Rats, heroes, and zeroes

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I have received this notice from several sources in the last few days:


jiǎrú yǒu jiàndào lǎoshǔ, bùyào hàipà 假如有見到老鼠, 不要害怕,

qǐng tōngzhī wǒmen, rén dìng shèng shǔ 請通知我們, 人定勝鼠

If you see rats / mice, don't be afraid,

Please notify us, people can definitely overcome rats / mice.

The notice was issued by the management office of the Zhong Mei Building (Zhōng Měi lóu guǎnlǐ chù 中美樓管理處) (I think that it is located in Tai Kok Tsui, Hong Kong).

In my estimation, the English translation is both creative and clever.  Note the category under which this post is filed.


  1. DMT said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 3:27 am

    The English does, however, have an inappropriate infinitive in "need not to be afraid," very common even among L1-Sinitic speakers whose L2-English is generally quite good. It's one of those aspects of English grammar (like the use of the definite article) that seem to be very difficult for L1-Sinitic speakers to master.

  2. yellowcandle said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 3:34 am

    「我覺得自己係零」(lit. "I think I am zero") is a local meme.
    In addition, 「人定勝鼠」is a variation from the four-word idiom 「人定勝天」。

  3. Michael Watts said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 4:40 am

    It's really hard to blame them in this case, since the infinitive is actually the correct form here; the only mistake was using an infinitive marked with "to" where it should have been bare.

    Had they used the non-archaic structure "don't need to be afraid", the "to" would even be required rather than prohibited.

  4. Mark S. said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 7:17 am

    Also notable is the use of a "0" in the date at the bottom rather than the Chinese character for líng (zero): "零". This substitution is quite common.

  5. leoboiko said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 7:45 am

    I'm a Romance speaker and I'd never have guessed that "to" was ungrammatical.

  6. bks said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 8:43 am

    The contraction of we will as we'll reads wrongly in this instance.

  7. DaveK said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 9:14 am

    The contraction here suggests reassuring confidence ("Don't worry, we'll take care of it") rather than determination ("We WILL overcome"). If the choice was deliberate, it shows a subtle understanding of English that doesn't square with the "need not to be afraid" mistake earlier.

  8. Michael Watts said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 9:18 am

    Mark S:

    Actually, substitution of arabic numerals for chinese characters is quite common for all numbers (e.g. something like 我们2点见面吧 "let's meet at 2 o'clock"). The circle-zero case is notable precisely because the character used is not a 0 from a western font, but a circle (〇) which is felt to be appropriate in a formal all-chinese context (you often see it on dedication plaques!).

    Speculating, that's probably because it has a much, much longer native history — according to wikipedia, "Ch'in Chiu-shao's 1247 Mathematical Treatise in Nine Sections is the oldest surviving Chinese mathematical text using a round symbol for zero", but "In the early 17th century, European-style Arabic numerals were introduced by Spanish and Portuguese Jesuits".

  9. Michael Witzel said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 11:34 am

    I wonder whether the management (?) was inspired by the Harvard students' characterization of my friend's, Gregory Nagy, undergraduate class on the Greek Hero. They call it "Heroes for Zeros"… In fact, he once confided: "I have to dumb it down further each year." Well, his book on the Greek Hero is not exactly undergraduate stuff… (BTW : enjoyed last year's comment on Daniel Ingalls 'concealed' office, to which more data could be added).

  10. Bob Ladd said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

    @Michael Witzel – There are actually quite a lot of hero/zero pairings in popular culture, not just in Harvard course nicknames. One I knew about was the song "Zero to Hero" in Disney's movie "Hercules", but a quick Google search reveals a Scandinavian band called "Heroes and Zeros" and an album (by a different band) called "Heroes to Zeros". Which one of these cultural references inspired the translator of the sign is hard to tell.

    Off-topic: somebody should do a post on American rhyming college course nicknames. I never heard "Heroes for Zeros", but from my own undergraduate time I recall "Rocks for Jocks" (beginning geology to satisfy a distribution requirement) and "Nuts and Sluts" (urban sociology), both of which seem to occur on numerous campuses. I'm sure there are more.

  11. David said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    Possibly they were simply trying to negate "you need to be afraid" by dropping in a "not",
    and arrived at "need not" without knowing that it has different rules.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

    @Bob Ladd

    There was a film course called "Darkness at Noon" (I think it was at Penn about thirty-five years ago).

  13. Barney said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 3:04 pm

    Does the Chinese text have a similar informal register to the English "heroes / zeroes" phrase?

  14. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 3:14 pm


    In a way, yes. See the good observations by yellowcandle above.

  15. julie lee said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 4:47 pm

    @ Barney,

    The last four Chinese characters in the sign, “人定勝鼠” ren ding sheng shu, means "Man shall prevail over rats / Man shall triumph over rats" — "man" meaning "humans". It has a tongue-in-cheek flavor. I actually prefer it to heroes zeroes.

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 4:51 pm

    There's a short cartoon featuring Casper the Friendly Ghost titled "Zero the Hero" from 1954, and I wouldn't necessarily assume that was the first use of the combination. (I had a somewhat more psychedelic 1973 reference, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_Teapot_(album), in mind, but it only took a moment for the Casper usage to antedate it substantially.)

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 4:54 pm

    And going way back via google books to the 1920 annual report of the Minnesota State Agricultural Society: "We have got to remember in the lineup of the State Fair, balanced as it must be in every line, that from now on in America there is going to be only two kinds of people — heroes and zeros."

  18. Bob Ladd said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 6:01 pm

    @Victor Mair:
    1. But "Darkness at Noon" doesn't rhyme.
    2. Yellowcandle's observations may be good, but it's hard for those of us with no practical ability to read hanzi to appreciate them fully.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 6:16 pm

    @Bob Ladd

    1. You're right about the lack of rhyme.

    2. Julie Lee explains the part that yellowcandle didn't translate.

  20. Michael Watts said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 7:07 pm

    Bob Ladd:

    The saying being riffed off of, 人定胜天 "man shall defeat heaven", has 天 "heaven" where the sign has 鼠 "rat(s)". People seem to differ over whether to interpret 天 here as referring more to the concept of "nature" or "fate". So:

    The ABC dictionary entry for 人定胜天 is "people are masters of their own fate"; The Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian entry is 人的智慧和力量能够战胜大自然, "people's wisdom and strength are able to defeat nature"; CC-CEDICT has "human wisdom can prevail over nature".

    Compare the word 天意 (literally "the will of heaven"), for which the xiandai hanyu guifan cidian entry is 迷信指上天的意志;也指自然法则 "in superstition, indicates the wishes of Heaven; also indicates the laws of nature".

  21. Thomas Rees said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 8:02 pm

    “Darkness at Noon” is a novel by Arthur Koestler that was famously never made into a movie. That’s why it’s an amusing title for a film course.

  22. JS said,

    February 14, 2016 @ 1:39 am

    Re: the Chinese, you3 有 in such contexts seems to be on the march north from southern Mandarins (and ultimately from a parallel feature in southern Sinitic varieties, I assume?)

  23. Bob Ladd said,

    February 14, 2016 @ 4:11 am

    @Michael Watts – Thanks for the exegesis! As it happens, tian1 'heaven' is one of the 100-or-so characters that I remember from 50 years ago, so I kind of worked out what the joke must be, but your explanation is a lot clearer.

  24. leoboiko said,

    February 15, 2016 @ 11:48 am

    @DaveK: I can "feel" the modal distinction between "we will" and "we'll"; but I couldn't see the problem with the "to". So, for me at least, the latter distinction is more difficult.

  25. pj said,

    February 15, 2016 @ 3:24 pm

    @leoboiko 'You need not to be afraid' isn't per se ungrammatical, if that helps, it just isn't what they mean.
    It's the difference between (A) "it is compulsory/necessary/required not to X" and (B) "it is not compulsory/necessary/required to X"

    'You need not to X" has meaning (A). It's "What you need is: not to X" ('You couldn't sleep for worrying about killer rats? Wow, you really need not to be so afraid of them. You'll make yourself ill.') My intuition is that native speakers would be more likely to use "You have to not X", "You mustn't X", or even "You need to not X", but "You need not to X" (for me, anyway, BrEng), is a legitimate option.

    "You need not X", though, has meaning (B), in other words "You don't need to X" (= "you don't have to X"). And this is surely what the sign intends.

    Michael Watts in the comment two before your first calls 'need not' archaic, and indeed, I don't think I've ever heard 'You need not X' in its uncontracted form spontaneously uttered; contracted as 'You needn't X' it's still in currency, though.

  26. leoboiko said,

    February 15, 2016 @ 4:51 pm

    @pj Now that you explained it explicitly, I think I can see it (this is Schmidt's Noticing Hypothesis, right?) Thanks!

  27. Michael Watts said,

    February 15, 2016 @ 7:43 pm


    First, I don't believe "needn't" is still in currency in American English. However, there's no particular reason for a Chinese person to know that, and arguably there's decent justification for the English having a more British flavor in Hong Kong.

    It's very common in my experience for Chinese people to use these (to my ear) odd contracted forms; I wouldn't have been surprised to see "needn't" on the sign. (Another common mistake is "haven't" with the possession sense of "have" – not an auxiliary verb in AmE. I believe that's correct British usage, though, so it may just be that English education in China is inappropriately British. ;) ) I haven't (that I recall) ever heard someone use those forms uncontracted, as this sign does.

    The most innovative confusion over auxiliary verbs I've seen from a Chinese person was someone who told me he'd never been to a strip club, and then asked me "do you have?"

  28. Langston said,

    February 15, 2016 @ 10:01 pm

    @ pj

    I think the confusion stems from how the negation word is interpreted when it is placed between "need" and "be". Phrasing: need not be X -> (need not) be X or need (not be X)? But it is abundantly clear when we do modal verb inversion (à la questions):

    Do I not need to be afraid? Do I need to be not afraid?
    Need I be afraid? Need I not be afraid?

    I was wondering the grammaticality of "need not be (verb)" myself, so I took to Google ngram after doing some old fashioned googling.

    In 2000, "need not be" is situated at 0.0007072214 (7.07*10^-4)%, while "need not to be" sits at 0.0000049129% (4.91*10^-6)% of English corpus. As for my other efforts, I spent about 10 minutes cursorily googling, and the top few results all point to the fact that "need not to X" is ungrammatical, as I suspected.

    Based on my understanding up to this point, I came to a conclusion:
    1. "to need (infinitive without to)" and "to need (inf. w/ to)" mean the same thing
    2. "need (inf. w/o to)" is in decline (c.f. Google ngram)
    3. "need (inf. w/o to)" treats "need" as a model verb. That means you need not write "do not" for the negation of "need (inf. w/o to)".
    4. as of the turn of the millennium, "need not be" happens about 143 times more often than "need not to be"
    and lastly,
    5. need not not (inf. w/o to) is grammatical, but psychologically rejected due to repeating words. (e.g. You don't need to not walk on the grass. = You need not not walk on the grass)

  29. Langston said,

    February 15, 2016 @ 10:06 pm

    Sorry, I am used to being able to edit comments immediately after posting.

    Correction: Need I not be afraid? Need I be not afraid?

  30. pj said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 6:55 am

    @Michael Watts
    Yes, sorry, I probably should have made the caveat, in my assertion that 'needn't' is still current, that I only meant in my layperson's experience of British English (since I'd declared my national variety earlier I guess I thought I needn't bother…)

    Possession-sense 'haven't' just about clings on in BrEng [standard BrEng, that is; other dialects may vary], e.g. BBC Radio comedy show title "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue", and more-or-less fixed expressions like "I haven't the foggiest [idea]", but I'm not sure how productive it is. "I haven't got" or "I don't have" are vastly more common in speech. Interrogative 'Have you a/any…?' is, I think, long gone.

    Thanks for the research! In the "it's necessary/required not to" sense, "You need not to X" still feels permissible-but-awkward for me. I realise in juggling with 'have to's and 'need's and 'must's, I missed probably the most idiomatic alternative for that meaning in many situations: "You can't X".

  31. BZ said,

    February 16, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

    "haven't the foggiest" is used in the US too.

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