"Scientific English" in Singapore

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From "Got English English and "Scientific" English one meh?", mrbrown.com 9/18/2013:

"This P6 science question is taken from a paper that is set by a local brand name primary school. The majority of the students who took this test gave the answer as (4). The science teacher insisted that the answer is (2). The reason given was that sentence D should be interpreted to mean that only light energy is given off when an electric current passes through it."

Primary-school science teachers in Singapore are not the only people who sometimes insist strongly on idiosyncratic interpretations of sentences involving potentially-ambiguous semantic scope.  James Kilpatrick, for example, once insisted in the most emphatic terms that "if mass transit is not an option for 'all' drivers, it cannot be an option for even one driver".

In the title of the blog post ("Got English English and "Scientific" English one meh?"), the interpretation of the last two words is apparently as described in the Wikipedia article on Singlish:

One: The word one is used to emphasize the predicate of the sentence by implying that it is unique and characteristic. It is analogous to the use of particles like 嘅 ge or 架 ga in Cantonese, 啲 e in Hokkien,-wa in spoken Japanese, or 的 de in some varieties of Mandarin. One used in this way does not correspond to any use of the word "one" in British, American English, Australian English, etc.: It can be compared to the British usage of 'eh'. It might also be analysed as a relative pronoun, though it occurs at the end of the relative clause instead of the beginning (as in Standard English)

* Wah lau! So stupid one! – Oh my gosh! He's so stupid!
* I do everything by habit one. – I always do everything by habit.
* He never go school one. – He doesn't go to school (unlike other people).

For speakers of Mandarin, 的de can also be used in place of one.

I'm puzzled by the notion that Singlish one can both "be compared to the British usage of 'eh'" and also "be analysed as a relative pronoun", but let's accept the general direction here and not get bogged down in the details.

Meh:  Meh (/mɛ́/), from Cantonese (咩    , meh), is used to form questions expressing surprise or scepticism:

* They never study meh? – Didn't they study? (I thought they did.)
* You don't like that one meh? – You don't like that? (I thought you did.)
* Really meh? – Is that really so? (I honestly thought otherwise/I don't believe you.)

Apparently the grammatical order is "one meh", which makes sense if one is an intensifier and meh is an attitudinal particle:

"Men need to cut arm-pit hair one meh?" [link]
"Big sweep can give rebates one meh?" [link]
"Singapore got 10k notes one meh ???" [link]
"Singaporeans go buffet got eat such things one meh?" [link]

There is also a Singlish existential tinge to the use of "got" in the blog title, I think.

For a classic work on the semantics of only, see Mats Rooth, "A theory of focus interpretation", 1992.

[Tip of the hat to Guillaume Duport]


  1. MattF said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 9:27 am

    As a matter of fact, statement 'D' is arguably false even with the conventional meaning of 'only', since any object at a finite temperature emits electromagnetic radiation, whether or not it has a current running through it.

  2. leoboiko said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 9:55 am

    @MattF: I find it curious how basic physics education seems to gloss over the pervasiveness of EM radiation, and the fact that light is just another size of EM. I mean, electrons are glued to nuclei with "light", basically. (Ok, all physicists now hate me to death for that loose metaphor. Blame Feynman's QED, ok?)

  3. Avinor said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 10:07 am

    Growing up in Sweden, we hardly ever had multiple-choice papers/tests in science (or any other subject for that matter). Why are they so popular in the English-speaking world?

  4. Olof said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 10:25 am

    If you interpret "All of the above" the usual way, i.e. "all of the previous options = all of (1), (2) and (3)", then (4) cannot be the correct answer either, because (1) says "only".

  5. Ø said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 10:34 am

    They are popular because they are easy to mark/grade.

  6. Paul Frederick said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 11:12 am

    In my reading of it, "A" is false. Partly because I feel a part cannot "determine" anything, being inanimate. But mainly because "determine" for me would imply determine exclusively in this context. There are many other things that determine the brightness of the bulb, in particular, how much current is flowing through it at the moment.

  7. Milan said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    On another note, In my reading answer (4) would be sefl-contradrictory: I interpret "all of the above" to mean all of the possible answers, i. e. (1), (2) and (3). However if only D is true, as (1) says, who could (2) and (3) correct answers?

  8. Milan said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 11:29 am

    There's a 'be' missing in my rhetorical question. I'm sorry.for that.

  9. Chris Waigl said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    My judgement would be, (2) & (3) correct, (1) incorrect or at least highly imprecise. (4), well, I read this intuitively as grouping the only with what follows, which raises the question what "giving off light energy" might mean. It's visible, so it reflects light that falls onto it. It also emits infinitesimal quantities of electromagnetic radiation in the energy range of visible light, though I'd be happy to neglect that.

    I'm used to the standard that if a question is formulated ambiguously and can be interpreted in a way that the student's answer is correct, the student gets the points. (Even when the question was absurd in that situation, which happened throughout my schooling.) Ambiguity is a thing and students can't be penalised for it.

    I also second the negative feeling about multitple-choice. This format is deceptively easy to grade, but you don't test the same thing as in free-form questions.

  10. Sybil said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

    @Avinor: not that I'm defending the use of multiple-choice tests, but imagine having to score dozens, or hundreds, of student free responses, each of which used its own idiosyncratic parsing and logic. I do this myself and I often think I am setting myself up for insanity.

    This is a singularly badly-phrased question, but they are not rare. (Badly-phrased questions, that is.) I once took the exam for mta conductors (long story), which is multiple-choice, and there were two logically equivalent answers to one of the questions on the exam. When I tried to draw this to the attention of the person administering the exam, he just told me that there could only be one right answer. Well, obviously.

  11. Sybil said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    @Chris Waigl: but these types of test are often machine-scored. Usually, I'd say, these days. (US practice: don't know about Singapore)

    In the past, when this sort of thing happened, I'd give at least partial credit as you indicate. But that's less and less of an option.

  12. Sili said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 1:20 pm


    What Ø said.

    Longer answer: The Germano-Scandinavian teaching tradition has its focus on conveying the material (didactics), while the Anglophone tradition is obsessed with the material itself (curricula).


  13. Rod Johnson said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

    The tradeoff for having multiple choice tests be easy to score, of course, is that they're quite hard to construct (at least, quite hard to do well).

  14. Sybil said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

    And a hearty AMEN! to what Chris Waigl said at the end.

    There's objectivity and there's reproducibility, and there's measuring what you actually want to measure, and they ain't necessarily the same thing. And yes I said "ain't".

    Free answers are notoriously hard to score (rubrics help, but do not eliminate the "objectivity" problem), but (IMO) give a much better sense of what students are actually thinking, which is often scary.

    And I'm a staunch empiricist, drawn to LL for its empirical bent. But his kind of data? I don't know what to do, literally. (Thanks to MYL for opening up this whole can of worms!)

  15. Sybil said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

    [That should be "this" rather than "his" in the last paragraph. Not blaming any particular person!]

  16. Sybil said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 1:42 pm


    You make me long for Scandinavia. :(

    Land of (some of) my ancestors. Pickled beets and herring, roggenbrot, and sensible educational practices. Why do I think it will turn out to be more complicated than that when I look into it?

  17. hector said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

    Multiple-choice tests seem designed to drive intelligent students batty, and to teach all students that rules and authority are more important than logic and truth. At root, they're one of those muddled compromises that bedevil human life, brought about by a lack of resources. As Brecht said, "Die Welt ist arm, der Mensch ist schlecht."

  18. Sybil said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    @hector: no doubt.

  19. Sybil said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

    Can of worms, anyone?

  20. Ellen K. said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

    As has been noted, multiple choice tests and free answer tests measure different things. If the point is to memorize specific facts, then multiple choice tests certainly aren't the best way to test that, since they give the answer.

    They do though (or can) give some measure of analytical ability. When I have a multiple choice question, and I don't have the answer memorized, I have to analyze the answers and figure out which one is most likely. On a history question (for example), this does require knowledge of relevant history, but not knowledge of the specific fact.

    Never having been a teacher, I've no real idea of how good multiple choices are at measuring anything; however, having been a student, my sense is they can be a useful learning tool. One learns to think about the information, and make connections, in order to figure out which answer is correct. Whereas with a short answer or fill in the blank question, it's either you know it or you don't, and it may test what you know, but it doesn't teach you anything.

  21. Sybil said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

    I'm noticing that the main discussion is ignoring MYL's main Singlish point. Having re-read the post a number (>10) of times, I'm still not seeing how some interpretation of the question and its answers was supposed to overcome the ambiguity many of us saw in the English. (I vary in my translations, but they never resolve the issue.) In other words, the varying translations of "one" and "meh" just seem to reproduce the problem we are all seeing.

    Or am I missing something? (Likely)

    [(myl) I don't think there's any special connection between the problems with the test Q&A, and the interesting variety of English on display in mrbrown's title, which is just a Singlish way of asking something like "Come on, is there really a difference between English English and Scientific English?"]

  22. Ellen K. said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    P.S. To Hector's comment, I would say badly done multiple choice questions drive intelligent students batty.

    And along those same lines, but more to my adult experience, there's badly done survey questions, where you have to pick one, but the right (subjectively for you) answer isn't there, and there's no "none of the above" or "other" option.

  23. Carmen said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

    Took me a while to get the "scientific" interpretation of the teacher.

    While the students (and I) read it as "light is only emitted when power on", the teacher seems to interpret this as "only light energy" being emitted. The latter would of course would make the statement wrong, since there is a lot of infrared (=heat) emitted from a light bulb.

    Since this is a primary school, I doubt they went beyond that and also introduced more sophisticated physics like QED. Or is a primary school something different in Singapore?

    Needless to say, inventing a "scientific reading" his is a strange way to handle a teaching argument. As a teacher, I would turn this into a lesson of how to clearly describe a phenomenon.

  24. Sybil said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 4:04 pm

    @Ellen K: in one (to me) famous Presidential telephone poll, I was asked if I intended to vote for A (the Democratic Party candidate), B (the Republican Party candidate), or was I undecided.

    When I replied that I intended to vote for C (another person altogether) the person on the phone replied, "…?… So you're undecided?"

    And I repeated, "No, I've decided, I intend to vote for C."

    I'm fairly sure it got recorded as "undecided" though.

    Happily, I no longer get called to participate in these.

  25. X said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

    You could argue for the truth or falsity of any of A, B, C or D. A very badly written question, which is about par for science education anywhere, really. For example, consider what would happen if Z were carbon (as it often was in early bulbs): Then C is false, since it would not melt but sublimate at sufficiently high current.

  26. Janet Williams said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

    I'm grateful that you brought up the usage of Singlish. The use of 'one' at the end of a sentence is common in Singapore and Malaysia.

    One of my readers from Malaysia left me this comment: "Don’t worry Janet. There is no problem one!" Using 'one' is endearing in this sentence. The comment can be understood as: Don't worry Janet! 那不是个问题来的 (That is not a problem).

    那不是个问题来的 sounds to me a perfect Hokkien/Cantonese sentence. I understand that the 'one' ending used above is based on the Fangyan sentence structure in Hokkien/Cantonese.

    It shows that to understand Singlish and Malaysian English, it is useful to have a basic understanding of other languages around, including Malay. I feel that Singlish and Malaysian English are a vibrant mix of many elements.

  27. Dan Hemmens said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

    The tradeoff for having multiple choice tests be easy to score, of course, is that they're quite hard to construct (at least, quite hard to do well).

    Very true (although to be fair, good open questions are hard to write too). But the effort required to produce a good multiple choice question is the same whether it is set for one student or ten thousand, so the more papers have to be graded, the more valuable multiple choice questions are.

    There has apparently been an increase in the use of multiple choice questions on UK exams in the past decade or so, and exam boards do in fact attribute this rise to the increase in the number of people sitting exams.

  28. Carl Offner said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

    This is curious. I read through this whole thread unable to see what was wrong with (D). Then finally it occurred to me that it could be parsed as

    "It gives off (light energy only) when …"

    This strikes me, at least, as a really idiosyncratic reading, although it's grammatical. It doesn't — in this case anyway — strike me as standard. Or maybe I missed the point completely? (And if I didn't, then I completely fail to see what is either "scientific" or otherwise about such a reading.)

  29. David Morris said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

    My assessment for my recently-completed masters degree by coursework contained a small number of multiple-choice quizzes (along with other forms of assessment, including 2,000-2,500 word essays). I tended to over-analyse each question and its choice of answers, and, given the discussion in the student forums after the results were released, I wasn't the only one. I think there is a fine art in writing a multiple-choice quiz of just the right amount of difficulty.
    Free-form quizzes are always very interesting. One quiz I gave my students recently had the question: 'People are always asking him ________ he's making another movie.' The expected answers are 'if' and 'when'. The unexpected answer was 'why'! (Which I ticked as correct.)

  30. Adrian Morgan said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 8:24 pm

    More to the thread started by Avinor:

    Multiple choice questions were very rare on our exams too, and I went to school in Australia finishing in the mid 90s. I remember being told (by a teacher) that American exams have a lot of multiple choice questions and few long-answer questions, and thinking how crazy that was.

    So it's not about the English-speaking per se — or at least not until very recently, because I'm told that a lot of multiple-choice questions have crept into Australian exams over the last decade or so.

  31. G Jones said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 7:43 am

    When scoring multiple choice and T/F tests, always build some padding into your grades for ambiguities like this (ESPECIALLY in T/F questions, which intelligent students tend to overthink). So, ask 103 questions but make the test out of 100, for instance.

  32. David W said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 2:13 pm

    I agree with Paul Frederick; the part labeled Z is a factor in the brightness of the bulb. It does not determine the brightness of the bulb.

    Of course, item 4, which said "All of the above", should have said "A, B, C, and D" or "All of the statements are true".

    My answer is "A, B, C, and D". If the word "only" had been before "light energy", then the teacher would have had a point. Or if "light energy only" had been underlined or otherwise set apart.

  33. Dan Hemmens said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

    Back on language, rather than multiple choice exams (okay, actually about both), I think I *do* actually read "emits light energy only when heated" as meaning "emits light energy, and only light energy, when heated".

    More specifically, I read it that way because I am very aware that in this sort of question they wouldn't say "only when heated" to mean "when heated and only when heated". I teach this kind of science course, so I know how questions tend to be phrased, and they do have their own internal logic.

    That doesn't mean that I don't think it's ambiguous or poorly written, but I think that it is an interesting example of what you might call "exam English".

  34. Nick Lamb said,

    October 1, 2013 @ 7:18 am

    When it comes to big important surveys, the correct methodology is rather involved and goes like this (as used for the periodic census in some countries)

    1. Iteratively design the survey form with each iteration being fed to a panel of laymen who are encouraged to say if they find any question unclear or difficult to answer and quizzed on their understanding as to edge cases (is a room with a bed nobody sleeps in a "bedroom" ? Does an unpaid internship count as "working" ? Is a week-long bout of influenza "serious illness" ?)

    2. Do the actual survey (over say a hundred million people)

    3. Check the survey. Independently verify the facts recorded by the survey with respect to a small sample (say a thousand) of those intended to fill it out. Did our sample in fact fill out the survey? Were the answers given "correct" according to the intended meaning?

    4. Model the difference between the "true" answers found in step (3) and those given in step (2). Apply this correction to the entire population surveyed. Report the resulting answers as the result of the process.

    In principle a multiple choice examination done in this fashion could be very accurate. The question we're discussing here could have been eliminated or rephrased during step (1) or if it somehow found its way into the real exam, factored out of students final scores in step (4) as a result of the verification during step (3).

    Unfortunately the available funding for a typical school examination is far less per person than a typical census and we'll only be asking a few dozen to perhaps at the outside a few thousand students so we can't afford to set aside thousands of them for verification steps.

  35. Eneri Rose said,

    October 1, 2013 @ 8:49 am

    Part D of the multiple choice question illustrates a pet peeve of mine, which is imprecise placement of the word “only.” The placement of “only” in D could be read either as only light energy or as only when an electric current… I suppose either way it is false because I think the element would give off light energy also if heated (which is what the electric current is ultimately doing to it.)

    I do not know why people seem to be so averse to placing “only” right before what is it modifying. For example, "He only dates pretty girls" means he only dates them. He doesn’t kill them or marry them.

  36. dw said,

    October 1, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

    If only the question had been expressed in first order predicate logic.

  37. YM said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 8:52 am

    I'm not a linguist, but I am a Singaporean, so I feel obliged to comment. Re "There is also a Singlish existential tinge to the use of "got" in the blog title": I'm not sure that whatever 'existential tinge" there is stems from the use of "got"; to me it sounds like it comes from "one meh?" Here's why: you could just as easily have "There's English English and Scientific English in Singapore one meh?" in Singlish and still get that same sense of existential angst / skepticism.

    But of course I could be understanding "existential tinge" wrongly; maybe what you meant was something like 'existential quantifier'? Or maybe it was an allusion to Godot (Got and Godot!)…?

    [(myl) I just meant to speculate that in this case "Got X and Y?" is roughly equivalent to "There's X and Y?", which you seem to be confirming, right?]

  38. Dan Hemmens said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 11:42 am

    I do not know why people seem to be so averse to placing “only” right before what is it modifying.

    I'm aware that this isn't really the answer you want but often it's "because it sounds stilted and unnatural". And also because I suspect it isn't any *less* ambiguous.

    "He only dates pretty girls" could mean "the only girls that he dates are girls that are pretty" or "the only thing he does to pretty girls is date them". I assume your preferred construction is "he dates only pretty girls" which could be read as "the only girls he dates are girls that are pretty" or "the girls that he dates are only pretty (and possess no other noteworthy qualities)".

  39. Mike Maxwell said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

    @MattF and leoboiko–

    "any object at a finite temperature emits electromagnetic radiation" is true, and so is "light is just another size of EM" (well, wavelength). But that does not imply that any object at a finite (low) temperature emits _light_. Not all EM is light, if by "light" one means (as is usual) visible light.

  40. The.Euphemism said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

    Only I hit him in the face. I only hit him in the face. I hit only him in the face. I hit him in the face only.

  41. YM said,

    October 6, 2013 @ 12:00 am

    [(myl) I just meant to speculate that in this case "Got X and Y?" is roughly equivalent to "There's X and Y?", which you seem to be confirming, right?]

    Yes — "Got X and Y?" in Singlish is roughly equivalent to "There's X and Y".

    Another interesting Singlish use of 'got' is the following:
    – "You got + verb," eg "You got read today's paper" = "Have you read today's paper?" (see http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg/?p=3568 for an example)

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