Friday, December 4, 2015

Tis the Season to be Gifting?

I received this email advertisement from Challenger this afternoon which annoyed me and I'm sure it will annoy you too. But is there a good reason for anyone to be unhappy over such a usage?

I first heard it used in church a long time ago and I was so upset with the speaker that I decided not to listen to the rest of his sermon. It's a fact that most English-speaking people do not like the word 'gift' used as a verb. But why do we get irritated when we read or hear it? It's not even a misuse that can cause confusion. Everyone knows perfectly well what it means.

First, there are exceptions to our irritation. When 'gift' is used as a participial adjective, nobody objects to it. It's definitely standard English and there is absolutely no dispute here.

Next, 'gift' was first used as a verb in the 16th century. So it has the backing of antiquity and as you know, in English, as in most languages, old usage is highly revered. Then why do we hate it so?

The problem with 'gift' is its use as a verb in the 16th century somehow did not progress unchecked to the present day among English users although Scottish writers continued to use it through the centuries. As with many discontinued usages, it re-emerged in the 20th century.  I can think of a few examples in English grammar that suffer the same fate - they were considered correct a few hundred years ago and then they underwent a period of disuse and suddenly they attempted to make a comeback in the 20th century only to be greeted by stern and uncompromising disapproval.

Today's grammarians are generally in agreement that 'gift' shouldn't be used as a verb. In 1996, Burchfield wrote that 'gift' as a verb 'is best avoided'. Butterfield, as late as June 2015, agrees that other words should be used in its place and the English language is not short of synonyms that can replace the offending word. The Guardian newspaper places a blanket ban on the word when used as a verb unless it's used in a sporting context which means an entirely different thing and for which there is no good substitute.

You may think this is no justification for people to hate a word but that's neither here nor there. The fact is people are irritated. Companies that want to advertise their products and clergymen who want their parishioners to listen to their sermons should bear this in mind. The same goes for job applicants. I'm sure you can tell who will get the job when one interviewee uses 'gift' as a verb while a rival interviewee simply says 'give'. I for one would very much doubt the ability of someone to perform any job well if he can't simply say 'give'.

As We Approach Christmas

As we observe this season of Advent that leads to the Holy Incarnation which by all accounts is the most momentous event in theology, I am reminded of how I felt as a boy about the birth of the God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. We can't forget this glorious birth of our Lord. Even before Advent, in late October, Christmas hymns were played in all shopping centres. Neglectful though we may be of our religious duties, the world will remind us of the birth of Jesus. As I hear the hymns played in secular establishments and particularly, as I hear the lyrics that include direct exhortations to 'Fall on your knees' and 'Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend', I cannot help but think that the biblical prophecy that 'every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord' has a ring of truth.

A nativity scene I inexpertly photographed in a church.

When I was very young, during Advent, I could always feel within me both a sense of the sacred and the expectant joy of Christmas. The joy of Christmas began to diminish little by little as I grew older and this is natural, as adults do not share the same exuberant joy that only children can experience, but the sense of the sacred or the divine remains fairly strong. And this is totally irrational, given my current stand on the supernatural.

When I first read in my youth the works of scholars who declared that the early stories of Jesus in the Holy Gospels were not authentic, I was devastated. I didn't want to believe what I read but my head told me that what the scholars said was perfectly rational. Despite my youth, I started to intellectually accept that what is ideal and what is desirable may not necessarily be true. But this is something many adults still cannot grasp even if they think they can. I have lost count of the number of times when grown men and women told me that Christianity had to be true because it was the most 'ideal, peaceful and loving religion' or some such words to the same effect. God must exist because otherwise there'd be no justice for good people can't be rewarded and the bad will remain unpunished. They are unable to accept that what is desirable need not be true.

Another church nativity scene. You have to bear with my poor photography.
I do not like to steal other people's photos.

But things got more depressing for me as I read more and more. I soon discovered that the Virgin Birth was the result of the alma-parthenos mistranslation. I wrote about this in greater detail a few years ago in this blog. Not having the 'wise men from Orient land' standing beside the infant Jesus in a lowly manger was bad enough. Not having the star from the East that is the subject of so many great hymns was unthinkable. But not having the Virgin Birth? That's heresy! Even today, whenever I recite the Creed, I will banish the truth from my mind and insist to myself that yes, Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. Rather than applying the head which is antithetical to faith, I will focus on the 'mechanics' of the ritual, for example, at which point of the Creed I have to bow and at which point I have to cross myself, and these are of course things I'm familiar with as a former altar boy.

There are two ways a person can read up more about his own religion. One way is to read only the Bible and the works of conservative or even fundamentalist scholars. If your diet consists entirely of these, chances are you will end up a conservative Christian with exclusivist views. But if you read widely and do not restrict yourself to only 'fervent Christian' writers or 'born-again Christian' writers, whatever term you choose to use, there is a high likelihood that layer after layer of what used to be viewed as conservative truths will be peeled off, exposing serious flaws in the religion. Just by way of an example, when I wanted to read more about the Canon of Scriptures, I chose three books by three scholars - Bruce Metzger, LM McDonald and FF Bruce. FF Bruce is conservative evangelical but the other two are not. As it turned out, FF Bruce alone would have been enough to overturn my hitherto conservative understanding of Scriptures because unlike his other books meant for the general public (eg The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? which answers the question with an emphatic 'YES'), his more scholastic books aren't that 'edifying'.

But the beauty of Christianity is it's open for a complete debate. There are critical scholars in renowned universities and they write authoritative books critical of biblical reliability and even the faith in general. These people are not threatened at all. There is no fatwa against them. They continue to teach and write books.

Immediately after the Islamic State's killing of the Jordanian pilot by burning him in a cage, many Middle Eastern countries including Jordan and Egypt tabled a list of actions and one of them was the possibility of reforming Islamic teachings. But I have not seen any follow-up from that. To reform Islamic teaching, you must allow for critical scholarship. And the scholars cannot be threatened with death and bombings. It will be great if Islam, like Christianity, has its critical scholars including scholars who are not even Muslims. But can critical scholars who criticise the Quran and the Hadiths or show them to be spurious (the way critical scholars treat the Bible and Church Traditions) be assured of their personal safety?

If it's any comfort to traditionalists, the unreliability of Scriptures need not necessarily affect faith itself. The same with many other aspects of religion if they are shown to be false. We may know the erroneous means by which the Virgin Birth came to be a doctrine of the Church but that doesn't mean anything to the faithful. We still recite the Creed and we will still hear the angel's proclamation of the Virgin Birth at Christmas whether in church or at the shopping centres and I know I will still be filled with wonder and awe at the glorious Incarnation when God took on flesh and became man through the Blessed Virgin. And as we look at the crib during its blessing, we (yes, even I) will be 'strengthened in faith and receive the fullness of life'.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

How to Excel in English at PSLE and Beyond - Rule 2, Example 2

Towards the end of How to Excel in English at PSLE and Beyond - Rule 2, Example 1, I mentioned a very simple sentence,  'Alan and George work / works as a team'. If I tell you that the Speak Good English Movement is unable to get this sentence right, you probably won't believe me.

Here is a shot I took of the page from the Speak Good English Movement's book aptly titled, English as it is Broken.

This is what the Speak Good English Movement teaches in its grammar book. To them, the plural verb work is not the only correct answer but the singular verb works 'is acceptable' as long as you look at both Alan and George as a team. Using the plural verb is not mandatory but it's only 'easier for your listeners'. And they liken 'Alan and George' to 'bread and butter' and 'fish and chips'! I dealt with this error at greater length in a previous blog post

I hope you can understand my despair when I try to correct the grammar of the Speak Good English Movement. It's so bad that I usually don't know where to begin.

If you see such a book in the hands of your child or if he or she has a teacher who is as ignorant of basic grammar as this grammar book is, there is only one course of action you should take. Discard the book and dismiss the teacher. If you don't, you can forget about your child scoring an A-star in English at the PSLE. He'll be lucky if he even passes the paper. This is a fundamental rule that you must observe without compromise.

The Speak Good English Movement is notorious for not understanding the rules on basic grammatical concord. They have made many other such mistakes in their book alone. I'm reminded of a blog post I once wrote that shows their startling lack of knowledge of this aspect of grammar

If I still haven't convinced you that the Speak Good English Movement's knowledge of English grammar is no greater than your knowledge of Inuit grammar and your children should never be allowed to look at their grammar book or visit their website, I'll drop one more bombshell - they can't even get simple tenses right. You are probably saying to yourself, 'Surely the Movement can't possibly be ignorant of simple tenses? That's as basic as you can get!' My reply to you is simply - read on.

1. The Speak Good English Movement and the present perfect tense.

In the same grammar book, there is a question asked by the public as to when you may use the following sentences:
1. I had written to my friend.
2. I have written to my friend.
Since I'm on the topic of the present perfect tense, I'll focus only on sentence No. 2. Here is the answer given in the grammar book:
Situation 2 is called the present perfect tense. It's used to describe events that occurred at a non-specific time in the past and continues into the present. For example, I have written my friend (in the past) a letter a day since she left (you are still writing even now).
They are asked how the sentence 'I have written to my friend' may be used and their reply is when the present perfect is used, you are still writing the letter even now! It's obvious they have no clue what the present perfect is all about and the example they give is not only totally different from the question asked, it's ungrammatical! It's obvious they have not the foggiest when sentence No. 2 should be used and so they changed the sample sentence drastically and in the process, their entire sentence is ungrammatical.

2. The Speak Good English Movement and the past perfect tense.

In the same grammar book, the Speak Good English Movement is asked whether a sentence containing the past perfect tense is used correctly.

I cannot believe anyone who has even a sketchy knowledge of English tenses would possibly write the answer above. That answer is enough to support my assertion that the Speak Good English Movement clearly does not know anything about the past perfect tense. I hope you can now see how justified I am when I say that the Speak Good English Movement has major problems with their tenses and they find it impossible to give simple examples of the use of the present perfect and the past perfect without making grammatical mistakes themselves.

Perhaps you think that the Movement has taken steps to brush up its grammar and it's not as bad as it used to be when the grammar book was written? Sadly, that's not the case. Just last year, the Movement posted on their website their List of Partner Programmes 2014.  This is what they wrote for one of their partners:

After all these years, they still don't know how to use the present perfect tense correctly.

I hope you are now convinced that you must write the Speak Good English Movement off if you are serious about helping your children do well in their exams. Let me be fair to the Speak Good English Movement. Its members are, I believe, wonderful people who genuinely want to help Singaporeans speak and write better English. But alas, they are not equal to the task. Their ignorance of basic English grammar is astounding. If my kids had in their earlier years been at all influenced by the books and website of the Movement, I very much doubt if they could have even come close to an A-star in their PSLE English. Parents must do all they can to ward off the pernicious influence that the Movement may have on their children.  Because the Speak Good English Movement has the support of the Ministry of Education, they cast a wide influence over all our schools. You don't have to be antagonistic. Just go through the books and stationery. While the Movement may not have much knowledge of English grammar, they are certainly quite resourceful in other ways and they may distribute colourful stickers and stationery which are perfectly fine except that if there are words on them, you should read through everything carefully and if there are grammatical errors, you should bring them to your children's attention. A pencil that has on it the sentence 'Alan and George works as a team' is still a good pencil. I've seen Japanese stationery with meaningless words. I once saw on a Japanese pencil box the words (and I kid you not) 'Smile are the heart of flower'. It was quite a good pencil box too, I'm sure. As long as your children think of the Speak Good English Movement as nothing more than a stationery provider  like a Japanese stationery manufacturer, they should be fine.

It is obscene to let the Movement continue to ruin the nation's command of the language. They may be a source of amusement to us but think of the harm they cause to students who may not know better and may actually defer to their opinion. There are clear instances of such harm done to students in their grammar book which I will talk about in my subsequent posts.

But right now, I have to proceed with How to Excel in English at PSLE and Beyond - Rule 3, Example 1 (under construction). In this post, I will explain what you should do when you encounter a seemingly convoluted grammar rule cited by a teacher or a book but you have this niggling suspicion that it's all bunkum. How can you tell that the rule is made up by the teacher and there really is no such rule in English grammar? For a change, I will leave the Movement's grammar book for the moment and pick an example from the English language blog of Ludwig Tan, the Vice-Dean of the School of Arts & Social Sciences at SIM University and, I believe, a consultant or former consultant to (surprise! surprise!) the Speak Good English Movement.

If you want a summary of all the articles I've written in this blog about the ridiculous language errors of the Speak Good English Movement and others, visit my one-page blog post that has the links to all these articles neatly categorised.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

How to Excel in English at PSLE and Beyond - Rule 2, Example 1

This How to Excel in English at PSLE and Beyond series will, I hope, provide an antidote to students against the pernicious effect of the outrageous errors of the Speak Good English Movement in Singapore.

RULE 2 - If an educator (whether he's a teacher or a writer of a grammar book or a member of Singapore's Speak Good English Movement) is unable to get the basics of grammar right, you know he's not fit to teach you grammar.

You will remember that in Rule 1, you are told to stay away from a grammar book written under the auspices of the Speak Good English Movement. I have warned you that you can neither depend on the book nor on the website of the Speak Good English Movement for any pointer on English grammar and usage.

The Movement is notorious for getting just about every aspect of the English language wrong, even if it's a simple point of grammar and they have a 50% chance of getting it right. I have shown this elsewhere in my previous blog (please go to the link below).

In this post, the example I will give is a common mistake - the confusion over when to use 'who' and 'whom'. It is forgivable if a student is confused over these two simple words but English teachers and certainly the Speak Good English Movement have no excuse to get it wrong especially when we are dealing with a situation where a sentence is given to them for their consideration and they have a long enough time to consider it before publishing it in a book that has undergone as many as 10 editions; this disgraceful book is a national bestseller and school children are all encouraged to buy it.

Here is an excerpt from the book I've warned you in Rule 1 about:

This is the shocking answer given in the Movement's grammar book. Whenever you see such a grave error in a language book and over such an elementary point of grammar too, you should forthwith dismiss the book.  I'm not demanding perfection. I would readily overlook such a mistake in an unprepared conversation or an impromptu speech but this is a book on grammar and usage and the person who answered this question (touted to be a 'language specialist' from the Ministry of Education) would have had ample time to think over the question carefully. 

But this is not the only time the Speak Good English Movement blunders on whether to use 'who' or 'whom'. They seem strangely plagued by the who/whom problem and many other language problems which you will see if you follow this series in my blog.

Here is a screen capture from the Speak Good English Movement's webpage of an excerpt of an official speech made by its Chairman, Goh Eck Kheng, at a Press Conference. This is quite obviously a prepared official speech. There are other errors in the speech but I'll single out only the 'who(m)' problem for the purpose of this article.

You will see above that I have underlined 'whom' in red where it is incorrectly used. I would not have bothered to bring this up if not for the fact that their grammar book has the same mistake. This proves my point that this simple 'who / whom' problem is one of the MANY problems in grammar that the Speak Good English finds insurmountably difficult.

It's not difficult to spot this error. You just have to apply your mind to the passage as you read it.  My advice to students and parents is simply to stay away from any book on English or any English teacher who can't get 'who' and 'whom' right. The Speak Good English Movement is notorious for their bad English. Their grammar book contains many other examples of similar errors which I have pointed out elsewhere in this blog. Consistent with their confusion over 'who' and 'whom' is the Movement's apparent inability to sort out what is called the grammatical case, ie when to use the correct pronoun eg 'he' or 'him', 'they' or 'them' and so on. There are quite a few examples of this problem in their book and I dealt with one such instance in my blog in this post.

To summarise, Rule 2 is to avoid those who can't even get their basic grammar right. I have shown you the example of this inexplicable confusion the Movement seems to have over when to use 'who' and 'whom'. Together with this problem is their confusion about when to use 'they' and 'them' which I won't enlarge on here. Click the above link if you are interested.

But I'm not done with Rule 2 yet. In my next post, I will show how bad the Movement really is. I promise you that you will hardly be able to believe what you will next see with your own eyes. Do you say, 'Alan and George work / works as a team'? Surely this is something even our kids at kindergarten are unlikely to get wrong. Can you guess what the grammar book of the Speak Good English Movement says the answer is? Be sure to read my next post and that will be:

How to Excel in English at PSLE and Beyond - Rule 2, Example 2

If you want a summary of all the articles I've written in this blog about the ridiculous language errors of the Speak Good English Movement, visit my one-page blog post that has the links to all these articles neatly categorised.

How to Excel in English at PSLE and Beyond - Rule 1

This How to Excell in English at PSLE and Beyond series will, I hope, provide an antidote to students against the pernicious effect of the outrageous errors of the Speak Good English Movement in Singapore.

RULE 1 - Stay away from the worst book on English grammar and usage that the world has ever seen. And it's not just one book. The work comes in two volumes. Here it is:

I've written in this blog about 60 articles against English as it is Broken Parts 1 & 2. Almost every page of both volumes contains a serious error and it may very well be an error even a ten-year-old child would not make. If you are interested in reading what I have written more fully about the many blunders of this work and other educators, please click here for a one-page user-friendly post with all the links to my articles on the subject.

Who is responsible for this disgraceful book? This is what the back cover of one volume proudly says:

The Speak Good English Movement is very much to blame. For the same reason, you must avoid their website on the English language like the plague. I have shown in my blog on numerous occasions the kind of mistakes they make in their website. These are basic errors that nobody who can even speak simple English should make.

In this series, I hope to explain how you may spot errors made by the likes of the Speak Good English Movement and the language specialists from the Ministry of Education who also had a part in writing the aptly named English as it is Broken. It's only when you've trained yourself to spot errors made by ignoramuses who are falsely touted as 'experts' that you are able to tell your kids if a teacher is right or wrong. And you won't do what Nadine Yap did - she posted what she thought was an error by her child's teacher on her Facebook wall which attracted hordes of morons from all over the world who knew nothing about grammar but were quite eager to crucify the teacher who happened to be correct. If you are interested in reading more about that shameful incident, I wrote 3 posts on this blog: Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

To summarise, Rule 1 is you must avoid rotten language books and websites especially when they are riddled with grave errors on every page. If you should see either volume or worse, both volumes in your child's room, remove them with a pair of tongs and discard them immediately. And don't visit the Speak Good English Movement's website unless you want to have a good laugh and you want to see the hilarious mistakes they make.

But how do you know when a book or a website is full of errors? That's what I will deal with in great detail in my subsequent posts. In How to Excel in English at PSLE and Beyond - Rule 2, I will explain how you can be alert to errors made by people who really don't know much about English grammar but for reasons I can't understand are eager to teach the entire nation what they have no clue of.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sex and the Church

What do you do when you receive your monthly church magazine? Most people just throw it away. But this month's magazine of my church has something that's really hilarious.

There's an article by a young father about how to be a good father. But the way he writes the article is truly hilarious.

This is what he writes which is sure to raise eyebrows. Mind you, this is in a church magazine.

This is what he says further:

And I don't think he's talking about sex therapists.  He goes on to give the following advice:

I find this particularly amusing because as far as I know, the Bible does not say a word about HOW God fathers anyone, not even his only begotten son, our Lord Jesus Christ. 

In the Gospel According to St Matthew, we are told that Mary was 'found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.' And the angel told Joseph that 'what is conceived in her (Mary) is from the Holy Spirit.'

I believe these vague and imprecise words are what led to some guesswork by the Mormon Church. From what I understand, the Mormons believe that there was some intimate union between God the Father and the Virgin Mary in order for Jesus to be conceived. But I'm not sure if this is nothing more than some scurrilous propaganda spread by mainstream Christians against Mormonism or if indeed the Mormons do advocate such a potentially blasphemous belief. If I'm mistaken, I apologise to all Mormons for this view which I must say is extremely common among most people. Just google it if you don't believe me.

But can the Mormons be blamed if indeed they hold such a view? I must confess that I have just deleted huge chunks of what I've written on this blog because I'm not sure if this subject is appropriate. Most of us have such a jaundiced view of sexual intercourse that we think anything that is even remotely connected to it must be filthy and sinful. But I'll heed the advice one of my readers gave me in an email to me. 'Please write more about language and less about religion'. And I think she's right. Nobody is offended when you criticise their language. Language is nothing more than mere words and a collection of noises whereas religion is potentially explosive. People get so worked up over it. Let's look at the language then and stay away from religion.

The writer of the article finally writes this:

This must be the first time I found an article in a church magazine so incredibly hilarious. I really think the church should employ a proofreader to go through all articles before distributing its monthly magazine to all parishioners.

The peculiarity of the language lies in the fact that while you can mother a child by looking after him and acting towards him like a mother, you can't say you are fathering a child by doing the same thing if you're a man. Fathering a child means an entirely different thing.

To father a child is, to use the delicate words of the OED, to 'procreate as a father.' But I prefer the more graphic description in the Cambridge Dictionary which simply says 'To father a child is to become the father of a child by making a woman pregnant.' What these dictionaries are trying to tell us and particularly, the writer of the article in the church magazine is there's a bit of the rumpy-pumpy in the whole idea, if you'll pardon my French. Don't talk loosely about fathering a child unless you really mean it. If what you mean is simply looking after a child, then say so.

As I've said earlier, you can talk about mothering a child if all you do is to act like a mother to the child and you can be as chaste as the Blessed Virgin herself. This meaning of 'mother' as a verb has been in use since the 19th century. But alas, there is no corresponding meaning for 'father' when used as a verb when all you want to say is that you are looking after a child like a father without any reference to 'making his mother pregnant', if I may borrow some of the words from the Cambridge Dictionary.

But there used to be a long time ago. From around the time of Chaucer and that's many hundred years ago, the word 'father' when used as a verb could also mean to act as a father to or to look after a child. But that meaning is now archaic and today, if you say someone fathers a child, it has only one unmistakeable meaning and it's not something you'd expect to read in a church magazine.

[EDITOR, 25 October 2015]: What I wrote above about the position of the Mormon Church is not incorrect at all. I've since looked up the internet on this matter and here's a good link that discusses the beliefs of the Mormon Church on the Incarnation of our Lord: CLICK HERE.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

What's in a Name?

In the biblical story of creation, we are told that the first task God gave Adam was to name everything that was around him. Adam was to come up with a word for everything. But are names or words all that important? Each name is just a representation of an object and even if you alter its name, the object remains the same. Or as Shakespeare elegantly puts it, "That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet."

But would it? After centuries of usage, words do carry connotations of their own. I won't forget a function I attended many years ago as a student. I was seated next to an Indian lady who introduced herself to me as Dr Nalla Tan. The name immediately rang a bell. I asked her if she was the Dr Nalla Tan who wrote books on puberty for prepubescent children. I told her that my father got me one of her books just as I was entering the cusp of puberty. She asked me which book of hers I had read for she had written several. Without a moment's hesitation, I replied, "Below the Navel". She gave me a look of annoyance and replied coldly, "It's BEYOND the Navel".

I remember blushing to the roots of my hair as I muttered my apology. There's very little one could say to an author whose respectable book for children to learn about their own bodies had, with a single word, been turned into something of the same genre as Harold Robbins' or Sydney Sheldon's raunchy novels. We didn't say much to each other after that and I'm not sure now whether it was because the function had started or the iciness with which she greeted my faux pas had chilled the milk of human kindness within her.

A single word could change the whole evening's atmosphere. But I really wasn't to blame. I wasn't being flippant. I had thought all along that the title of the book was Below the Navel. The book, as I recall, had drawings of the human anatomy and to my adolescent mind and I couldn't be faulted there, it was all about the region below the navel. It didn't once occur to me that the title of the book was really BEYOND the Navel.

As luck would have it, my knack of ruining an evening with a single word continued well into my adulthood. I was at a dinner with my wife and we were seated at a table consisting of visiting professors from the UK and a married couple of Chinese descent who were Singaporeans. The table conversation somehow drifted to stories of King James I of England and I regaled everyone at the table with an interesting story I had read about King James and a young man of athletic build. The Chinese woman found it hard to believe that James I was homosexual and she said, "Well, that's not in MY history book", to which I replied perhaps a little too quickly, "Your history book is probably expurgated".

It was only after the dinner that my wife told me that the woman was furious with me for having said that and she had kept silent for the remainder of the dinner while occasionally staring daggers at me and I had to be really blind not to have noticed it. And I really didn't notice it. My wife explained further that the woman probably misunderstood the word "expurgate" to mean something disparaging when that wasn't my intention. I had merely meant that a decent lady like her would probably not read books replete with accounts of the seedier side of life.

But a single word can sometimes be the cause of fun and laughter. Many years ago, I took an airport terminal train in the US with my wife and just before departure, there was a loud announcement: "This train will depart momentarily." My wife and I looked at each other and we burst into laughter. We were certain the train would depart for just a few seconds and return to where we started from. When I got home, I looked up the dictionary and to my surprise, I discovered that in the US, "momentarily" could also mean "in a moment" and not just "for a moment" which is the meaning of the word anywhere in the world outside America.

The world would be less complicated if Americans spoke English (and didn't invent their own language) and everyone understood what "expurgate" meant and writers of sex education books would just title their books BELOW the Navel as they should since, unless I'm very much mistaken about sex education books, that really is where their focus is.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Brouhaha in Singapore over Nothing Part 3

This is a continuation of the saga created by ignorant but hyperctitical netizens and if you want the full picture, please go to:

As it turns out, Nadine Yap now acknowledges that the teacher was right and she and her entire motley crew of loud-mouthed rabble were wrong. That is something I have been saying from the start and I'm glad I got someone close to the school to refer the teacher to my blog posts.

Suddenly, everyone is silent on her Facebook page. Gone are the ignoramuses who bandied the subjunctive about without fully understanding its significance. "A little learning is a dangerous thing", Pope tells us but nothing is more dangerous than a little learning in an inflated ego. I can't understand how anyone who is totally unfamiliar with English grammar can have the audacity to declare a sentence ungrammatical. How arrogant can such a person be? I would never presume to condemn a Pakistani teacher for ungrammatical Urdu. How can these people whose knowledge of English grammar is evidently no better than my knowledge of Urdu grammar arrogate to themselves the authority to pontificate on what is correct English and denounce a teacher when she has done no wrong? They were a loud, strident and violent mob and one of them even wrote, "Please shoot the teacher!!"

I am normally not bothered about ungrammatical English and it's not in my nature to go about telling others they are wrong. But the gross injustice of this cyberspace lynching compelled me to speak up for the teacher.

Now, all is well and everyone is agreed that the test question was not wrong and the teacher was correct and only those who commented in Nadine Yap's Facebook thread and criticised the teacher were mistaken. But not quite. Some of them still feel there has to be some error somewhere and they are loath to admit that Yap's daughter didn't answer the question correctly. One of them just posted her view that the question is wrong in grammar. I asked her to read both my two posts which I'm sure properly addressed the issue (see the links above).  And I asked her why she said the question was wrong. She didn't answer for some time and I thought that after reading my blog, she must have sheepishly realised her mistake and decided to lie low and being a peace-loving chap, I decided I should say nothing further.

So that you don't have to go back to my previous blog posts, here's the question that she says is ungrammatical:
If you are celebrating a family member's birthday, how do you plan to celebrate it?
Mind you, nobody is talking about the elegance of the sentence. Elegance is not the issue. The only question is whether it is grammatical.

A friend of mine who has been following this entire episode told me that she was certain the woman would say nothing further. But she came back with this post:

I'm grateful to this woman for allowing me a glimpse into how a person who has no knowledge of grammar thinks. Most of my friends do not like to expose their lack of knowledge and they get upset with me when I try to probe just to understand better the way they reason out a sentence that they claim to be ungrammatical. Most people would just become ominously silent when I ask them why they think something is wrong. But this woman openly tells me and I'm grateful to her for it.

She's doing what most people do when they have no knowledge of grammar.  When she mentions that a sentence is "weird", that tells me immediately that she's using her own limited exposure to the language to determine if a sentence is correct. This is of course highly unreliable given the fact that most people who are unacquainted with the rules of grammar probably are not au fait with a wide range of English literature and it's understandably disastrous if they draw their boundaries of what correct grammar should be according to their own inadequate knowledge. If a sentence structure is unusual to them, they are more likely to dismiss it as ungrammatical even if the sentence has the full backing of grammarians and the great works of literature.

That something is weird to her does not mean a thing to me. But thankfully, she goes on to explain why there's this tingling sensation she feels that makes her decide that a sentence is weird. This is what she says:
"If you are making lemonade" invites you to imagine a scenario where you are in the process of making lemonade.
I'm so delighted with this woman because for the first time since this episode started last week, I finally understand why some people object to that question. I need to know how they think. Sadly, some people mistakenly think that I'm testing them to see if they are fools when I ask them for their view on a point of grammar. Unfortunately, I used very strong language in this blog when I reviled the Speak Good English Movement for the countless errors that they've made. Click here for a summary of all the posts I've written on the Speak Good English Movement and others.

But while I may slam with harsh words a corporate entity such as the Speak Good English Movement, I do not, as a rule, criticise individuals for their language errors. I do not mind if someone speaks or writes ungrammatical English. I am a firm defender of Singlish and other variants of English. I am only harsh to people who wrongly criticise others and what Nadine Yap's friends did to the teacher is one example of the kind of outrage that will make my hackles rise.  Especially when the poor teacher was right and the mob wrong.

The error is obvious. This woman has a poor understanding of the progressive tense. When she sees it, she imagines that the act referred to is being done. As she puts it, "you are in the process of making lemonade". This simplistic understanding of hers is something taught in kindergarten picture books. You see the drawing of a boy walking with his school bag and the sentence at the bottom of the picture says "John is walking to school." He's in the process of walking. Voila! That's the progressive tense.

But the progressive tense in English has many other uses and one of them is the expression of futurity. I will just pick a simple example from one of my grammar books so there is no argument as to its correctness:
"Are you going to the meeting (tomorrow)?" 
I'm sure you can think of thousands of other examples and I don't think anyone who has the least knowledge of the English language will dispute this. Of course "Will you go to the meeting (tomorrow)?" also indicates futurity. And this is one mistake many people with a poor grasp of English grammar frequently make. As I have commented in my earlier posts, the people who castigated the teacher for not using the subjunctive mistakenly thought that since the subjunctive would have been quite correct, anything else had to be wrong. Hence, many of them mistakenly thought that an indicative would always be wrong where you could have a subjunctive and somehow in their ears, the subjunctive sounded better and perhaps the indicative sounded "weird".

What the woman says further is a little confusing. She gives an example of a sentence that is irrelevant because there is no sense of futurity in it. She gave another sentence she says is all right but she does not say why it is OK. That's the kind of reasoning you would expect of someone who's only guided by her own limited familiarity with the different sentence structures.

Now that it's clear that "If you are celebrating a family member's birthday..." can be a reference to the future, let's see whether it can be followed by a present tense in the next clause.

There are many examples that I can think of (and some are direct examples from established grammar books). Here's one:
If you are driving to London, which route do you take? 
You can also reverse the order of the clauses in this way:
Which route do you take if you are driving to London?
Both are perfectly right. Again, I don't think there's any English-speaking person who would object to the above sentences. Of course you can also say, "If you are driving to London, which route will you take?" They aren't mutually exclusive. The fact that one sentence is correct does not necessarily give it a monopoly over all other equally correct sentences. That is something people who do not have an understanding of English grammar must always bear in mind.

Here's another example where the "if" clause contains a futurity and the following clause carries a present tense:
If you won't arrive before six, I can't meet you.
Or you can also have:
If you aren't arriving before six, I can't meet you.
Here's another example:
If she won't be here before midnight, there's no need to rush.
If she isn't coming before midnight, there's no need to rush.
The beauty of the English language lies in the myriads of ways something can be expressed in different words, all of which are grammatical but each of which may carry a slightly different nuance. This beauty is fragile and can easily be destroyed by people who use the language indiscriminately and without a decent knowledge of grammar. A language is highly dependent on the people who use it. If the majority of speakers of a particular language speak an ungrammatical form of the language, over time, what is non-standard will become standard language. If you follow the progress of the English language, you will notice changes in grammar so that what used to be condemned as ungrammatical might in some instances be perfectly acceptable today. In many cases, the culprits are language users in America who tend to blunt the finer distinctions in usage.

But nothing is more insidious than those who do not know grammar but insist on telling others what they think is right and wrong based on their feelings of whether something sounds "weird". There are many ways you can construct a sentence. Unless a usage or sentence structure is specifically condemned by grammarians to be wrong, it's best not to make any pronouncement on grammar based solely on your own feelings. You should resist the temptation to make up your own grammar rules (which is what Singapore's Speak Good English has done many times). You are probably going to get them wrong and you will only disgrace yourself or worse, persecute an innocent teacher. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Brouhaha in Singapore over Nothing Part 2

In my previous post, I explained why those who commented on a mother's Facebook page were all wrong. The mother had posted her daughter's test paper in which her daughter's answer was corrected by the teacher. Everyone on her Facebook page vilified the teacher and insisted that her daughter was right. I have read my blog post again and as far as I can see, I have explained clearly and succinctly why they were all wrong. At least that's what I thought until some friends of mine who had read my blog post continued to hold the view that the teacher's question was ungrammatical. How could they do that?

I asked one of them. Apparently, my previous post was a little too long-winded. I had also made the assumption that people knew basic English grammar. Anyone whose knowledge of grammar is zilch (and that means everyone on that mother's Facebook page) would find what I had written tedious and incomprehensible. So my friends who had gone to my previous blog post did not read what I wrote. They saw the link to the newspaper article and read that instead.

If it's true that many people don't really follow what I wrote in my previous post, I will have to make amends here. I will have to explain so clearly that even a child of ten can follow easily and that is what I'm determined to do. And I will be brief. I understand from the comments I've received that most people do not like to read long articles. From now on, brevity will be second nature to me.

Let's look again at the test question.

This is the original test question the class was given:
If you are celebrating a family member's birthday, how do you plan to celebrate it?
The child answered as follows:
If I were to plan a birthday, I would plan it for my mother. Instead of a cake I would make cupcakes.
The teacher corrected the child's answer to read:
If I am to plan a birthday, I will plan it for my mother. Instead of getting a cake I will make cupcakes.
Let's also follow the reasoning, if any, of the people who commented on the mother's Facebook page:

They say the child's answer is grammatically sound. [As I stated in my earlier post, this is NOT the issue]. They praised the child's use of the subjunctive. Again, this is neither here nor there. We mustn't be muddle-headed. The issue is simply whether the teacher was wrong in correcting the child's answer. They then proceeded to say that the question given by the teacher is grammatically wrong. Here is where I take issue with them. I've read every single one of their comments just to understand how a large group of people could be afflicted by this collective insanity. Many of them did not say why they thought the question was wrong but some of them gave the reasoning that an "if" clause should always be followed by a subjunctive. For authority, many of them cited the "If I were a rich man" line in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof". To them, the question "If you are celebrating..." is erroneous because there is no subjunctive.

Any basic English grammar book will tell you that the "if" clause can exist without a subjunctive. In fact, the "if" clause frequently does not have the subjunctive. One reason why I had that "Oh my God!" tone of despair in my previous article is I just couldn't believe that any English-speaking person could be so incredibly wrong. If any of my children had displayed such a monstrous ignorance of basic English grammar in their earlier years, I believe I would have been quite stern with them. And the people who commented on the mother's Facebook page are presumably adults. In my book, any English-speaking adult has got to be a lunatic if he says that the "if" clause must have a subjunctive.

I will write down all the possible patterns that I can think of for sentences beginning with "if". I will strive to be comprehensive but bear with me if I inadvertently leave out a few. The most basic must be the simple present in both the conditional and matrix clauses. Then we have the present, or continuous, or perfective in the conditional clause and a modal in the matrix clause. Next, is the past in the conditional and past modal in the matrix. I bet most of my readers will probably say that for this pattern, a subjunctive is obligatory. But no, even for this pattern which traditionally has a subjunctive, I can think of a few exceptions and if you don't believe me, let's have a bet and the loser pays for dinner. Next is the past perfective in the conditional clause and past perfective modal (+continuous) in the matrix clause. I can also think of two other patterns that aren't so common but that grammarians say are perfectly grammatical and acceptable: a modal in both the conditional and the matrix clauses and a past progressive in the conditional clause and a past modal in the matrix.

Of the six patterns I have listed above, only one of them has to have a subjunctive or at least I can't think of an exception for it. There is one more pattern that usually carries a subjunctive in the clause but even then, it doesn't always have to. The other four patterns cannot have a subjunctive. Do you see now why I say you've got to have your head examined if you claim (as many do on that mother's Facebook wall) that the "if" clause must have a subjunctive and that the question given in the test paper is grammatically wrong because it lacks one?

Even if, like the Speak Good English Movement, you don't know a single grammar rule, you must at least know that "If you are celebrating a family member's birthday..." is different in meaning from "If you were celebrating a family member's birthday..." and that alone should stop you from declaring the first construction to be ungrammatical. It simply means a different thing. The child's answer is more suited to the second question which was not the question in the test. The teacher was merely guiding the child to answer only the question that she was asked. And this is one thing every child should be taught from an early age. I've seen uni students going off on a tangent when answering questions. They probably didn't have this teacher to point out their mistake to them in their formative years. What the teacher did is perfectly correct. But what the mother and her ignorant friends did is outrageous. In their utter ignorance of basic English grammar, they insisted the question "If you are celebrating..." was wrong because there was no subjunctive. They failed to realise that there are at least 6 patterns for the "if" clause as I have enumerated above. I can think of a few examples where the subjunctive is obligatory but the test question is not one of them. The teacher who set the test question was free to choose any one pattern that suited the meaning he or she intended.

And how can something as simple as this escape them?  The answer is obvious. They don't know even the most basic rules of grammar but they haven't got the decency to shut up. Birds know the rules of chirping and pigs know the grammar of oinking but alas, many human beings don't know the grammar of the language they use daily. But I have no quarrel with ignorant people. What I can't stand are people who despite their total ignorance of grammar insist on telling others they are wrong when they are not. This is precisely what the Speak Good English Movement is notorious for doing and I have in more than 50 articles in this blog alone exposed the flagrant errors made by the Movement.  If you would like to see a tidy one-page summary of all the articles I've written on this subject, please click here.

But what is even more alarming to me are those who quote that "If I were a rich man" line from "Fiddler on the Roof" as authority for their proposition that the "if" clause has to have a subjunctive, as if any departure from the lyrics of a musical would render a sentence ungrammatical.

I have no doubt that the recommended treatment for such people in Psychiatry 101 has to be nothing less than the combined restraints of both the straitjacket and the padded cell.

EDITOR'S NOTE [16 October 2015]:

Nadine Yap has apologised to the teacher and has admitted that she and the rabble on her Facebook page were wrong while the teacher was right. But one intrepid woman insisted that the test question was wrong and so as not to flood Nadine Yap's facebook page, I told the woman that I would respond to her comment on a further blog post. After I wrote it, I was told by friends that this is by far the most comprehensible post on the matter. Here it is:

Brouhaha in Singapore over Nothing Part 3

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Brouhaha in Singapore over Nothing

It's amazing how swiftly and firmly Singaporeans react. Even when they have no clue what they are talking about. A few days ago, a mother posted on her Facebook wall her daughter's answer script which was corrected by the English teacher and the post went viral. Many netizens slammed the teacher and a few have even made the suggestion that the Ministry of Education should take action against the teacher. You can read the report in the Straits Times.

If there is one thing I can't tolerate, it's the bullying of a primary school teacher when he or she has done nothing wrong. In this blog, I have excoriated the Speak Good English Movement, blasted MOE's self-proclaimed language experts, criticised a senior language teacher at Singapore's National Institute of Education who has written a book on Singlish and exposed the Vice-Dean of a local university for shocking and unpardonable errors in English but so far, the Ministry of Education has not even bothered to look into the matter. These people play a crucial role in the teaching of English in Singapore. Some of them teach our school teachers.  And the Speak Good English Movement arrogates to itself the role of the nation's language watchdog.  You can imagine how ruinous it can be to the standard of English in Singapore for these people to blunder over even basic grammar and as I have shown in numerous examples in this blog, they even go to the extent of butchering perfectly correct sentences and substituting their own erroneous ones. If you are interested in having a look at my user-friendly, one-page summary of all the blog posts I have written on their errors which I have conveniently and neatly categorised (and there are more than 50 such articles in this blog alone), please click here.

A few days ago, a mother posted on her Facebook wall a test question given to her daughter's class. Here's the question:
If you are celebrating a family member's birthday, how do you plan to celebrate it?
The child gave this answer:
If I were to plan a birthday, I would plan it for my mother. Instead of a cake I would make cupcakes.
The teacher corrected it to:
If I am to plan a birthday, I will plan it for my mother. Instead of getting a cake I will make cupcakes.
The mother's post was immediately followed by a flurry of angry comments from readers. Many of them went on the basis that the child was using the subjunctive and so she was grammatically correct. Others went further to say that the teacher's correction was ungrammatical. I was amazed at the surprising lack of knowledge of simple grammar among these people who saw fit to comment on the Facebook wall.

Here's one good example of how they reasoned:

Most of those who commented on the Facebook page say exactly the same thing. I was about to despair when I heard the first voice of reason:

I thought to myself, "Go on. Don't just stop there." But the first woman wasn't having any of this. She chimed in:

Again, Lydia got it right.

Jo should just stick to singing German arias. She would not know what a subjunctive is even if it were served to her on a platter with flickering neon lights all round. It's people like her who irritate me. They are loud but ignorant. She's just like the Speak Good English Movement in Singapore and if you follow the link I've given above, you will see more than 50 errors that they have made and these are errors that a child of ten who has a reasonably good education should not make.

Nadine Yap, the mother, then went off on a tangent.  This is what she wrote:

Her facebook page is a sad illustration of how clueless most English-speaking people are about grammar. Nadine Yap raised the totally irrelevant point that the test question did not specifically demand that the present tense be used. And she couldn't even see that she had totally missed the point.

For hypothetical conditions with present and future references, where the past appears in the conditional clause, the matrix clause must have a past modal. If it's a past perfective in the conditional clause, the modal in the matrix clause has to be a past perfective. That must be clear to any English-speaking person.

The correctness of Nadine's daughter's answer as far as grammar goes is NOT the issue. Most of the people who commented on her facebook page and slammed the poor teacher made this very mistake. This is how I think they processed the matter in their heads. They looked at the girl's answer and they looked at the teacher's corrected answer and they thought about the subjunctive which they have the skimpiest knowledge of. From their comments, it's clear that they are not sure when the subjunctive should be used or how to use it effectively. I'm pretty sure they don't know the different kinds of conditional clauses and when to use each of them. And yet they have the audacity to comment with seeming authority and to castigate the teacher.

What the teacher has done is to make minimal changes to what the child wrote in her answer. The teacher probably wanted to tell the child that she should preserve in her answer the tense used in the question. And that is what an exemplary teacher should do.

If the question is "If you are celebrating a family member's birthday, how do you plan to celebrate it?" the answer should not be in the subjunctive. It's not for the student to change the purport of the question. But it's perfectly all right for a child to make a mistake. It's the teacher's job to correct her. But it's not all right for the clueless public to go on a verbal rampage against the innocent teacher. What really puzzles me is the uncalled-for vitriol against the teacher from those who saw fit to comment on the Facebook thread.  How can they not know that there is a difference between "If you are celebrating ...." and "If you were celebrating...."? I have, just as an example, singled out our aria-singing woman who got herself all tied up in knots over when a subjunctive should be used but the rest are equally ignorant. Isn't this basic grammar? How can almost everyone on Nadine Yap's facebook page be so singularly illiterate? Many of them insisted that the question should have employed a subjunctive. How could they have been so united in their error? Is this the modern-day version of a mob attack? All it takes is for some hapless victim to be falsely accused of some crime and the whole village will descend on him and lynch him without a moment's thought.

When ignoramuses get together, they can create quite a din as they did in Nadine Yap's facebook thread. They can do a lot of harm to an innocent teacher who was just doing her job. I have been denouncing the Speak Good English Movement for a long time because I really believe they are not fit to say anything about the English language. They have shown themselves on countless occasions to be wrong on even elementary aspects of English grammar. I firmly believe that people should only talk about what they are familiar with. I would never make a comment on Urdu poetry because I know nothing about it. I really hope everyone will stop making comments on things they know nothing about. Common decency should tell us to keep our lips sealed.

It can be very traumatic for a primary school teacher to be at the receiving end of so much vitriolic diatribe. I hope he or she will just ignore these ignorant but loud critics.


On realising that not many people followed what I have written here, I took the liberty to write a second part to this article. You may access it here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Language, Truth and Hypocrisy

I have unintentionally pilfered two thirds of the title of AJ Ayer's remarkable book but I'll let the title remain because it suits the thrust of this post.

Just recently, I visited my mother and she was recounting stories after stories to me, many of which I paid hardly any attention to until she mentioned a recent "pot blessing" at her church. As a former altar boy and one who's thoroughly familiar with all the rituals of the Church, "pot blessing" rather floored me. What the devil is that? I'm familiar with the blessing of all kinds of inanimate objects from a large building to small items of jewellery but why on earth would a pot be blessed?

As it turns out, "pot blessing" is a common term in some church circles and it was first coined in the US, the land of fringe Christianity. The real word is "potluck" which also originates in the US. When my mother said she went to a pot blessing, it was only a potluck dinner she went to.

But why don't they say "potluck"? If you have moved in Christian circles for as long as I have, you will notice that there is a class of Christians who avoid all mention of the word "luck" or "fortune". To them, attributing anything to luck would be an affront to God who has a purpose for everything and controls everything. Whenever they encounter the word "luck", they change it immediately" to "bless". "Good luck!" becomes "God bless!" Although my mother is not that loony and she does say "Good luck" in her normal conversations, it's unfortunate that that monstrosity "pot-blessing" somehow crept into her vocabulary.

But this is nothing new. I have more than once been told that God was in charge of our destiny when I wished someone "Good luck", as if I didn't know that taking charge of people's destiny and, if I may add, often mucking it up, was a part of God's job description.

I'm familiar with the lengths we go to in order to whitewash our wrongs. When I was a boy, my friends and I would say we "disliked" someone when we meant we hated him. While our sentiments for the person were precisely what the word "hate" most accurately describes, we thought that by using a weaker word, we could free ourselves from the sin of hating another. Today, I see grown men and women doing the same thing I did as a kid and they seem blissfully oblivious to their blatant dishonesty.

The people who are quick to avoid the word "luck" seem quite at home with the days of the week. Pick any day. Tuesday is named after the god of battle Tiw in Norse mythology. This god is the same as Mars, the Roman god of war. "Wednesday" comes from Wodnesday and is named after the Germanic god Woden. Thursday is named after the god Thor (which most people today know best because of some Hollywood movie) and Friday after the Old English goddess Frigg, the equivalent of the Roman Venus. Saturday is of course named after the god Saturn. Even the Lord's day, Sunday is named after the sun which was once a god just as Monday is named after the moon which was once worshipped as a goddess.

Finally, the one word that takes the prize for hypocrisy must be "humble" used as a verb. In today's world, everyone, whether he's an Academy Award winner or a school prize recipient, no longer says he's proud to receive the award but rather, he's "humbled" by the award. But what I read in this month's church newsletter emphatically takes the cake. This is the title of the article:

It's an article written by a woman who attended a workshop to help those with financial difficulties. She was moved when she heard the stories of those who were struggling to make ends meet. But this is how she described her feelings:

I have removed anything that might even remotely reveal the identity of this good woman. The purpose of this blog post (like all my other posts) is not to single out any one specific person or to criticise him or her in any way. I'm more interested in the bigger linguistic picture but I have no choice but to take my examples from real publications.

What we have here is a woman who says she was humbled to hear of other people's financial challenges. Does she mean that she was moved? Or saddened? Or even that irritating word that is overused in Christian circles - edified? Perhaps she was edified by tales of how people in worse financial circumstances than she could continue to trust in the Lord? The English language is rich with a wealth of vocabulary that is capable of describing every single emotion that the human heart can feel. She was certainly not humbled and should not have used that word.

Why do people say they are humbled when they are clearly not? Now, I'm not talking about that good woman but I'm focusing my attention on the rest of the world including Oscar Prize winners. The reason is obvious. They are being hypocritical. It's the same old "I dislike him but I don't hate him" line that I used to mouth as a pious Christian boy who carried the silver candlestick to the altar every Sunday. It's the same "I hate the sin but not the sinner" line we hear from adult homophobes who love victimising the LGBT community and other defenceless minority groups but are too self-righteous to admit the truth.

When someone says, "I am humbled to receive this Award", what he really means is "I'm ecstatic to receive it but as a rank hypocrite, I want everyone to think of me as the paragon of humility even at this proud moment of my life."

Any living language is susceptible to change. As the world's most used language and one that has long transcended geographical boundaries to become the world's only neutral language that is not anchored to any one national culture, English undergoes such a rapid change that no book can definitively spell out all the current changes in the language. These changes which are affect not only grammar and syntax but also the meanings of words are usually caused by ignorance of the English-speaking public. The masses who are not so knowledgeable about the niceties and nuances attached to each word,  are apt to use a word in a way that is contrary to standard usage and over time, that incorrect usage becomes standard usage. I have no doubt that one day, the dictionaries will add a new definition to the word "humble" to allow for such a hypocritical use. And it will be a change brought about purely by our hypocrisy. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Women and Horses

There are many words in any language which are either openly sexist or sexist in their etymology. In a book I'm currently reading on the etymology of English words and the history behind them, a question arises as to whether the word "bridegroom" is sexist in meaning. The author discounts as "crazy" the explanations some have given for the origin of the word - one who grooms the bride or gives her the value of a horse.

Photo of horses I took a couple of months ago.

In the Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospel of St John, the word used for bridegroom is brydguma. We know what bryd or bride is but what on earth is guma? It's perhaps clearer when brydguma was spelt bredgome in 1340. From my own rather sketchy knowledge of Middle English poetry, gome means man. And it's not just gome. Any student of medieval literature will recall the headache we all had over the dozen or so words for just "man" or "knight" alone and they include, if my memory serves me, tulkeseggewight  and many more I can't now recall; the weird-sounding ones being from dialects such as the Lancastrian dialect of Middle English. But gome means man and even though I've not read medieval poetry for ages, I can still remember that much. To cut a long story short (and etymological stories can be pretty long), "bridegroom" simply means the bride's man as the author of the etymology book suggests. That's what he says but I hold an entirely different view and that's not the end of the story, as I will explain later.

The anti-sexist sentiment we see today has gone overboard with changes made to the hymns we all love. Let me give examples from famous Christmas carols. "Good Christian Men" has been changed in some hymnals to the effete sounding "Good Christian Friends". "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is avoided in some groups because they can't change the word without doing violence to the tune. In the Christmas hymn the whole world loves "Joy to the World", the line, "Let men their songs employ" is altered so that the word men is replaced with all. Just try singing that and you will see that it doesn't feel the same. And there are countless more hymns destroyed by extreme feminism. I've even heard of suggestions to change the name of the Holy Trinity to the blasphemous "Cloud, Rock and Holy Spirit" because "Father" and "Son" are of course too sexist for some people.

This is all quite unnecessary. Language, like religion and culture, is a good reflection of our human history. Of course any language that has a history exceeding a mere 50 years is bound to be sexist. The Chinese language is one of the oldest languages in the world and it has continued relatively unchanged for a few thousand years. The word for "woman" is written hieroglyphically as someone who kneels. The word for "good" is written to depict the kneeling woman carrying a child. And for "peace", we see that same kneeling woman caged in a house. But nobody has suggested that these ancient characters be changed to something that reflects our non-sexist worldview today.

When I was a boy, the sentence "Every child must drink his milk" was the only correct form because "every" is singular. As I grew older, I had to say "Every child must drink his or her milk" because how could we be so sexist as to exclude girls among the children? Soon people got tired of the additional words and it's now common to say "Every child must drink their milk", never mind the fact that "every" is singular. It's always wiser to sacrifice grammar for political correctness.

My point is you can't change everything. You've got to make up your own language from scratch if you really want to rid a language of all traces of sexism. Sure, bridegroom may simply mean a bride's man but what about the word "bride"? Etymologists will quickly point out that the Old English bryd comes from Old Frisian bred or breid, Old Saxon brud (Dutch bruid), Old High German brut and Old Norse bruthr. But what do these words actually mean? This is what the author of my etymology book does not explore.

The root word really means "one owned or purchased". Some etymologists believe it also has some link to cooking so I suppose a broader view would be a bride is someone who is owned or purchased to do the cooking. I'm tempted to think (although I'm sure I'm etymologically flawed) that the word "bride" has some link to the word "bridle". My Middle English vocabulary has shrunk considerably after years of laying off medieval literature but I do know that "bride" also meant "bridle" in Middle English and in the mid-19th century, "bride" carried the additional meaning of a bonnet-string and that was the time when all women wore bonnets. If I allow myself to be a little more imaginative and I think of the bonnet-string as a bridle (both were called "bride"), I suppose the idea of a bridegroom as one who bridles the bride as a groom does a horse isn't all that far-fetched.

If I were a woman, sexism in language would not bother me one bit. You can't change history and language is a reflection of what we were once like. If I were a woman, I would want a constant reminder of how far we have come from the days when women were bridled and in this respect, language serves as a most effective memorial of what it used to be and how much women have triumphed. Far from denigrating women, sexism in language is a woman's badge of victory.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

TAKE this!

Although I have written more than 50 or 60 articles in this blog alone about the outrageous language mistakes made by the Speak Good English Movement, I would be dishonest if I did not say that most Singaporeans aren't at all so clueless about English grammar and usage as the Movement is. If you would like to look at all these articles, please visit my user-friendly one-page list of all the links to these articles.

But there is a group of Singaporeans who are very much like the Speak Good English Movement - hypercritical but ignorant and stupid. These are the people who first told me years ago that cute really meant "ugly but adorable". I thought it was a joke when I first heard it but the person who told me that, a former colleague who normally spoke quite good English, assured me that this was the dictionary definition of the word. Of course I didn't believe her and I dismissed it as her own personal peculiarity until more and more people (all Singaporeans) told me precisely the same thing. It was like a form of national insanity and I have always been trying to figure out the origin of such a quirky definition. Somebody must have started it just to see how many people would be taken in and how far this obviously wrong definition of such a simple word would travel.

When I was in uni, one of my fellow students told me that take meaning "eat" was Singlish and not Standard English as in "He took his lunch at MacDonald's". Naturally, I didn't believe him. I'm positive I've seen this usage countless times in the works of literary giants such as Jane Austen who, I'm sure, had never been anywhere near Singapore in order to be influenced by Singlish. Right at this moment, I'm in the midst of reading a novel by Sebastian Faulks and I have noted at least two separate occasions when take is used to mean simply "eat".

Knowing how rotten the Speak Good English Movement really is, I was not surprised to see this on their website:

Take has a wide range of meanings and I last counted more than 60 different definitions in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary alone. The title of this post makes use of yet another meaning of "take" and despite its brevity, it can quite effectively conjure up a picture of me in a boxing ring socking the Speak Good English Movement across the face and saying "Take this!"

One other definition in the dictionary is "eat or drink". Here's one example given in the Shorter Oxford:
I take my breakfast at George's Cafe. 
You can't find a better example to prove beyond the smallest doubt that the Speak Good English Movement is once again totally wrong. It's fortunate that the dictionary gave an example that is word-for-word what the Movement says is wrong. From my wide experience with some of these educators in Singapore, I know that if I had picked an example such as "She took tea in the garden" (which I believe comes from one of Jane Austen's novels), they might very well respond that you could say "take tea" but not "take breakfast". The example given in the Shorter Oxford should end all argument on this subject. The Speak Good English Movement is just blatantly wrong, as always.

But I don't want to just stop there. I'm interested in how it all started. Who first came up with this lunatic suggestion that you could not use "take" in this way? One doesn't need much sleuthing skill for that. Ever since I first noted how incredibly ignorant of the English grammar the Speak Good English Movement was some time last year, I've been following them on their website and I've also read their outrageously erroneous grammar book (in two volumes). Those who have been following my blog should know this because I have written extensively on their errors (see the link above). And I think I have discovered the source of this ridiculous notion that take when used to mean "eat" is non-standard Singlish.

When I first noticed that Ludwig Tan, a consultant to the Speak Good English Movement, showed an inordinate respect for an unknown teacher in Singapore's National Institute of Education (NIE) called Adam Brown, I took it upon myself to see what it was that this person had written that appeared to have swept Ludwig Tan off his feet. Adam Brown's book which is published in Singapore (of course) is called Singapore English in a Nutshell. If you have read the articles in this blog in which I slammed Ludwig Tan for his astonishing errors in the English language, you will remember that on a couple of occasions I took a swipe at Adam Brown whom Ludwig Tan cited as an authority. Click here for an example. You will recall Ludwig Tan's irritatingly obtuse failure to understand that you can't pit an NIE teacher against the Oxford English Dictionary.

If you are interested in having a look at Ludwig Tan's laughable blunders that I have blogged about, go to Section 1B of my List of Grammar Terrorists.

I looked into Adam Brown's book and sure enough, I finally stumbled upon the source of this error in Singapore. Adam Brown, in his book, explains that take may be used in 3 different situations:

1. "When the thing to be swallowed is unpleasant, such as medicine..."

2. "When the enquiry is about a particular method of eating or drinking: Do you take sugar in your coffee?

3. "When take means 'have delivered'."

I have said many times before that a good teacher is one who does not make up his own grammar rules or word definitions but we see time and again educators in Singapore doing precisely that. What Brown doesn't know is the above are simply 3 of the 60 or so definitions of the word take. Let's get one thing clear: this teacher in Singapore's National Institute of Education is not an authority on the English language. When you need to look up a point of grammar, you consult Burchfield or Quirk or Greenbaum and there are many others too but you do not consult a Mr Brown from Singapore's NIE. Why then do Singapore's educators including the Speak Good English Movement depend so much on this teacher in Singapore who is an unknown in the world of English grammar? And he is absolutely wrong too. We do not know what peculiar regional variant of the English language he is influenced by but we do know he is wrong and has been shown to be wrong in a couple of my previous blog posts.

Can you imagine what it's like when Brown, a teacher in our National Institute of Education, makes an error in English and it doesn't matter if it's a point of grammar or the definition of a word and its usage? He teaches our teachers who in turn teach our students. If Ludwig Tan is representative of all our English language teachers and Tan has been shown to tenaciously refer his readers to Brown's flawed book despite the clear words of the Oxford English Dictionary to the contrary, do you not think Singapore's language teachers would treat Brown with the same respect, misplaced though that may be?  Do you see now why some of these hilarious quirky mistakes can be perpetuated as a Singaporean peculiarity? All it takes is one self-assured but ignorant teacher with an air of overweening authority to teach something wrong and many language teachers in Singapore will just assume he's right and repeat his mistake to generations of students.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Glamour without Grammar

I find it impossible to read the fashion magazine Singapore Tatler. It's the same with all "glamour" magazines that tell fashionistas what clothes are currently in fashion and what watches should be seen on their wrists. In this month's front cover of the Singapore Tatler alone, I see Cartier, Rolex and Patek Philippe all jostling for space to advertise their watches. It's ludicrous that fashion-conscious people have to be told what they should wear or be seen in as if they are not allowed the liberty to live as free people. If you are a free man or woman and do not bother about other people's tastes (because fashion is essentially the dictates of a small group of women and men, the latter usually androgynous looking), you won't be able to find a single article in a fashion magazine that is worth reading. 

I sometimes receive these magazines by post, unsolicited of course. Whenever I have a copy, I would always read the editorial. The editorial in a local magazine is an excellent gauge of the general standard of English of an industry or of the country itself. That is precisely what I did when I received this month's issue of the Singapore Tatler. This is the sentence that stood out like a sore thumb.

If this were a Facebook entry or a blog post or an email, it wouldn't mean anything because one can easily slip up. Missing an article is probably the commonest mistake made when you're typing and you don't like to read through what you have written. But this is the editorial of a leading magazine of glamour and style. In the glittering world of glamour and high fashion, editorials in magazines are read and re-read many times over to weed out the occasional slip. If there is still a grammatical error or a spelling mistake in the published editorial, you can be sure that such an error could not have been the result of an inadvertent slip of the pen but a fundamental flaw of the Chief Editor who would not have realised it was an error even if you had served it to her on a dish with flickering neon lights all round.

In this blog, I have on numerous occasions dealt with this problem of the missing article, a feature common in Singapore English. You can read about those who can't cope with the simple article and they range from the writer of a school anthem to the "language experts" from Singapore's Speak Good English Movement. In another blog post, I wrote about the other side of the coin to this problem. In this instance, the writer of another school anthem added an article when she shouldn't have. It doesn't really matter whether the error is in wrongly leaving out the article or in having one when there should be none. It's still a confusion many in Singapore have over the use of the article.

How could anyone possibly trip up over something as simple as the article? Of all the parts of speech in the English language, the article must be the easiest to deal with. 

Many years ago, a ridiculous song was played in MRT stations every time a train approached the platform. The song was played only for a short while before someone sensibly put a stop to it.  Every time a train was coming, the song would go "Train is coming, train is coming". I was standing on a platform waiting for a train one day when I heard the song for the first time. Then suddenly, like Buddha seated under a bo tree at the moment of enlightenment, I understood it all. You see, people who have a problem with the article are doing a spontaneous translation from their mother tongue to the English language every time they construct a sentence in English. In many eastern languages such as Mandarin and Malay, there is no article. "Train is coming" is a direct translation from Mandarin "火车来了" and from Malay "Keretapi tiba".

But the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) has more serious problems to deal with at the moment than to bother about the article and I can perfectly understand that.

But what I really can't understand is how a magazine that takes great pride in setting the trend of what is glamorous in Singapore can possibly be tied up in knots over something as elementary in the English language as the article. And it's not a page written by an Italian fashion designer or a French catwalk model for whom a deliberate error in a language as unfashionable as English might very well increase her credibility as a designer or model. It's the editorial of the Singapore Tatler written by the Chief Editor herself, one Jane Ngiam. And it's an important issue  too - an SG 50 issue to celebrate Singapore's 50th National Day.

You will recall that I wrote a post some time ago about the editorial of another fashion magazine called HIGH. I do not know if the magazine is still in circulation but I don't think that magazine ranks anywhere near the Singapore Tatler which, I'm sure, prides itself as belonging to quite a different category altogether.

I have always remarked that the English language is an amazing language and like Santa's bag, there is always something for everyone. If Ms Ngiam had a personal aversion to the definite article, instead of writing "ground up", she could have written "ground zero" or simply "from scratch" both of which do not require the article.