Welcome to this very first blog post on the new Cygnet Communications Ltd website! My aim is for the Cygnet blog to be updated at least weekly. Each blog post will focus on a topic connected specifically with English usage in Hong Kong.I’m going to start by looking at some signs from around Hong Kong that prohibit certain things or actions in the form “NO + noun” – like the ones shown below. These Hong Kong signs are not the same as similar signs in standard English.
The two signs shown above are slightly different grammatically. The first one has no verb (we could add a verb like ‘push’ in front to complete the sentence), while the second one starts with a verb (‘post’) in ‘command’ or ‘imperative’ form. Our focus however is on the expression ‘NO + noun’ in both of these signs. Compare them with the signs below, from outside Hong Kong.
You will see the key difference immediately: in the Hong Kong signs, the noun after ‘no’ is singular, but in the overseas signs, it is plural. Why is this? And which version is correct?
In English, when the word NO is used as a ‘determiner’ (as here), it can be followed by either a singular or a plural noun. Some nouns in English can only occur in singular form; these are what we call uncountable, or non-count nouns. Common examples found after the word NO are:
However, plenty of English nouns are countable (or count) nouns, which means they have both singular and plural forms – like ‘trolley’, and ‘bill’. If we want to draft a prohibition involving these kinds of nouns, how do we do it?
The key point to remember is that the intention of these sorts of signs is to prohibit ALL cases or examples of something. At the airport, the idea is not just to stop one trolley from crossing the yellow line, but to prohibit (potentially) all trolleys from doing so. On a building, our aim is to include every single possible bill in our prohibition against posting, not just one single example. In other words, these signs need to have ‘generic reference’: the words on them need to show clearly that the sign applies to ALL examples of something, not just one example.
Standard English uses count nouns in the plural to make generic reference.
When we write prohibitions in the form ‘NO + noun’, we usually intend to prohibit all examples of the thing referred to by the noun – so the noun must be in the plural.
As we have seen, Hong Kong users of English prefer using singular nouns after ‘NO’. Part of this preference presumably springs from the fact that Cantonese has no plural form, and for Chinese readers the context is quite sufficient to work out the meaning. However, if you want to write like a native speaker rather than a Hong Kong user of English, make an effort to ensure that, when writing prohibitions like this, you follow NO with a plural count noun.
About this blog
This blog arises from keeping an eye on English in Hong Kong. I often use signs, notices and advertisements that I see as starting points to write about English issues that commonly challenge Hong Kong writers.