Friday, January 31, 2014

Cultural Guilt

What I'm going to say here can be viewed by some as insensitive and even offensive.  Before I begin, I should stress that I will only confine myself to my own culture and I will not talk about any other culture which I know very little about but I'm sure they have the same problems that I see in my own culture.  If you belong to a different culture, you may want to examine it in the light of what I've said and see for yourself if parallels can be drawn from this.

In my culture, we are always told that we are not good enough.  We are not worthy, we are nothing, we are fallen creatures, wretched are we and so on.  The idea behind this self-abasement is of course to pave the way for us to depend on God.  In the words of St Paul, we must decrease while Jesus must increase.  We are told that we can do no good and despite being saved by Christ, we continue to "sin" and we continue to disobey God.  Of course, to make sure that we always appear to be in the wrong, my religion lists a lot of perfectly harmless and natural actions as sinful and worthy of hellfire.

I'm not sure what deleterious effects such a culture has on the minds of children.  I have mentioned perfectly harmless deeds which are considered sinful and totally depraved and wrong and I'll talk more about that now.  When I was in secondary school, there was a boy who took his religion a little too seriously.  One day, he asked me what I thought of "the sin of masturbation".  I jokingly told him it was only a sin if he didn't say grace before it.  As you can imagine, he was furious with me for saying that.  Seeing how facetious I was with that which he considered sacred, he naturally didn't consult me on matters of the faith.  But I heard from other boys that he had a lot of "issues" with what churchmen sometimes call the sin of Onan.

Anyway, we soon went our separate ways and we lost contact for some years.  I knew he'd gone to medical school in a different university from mine and he was doing well.  I heard too that he had become insanely religious but I didn't ask for the details.

It was either in my second year or third year at uni when I got shocking news from a former schoolmate that something dreadful had happened.  This friend of mine (the one with serious issues about sin and other medieval concepts) had been suffering from depression for some time and his body was found floating in a river.  He had taken his own life.

I remember feeling paralysed by the news.  I put down the receiver, slumped in my chair and memories of our past conversations came rushing back to me.  Should I have talked him out of his deep belief in silly concepts of sin and retribution?  But I was only sixteen at the time when he spoke to me and making a joke out of the whole situation is just what you would expect a teenager to do. Besides, I wasn't a trained counsellor.  And how would anyone know that nonsensical prohibitions placed by an ancient religion would affect him with so much guilt?

There were many questions in my mind.  Chief of them was why are there no verses written in the Holy Gospels that clearly tell all these people who take their religion so terribly seriously that as long as you don't harm anyone and yourself, it's ok if you want to do anything you feel like doing?  I didn't think of it then but in today's world, I can think of many other areas of supposed "sin" that conservative Christians mark out as an abomination unto God.  I'm thinking of course of the lifestyle of our gay and lesbian friends.  They don't harm anyone by their love and relationships and is it right for us to say they can't do it because it's a sin?  Just as my friend could have taken his life because of a guilt the church drummed into him all his life over something as insignificant as masturbation, there may very well be gay and lesbian Christians who feel the same guilt for being what they were born to be.

Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year and the beginning lines from the 三字经 which I have committed to memory and which is also a part of my culture somehow spring to mind:


The 三字经 is directly contradictory to Christian teachings.  Man is born good and our natures are similar but it's our habits that make us differ from one another.  In Christianity, it's just the opposite. Man is NOT born good. Every new born baby is tainted with what is called "original sin".  He is guilty of the sin of Adam and he's condemned to hell unless he subsequently accepts the "saving grace" of Jesus.  Even after he is "saved" he will continue to be wretched and sinful and he needs the grace of God and God's constant forgiveness in order to be cleansed and absolved.

Ever since I was a boy, I was told that if my two cultures clashed, it was the Christian culture that should prevail.  The 三字经 is at best the wisdom of man but the Bible tells us that the wisdom of man is folly to God.

Every culture has its own wisdom and I'm not so quick to dismiss the wisdom of the 三字经 without further consideration.  The 三字经 has the added advantage that it's not dogmatic.  It doesn't tell you that you have to accept its wisdom or you'll burn in hell.  It's just one of the many Chinese philosophical works and it's not even one of the six traditional Confucian texts.  There is no compulsion in it.  It's a classical work and you can read it if you want to or throw it away if you are so inclined.  It's not sacred or religious.

The Bible, on the other hand, is the word of God.  It's sacred and you are told to accept it or burn in hell.  It's sometimes very clear especially when it wants to condemn a particular action which it terms as "sin".  But in other areas, it's frighteningly ambiguous.  I recall a comedy I once saw about a reenactment of the Last Supper.  When Jesus said the Eucharist words, St Matthew asked him to be precise - does the bread become his body or just a symbol of his body?  When Jesus dithered, St Matthew fumingly told him that wars would be fought and lives sacrificed because of a theological disagreement over the doctrine of the Real Presence.  And if he was really God, surely he could look into the future and see the chaos caused by this ambiguity in his words.  It ended with Jesus not giving a straight answer and St Matthew leaving the Upper Room in a huff.

The church will be the first to say that life is sacred.  We know from history that wars were fought and lives lost over silly theological disputes.  I remember being so emotionally moved when I saw as a boy a movie about the beheading of Lady Jane Grey.  She was asked a few religious questions and giving answers that pleased her captors could mean that her life would be spared.  She knew what the "correct" answers were but she chose to give answers that accorded with her religious conviction which meant certain death.  One of the questions she was asked was how many Sacraments there were and her answer sealed her fate.

If one of the Evangelists had written in a Gospel that
"Jesus took the disciples to the mount and said to them, 'Verily, verily, I say unto you.  There are x number of Holy Sacraments.  Woe betide any man who declares that there are any number of Sacraments apart from x in number.' And the disciples did marvel at how wise the words of Jesus were that there are x number of Sacraments, and not a jot more or fewer", 
there would have been no disagreement on this question.  And no killings, no beheadings and no unnecessary deaths.

The 三字经 has no blood-splattered history of wars and killings.  It's just philosophical wisdom and you can accept it or reject it for all anyone cares.

As we celebrate the Year of the Horse, let us remember that when we are dealing with ancient texts and it does not matter if it's the Bible, the Quran, the Veda, the Sutras or the 三字经, we should carefully pick and choose what's right and ignore that which we know deep within us is unkind, unloving or just obviously not right. Sometimes, ancient writers have a lot of baggage that we know nothing about and they can say monstrous things that any right thinking person today would dismiss as utterly immoral.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Understanding Anton Casey

If you haven't heard of Anton Casey, you probably don't live in Singapore.  A few days ago, the New Paper devoted a full front page to his story, complete with a photograph of his face.  His infamy is now reported in major newspapers all over the world.  You may read about him in the Times, the Guardian, the Daily Mail,  the Independent, the International Business Times and the Australian.

Photo from the Daily Mail

What really puzzles me is what motivated Casey to be so contemptuous of poor people. He has said that this was the worst mistake of his life. But was it a mistake? I really don't think so. I think a person who taunts and laughs at poor people publicly cannot say that he "has made a mistake". What he can say is although he really hates and despises the poor, he should not have done so publicly because the repercussion on himself is severe. In other words, the fact remains that he has nothing but contempt for the poor. In his mind, the only "mistake" he has made is in expressing his contempt openly.  That is why the public did not accept his apology because the truth is nothing has changed. He's only sad that his actions have caused harm to himself and his family.  That's not remorse; that's self-preservation.  He will only learn to be more tactful but the rot in his heart remains unaltered.

Anyone who has seen the photo and video he posted online will no doubt notice with horror that he involves his five-year-old son in all his antics.  On his Facebook page, he tells the world how his son asks him in surprise why there are so many poor people on the train.  In the video in which he tells the people not to be angry with him but to be angry with their parents for raising them weak and presumably poor, he has his son next to him smiling supportively at every word he utters.  Why anyone would drag his own young child into this is something I find hard to understand.  Surely if anyone is going to make himself public enemy No. 1, the last thing he will do is to make his innocent child a party to his disgraceful conduct?  Because he somehow linked his actions inextricably to his son, no newspaper reporting the incident could leave his son out of the picture. Some publications I have seen tried to blot his son's face out of the photos he himself published to the world but others just left the photos intact.  What kind of a father would do that to his own son?

Most wealthy people however callous they may be do not insult the poor.  Some of them may not have any consideration for the poor and they may not give to the poor but insulting them is the last thing anyone will do.  They may behave as if the poor never appear in their horizon but they wouldn't dream of making fun of them.  I'm always interested in the psychology of the individual and when I see a person of means making cruel remarks about the poor and taunting them, almost always, the person has a reason, however warped it may be, to do that. Usually, when you scratch below the surface, you will find that such a person who seems to be allergic to the poor himself comes from an underprivileged environment which he absolutely detests.  He may work very hard to get himself out of the rut he perceives himself to be in and he may very well succeed.  But even when he is successful in acquiring for himself a comfortable life, his aversion to poverty and his contempt for the poorer segment of society from which he himself comes are by no means placated. Such people, sometimes derogatorily referred to as the nouveau riche, are the first to put down the poor.

That Anton Casey is an obnoxious person is undisputed. But we have to be clear about what wrong he has done.  It's a wrong that offends good sense and the dictates of propriety.  His behaviour is distasteful, base, repugnant and unacceptable.

But (yes, there's a "but" to it even if I can't stand the sight of this abominable entity) he has committed no crime.  Society can ostracize him but we can't expect the government to lock him up. Netizens have demanded police action and I have read nasty comments online against the government and the police for not taking punitive action against him.  But what can the police or the government do since he has committed no crime?  Society can make it uncomfortable for him to continue to live here because who wants such an odious character in our midst but to expect the police or the government to act is ridiculous.

There is a lot of talk about forgiveness.  What forgiveness can he expect if the only outcome from this whole episode is to make him more guarded about what he says in public?  You see, the insults are but a mere manifestation of what actually goes on deep within himself.  Anton Casey has, by his actions, exposed to all reasonable people his true feelings for the poor.  You can only insult the poor if you really despise them.  Do you really think this storm in his life will endear the poor to him? Do you really believe he will henceforth learn to have less contempt for the poor because he's been so firmly castigated for insulting them?  Logically, the answer must be a resounding NO!  He will continue to detest and despise the less fortunate, and perhaps even more so now that he will perceive himself as having suffered humiliation at their hands.  He will just be more careful about insulting them publicly and that's all there is to his "repentance".

Again, this is no crime however loathsome we may find his actions to be.  It would be extremely wrong of anyone to make any threat against him or his family.  That would be totally unthinkable and I know the people of Singapore well enough to know that absolutely nobody would even dream of harming a hair on his head.  I don't for a minute believe his vague story about death threats being issued against him.  But we all choose our friends and who we want to deal with. Whether you want to be friends with someone who despises the poor enough to insult them publicly is really a matter of personal choice.

Editor:  These two posts concerning another person who made inappropriate remarks about the poor on her Facebook page are directly relevant here:

1.  Amy, Amy, Quite Contrary  and

2.  Rudeness is Not a Crime

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Yet Another Boo-boo by the Straits Times

Remember how embarrassing it was for the Straits Times when it reported that Kim Jong Un fed his uncle live to 200 wild dogs?  If you are interested in what the BBC had to say about the Straits Times with regard to that reporting, please click here.

I just saw in today's Straits Times on page C5 of Life an obituary of Claudio Abbado. The music world has been in deep mourning since his death on 20 January, just two days ago.  The Straits Times published today a tribute to him but guess what?  They got the wrong photograph of him.  Or rather, they got a photograph of another musician.

Here's a photo I've just taken from the Straits Times:

When I first saw the photo, I almost fell off my chair.  How could the editors of the Straits Times be so wrong?  Isn't that a pic of the famous Italian pianist Pollini? What? Has Pollini died too?

I then did a search on google and no, Pollini is alive and well and thank God for that.  It was the Straits Times that made an unpardonable mistake.  And I think I know the reason for Straits Times' blunder.  Whoever did the reporting or the editing of this obituary obviously didn't know Abbado from Adam.  Any musician in black tie is immediately taken for Abbado.  I wanted to trace the source of the photo that the Straits Times got wrong and I did a google image search for "Pollini and Abbado" and I think I have the answer. The Straits Times probably took the photo that was published in AFP and other major international newspapers which spoke about Abbado's passing two days ago.  For example, see this article published in Khaleej Times on 20 January 2014 which contains this photo:

This is my guess of what happened.  That's obviously the photo that Straits Times made use of.  In that photo, Pollini was standing next to Abbado and the Straits Times editor wanted to trim it to fit the space in his column but he had no notion what Abbado looked like and had a 50% chance of getting it right but alas, luck was not on his side and he got it wrong.  How anybody can fail to see that that was not the image of Abbado is something I can't understand.  Surely someone in the Straits Times must know at least what Abbado looked like?  Isn't the Life section of the Straits Times dedicated to the arts and music?  I cannot believe anyone with the smallest love for music can possibly not know what Claudio Abbado looked like.

Well, that's the Straits Times for you.  I have a lot to say about the Straits Times and English grammar but I'll save that for another day.  Right now, as the whole world mourns the passing of the great Claudio Abbado, I'm annoyed that the Straits Times can't even get the picture of such a legendary conductor right.  Why then did it bother to publish an obituary in the first place?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Teacher, teach thyself.

It's late at night and I've got to get up early tomorrow morning and I don't want to spend my time writing this blog but something I saw in my letter box this morning irritated me somewhat.  It all began with a flyer from an estate agent which looked quite good as far as presentation went.  The paper was glossy and had an attractive assortment of colours.  But it was badly written.  Every sentence contained at least one language error.  That didn't irritate me.  One can't expect linguistic perfection to be one of the many strong points an estate agent no doubt has.  What really irritated me was another flyer, even more attractive than the estate agent's.  It's from a school that purports to teach students languages - English and Chinese.  There are lovely pictures in this flyer and very few words.  One would have thought that a language school would ensure it made no mistake in its language especially when there were just a few short sentences to deal with.  Surely a parent cannot be faulted if he is to judge the quality of the English language taught in the school by the language used in its advertisement?  Here are the photographs I took of the flyer.  You can click on each of them for a larger image.  Or, better still, you can right click on the image and choose to open it in a new window.  That way you can view a larger pic and read the contents of the flyer.

When I have the time, I will say more about language schools and the shocking things they teach kids.  I'm not referring to this particular school, Mind Stretcher, which I've not heard of before reading their flyer this morning.  I'm talking about a very established and well-known school that my kids used to go to when they were in primary school.  I have old emails to back up what I say.

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  I don't want to sound like a cranky old codger who's always ranting and raving about incorrect usage.  Grammar doesn't mean a thing to me and I feel perfectly at home with sloppy language and wildly incorrect usage.  But I'm irritated when those who claim to be in the position to teach others or to tell them where they have gone wrong are unable to write a few simple sentences without glaring mistakes.  Just read the flyer above for yourself and tell me if you will not be similarly irritated.  Remember, this is a language school that's putting its best foot forward with this advertisement.

I have not finished.  Keep an eye on this blog for more posts about teachers whose job it is to teach children the English language.  I have a lot more to say.  But I'll be discreet.  The last thing I want to do is to offend people and from my personal experience, teachers can be quite touchy.

[16 January 2014: I was told by a friend today that he could not spot any mistake in the flyer.  I didn't believe him but I didn't have time to question him further.  So tonight I got my son to read through the flyer and he immediately picked up a couple of obvious errors, completely without any prompting from me. That confirmed my suspicion that my friend who called me up today had not read through the flyer in the first place.]

For recent articles on grammar, please see a critique of Jon Gingerich's erroneous rules on language in these two blog posts:

Unlearned Pedants (Segment 1)
Unlearned Pedants (Segment 2)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Can you please show me the way to the euphemism?

I consider myself a tolerant man but there are three things I can't stand.  The first is the excessive and unnecessary use of the euphemism.  I see the euphemism as an anachronistic devise cooked up by puritans in the 16th century and is rightly classified in the same category as the lunatic act of covering up the legs of pianos in the Victorian era because they were thought to be "too suggestive".

My second pet peeve is the careless misquotation of a famous saying to which one has easy access.  Certainly when a Christian organisation such as a chapel of a Christian Mission school quotes the Holy Bible, I expect it to make no mistake whatsoever.

The third thing I positively detest is the increasingly popular use of the ellipsis.  I have a hunch that those who use this are either too lazy to complete their sentence or are too unsure of their grammar to write in full.  Sometimes, the three-dot ellipsis (...) is used in lieu of the full stop by writers afflicted with the Michelin-star syndrome who view three dots as superior to one.  How many times have we all seen someone write on his Facebook wall, "Look at this..." when he meant "Look at this."?

When I saw this banner placed in front of a school and it didn't surprise me in the least that it was THAT school, I was miffed to see all three of my pet peeves in that single ugly poster.

This is a poster put up by a chapel of a Christian school with the intention presumably of inviting passers-by to attend chapel services.  The quotation comes from, as the poster clearly indicates, John 7:37.  If you were a motorist, like me, who were passing by the school on a speeding car as I was and you took a fleeting glance of this poster as I did, what would your impression be?  I immediately and quite rightly too thought this was a deliberate truncation of the original verse because the quotation doesn't just end with an honest full-stop and not even the usual three dots of an ellipsis but FOUR bold large dots that seem to be screaming "We're hiding something!!!"

When I first saw the poster, I chuckled to myself.  The words of the son of Sirach in Ecclus. 24:21 (yes I know that's the Apocrypha but we aren't all militant fundamentalists, are we?) flashed in my mind,
"They who drink of me," says Wisdom, "shall thirst again".

There we have it - "drink of me". 

Elsewhere in the Holy Gospels, we hear Jesus saying "...whoever feeds on me, he also will live ..." John 6:57. 

Now, it's "feed on me". 

Who can blame me when having called to memory such holy verses, I thought the words the designer of the poster lopped off were "of me" and the verse should read "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink of me."  What other function can the four dots have if they don't act as an ellipsis?  Can I be blamed for thinking that the words were deleted for the same reason that the legs of a piano were covered more than a century ago? I thought it likely that they wanted to avoid a situation of school children giggling at the poster which was designed to have an evangelistic impact. The designer was wrong not to quote the Bible faithfully and to add three misleading dots to the original single full stop. He should have known better than to subtract or add any jot, tittle or, if I may add, dot to the scriptural quotation.

Human beings are a peculiar species.  We don't mind doing a whole lot of things but we are ashamed of putting them in words.

Sometimes, instead of using the euphemism, blank spaces are used in print.  Victorian novels are notorious for putting blank spaces within a word, eg. "I can't bear his d____d impudence."  But swear words beginning with the letter "d" are all that you will see in Victorian novels.  Modern novelists do not have the same ridiculous scruples, even when they are using swear words that begin with the letter "f".  But most people are careful with the word in print.

We defecate every day but we think it's inappropriate to say it in words. Excrement and its synonyms are usually avoided but for some reason, it's more acceptable to spell out in full all these words that mean the same thing as long as that word doesn't begin with the letter "s".  We can say with impunity excrement, crap, faeces, droppings, poop, dung, excreta and turd but try saying "shit" and a lot of people I know will blush with shame.

Some countries have a more heightened sensitivity to such words.  In the US, the word "toilet" is taboo.  "Bathroom" which is quite a different room from the toilet is frequently used as a euphemism for toilet although why one needs a euphemism for "toilet" is something I can't quite understand.  "Restroom", "washroom", "WC" and "convenience" are common substitutes for "toilet".

In the US, this obsession with the euphemism invades even schools.  The humble rubber which is found in a pencil box in any schoolboy's bag is given a fresh new name in the US.  It's called an eraser.  Rubber is a common slang word in the US for a condom and I suppose they don't want teachers to be confused if a young child asks for a rubber in the middle of an important examination. They are known to be quite precocious there and from statistics Durex publishes annually, Americans are the world's largest purchasers of that prophylactic product.

Le coq - symbol of France

Of all the unfortunate denizens of the animal kingdom, the cock has the most ill-fated and star-crossed name and it should not surprise anyone that while in Europe, "cock" in English and "coq" in French raise no disapproving eyebrow, over in America, people generally recoil with puritanical revulsion whenever the word is heard and a new name was coined as long ago as the late 1700s for this hapless fowl.  We know from the OED that the word "rooster" first emerged in American vocabulary around the time America got its independence in the late 18th century.  Because it's coined from irrational shame, "rooster" is a word with a weak etymology.  All birds roost and not just the cock.

What poppycock!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Unlearned Pedants Part 1 - Jon Gingerich (final segment)

For the first segment of my criticism of what Jon Gingerich wrote, please click here.

I'm determined to finish off my analysis of Jon Gingerich's appalling web page "20 Common Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes" in this post alone.  It's of course a tall order since Gingerich blundered through almost all 20 of his "common mistakes", many of which aren't even mistakes and going through all of them is bound to take up a lot of my time.  I will try to be brief.

Some of his points are not even mistakes I've heard anyone make.  For instance, I know of nobody who uses "moot" wrongly to mean "superfluous".  I'll just skip that one.

Whether and If 

Gingerich has this to say:

Many writers seem to assume that “whether” is interchangeable with “if." It isn’t. “Whether” expresses a condition where there are two or more alternatives. “If” expresses a condition where there are no alternatives. e.g., I don’t know whether I’ll get drunk tonight. e.g., I can get drunk tonight if I have money for booze.

Most grammarians are agreed that although "whether" in a without-alternative situation is more formal, "if" can still be used provided there is no ambiguity.  In the example he cited, "I don’t know whether I’ll get drunk tonight", there can be no ambiguity if "if" is used and so it should be permissible.  I have racked my brains but I'm unable to think of a single sentence in which the use of "if" will lead to confusion or ambiguity.  There's one sentence given by the former Senior Editor of the OED Robert Allen to illustrate this point - "Tell me if you can come".  But as he rightly points out, this sentence is hardly ambiguous, for the secondary meaning is so unnatural to any listener. Even if one can think of a sentence in which such the use of "if" will lead to an ambiguity, one cannot just create one's own rule to obviate it.  There are many perfectly grammatical sentences which are ambiguous in meaning but most speakers are sensible enough to avoid them.

Farther and Further

This is what Gingerich says:

The word “farther” implies a measurable distance.  “Further” should be reserved for abstract lengths you can't always measure. e.g., I threw the ball ten feet farther than Bill. e.g., The financial crisis caused further implications.

It's not true that "further" should be reserved for abstract lengths.  If you trace what grammarians say on the subject, you will see that all of them for the past 100 years agree that while "farther" is more commonly used to express physical distance, "further" is used to express both physical distance and abstract relations.  Fowler says precisely that in 1926 and Curme in 1935.  So, historically, Gingerich is wrong.  Let's look at the situation now.  In 1985, four notable grammarians including Sir Randolph Quirk wrote  A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language which is now regarded as the most comprehensive study on the English language.  Students of the English language at university level are familiar with A University Grammar of the English Language which is but a smaller version of this definitive and comprehensive work.

This august authority on English grammar says exactly the same thing on page 459 regarding the use of "further".

Also, in 1996, renowned grammarian and former editor of the OED Robert Burchfield cited with approval this same view of how "further" may be used.

I've mentioned the OED twice.  For those who don't know, the OED is the final authority of the English language.

Gingerich's insistence that "further" is a word that "should be reserved for abstract lengths you can't always measure" flies in the face of every known authority since 1925.

Since and Because

Listen to the words of Gingerich:

“Since” refers to time. “Because” refers to causation. e.g., Since I quit drinking I’ve married and had two children. e.g., Because I quit drinking I no longer wake up in my own vomit.

I used to have an ineffectual and ill-qualified teacher I despised who would make up her own rules on English grammar and Gingerich reminds me so much of her.  That's utter balderdash, Gingerich! Just pick up any good dictionary and you will see that one of the meanings of "since" is "because, seeing that".  Look up the history of the word and you will see that that meaning of "since" has been around from the Late Middle English era and that's even before Shakespeare's time.  Gingerich is attempting to strip the word "since" of one of its meanings that it's had since the time of Chaucer!


Gingerich continues shamelessly:

Unless you’re frightened of them, you shouldn’t say you’re “anxious to see your friends.” You’re actually “eager,” or "excited." To be “anxious” implies a looming fear, dread or anxiety. It doesn’t mean you’re looking forward to something.

Another bit of nonsense.  Anxious also means "desirous" and we can trace that meaning of the word to the 18th century.  The poet Robert Blair wrote in 1743:
Oft have I prov’d the labours of thy love,
And the warm efforts of the gentle heart,
Anxious to please.
Lord Nelson was also known to have used the word with the meaning of "desirous" in 1794 but I think I've proved my point that Gingerich is again wrong.


Gingerich writes:

Undoubtedly the most common mistake I encounter. Contrary to almost ubiquitous misuse, to be “nauseous” doesn’t mean you’ve been sickened: it actually means you possess the ability to produce nausea in others. e.g., That week-old hot dog is nauseous. When you find yourself disgusted or made ill by a nauseating agent, you are actually “nauseated.” e.g., I was nauseated after falling into that dumpster behind the Planned Parenthood. Stop embarrassing yourself.

"Stop embarrassing yourself", Gingerich tells us.  If we say we feel "nauseous", we are embarrassing ourselves because, according to Gingerich, that means we produce nausea in others.

It's not easy to be brief but I'll try.  It's necessary for me to divide the English language into two:
1.  the kind all of us speak and
2.  the American variety.

Let's look first at English as understood by the whole world except the US.  "Nauseous" has two meanings.  I'll use the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary which is the best dictionary I have (and can afford) and although, it's called the Shorter OED, it comes in two volumes and is to be distinguished from the OED which is in 20 volumes plus Supplements and is beyond most of our reach.  The first meaning is "affected with nausea, sick, nauseated".  The second meaning is "Causing nausea; offensive to the taste or smell."  At this point, what I have established is this - As long as you are not an American, you may freely use "nauseous" when you're affected by nausea. That's the first meaning given in the SOED which follows the OED closely which means it's also the first meaning given in the voluminous OED.   Don't listen to Gingerich; you won't embarrass yourself.

Let's see next what the experts of American English have to say about "nauseous".  It is true that in America a long time ago (and I do mean a long time ago), "nauseous" strictly meant "causing nausea".  However American usage changed as early as in the 1970s and by 1989, the Webster's Dictionary of English Usage which is America's equivalent of our OED has this to say:
The older sense of nauseous meaning "nauseating", both literal and figurative, seems to be in decline, being replaced by nauseating.  Nauseated is usually literal but it is less common than nauseous.  Any handbook that tells you that nauseous cannot mean "nauseated" is out of touch with the contemporary language.
(Emphasis mine but I have quoted Webster verbatim

There we have it - Jon Gingerich is hanged drawn and quartered by Webster, the final authority on American English.

How can anyone be so wrong and yet presume to write a guide on good English?  I'm sure any young student who has been through basic English grammar must know Gingerich is spouting sheer rubbish from his mouth.

This ends the first part of my series on UNLEARNED PEDANTS.  I will keep a look out for another obnoxious, arrogant but clueless pedant who loves to sit on his throne and pontificate on what correct English should be and I will begin Part 2 of UNLEARNED PEDANTS.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Unlearned Pedants Part 1 - Jon Gingerich

I have said many times in my blog and I say it again that I fervently believe that the everyday spoken language only has the function of communicating one's thoughts to one's listener.  That is all. It does not matter one bit to me if the communication lacks artistic charm. Neither does it matter if it does not accord with standard English usage.  I'm perfectly aware how fluid standard English is. What was considered ungrammatical when I was a boy is today standard English and the updated editions of good grammar books all bear testimony to its correctness now. Anyone who corrects another person's grammar in the course of his speech is rude and should not be allowed into society and I have never been guilty of violating such a basic rule of etiquette.  

But putting a captious person in his place is an admirable exercise and I have, on numerous posts in this blog, done precisely that.  I get all the more annoyed when those who love to pontificate on what they believe proper grammar should be usually know almost nothing about English grammar.  They sometimes create grammar rules where none exists.  I have in several posts in this blog exposed their ignorance of even simple rules of grammar.  What amazes me is the audacity these people have to arrogate to themselves the right to tell others what correct grammar should be when they themselves are not able to come to grips with even the rudiments of English grammar.

While I'm totally indifferent to the rules of language, I am usually annoyed when I see these ignorant pedants going all out to slam and vilify those who they claim write or speak badly.  These are the people I address whenever I expose their ignorance and error in this blog.  These are people who think they are a cut above the rest of us.  In a haughty tone, they purport to tell us never to misuse a word because that particular word does not have the meaning we wrongly think it has. They used to go round giving us a rap on the knuckles for splitting our infinitives (who among us have not experienced that from our schoolteachers?) although grammar books for almost a hundred years consistently say it is all right to do so.  Grammar books are of course as foreign to these people as the I-Ching and it is only very recently when most of them finally discovered their error and stopped using that blank round in their arsenal.

Alas, apart from their former weaponry against split infinitives there are many other blank cartridges that they fire today as these obnoxious nitpickers stubbornly continue to cook up new grammar rules.

I was on google+ when I stumbled upon this webpage - "20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes".  It's written by someone called Jon Gingerich, an editor of an American magazine.

This has prompted me to start a series of blog posts under the title "Unlearned Pedants" in which I will feature people like Gingerich - grammar pedants who don't know grammar.  I'm sure once I'm through with Gingerich, there will be others worthy of being similarly featured.

The first mistake he brings up is the common confusion over who and whom.  After stating the broad principle, Gingerich, like a typical primary school teacher, gives us the usual standard formula how we can be sure whether to use "who" or "whom" but unlike most competent primary school teachers, he is hopelessly unable to apply his own test correctly.  This is what he writes:

When in doubt, substitute “who” with the subjective pronouns “he” or “she,” e.g., Who loves you? cf., He loves me. Similarly, you can also substitute “whom” with the objective pronouns “him” or “her.” e.g., I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York. cf., I consulted him.
Here is the clearest proof that English grammar is as alien to Gingerich as Swahili grammar is to me.  For the sentence "I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York", he tells us that since it's "I consulted him", "whom" is the correct word.  But that's nonsense.  Let me alter the sentence slightly and you will see where Gingerich has gone wrong.  "I consulted an attorney who came from New York".  If you follow Gingerich's erroneous reasoning, the correct word should be "whom" because it's "I consulted him" and not "he" and so, it should be "whom" and not "who".  Nobody will say it's correct to write "I consulted an attorney WHOM came from New York".  The reason for this error is Gingerich obviously has never done any parsing exercise and he does not know a thing about clauses and how they should be broken down.  I know the likes of such ignoramuses to whom an antecedent is probably the name of a prescribed drug and the pluperfect a Peranakan cake.  Like Gingerich, they are very quick to tell someone he's wrong but they really know little more than the person they seek to correct.

Any young student of English grammar who is properly schooled and who knows his clauses and has tried his hand at sentence parsing will tell you that for the sentence "I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York" to show if "who" or "whom" should be used, you should break the sentence down to read "I met HIM in New York" and because it's "him" and not "he" you should say "whom" and not "who".  Similarly, in my slightly altered sentence, "I consulted an attorney who came from New York", it's "he came from New York" and not "him" and so "who" is correct and not "whom". What a disgrace!  Gingerich can't even apply the test correctly.

It is not my wont to quibble over correct usage and I'm naturally hesitant to point out Gingerich's other faults in that excerpt alone but I should perhaps remind him that he would be better off using the word "replace" rather than "substitute" in his sentence "When in doubt, substitute “who” with the subjective pronouns “he” or “she”.  Grammarians today are still uneasy with the common but inelegant use of "substitute" when "replace" is meant.  Instead of harping on non-existent grammar rules of his own making, Gingerich would do well to choose his words wisely and stay away from a usage that may cause a grammarian as respectable as Burchfield some discomfort.

I have only covered the first of Gingerich's 20 common grammar mistakes and there are many more that I have to deal with.  Many of the alleged "common grammar mistakes" are either not mistakes in the first place or Gingerich is wrong in his explanation of how the mistake ought to be corrected. I will continue with the rest of his mistakes in Part 2.

Gingerich speaks of himself superciliously as "someone who slings red ink for a living".  As far as I can see, the only thing red that he may legitimately have is his face - he ought to blush with shame now that I have exposed him as one more of those unlearned pedants whose mission in life seems to be to irritate the rest of us with their incessant drivel.

For the second and final segment of my analysis of what Jon Gingerich wrote, please click here.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Beautiful Singlish

Just ten minutes ago, my attention was drawn to this blog post by the newsfeed on my Facebook wall.  I read the article and watched the entire LTA video on youtube.

I must say from the outset that I have strong views on this matter.

I think the LTA video is perfectly all right and I'm glad they got someone with a distinctly Singaporean accent for the video.  I would have hated it if they had got anyone who hasn't got this strong Singaporean accent or worse, if they had got a Singaporean with a fake American accent (I think I have decried elsewhere on my blog this growing trend of some Singaporeans putting on a fake American accent).  True, there is bound to be a divergence between RP and Singaporean English and this is particularly obvious when it comes to where the stress is to be placed in a sentence or in a syllable of a word.  Linguists have written about this and I recall spending a happy hour chatting with David Crystal who can imitate just about any accent in the world when I once had the good fortune of bumping into him in Wales.  The non-RP stressing is quintessentially what makes a Singaporean so loveably Singaporean.

Kudos to the LTA for getting such a Singaporean voice to tell us in Singapore about our own motorway and we don't have to bow down to England over a language that is no longer theirs.  A lot of people in England would do well to learn the rudiments of the English language from us and we can start by giving simple lessons to David Beckham who, in my opinion, requires urgently more than just a few simple lessons.

I really hope more bloggers will speak up for something that is as native to us as prata, nasi lemak and char kway teow, if I may be allowed to use food imagery that spans the entire ethnic spectrum of Singapore.