Posted by: Michael | August 2, 2009

Can you pass me the blue colour book?

“I’m using the red colour one”
“I need a green colour pen”

It is common to hear these kind of sentences in Malaysia, especially in an office or possibly a clothing store.

Many Malaysians (especially Chinese) add the word colour after the name of the colour, as shown in the sentences above. This does not sound natural in English.

I am fairly certain that this mistake comes from a literal translation of the Chinese. In Chinese, the words for colours are two-character compound nouns. The first character is the name of the colour. The second character is 色 (sè), the Chinese character for ‘colour’.

Thus, we have:

红色 (hóng sè) – red
蓝色 (lán sè) – blue
黄色 (huáng sè) – yellow

All these words have the character色 (sè) after the name for the colour, so a literal translation would be ‘red colour’, ‘blue colour’ or ‘yellow colour’. However, you cannot always translate literally from one language to another. This is one of the most important things in language learning – learning the differences between your own language and the language you are learning, and when to translate literally.

Generally, when you describe something in Chinese as being a certain colour, you use the two-character compound. So, the title of this post in Chinese would be “你可不可以把蓝色的书给我?” (nǐ kě bù kěyǐ bǎ lán sè de shū gěi wǒ?) The word used for “blue” is the compound ‘lán sè’, with the word for ‘colour’ on the end the way it is done in Chinese. There are exceptions to this rule, such as 红葡萄酒 (hóng pútáo jiǔ) meaning ‘red wine’, but in most cases the two-character compound with ‘sè’ is used

However, this is not the way that it is done in English. It sounds unnatural and strange to hear someone talk about a ‘blue colour dress’ or a ‘red colour toothbrush’. The colour names in English function as adjectives the way they are, without any need to add the word ‘colour’ as is done in Chinese. So the correct way to write the three sentences is as follows:

“Can you pass me the blue book?”
“I’m using the red one.”
“I need a green pen.”

If you are writing a description of something (e.g. for a novel), then you may use the expression “green in colour” or “red in colour” to be descriptive. For example:

“Her faded dress was red in colour and it looked too big for her”.

However, this is not generally done in speaking, so avoid using expressions like these in spoken English. It is possible to use ‘gold coloured‘ or ‘silver coloured‘ to mean something which has the colour of gold or silver, but is not made of the metal gold or silver. For example, a gold-coloured necklace looks like a gold necklace but is not made of the precious metal gold.

To sum up: We do not add the word ‘colour’ after colour names in English. Therefore, you talk about “a blue dress”, NOT a “blue colour dress”.


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