Wednesday, September 26, 2012

When the gazelle trips.

Just a couple of days ago, I saw a new magazine that purports to be about high fashion and is aptly named "HIGH" in my letter box.  It came in a sophisticated-looking totally black plastic envelope and it appeared very elegant and tasteful.

Having absolutely no interest in fashion, whether high or low, I looked only at the editor's message which was written by one Giselle Go, the Chief Editor.  A person's real name doesn't tell us anything about him or her because one doesn't choose one's own name but the name of someone of Chinese descent is usually quite different.  Of course we have the odd person who, like me, is perfectly comfortable in his own skin and uses only his name in his birth certificate but thank goodness, the world doesn't consist of only such boring folks and there are many who make up names for themselves.  You may know a Chan Chee Wan at school who, when you meet years later, tells you he's now Nehemiah Chan and he really won't be too pleased if you insist on calling him Chee Wan.  Some of them go one step further and change even their family names, especially if their surnames are susceptible to minor cosmetic changes.  One such example is the Chinese surname Goh (as in our former PM's name, Goh Chok Tong).  I see an increasing number of Gohs dropping the final "h" in their names.  The worst case of a name change must be the one I saw in the Government Gazette a long time ago.  One Teo Ah Bah took a deed poll to change his name henceforth to Dane Teo Marciano.  Yes, you can say that again: Good Lord!

I don't have to peer into my crystal ball to tell you that anyone who gives herself the name Giselle Go probably has a heightened fascination for fashion - graceful as a gazelle and always on the go and the name leaves a French taste in the mouth just like the feeling you get after having eaten a delightful tarte flambee (and please don't say my taste is crass; I know it is). 

When I read the editor's introductory message in the magazine, I expected something perfectly written.  After all, this is the inaugural issue of "HIGH" and anything less would detract from the classy feel of the magazine.  Here's a pic of the "Editor's Note":

The welcoming message begins with a quotation from Coco Chanel: "Luxury is the absence of vulgarity".  What the writer should bear in mind is, similarly, elegance is the absence of bad grammar and poor sentence structure.  A cursory reading of it is enough to tell me that the writer is either extremely careless or perhaps she is simply not at home with the English language.  Someone who has read the other articles in the magazine tells me that there are grammatical errors in the articles too but I have no problem with that.  The articles are written by fashion experts who may not be comfortable with English and that's perfectly pardonable.  What's not excusable is the editor's opening message. Surely if you want to allow yourself some laxity, you should at least go easy only after your first issue has been published and spotlessly too?

Years ago, on another blog of mine which has since been abandoned, I wrote about a glaring error in a notice advertised by SMU in the Straits Times on its inaugural graduation ceremony.  There were just four sentences in that notice and SMU could not even ensure there were no grammatical mistakes in their advertisement.  Of course Straits Times didn't publish my letter.  I won't give a link to that abandoned blog but I may post a pic of the advertisement in this blog in the future when I have more to say about the Straits Times.  And I do have a lot to say about the Straits Times.

Everyone should be careful about what he writes especially if it's something as important as an inaugural issue of a magazine on high fashion that despises the vulgar and tawdry.

I have rambled on quite a bit and I'm tempted to close this entry but I think it would not be fair of me not to give a few examples of what I'm talking about.  I have slammed the Editor's Note of HIGH and I must at least produce the evidence.

The general writing style of the Editor's Note is not smooth.  Almost every sentence contains some error in grammar or syntax: a word that shouldn't be there, a wrong preposition, etc.  Most of the sentences are ill-formed and ungainly.  There is an obvious attempt to sound slick and sophisticated and some of the sentences are too long for the writer to handle.  An inexperienced writer should avoid long sentences but if you really want to try your hand at them, you should mentally remove some of the clauses and see if the sentence can stand on its own.

It's roughly the same for the whole of the Editor's Note of HIGH's inaugural issue but I will just look at the first two or three sentences:

"...the word 'luxury' has become all too easily bandied about".  This is so clumsy.  A word is bandied about.  It does not become bandied about.  If I am to retain the general tone of Giselle's sentence, I would phrase it "the word... is all too often bandied about". 

In the next sentence (see the excerpt above), Giselle boasts about her interview of Diego Della Valle, the CEO of Tod (presumably some fashion house) and I'm not censuring her for this.  It's of course perfectly legitimate for her to do that but she should have written about that experience correctly and unambiguously.  The sentence ends with "... where he dispenses wisdom on the word".   I thought Diego expounded on the meaning of "luxury" in the Colosseum. By the way, there is no excuse not to get your spelling right; I've seen the word in Italian and it's not spelt that way either, neither at the Colosseum itself nor the metro station named after it.  You see, the "where" is totally inappropriate in that sentence.  The only place mentioned in the sentence is the Colosseum but it was not at the Colosseum that Diego explained what "luxury" meant to him.  As I discovered later in the Editor's Note, it was in Hong Kong and that's quite a distance from the Colosseum.  This use of "where" more as a conjunction is a terrible abuse of the English language.  It's a common enough mistake in speech which is pardonable since one hasn't got much time to get one's sentences perfectly constructed in a speech but I expect greater care in the Editor's Introductory Message of an inaugural issue of a magazine that purports to clobber vulgarity and lack of taste on the head.

There is something to be said about almost every sentence in the Editor's Note.  If it's not an outright error, it is probably not so elegantly phrased.  But I've got a life to live and I'm not a paid school teacher with a job to correct my students' writing and so I'll just end here.

Edit: I just discovered there there was some publicity given to HIGH magazine by Today Online.   Click here  

It's "MediaCorp's new luxury lifestyle magazine for women".  It's an annual magazine which of course makes matters worse.  They should have been more careful with the Editor's Note if it's only churned out once a year. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Gone is the old-world charm

I have mentioned before that I have been keeping a diary since I was 7.  These days, my diary is a daily record that I type and store in a secret blog that only I have access to.  It is not that there is anything interesting in my diary or there is anything worth keeping a secret about and I don't think I mind making it public except that it does seem odd if anyone can check to see what I did at any point in time in my life.  Why then do I keep a diary?  I hardly ever read my old diaries in the first place.

But I do sometimes read them.  Just yesterday, I saw on youtube a clarinet flash mob in a quaint little town in Austria and I was fairly certain I had been there.  I searched through my electronic diaries but that was the time when my travel diaries were all handwritten (it was a pre-iPad pre-iPhone era).  I was certain that my travel diaries were kept with my old handwritten diaries but I found that there were many missing volumes.  In the end, I looked through my photo album in my hard disk and realized that the town I had been to in Austria was a town some 50km from the one featured on youtube.  That only goes to confirm what I have felt all along - that photographs are probably the best record of one's life.

While searching through my old diaries, I saw a small diary that contained entries made in the last few months of 1995.  I ended the year with a little summary of what I thought of that year and here are two photographs of the last paragraph placed next to each other:

I am delighted to see that my handwriting was much more beautiful than I had given myself credit for.  I recall the days I would fill my pen with ink and write the entry for that day.  Of course the process of writing these days is a lot faster. You don't need to fill up the pen with ink from a bottle and there's that wonderful copy and paste facility for words and phrases that you need to repeat in a diary but there is a cost to all this.  The old-world charm is gone.  Beautiful handwriting is an art form and I know I can derive much pleasure just from looking at it.  Children these days have awful handwriting and I'm sure the computer is very much to blame for this. 

The other thing that seems to have gone with the last century is the use of religious language.  People don't make such overt references to God these days and "God" is normally used only in expletives.

Do I really want to turn the clock back and write my diary by hand as I used to?  Of course not.  Once we have tasted the fruit of progress and modernity, we may look back at our old ways with fondness but a regression to our former state isn't something most of us find attractive.  The benefits of using the computer are just overwhelming.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Of Spanish Rain and Asian Flood

  Obeisance before the altar

I was reading my novel and listening to the sermon at the same time in church today when something said from the pulpit caught my attention and made me look up from my novel, a hard-cover volume that appropriately resembled the Bible in appearance when seen from a distance.

You see, even if you were not the least bit interested in sermons but if you heard someone saying "obeisance" but he pronounced the "bei" to rhyme with "buy", you would probably take notice of the sermon a little more.  And if the same word was repeated at least ten times in the sermon (the topic of the sermon today being worship) with the "buy" distinctly and unmistakeably enunciated and if it soon became clear to the listener as it did to me, that the "buy" was not just a simple "buy" but really a /baɪə/, the listener would probably put away his novel which I did in a trice and listened for more.  And I heard the same thing, again and again and again - the top clergyman in my church pronounces the word in this unusual way and if you don't believe me, you can listen to the recording.  I understand all sermons are recorded by the church.

The difficulty some people experience when pronouncing /eɪ/ is well documented all over the world and unusual pronunciations arising from it are not just in the exclusive domain of Cockneys, as popularized in the musical "My Fair Lady".  Most of us in the Asia-Pacific region seldom get to hear /eɪ/ pronounced the Cockney way unless we're in the company of Aussies.  What is more common for us is the Sabahan or Sarawakian variant which I find more pleasant.   "The ran in Span stass manly in the plans" is how a Sabahan would sing the song.

I believe there is one more pronunciation quirk that identifies the Sabahan although I must stress that a friend of mine who hails from that part of the world disputes this but I think I'm right.  I believe (but as I have said, this is disputed) that they pronounce "flood" and "blood" as /flɜːd/ and /blɜːd/.  My friend insists that this is a common pronunciation among the less educated in this region and he may be right.  It may very well be just an extension of the more common /lɜːv/ for "love" and /glɜːv/ for "glove".

But coming back to obeisance, there is really no excuse.  I have never heard anyone pronouncing it that way before.  I really hope those of you who know him well will direct him to this post of mine.  Because the word is not so commonly used, there is less opportunity for it to be mispronounced and any peculiarity in one's pronunciation of it is sure to stand out.  I have explained in my blog before why I'm reluctant to talk about language and pronunciation with my friends.  Here is the link to that post:  Click here

I have just clicked on that link to test it and I was surprised to see that I made mention of that same personage in my church on 1 December 2010.  This is a pure coincidence.  I really have the highest regard for him and I know he's not the sort who will be offended by what I have written. But if I'm wrong in my judgment and he is really upset that I have brought up examples from his speech, all I can say is I'm glad I have removed all clues to my personal identity from this blog.  It's not wise to incur the wrath of a man of God.