Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why I exposed Ludwig Tan's errors

Some of you may wonder why I exposed Ludwig Tan's errors on grammar. Let's get one thing straight. I have nothing against him and I've not even met him. All that I have done is to examine in the following four of my blog articles what he has written on grammar and usage:

Consultant to the Speak Good English Movement writes.
Speak Good English Movement's Consultant Strikes Again
What's wrong with Singapore's educators?
What's wrong with Singapore's educators? Part 2

That is all. I do not specifically pick on him. But as the Vice-Dean of the Singapore Institute of Management University (sometimes lovingly called UniSIM) and a Consultant to the Speak Good English Movement, Ludwig Tan writes with unflinching authority and openly criticises what he assumes to be the grammatical errors of others, notably, Singapore's journalists. But when he is himself mistaken and these journalists absolutely correct, surely you will agree with me that someone should point out his errors? That's precisely what I seek to do in my blog articles. My point is if you are unsure of English grammar and usage, you should not go round telling others they are wrong when they are not.

What I have written of Ludwig Tan in my above posts is just what I would have written of him even if he were my brother. But of course if I were Ludwig Tan's brother, I would steer clear of any remark about his curious German-Hokkien name because as his brother, I myself would probably go by some such name and the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Tan might very well be my lot.

I hope it's clear to everyone that I have nothing personal against Ludwig Tan who's probably a nice guy. But when I look at the articles on grammar that he writes and the egregious errors he makes, it would be wrong of me not to say something in my own blog about them.

Further, when I correct Ludwig Tan's errors in grammar and usage, I'm not merely addressing his errors alone. Rather, I'm addressing a larger problem than merely the mistakes of one language teacher. I'm addressing a wider pool of Singapore's language teachers and if MOE's language experts and the Speak Good English Movement can be taken to be representative of English teachers in Singapore generally, we truly have a gigantic problem to deal with. At the bottom of this post is a link to a long list of my previous blog posts on the errors made by MOE's language experts, the Speak Good English Movement and Singapore's language educators. Ludwig Tan is not the only language educator in Singapore who shows ignorance in the subject he writes on. Neither is he the only educator in Singapore to make up his own grammar rules which are of course flawed and unacceptable. And he isn't the only Singaporean educator who is reluctant to admit his errors even when he has been shown to be wrong.

I will now pick an article I've just discovered from Ludwig Tan's blog on English grammar that shows quite clearly this strange tendency of Singapore's language educators to invent their own grammar rules which are of course incorrect. And we aren't even dealing with the rocket science of English grammar. It's only the past perfect tense which is an area that any child in Singapore picks up in the first few years of his elementary education.

This is what Ludwig says:

Before we analyse Ludwig Tan's reasoning (which I assure you is like going on a fantasy ride on Disneyland's Space Mountain - so please read on; I promise to make it as easy as possible to follow), let's be clear of what he says here in no uncertain terms: "I have no doubt that (b) is definitely wrong."

He is saying that this sentence is DEFINITELY WRONG:
Before I left the room, I had switched off the lights.
We should only focus on one thing - why he declares that sentence wrong. Before that let's look at how the past perfect can be properly used, according to Ludwig Tan. He gives his example and explains why:

What Ludwig Tan is saying is Singaporeans (and it's always Singaporeans that these educators love to blast) are mistaken in assuming that switched off the lights qualify as an earlier past event or T3 (as grammarians love to term it). But why should it not be T3? Here's Ludwig Tan's explanation:

What Ludwig Tan is saying is shocking. He is inventing a new grammar rule that is completely at odds with the entire history of the English language from the time of Beowulf and before to the present. If you have not yet fallen off your chair after reading what he writes above, you probably haven't been paying much attention but I'll simplify it for you with examples.

For ease of comprehension, I will use the formula used by most grammarians ie T1 to represent the present, T2 the past and T3 an earlier past,

Ludwig Tan is saying that the subordinate clause left the room  cannot be looked upon as T2 for the purpose of deciding whether the main clause expresses T3 in order for the past perfect to be used. And why not? His answer is terse: It's a subordinate clause. What Ludwig Tan has done is he's invented a whole new grammar rule that is not found in the English language. This is precisely what I have shown in my previous blog posts to be just what Singapore's educators (including MOE's language specialists, the Speak Good English Movement and other Singapore teachers) seem so fond of doing and they irritate me no end - they invent erroneous grammar rules just to justify their own quirky non-standard variant of the English language. If you are interested, I've included below a link to a list of all my earlier posts on this subject.

Ludwig Tan gives an example of how he feels the past perfect can be properly used: 
He popped by, but I had already left the room.
Here, T2 and T3 are in two main clauses and his newly concocted grammar rule is observed.

There are a billion examples I can show where T2 appears in a subordinate clause and the past perfect is legitimately used in the main clause to indicate T3.  You will find examples galore in ANY grammar book. Why Ludwig Tan did not bother to look up a grammar book before making up his own rule is something I can't comment on.

Here are a few examples stated to be standard English usage which I lift from the Oxford Guide to English Grammar:
By midnight they had come to an agreement.
Her boyfriend Max had gone on holiday with his brother the day before.
When the boss arrived, the meeting had begun.
And I even bothered to take down from my shelf (and almost sprained my shoulder because of Ludwig Tan!!!) the huge book that most grammarians accept as the final authority on English grammar, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language and I found a sentence which is stated to be correct usage and is on all fours with the sentence that Ludwig Tan says he has no doubt is "definitely wrong":
I had seen him before he saw me.
As I was about to conclude this post, I happened to see in the COMMENTS section of Ludwig Tan's blog an interesting comment made by one of his readers who appears to understand grammar far better than Ludwig Tan himself. This is what the astute reader writes:

The reader asks a very important question that Ludwig Tan simply ignores. "Is there a grammar textbook you can refer to?" He's saying that if you come up with such a ridiculous suggestion that you can't use the past perfect because T2 is contained in a subordinate clause or an adverbial clause, the least you should do is to show us a grammar book to support your argument.

But of course Ludwig Tan is unable to cite any grammar book in support since he made up the rule himself. And it's outrageously wrong.  Here is Ludwig's reply:

Ludwig's reply is a careful balance between backtracking a little and not wanting to lose face by admitting he's wrong. I suppose it must be very embarrassing for an educator to have to admit that he made up a non-existent grammar rule that is in fact wildly erroneous. If you want to learn how to strike such a balance when you've made a terrible mistake but you still don't want to openly admit that you've cooked up a ridiculous and erroneous grammar rule, learn from Ludwig.

First he states that a subordinate clause cannot stand on its own. That's of course something everyone knows. What we want to know is why that should debar us from using the past perfect. This time, he doesn't repeat his earlier remark that a past perfect would be wrong. Notice, earlier he said (and I highlighted in blue above) "I have no doubt that (b) is definitely wrong".  When you have NO DOUBT that (b) is DEFINITELY WRONG, you cannot now say that depending on the context, (b) can be right which is what he is saying now in reply to the reader's comment. The fact is all grammar books give ample examples that (b) is right. It's also a fact that Ludwig's reasoning that you can't have a past perfect when T2 is expressed in a subordinate clause is laughably wrong.

Making up their own grammar rules is nothing new for Singapore's language educators.  Here is a list of my earlier blog posts that deal with Singapore's language teachers, MOE's language experts and experts from the Speak Good English Movement making up their own rules: 

1.  Still remain is tautologous.

2.  Proximity rule trumps strict grammar.  

3.  A possessive cannot follow an article.

4.  "Do you know who the inventor of the camera is?" is incorrect.  

5.  "Alan and George WORKS as a team" is acceptable.

6.   Catenatives take on a new meaning.

7.   " hot as they" is incorrect because "they" is a subject and the sentence must have an object.

8.   The tense remains the same in reported speech as in direct speech.

9.   "One of the boys who like to play soccer is John" is wrong.

10.  "Pressurize" refers only to atmospheric pressure. But when a reader disputes what the "expert" says, the expert repeats what the reader says but in a manner that seems like he wasn't wrong in the first place.  It reminds me of the Blackadder comedy. When Blackadder says something stupid and Baldrick suggests something else that's brilliant, he will tell Baldrick to shut up but he will use Baldrick's suggestion as if it were his own brainchild. 

11.  "Premises" is plural but becomes singular when a reader insists it's singular.  The expert begins his reply to the reader with "Aren't you a sharp one!"  He gives the impression that he deliberately wrote something incorrect and it was picked up by the sharp reader. He doesn't realize that the reader is wrong.

Why do Singapore's educators love to make up their own rules? My guess is some of them probably don't know how to look up a grammar book or they are too lazy to do so. Not everyone knows how to use a grammar book. Some people don't even know where to begin. But this is no excuse for Singapore's educators who really should know better.  

For the second part of this article, please see Why I Exposed Ludwig Tan's Errors Part 2.

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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What's wrong with Singapore's educators? Part 2

In the first part of this article, I gave by way of an example the language blunders of Ludwig Tan, the Vice-Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences in the Singapore Institute of Management University (SIM). I want to make it very clear that I do not know Ludwig personally and I'm not in the education business and I'm not writing for my own personal profit. The only time I've ever known of a "Ludwig" was when I did my ABRSM exams a long time ago but that Ludwig lived a couple of centuries ago. I only homed in on Ludwig van Tan's language errors because

1.  he's an educator and a consultant to the Speak Good English Movement and he has no excuse to be so flawed in his knowledge of the English language.

2.  he's telling others they are wrong in grammar and usage when in fact they are not. He is the one who is wrong.

I hope my readers can see the huge difference. I'm not picking on Ludwig Tan's errors made in the course of his speech or writing. I'm highlighting the errors he makes when he attempts to correct others when they are perfectly right and only he is wrong.

After I wrote the first part of this article, I stumbled upon more mistakes by Ludwig Tan and I now understand the reason for his errors. As my readers ought to know by now, I like to go into, if I may borrow the words of Hercule Poirot, the psychology behind the error. What is the cause for Ludwig Tan's errors? It's important to identify the cause of his errors because I think I'm not incorrect if I say that this may very well be the root of all the problems we see in many of our English language teachers in Singapore.

What I have discovered is in fact the Holy Grail that educators have been looking for - why Singapore's English language teachers are generally not so competent as their counterparts in the other disciplines such as Mathematics and the Sciences.  I will first list the reasons, after which I will give the example of Ludwig Tan's blog post which will beautifully illustrate each item on my list.

Here are the basic problems faced by many of Singapore's English language educators:

1.  A lack of knowledge of English grammar and usage.
2.  A tendency to brand as "non-standard Singapore English" a usage that they are not so familiar with.
3.  A strange desire to depend on unreliable books or teachers and a tendency to ignore renowned grammarians and lexicographers.
4.  A failure to understand fully an entry in a dictionary or a grammar book. You may find this hard to believe but I will show you a shocking example further in this article.
5.  A reluctance to accept that they are wrong even when they are clearly shown to be wrong.

I will now pick an example of Ludwig Tan's erroneous blog post which has recently come to my attention. If you read carefully, you will see all the above 5 elements in just this one example. But please understand that this is not just Tan's failing. From my careful observation, I'm inclined to say that this is the problem of many of Singapore's English language educators.

In this blog post, Ludwig Tan first posts a newspaper article about the banning of a boyband by a girls' school. The newspaper reports that the principal of the school took the decision to "disallow" a visit by the boyband.  

Ludwig Tan then posts an article from the Singapore Sunday Times that talks about pets being "disallowed" in food outlets.  

He then explains why he thinks "disallow" used in such a context is non-standard Singapore English. This is what he says:

For authority, he again cites this Adam Brown who, as we have seen in the earlier part of this article, is a teacher in Singapore's National Institute of Education.

Let's take a look at what Adam Brown says in his book that Ludwig Tan seems to find so authoritative.

There we have it. Ludwig Tan almost repeated verbatim what Adam Brown said in his book. As I have pointed out in part 1 of this article, when Ludwig Tan refers his readers to a "discussion" and cites Adam Brown's book, a reference to the book reveals that there is no discussion. It's simply what this mere teacher in Singapore's National Institute of Education has to say.

That Ludwig Tan is simply gushing with admiration for this unknown Adam Brown is clear from what he says in the comments section.  Here we see one of his poor blog readers striking out a perfectly good English word from her vocabulary simply because she made the mistake of reading Ludwig Tan's blog and believing everything he says. It makes me upset whenever I see an educator making pronouncements when he really should keep his trap shut over something he has no knowledge of. It annoys me to see students lapping up (and why shouldn't they?) everything these clueless educators say.

It's interesting to note that Ludwig Tan aptly calls himself "the Grammar Terrorist" on his blog. When I consider the way he treats English grammar, I can't think of a better name for him.

After reading the fulsome praises from Ludwig's devoted admirers, I was delighted to see a comment made by an anonymous reader of his blog that shows the first glimmer of good sense.

Anonymous is absolutely right. Like most English words, "disallow" has many meanings, some of which are obsolete today but broadly speaking there are three common meanings which are currently in use. One of them, and by far, the most commonly used, is the OED definition Anonymous gives in his comment.

Ludwig Tan's comment in reply to Anonymous is totally unacceptable. If I ran a language school and one of my teachers were to give me such a reply, I would summarily dismiss him from my school without so much as a farewell party.

Any grammarian will tell you that the OED is the final authority on the English language.  It's the only truly comprehensive dictionary in the entire English-speaking world. Grammarians and good teachers always refer to the OED when there is a dispute on English usage. And when someone quotes the OED, nobody who has any knowledge of the English language would dare to pit a Longman or a Macmillan or a Cobuild or the Cambridge Dictionary to counter the OED definition. This is because none of the lexicographers of all these dictionaries would dare to dispute the final authority of the OED. None of them would dream of saying that their dictionary is superior to the 20-volume OED.

When I saw Ludwig Tan's comment above, I asked myself repeatedly why the Vice-Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences in the Singapore Institute of Management University (SIM) could be so terribly wrong. It is clear from his answer that he does not even know how to use the OED. I really hope he is reading this and will gain some basic knowledge on how to use a dictionary.

The OED gives 6 definitions for the word "disallow".  Two of the definitions are obsolete. In the OED, obsolete words are marked with a cross before the definition or "obs" is placed at the end of the definition. Apart from the two obsolete definitions, a third definition is obsolete when used intransitively.  I don't want to bore my readers with the details but let's just ignore these three definitions from the OED that are clearly stated to be obsolete. That leaves us with three remaining definitions for "disallow" which are currently in use.

The OED is famous for giving quotations from famous writers and others on how a particular word is used which gives it its particular meaning. To Ludwig Tan, if the most recent quotation in the OED dates back to 1854, that meaning must now be obsolete. You can't get more wrong than that. I cannot believe that any English teacher, far less the Vice-Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences of a university, can make such a ridiculously erroneous statement.

Let's look at the three definitions of "disallow" that the OED gives which are currently in use. Since the most recent quotation given in the OED is of importance to Ludwig Tan, I will give the most recent quotation for each definition.

1.   To refuse to accept as reasonable, true, or valid; to refuse to admit (intellectually).

Most recent quotation given in OED: 1841-8: "By disallowing any human element..we are deprived at once of much feeling of sympathy with the writers of the Bible."

2.   To refuse to acknowledge or grant (some claim, right, or privilege), or to accede to (some request or suggestion); to reject.

Most recent quotation given in OED: 1841: "Your claim upon her hand is already disallowed."

3.   To refuse to allow or permit; to forbid the use of, to prohibit. [Note: this is the definition that Ludwig Tan claims is obsolete.]

Most recent quotation given in OED: 1887: "A law of the trade which disallowed an employer to take more than one apprentice at a time."
As you can see, if we are to use Ludwig Tan's test of what makes a word obsolete, the definition which he claims is either obsolete or is non-standard Singapore English is in fact the only definition that has the most recent quotation. The other two definitions have quotations that predate 1887. But of course Ludwig is dead wrong. That's not the way to use a dictionary. A word is obsolete when it's marked by the lexicographers to be obsolete. You don't look at the examples given and the dates of these examples in order to determine which word is obsolete. This is the most ludicrous suggestion I have ever come across.

Once the OED decides on this, that's the end of the matter for any grammarian or competent teacher of the English language. "Disallow" does mean "prohibit or refuse to allow" and it's not the non-standard Singlish that Ludwig Tan and Adam Brown claim it is. But I know my readers will feel better if they can see instances of "disallow" being used to mean "prohibit" in respectable publications.

Yes, "disallow" is widely used all over the world to mean "prohibit". A good example is this report in the BBC.

Or if you are wondering if it's similarly used in America, I hope this article from the Houston Chronicle will set your mind at rest that such usage is not Singlish.

I really hope Gillian will read this blog post of mine and will continue to use "disallow" liberally. What Ludwig Tan does in his ignorance is very pernicious. It stifles creativity and it makes the student of English unsure of himself and reluctant to use words freely. The beauty of English lies in its huge vocabulary and much of that beauty is lost if Singaporeans avoid using some of these words simply because they are wrongly taught that they should not use them. What Ludwig Tan is doing in his blog is not uncommon. A lot of Singapore's educators do this. They are uncertain of what standard English is and they depend on other equally clueless teachers. They use a learner's dictionary as if it's the most comprehensive dictionary and when a word or a definition is not in such a dictionary, they make a pronouncement that such a word is non-standard Singapore English.  This is what I've been opposing relentlessly in my blog. Anyone who has a heart for education and creativity in Singapore must oppose these people who are ruining the standard of English in Singapore. And they are paid by the Ministry of Education to do this?

Friday, October 17, 2014

What's wrong with Singapore's educators?

Singapore has the finest education system in the world and its students have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of winning the world's top academic awards such as the various International Olympiad competitions.  But there is one huge shortcoming that has yet to be addressed - our educators' shocking deficiencies particularly in language teaching.

I have written many posts in this blog about the many outrageous mistakes made by the Speak Good English Movement including the two books that were published in their name. Click here for a list of the posts and their links.

I don't really care if the average person or the man on the Changi omnibus makes dozens of grammatical mistakes in his speech and writing. It is enough for me if what a person says or writes is reasonably comprehensible to me or to the person with whom he is communicating. To demand more from the average speaker or writer is to be superciliously pedantic. But what I cannot tolerate are people who make it a point to correct someone of a perceived grammatical error especially when that person has made no error and it's the eager fault-finder who is wrong. It's much more unbearable if, as it frequently happens, the captious but erroneous critic happens to be an educator in Singapore.

Not long ago, I wrote two posts in this blog to expose the blunders of the Consultant to the Speak Good English Movement who is also the Vice-Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences in the Singapore Institute of Management University (SIM) and who goes by the intriguing German-Hokkien name of Ludwig Tan:

1.  Consultant to the Speak Good English Movement Writes

In this post, I explain that Ludwig Tan is wrong to say that Seow Tein Hee, a Straits Times journalist wrote non-standard Singlish when in fact all grammar books support Seow's use of "will" in that context.

2.  Speak Good English Movement's Consultant Strikes Again

In this post, I explain that Ludwig Tan is again wrong to say that "departmental store" is non-standard Singlish. The Oxford English Dictionary and all its smaller cousins including the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary make it clear that departmental store = department store.

A friend of mine (who is himself a full Professor in NUS) reminded me that Ludwig Tan was a graduate of a polytechnic in Singapore who did a BA in Lancaster University and his only claim on Cambridge is a PhD thesis on some aspects of colloquial Singlish (and "surely the Brits don't know Singlish any better?") but I don't think it's right to pooh-pooh Ludwig Tan's academic record in this way. Even if I am to concede that Ludwig Tan's credentials aren't really a glorious example of scholastic brilliance and SIM isn't anywhere near NUS and can hardly be looked upon as the kind of great academic institution that top students would aspire to enrol in, it doesn't alter one bit the thrust of my argument. Whether it's only SIM or Kandang Kerbau Secondary School, I would expect its teachers and certainly the Vice Dean of SIM's School of Arts and Social Sciences to be more careful in checking a simple dictionary even if they may not have sufficient knowledge of the subject.

What I find irritating about some Singaporean educators is their tendency to insist that perfectly grammatical sentences are non-standard Singlish. They seem to be on the alert for any usage that they are not familiar with and they will denounce it as Singlish. Usually, their lack of familiarity with the usage has more to do with their own deficiency in reading than the rarity of such a usage.

I don't know if you have noticed this but I have seen many times in Singapore's language teachers particularly those in our primary and secondary schools this strange inability to do something simple such as look up a point of grammar in a grammar book. But grammar books can be confusing for those who are not familiar with them and so I can readily pardon a primary school teacher who is unable to do that. What I find totally unacceptable is their inexplicable incompetence when it comes to doing a simple thing like looking up a word in the dictionary. Surely even a fool can do that?

Shortly after I posted this in my blog, Ludwig Tan amended his post on "departmental store" by adding a final paragraph to his post.

He wrote, "For a discussion of departmental store in Singapore English, see Adam Brown's Singapore English in a Nutshell..."  I looked up the book to see the "discussion" and this is all it says:

A SgE [Singapore English] departmental store is a StdE [Standard English] department store.
That's all it says and not a syllable more. Who, you might ask, is Adam Brown? The back cover of the book says "Adam Brown is an Associate Professor in the School of Arts of the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University." What illustrious credentials has this Adam Brown got that would make his assertion trump the clear words of the OED?  Nothing. Any grammarian or language teacher must know that the OED or the Oxford English Dictionary is the final arbiter of the language. The words of a teacher from Singapore's National Institute of Education (even though he presumably teaches all our budding language teachers) mean nothing if the distinguished lexicographers of the OED say something totally different.  When you are told that the OED accepts a word as a standard English word, you do not obstinately insist that a teacher from Singapore's National Institute of Education says otherwise and so the OED must be mistaken. It's just so wrong that even a child must know this.
After posting my two articles on Ludwig Tan's errors, I thought I would have nothing further to say about him. But just last night, I stumbled upon yet another bloomer from him.

If there is one thing I really can't tolerate, it's this tendency of Singapore's educators to be on a constant lookout for errors even when there are none. Of course "naivety" is a more common word but even if you don't read much and would baulk at "naiveness", surely the decent thing to do before you pontificate from your high pulpit that "there is no such word as naiveness",  is to look up a reliable dictionary?

This is what Ludwig Tan fails to do. He looks up the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary and because the word "naiveness" does not appear in it, he decides that there is no such word in the English language. To me this is unspeakably irresponsible. Any teacher of the English language must know that the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary is a dictionary that is tailored to meet the needs of learners of the English language. The website of Oxford University Press, the publishers of this dictionary, makes no secret of the purpose of the dictionary. This is what it says:

It's to help learners who need to expand their vocabulary to 7500 words. It's not a comprehensive dictionary that TEACHERS of the English language should be using. The dictionary has no entries for words that are rare or not so commonly used. It's a limited dictionary designed for students to improve their limited vocabulary. It's certainly not a dictionary that you should use to declare to the world that there is no such word as "naiveness". If Ludwig Tan had merely used the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, he would have known that there is an entry for "naiveness" in the dictionary. Of course "naiveness" is more rarely used but it is an English word accepted by the OED.

Singapore's educators must really pull up their socks. We do so well in all the other academic disciplines. It's high time we did something about our English language teaching.