prepared.

We’ve obviously had a fair number of students who have done very well, but I’ve also heard a fair bit of gibberish. Without revealing who said what in detail (isn’t privacy always a good thing?), I’ve decided to list some of the Chinglishes I’ve found and decrypt them…

• “Columbus is the first guy to land in the America land.”

One of my students actually wanted to say Columbus was the first [Westerner] to land in the Americas”. Trouble is, his bit of Chinglish has a number of serious mistakes:—

  • Columbus is the first guy… No, seriously: How sure can you be that he was the first male member of the human race to land in the Americas? Native English speakers hit the details pretty hard, so I’d rather you not mix “slangese” with “reality-ese”, so to speak.
  • …to land in the America land. Here, there’s one land too much: also, if you wanted to mean the whole of the Americas, use — that’s right, the Americas instead. “The America land” hardly makes much sense.
  • The whole sentence is also very awkward and it is mere truthiness to suggest Columbus “was there first”. We’ve cases of the Aztec, the Native Americans, those from the First Nations, etc, being there ahead of Columbus. So your sentence — sorry to say this — is wrong when it comes to the facts.

• “Relevant stuffs.”

When I hear this, I instantly think of the closest “proper” English word using “stuff(s)” — which will have to be foodstuff. So you’ve already sent me barking up the wrong tree to start with.

I can kind of understand your meaning: you most probably wanted to say 東西 (dongxi) or 玩意兒 (wanyier), which means, in slangspeak, things or stuff. My favourite was from another fellow student, who wrote to me in “rap-slang” asking me if I’d be interested in interesting “stuffs about China” (in essence: stories about China).

I’d have probably ended up writing items or objects instead. First, it’s not slangese; second of all, it’s much more understandable..

• 1907 (year) = “nineteen seven”?

I know what you’re on about here: You’d pronounce 1996 as the year nineteen ninety-six or alternatively, nineteen-hundred ninety-six. Zeros are — OK, so most of us think we can skip the zero. Right?

This is probably why we got a few students trying to “read” the year 1907 as the year “nineteen seven” — simply because there was a zero in the year. They might be thinking: we don’t “read out” / “spell out” zeroes, so it’s no surprise, really, that they end up reading it as nineteen seven, which I’m more tempted to decipher as 197 (19… 7… 197).

The correct way to do this, then, would be to call it nineteen oh-seven (zero sounds a tad odd, the way I’d see it). And just because you might have called 2007 two thousand (and) seven doesn’t mean you can forget the zeroes altogether.

Chinglish Alert! “The smell of Mona Lisa is very weird.”

Some of us can’t stand but going to the Louvre, getting close to La Joconde, and — out of all things — smelling at her.

Being told off in Franglais would just the start of it all.

Or would it? I think it’s more a case that amongst students in class, there are constant cases of students finding it hard to pronounce a handful of words in English. Of course, the much abhorred to / too / two trio is hellish; but even outside of the trio of T trouble, some of us are having issues pronouncing words in English the right way.

Smell / Smile: Facial Expressions of Awkwardness

Unless you were addicted to iFart, where the passing of wind might elicit a giggle, you’d see quite clearly that these two words are worlds apart. Sadly, not all of us pronounce the letter I in smile like that; some tend to get it wrong, and mis-pronounce it as an E instead. Next time you’re told to “smell for the camera” by a local photographer, you might want to co-operate with a happy facial expression — instead of either putting on a face mask, or sniffing at the photographer!

Usually: Extreme Difficulties in Pronunciation

Nearly everyone I’ve worked with have a very hard time pronouncing usually right. In the weirdest of all boo-boos I cannot fathom, they tend to see the “S” as an “R”, thus rendering it to urually! This throws too many people off, and is a nationwide issue.

I often have them correct by preferring they think of it as ushually instead.

Product / Production: Equally Difficult

The stress on the word product is on the pro bit, although if you wanted to say production, you might have wanted to put the stress on the duct bit instead.

Sadly, too many of us in China put the emphasis on the duct, and they mangled the pronunciation at times so it really sounds more like prodaackt. It’s painful for mine ear. It really is a case of — their English teachers (locals, mostly!) should have known better!

Chinglish Alert!

This post is the first posted as the renamed site Chinglish Alert. Content from previous sites, including the former Jionglish site, remains available.

I thank my good friend Lonnie (@veterantraveler) for this bit of blog inspiration… a few years back, whilst still roaming around China, both of us had this “thing” for snapping “out-of-place English”… “mutilated English with Chinese characteristics”… as in Chinglish.

You get Chinglish when you write English whilst thinking in Chinese — there could not be a more clearer definition of the lingo phenomenon. In the meantime, I’ve amassed a huge library of these: over 3,000 pics.

I hope this is like the final site for all Chinglish-related posts… there were a fair number of these before. Enjoy the ride!