Thursday, February 6, 2014

MOE's Language Expert Blunders Again

Many times have I purposed in my heart to say no more on this subject. Some friends of mine have told me that they are bored by my posts on the subject of language but there are others who find them amusing. As a compromise, I will be sparing in my words and I will keep this post short.

On page 156 of the book written by the "English Language experts" of the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Singapore called ENGLISH AS IT IS BROKEN, the question is asked if we should say "A friend of John" or "A friend of John's". Here is the answer given by the language experts.

It is very hard to find in this excerpt anything that is of value to learners of English because EVERYTHING in it is wrong. I don't even know where to begin.

I really wonder who wrote this and whether he's still in MOE's employ. But then again, we can't put the blame squarely on his shoulders. What has everyone else in MOE and the Speak Good English Movement been doing all these years? This book was published in 2007 and it has undergone 9 reprints. The foreword was written by the deputy editor of the Straits Times and the preface by the then Chairman of the Speak Good English Movement. The Straits Times, the Speak Good English Movement and the MOE are all jointly involved in the publication and they should all share the same accountability even if the "expertise" came from the "English language specialists" from MOE.

OK, let's begin with the beginning. The first sentence tells us that John is a pronoun. This is not a typographical error because towards the end of the excerpt, it says one more time that "John" is a pronoun.  "Hence, the pronoun 'John' in the sentence will be in the possessive form..."

Anyone who has been to primary school must know that "John" is a proper noun, not a pronoun. Or could it be that when the writer typed the words "proper noun", there was a technical glitch and the letters P, E and R  in "proper" were deleted, leaving behind "pro   noun" which fused together to read "pronoun"? And it happened twice?

The second sentence in that excerpt is simply disgraceful.  Here, the writer comes up with the most ludicrous grammar rule I've ever seen in my entire life. This reminds me of what I wrote 3 years ago about people who cook up their own grammar rules. Please click here if you want to read it. One thing I've learnt from dealing with grammar charlatans when they come up with rules that they hope people won't bother to try out is to put it to the test and expose their linguistic quackery.

Before going on, I have this to say. Charlatans usually clutter up what they want to say with unnecessary statements to confuse their readers. Look at this sentence which is nothing more than inane verbiage:

Who cares what you call them? Sometimes, a grammarian is compelled to divide groups into A and B and so on but you only do that if it's necessary to refer to the different groups later on. Why then did the writer pick a few items and group them as "Group A determiners" when it's not necessary to do that? It leaves the reader dangling uncomfortably in midair as he looks out for a Group B and a possible interaction between the two only to realize at the end of the excerpt that the writer's Group A has no real function at all.  [Note: some of you may think that there is more that the writer says apart from what I've posted above but that's incorrect. There is no Group B and the first photo above is all that the writer says on the subject].

What he's saying is simply that you can't say "a John's friend" and this is something everyone knows. But the writer, by making up a non-existent rule that you can't put together an article and a possessive, has got it all wrong. I can think of many examples where you can have an article followed immediately by a possessive.  "The boy's bag" is a good example.

Someone who claims to teach English grammar should not cook up a non-existent rule just to sound learned especially if there is no such rule and anyone can come up with perfectly grammatical examples to show that the rule cannot stand.

The writer next cooks up one more rule which in fact is the ratio decidendi of this entire passage and so let us pay close attention to what follows.

This is what he says and I will, where possible, stick to his very words -

Because we cannot say "a John's friend", "we have to use the following structure:  Determiner + noun + 'of' + possessive". The writer then goes on to make it very clear that the rule is inflexible. This is what he says in conclusion:

Hence, the pronoun "John" in the sentence will be in the possessive form and not the object form. So it will be a "friend of John's" and not "a friend of John".
That, I'm afraid, is one of the most misconceived and ridiculously flawed formulation of a rule of grammar that I've ever seen.

Notice that the writer has not once given a reference to a respectable grammar book to support this rule of his. That's because he cooked the rule up himself and all grammarians are not with him on this.

I will give examples which I have taken from various authoritative works, especially the works of grammarians on this subject to show that the formula determiner + noun + 'of' + possessive is not an inflexible rule as the writer suggests.

Robert Allen: "a friend of my father".
Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech & Svartvik: "the daughter of Mrs Brown"
RW Burchfield: "niece of her late husband"
King James Version: "a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ".

It behoves anyone who styles himself an "English language specialist" to resist the temptation of making up his own rules of grammar. I have read enough of the two books written by MOE's panel of specialists to know that they really don't know a thing about grammar but that's fine. I have no quarrel with anyone who does not even know what a pronoun is. There are a lot of good people who don't know these things. I don't even mind if he wants to call himself an English language expert. That's his prerogative. But he must have the decency not to write books on grammar and make up rules that don't exist and that can easily be shown to be totally wrong. But what if it's his job to teach English to students? His own honour and dignity must compel him to leave a vocation to which he's clearly not suited.

Editor (4 Jan 2018): I actually stumbled on the source of this error of the Speak Good English Movement two years ago and wrote a blog article about it. Because the Movement is ignorant of the terms used in most grammars, it misapplied a grammar rule and the result is this ridiculous error.

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