Thursday, March 29, 2012

When the Straits Times refuses to publish your letter.

Is it a sign of old age when I begin to look through my old diaries and photo albums and my old letters?  I stumbled upon a letter which I thought I ought to post on this blog.

Like most people in Singapore, I used to write letters to the Straits Times and have done so since I was a student.  Most of the letters were published without any hitch.  The only letters that the Straits Times refused to publish were letters that showed up the errors made by their journalists.  What sort of errors do these journalists make?  What else?  Grammatical errors, of course.  As a rule, I have absolutely nothing against grammatical errors and I quite enjoy reading articles with some errors.  It's more memorable that way.  I recall reading in a newspaper in India a long time ago an article about a court hearing in which the "infirmities" of various arguments were presented.  If it hadn't been for the quaint use of words, I should not have remembered having read the newspaper in India in the first place.

In 2003, I read an article in the Straits Times by Steve Dawson, the paper's weekly correspondent.  I read through this excerpt, noted the grammatical error but I let it pass even though Steve Dawson was writing about the correct use of English in a national newspaper and the thought did cross my mind that he should have been more careful.

Anyway, I mentally skipped the error and went on with the rest of his article.  He then spoke about how his Eurasian daughters would make errors in English and he would take pains to correct them.  He went on to say that his daughters would remonstrate that their teachers spoke this way and so it had to be correct.  This was how he replied to them:

Oh, how the arrogance annoyed me!  He was writing for the main newspaper in Singapore and he made a glaring grammatical error that many of us are careful enough not to make even in our speech and here he is going on his high horse as an Englishman and a journalist as if they meant anything!  Dawson should remember the words from the musical "My Fair Lady":

Oh, why can't the English learn to set
A good example to people whose
English is painful to your ears?
The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely disappears.
In America, they haven't used it for years!
Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
Norwegians learn Norwegian; the Greeks are taught their Greek. 
In France every Frenchman knows
his language from "A" to "Z"
The French never care what they do, actually,
as long as they pronounce it properly.
Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning.
And Hebrews learn it backwards,
which is absolutely frightening.
But use proper English you're regarded as a freak.
Why can't the English,
Why can't the English learn to speak?

I immediately wrote to the Straits Times.  But I should have known.  They don't publish any article that might "embarrass" their journalists.  They told me that on the phone a long time ago when I wrote to complain about an advertisement by SMU that contained an outrageous grammatical error.  I had thought that an institution of higher learning, even if it only purports to be a mere business school, should have been more careful in its use of the language.  They said it would be inappropriate to embarrass their journalists or advertisers.

But I wrote to them nonetheless.  I began by referring them to the article and added this:

That is entirely true.  I view language only as a tool of communication and pedantry in language is something I despise.  But when someone sets about telling others they are wrong, he had better be sure he's right in the first place.

I then proceeded to explain why his language was ungrammatical, made references to the works of grammarians and concluded as follows:

I was hoping the Straits Times would publish the letter as a reminder to its journalists that they should think before they write.  This was in 2003 when journalists and tv presenters knew some English.  Today, it's much worse.  Just turn on the tv in Singapore and listen to the news readers and tv presenters, if you don't believe me.  Of course there are good ones too but they are now the exception.

As could be expected, my letter was not published.  I have countless other letters that were not published because it would be embarrassing to the Straits Times journalists who need a great deal of mollycoddling.  But this is the age of the internet and I will, from time to time, post these letters.

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