Friday, February 7, 2014

Proof that MOE's English experts ruin students' English

ENGLISH AS IT IS BROKEN and ENGLISH AS IT IS BROKEN 2 are two grammar books published by the Straits Times, the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Speak Good English Movement. They are both in a question-and-answer format. The questions on grammar come from the general public (usually school students) and the answers are provided by a panel of English language experts from MOE.

It is most unsettling when I see a student who is correct in his grammar being told by the panel of experts that he is wrong and he is asked to follow a sentence structure which any English-speaking person must know is incorrect. When I see this (and there are quite a few examples in both books), I can't help thinking that students in Singapore would be so much better off if MOE dismissed its panel of experts.  Let me give an example from ENGLISH AS IT IS BROKEN 2.

Here's a question from a school student followed by the answer given by the panel of English experts from MOE.

The student wrote, "Do you know who the inventor of the camera is?" and his teacher changed that to "Do you know who is the inventor of the camera?"

MOE's panel of English specialists agree with the teacher.  Suspend your horror for the moment. A reader was uncomfortable with the answer and he wrote to the panel of experts to say that "Do you know who the inventor of the camera is?" is correct.

Like most people who speak good English but do not know the specific rules of grammar, the reader can tell that the experts are wrong but he doesn't know how to explain why they are wrong. 

Here's the panel's reply.

Any right-thinking person must know that the panel of "English experts" are spewing rubbish form their mouths.  What really annoys me is the fact that the experts must know that they are making up their own rule. Such a ludicrous rule cannot have come from any grammar book. I am tempted to question their honesty because in my book, anyone who makes up his own grammar rule to justify his erroneous statement must be deliberately deceptive. Here we have an honest reader who is saying that he "feels" the panel is wrong but he can't quite put a finger to it. The decent thing to do is to show the reader what grammar books say about such a sentence structure and if the books show that the experts are wrong (as any respectable grammar book most certainly will show that), they should admit they're wrong. Instead what the panel does is to make up their own rule. 

Any "natural" English speaker (and he does not have to be a native speaker) must know that the experts are wrong here. It's wrong to say "Do you know who is the inventor...?" The correct form is "Do you know who the inventor is?"

What MOE is saying is when you remove "Do you know", the clause that follows must be able to stand on its own and since you can't say "Who the inventor is?", the correct question must read "Do you know who is the inventor?" There is no such rule in grammar and I'm positive it was concocted by MOE's panel of experts. You only have to look up any grammar book and you will see that no such rule exists.

I am reluctant to make any reference to a grammar book because this is so elementary and I understand from my own children that this is something all primary school kids know. But there's no harm picking a few examples from a grammar book. I'm now seated in my study and right in front of me on my table are five grammar books. Quirk's A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language weighs a ton and I'm not going to break my arm for MOE since they don't even thank me for this. I'll refer to The Oxford Guide to English Grammar which is much smaller. You can use any grammar book you have. What we are looking for should appear in the part of the book on basic sentence structure.

The rule is very simple. Let me paraphrase it for ease of comprehension. The usual subject-auxiliary inversion that we see in questions does not apply in an indirect question where the question is put into a sub-clause beginning with a question word such as, in our case, "what". It's the same rule (ie non-inversion) if instead of a question word, we have "if" or "whether". The Oxford Guide gives the following examples:

We need to know what the rules are.
Could you tell me where Queen Street is, please?
Do you know when the train gets in?

can't help wondering what kind of teachers MOE produces if their English language experts don't even know such a basic grammatical rule. Don't forget that the student who asks the question wrote the correct sentence but was marked wrong by his teacher. But my children assure me that all primary school English teachers know this rule so at least I'm comforted that primary school English teachers aren't as clueless as MOE's panel of English language experts.

What MOE should do is to sack its entire panel of English language experts. If MOE needs any evidence to support their dismissal as just and lawful, simply adduce as evidence pages 78 and 79 of ENGLISH LANGUAGE AS IT IS BROKEN 2. If they can't remember the page number, any page will do and the first volume is just as bad as the second. That's how bad they both are.  Never before in my entire life have I seen a grammar book that is so disgracefully wrong on almost every page as these two books by MOE's experts.


In English As It Is Broken, the name and logo of the Ministry of Education appear clearly on the back cover. On the Acknowledgements page, gratitude is expressed to "the Ministry of Education for the panel of English Language specialists to answer and comment on the questions and queries sent in by the public, and the support given to the publication of this collection of language gems".

In English As It Is Broken 2, the Ministry of Education does not seem to feature at all. The English Language panel are individually named and a search on the internet seems to indicate that they are connected  to the Speak Good English Movement and I'm unable to see any link to the Ministry of Education.  Is it possible that the involvement of the Ministry of Education is confined to only the first volume and not the second? Since both books are disgracefully riddled with outrageous errors, any involvement in either book is still a huge embarrassment for the Ministry.


I have given other instances of MOE's shocking English errors and if you are interested, you can click on the following:
1. Have/has and other errors
2. Cooking Up Two Rules and 
3. Stick No Bills.
4. An Appeal to the Ministry of Education.

For a full list of grammar errors made by MOE, the Speak Good English Movement and other language teachers, please click here.

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