Monday, February 3, 2014

Why Singapore's Speak Good English Movement Should be Scrapped

If you don't know much about grammar and you are given the task of telling Singaporeans what common grammatical errors they make and how they should correct them, what would you do? The obvious thing to is to pick a sentence that is so obviously wrong that no Singaporean would construct in the first place and tear it apart and publicise that all over Singapore.  That's precisely what the Speak Good English Movement folks have done in this advertisement that has almost become an icon of the Movement and appears even in wikipedia.

I find such an advertisement which appeared in some food centre in Singapore incredibly insulting to Singaporeans.  I do not know a single Singaporean who says "Borrow me $5 can?"  I've spoken to many Singaporeans and none of them knows of anyone who speaks that way.  Such an ad ridicules Singaporeans most unfairly because that is not how the average English-speaking Singaporean speaks.  Absolutely nobody speaks this way.  If a Singaporean is totally uneducated (and there aren't many of them here), he probably speaks his own language, ie one of the Chinese dialects, Malay or Tamil.  Posting such an ad in a public place would only give non-Singaporeans the false impression that Singaporeans really make such shocking mistakes in their normal speech.

In a previous blog post, I mentioned how the then chairman of the Speak Good English Movement Committee made the ludicrous suggestion that Singaporeans could not pronounce the word "cement".  I showed in that post that the problem lay solely with him and those of his ilk - people who are pretentious and who try so hard to sound un-Singaporean that they mispronounce words that even uneducated Singaporeans have no trouble with.

What good is the Speak Good English Movement to Singaporeans?  What purpose does it serve?  I will argue here that apart from insulting Singaporeans and giving foreigners the false notion that we in Singapore are unable to communicate in English (which may very well ruin investment opportunities here), those in the Movement who profess to teach us good English are not equipped to handle even the rudiments of English grammar.  In that earlier post of mine, I demonstrated how they got everything they said about grammar wrong.  If you have not read that post, I urge you to click here.

Although I laughingly concluded in that earlier post of mine that the Speak Good English Movement had a statistical 100% failure in English grammar, I felt that wasn't entirely fair even though they made two points on grammar and they got both of them wrong.  As any statistician knows, you need a larger sample size for an accurate statistical reading and being a decent and fair-minded chap, I decided to look for something more that the Movement has written.  I went to their website and this was what I got.

The website has been under maintenance for a long time.  But I just discovered today that the National Library has archived all the past articles of the Speak Good English Movement.  Each article usually consists of only a few sentences and follows a simple format. It begins with a question on grammar which is followed immediately by an answer.  I have looked at random at three of their articles and I will deal with all three here.

Let's begin with


If you don't trust my screen-capture and want to read the original article as archived by the National Library, click on this link.

It began with a promising start.  It's correct to say that "none" can be followed by either a singular or plural verb.  If the writer had ended there, it would have been perfectly correct.  But something possessed him and he went on his own foray into a territory which is obviously alien to him.  He went on to suggest that you follow the proximity rule and he concludes by saying that "none of the mixture" should be followed by a singular verb while "none of the ingredients" a plural verb.

That is incorrect.  Strict grammar rules require "none" to be followed by a singular verb and so both examples given should have a singular verb. There is no dispute among grammarians here. As long as you use a singular verb, you are correct. However, the question arises as to whether you can say "None of the ingredients are left". Most grammarians today agree that the plural verb is all right. Some, for example, Quirk, et al in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language while acknowledging that opinion is divided on the plural verb, are prepared to say  that it is "generally accepted even in formal usage." However, The Oxford Guide to English Grammar insists that "the plural verb is more informal". Hence the "common guideline" given by the Speak Good English Movement is nonsense.


Here's the direct link to the article in the National Library's archives

What I would really like to know is what dictionary the writer of this article used that describes an "outpatient" as "someone who receives treatment in an hospital...". I have looked into my many dictionaries and I even borrowed my grandfather's old dictionary that was published in the early 20th century but I don't see "an hospital" anywhere.

There was a time when respectable writers wrote "an historian" and "an hotel" but never "an hospital". There is evidence of the continued use of "an" immediately preceding words such as "hotel", "habitual" and "historic" but NEVER "hospital". There is a reason for this but I won't spend my time on this inconsequential bit of history.

The reason why I bring this up is it will explain the hideous error in the last sentence: " 'inpatient' is someone who stays in hospitals..."

As I have mentioned before, I love to get into the psychology of the individual.  I want to know why the writer wrote "hospitals", ie in the plural.  I'm sure the writer did not mean that you could only be an inpatient if you stayed in more than one hospital.

This is my conjecture but I'm sure I'm right.  The writer must have consulted a truly weird dictionary that says "an hospital".  When he wanted to write " inpatient is someone who stays in a hospital", he balked at the thought that he'd be using a different article from that used in his wacko dictionary. But he couldn't get himself to write "an hospital" for it really does sound daft.  He racks his brains for a solution but alas, he's rather deficient in imagination.  In desperation, he turned "hospital" to "hospitals" which happily obviates the need for a pesky article.  Poor chap.  He should have known that "hospital", like "school", is one of those self-confident nouns that can exist quite contentedly without an article.  It would have been perfectly all right if he had written, "...someone who stays in hospital...".


For the link to the original article in the National Library's archives, click here.

"People use these utterances when they are not sure of the truth of their statements."  As I have said many times before, I don't care what word a person uses as long as his meaning is clear.  But when someone from the Speak Good English Movement superciliously arrogates to himself the authority to tell the rest of us what grammar is all about, I do care a lot if he does not use the correct term. "Utterance" has different shades of meaning and can be used in different senses.  It can mean the action of uttering something.  It can also mean a person's power of speech or his manner of speaking.  It also means that which is uttered, a spoken or (occasionally) written statement or an articulated sound. In Linguistics, it has the special meaning of an uninterrupted chain of words spoken by someone eg "the utterances of children".  But an "utterance" is not the best word a grammarian or a language teacher would use to signify what the writer intended.

Now, I'll go into the psychology behind the error.  For the sentence "John was here, wasn't he?" why on earth did the writer refer to "wasn't he?" as an "utterance"?  Again, I can only hazard a guess but I'm positive I'm right.  In grammar, "wasn't he?" in such a sentence is called a question tag. As I have shown in this post and my earlier blog post about the Speak Good English Movement, I think I can't be faulted if I say that a working knowledge of grammatical terms is, in my view, not one of their strong points. Now put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn't know it's called a question tag. How do you refer to it then? That's the infuriating thing about grammar. If you don't know its many terms, it's very hard for you to tell others they are wrong and telling others they are wrong is just what these people love to do.  So, what should our grammarian wannabe do?  What other words can he use that mean a question tag? The next best term which isn't as precise as a question tag is of course a clause. Now, our poor grammarian wannabe is confused. Is it a phrase or a clause? In grammar, they have different meanings. After puzzling over this for a couple of minutes, our grammarian wannabe probably decided to chuck it all and just settle for "utterance" which is of course not just too general and ugly but amusingly so.

It was only after I had examined these three short articles by the Speak Good English Movement that I realized that they had compiled all these appalling articles into not just one but two books aptly called English as it is Broken and English as it is Broken Part 2.

I asked myself if my readers might think I was a little unfair to the Movement if I didn't make at least a reference to one of the books and so I did a search in google for one of these books to see if perhaps they might have taken greater care with their book than they did with their website. Everyone knows how slovenly we all are on the internet but a book is different. You have to proofread it countless times before it is finally sent for publication. So I searched on google and sure enough, I found a few pages of the book in google.  I screen-saved the first little paragraph and I told myself that this would be the final bit of write-up I would bother to read.  If there was nothing wrong with that excerpt, I would post it here and tell the world that the Speak Good English Movement isn't always wrong on grammar.

Here is what I screen captured from the book as displayed on google books.

There you have it. Need I say more? Who or whom? They have a 50% chance of getting it right and of course they got it wrong. There is no dispute among grammarians here.  The answer given by the Speak Good English Movement is usually cited in grammar books when they want to give an example of an ungrammatical sentence. It is placed directly under the section "Whom used ungrammatically for who" in Burchfield's edition of Fowler.  Robert Allen has a similar section on this and attributes the error to hypercorrection. The reason for the error is immaterial. The fact is this book which purports to teach Singaporeans good English actually perpetuates incorrect grammar and I don't think I'm unkind if I hold the Speak Good English Movement fully accountable for this.

In my previous blog post, I declared that the Speak Good English Movement had a 100% failure. But it was a two out of two failure and the sample size was too small.  I have now examined four other write-ups (including a book they published) and again every one of them has some disgraceful error.

I have nothing against the Speak Good English Movement and I'm sure the many people who are involved in this campaign and who have worked tirelessly are lovely people with the best of intentions.  But alas, they are not qualified to talk about grammar.  If indeed the people of Singapore have such a poor command of the English language that we need a movement to address our shortcomings, the people who have made all these embarrassing errors on grammar and usage are not the ones who should teach us English grammar.  Isn't it painfully obvious that they know far less than the rest of us?  The moment they attempt to delve into the intricacies of English grammar they embarrass themselves by displaying their ignorance and worse, they teach unsuspecting Singaporeans to make ridiculous grammatical errors they normally wouldn't make.  From what I have seen, the only time the Movement gets anything right is when they cook up fanciful errors that nobody ever makes such as what we have seen on that large and expensive poster in food centres which they proclaim loudly to be incorrect. Not even a fool needs to be told that "Borrow me $5 can?" is wrong.  If that's all they can do and they blunder in all aspects of grammar, shouldn't we just disband the committee and scrap the entire movement?

For a complete list of all the links to my blog posts on the many other errors made by the Speak Good English Movement, please click here.

Recent related post on grammar: Why Jon Gingerich's grammar checklist is wrong


  1. good job there. well written article

    1. Thanks very much! If you want to read other posts on the subject of language and grammar, you may click on "Language" which appears in the right column of this page under "Labels" just below the visitor counter.