Literature & Society

Features of Singapore Colloquial English

Anthea Fraser Gupta, School of English, University of Leeds

In the following paragraphs the term Singapore Colloquial English refers to the very informal variety used in some situations by native or proficient speakers of Singaporean English, who choose this variety as an alternative to Standard English and often mix it with Standard English (or with other languages). The term Singlish is usually used in ordinary usage for this kind of English, although people also use the term Singlish to refer to other kinds of Singaporean English, which may be used by those who are not proficient in Standard English.

Since I wanted to be able to identify the density of use of Singapore Colloquial English vs Standard English, I use 4 common features of Singapore Colloquial English, and 4 common features of Standard English to allow a calculation.

The 4 features of Standard English are

The 4 features of Singapore Colloquial English I use may need a bit more explanation. It must be emphasised that these are not the only features of Singapore Colloquial English, but the ones that I found useful in my calculations. You can read more about Singapore English in Foley et al (1998). The examples below (from Gupta 1994) are all drawn either from children over the age of 5 years who have (Singapore Colloquial) English as their native language, or from adults educated to a high level (at least up to age 18) in English and who are able to move from Standard English to Singapore Colloquial English. Data are spoken unless otherwise indicated. Transcribed data are in normal orthography, while data which was written retains its original spelling.

Pragmatic Particles

These are a small set of words, mostly loans from Southern varieties of Chinese, which are used to indicate the attitude of speakers to what they are saying. In particular, they contradict what an interlocutor has said, make an assertion, or add a sense of tentativeness (Gupta 1992). They are often utterance final. The most common are ah (tentative), lah (assertive ) and what (contradictory). Lah is the most stereotypical feature of the English of Singapore and Malaysia.

EXAMPLES [particle underlined]

Her price is too high for me lah. (adult)

Make this one hah. (adult)

The first one downstairs ah. (adult)

go get ur own ac first la. (adult, computer bulletin board)

Verb groups without subjects

Singapore Colloquial English uses PRO-drop. When a subject can be retrieved from the context, it does not have to be expressed.

EXAMPLES [retrievable subject indicated in parenthesis]

Go where? (child, 5;11 -- you)

Because going Toa Payoh. (child,5;11 -- they)

OK, fly away already. (adult -- it)

Still got fever? (adult -- you)

Don't want. (all -- I)

The cupboard hit. Then scratch the dry part off, then got blood come out of it. (child 7;8, explaining why his brother's leg is bleeding -- he is the subject of "scratch')

Conditional clauses without subordinating conjunction

Certain conditional and temporal clauses, where Standard English would have if or when, do not require a conjunction in Singapore Colloquial English, e.g. You do that I hit you.

EXAMPLES [the Standard English conjunction corresponding to the sense is supplied]

You put there, then how to go up? (adult, = If)

Disturb him again, I call Daddy to come down. (adult, =If you ...)

I sit here talk, can hear also. (adult, =If I sit here and talk, the microphone can still hear my voice)

You take pink flower is more nicer. (child. 5;11) (=If)

Subject + -ing and Subject + Complement

Where Standard English requires a part of the verb BE, Singapore Colloquial English has the option of omitting it.

EXAMPLES (^ indicates where BE would occur in Standard English)

He ^ scared. (child, 5;11)

Today I ^ going swimming. (child, 5;11)

Flower ^ there ah. (adult)

My no need. (child, 5;11 -- I have told him how space travellers sleep strapped in. His remark is glossable as `In my spaceship there is no need for that')

you ^ not ks (adult, computer bulletin board3) [ks is short for kiasu a Singaporean English word of Hokkien origin which means 'really keen to get the best out of something']


Foley, J A, T Kandiah, Bao Zhiming, A F Gupta, L Alsagoff, Ho Chee Lick, L Wee, I S Talib, W Bokhorst-Heng. 1998. English in New Cultural Contexts: Reflections from Singapore. Singapore Institute of Management/ Oxford University Press: Singapore.

Gupta, A F. 1992. "The Pragmatic Particles of Singapore Colloquial English.' Journal of Pragmatics 17:3, 39-65.

Gupta, A F. 1994. The Step-Tongue: Children's English in Singapore. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

You can contact the author at

Note: This material forms part the author's "Marketing the voice of authenticity: a comparison of Ming Cher and Rex Shelley," which will appear in Language and Literature (2000).

[Main Web Page] [Singapore] Demography Singaporean Literature