Friday, January 16, 2015

Chan Chun Sing's error

Chan Chun Sing has just written to the Huffington Post in response to two articles by Chee Soon Juan that they published recently. Now, I must confess that I have not read the letter carefully and I'm really not interested in whether it's an accurate description of Chee Soon Juan and I'm not here to affirm what he said in the letter or to deny it. I'm not interested in politics but I'm interested in something quite different. How effectively has Chan Chun Sing conveyed his message in his letter to Huffington Post?

Anyone who has lived long enough in Singapore must know that there is, from the Government, a strong palpable opposition to the use of Singapore English or Singlish. The Speak Good English Movement was formed to stamp out Singlish and to get Singaporeans to speak Standard English. But as I have shown in more than 50 articles in this blog, the Speak Good English Movement is not even able to handle basic English grammar and I have shown them to be totally ill-equipped to be Singapore's language watchdog. If you are interested in the numerous errors made by the Speak Good English Movement and their shocking linguistic deficiencies, please see this list in my blog with links to all my posts on the subject.

As I have said, my interest lies not in politics and I merely gave a cursory glance at Chan Chun Sing's letter. If you want to read the letter in full, you may do so on Channel News Asia's website. But what I wanted to see was how Chan ended his letter. The ending is usually where a good writer delivers his punchline.  I actually read the last two sentences several times. The meaning is not as clear as Chan would like to think. Here is the excerpt from Chan's letter which I've taken from Channel News Asia:

This is the kind of mistake that we parents usually warn our kids not to make when writing an essay. I must say I was surprised to see it in a formal letter from a Cabinet Minister to a foreign press. When I first read it last night about an hour after midnight, I could not understand what he meant. I attributed my lack of comprehension to the hour of the night and my sleepiness. I read it a few times. Chan wants to encapsulate Dr Chee's problem in his closing paragraph. But his meaning is murky. In my drowsy state, I asked myself who had been heard by whom but I was left in the dark.

In English grammar, this style of writing is called an ellipsis. The word comes from Latin which means "to leave out". But one must always be careful when one leaves out words which can be inferred from the preceding sentence. You must preserve the structure, for if you don't, you will get absurdities such as the one we see in Chan's letter.

People who are not comfortable with the English language should be careful when their sentences get a bit convoluted and unwieldy. They should read them through to make sure that everything is in its proper order. Chan's sentence, "Dr Chee's problem is not that he has not been heard by Singaporeans", may be simple enough for most of us but for those who are struggling with the language, it can present some thorny problems.

First, it contains a double negative. Next, it's in the passive voice.  That sentence is then followed by the elliptical "His problem is that they have".  It's good to note a simple rule. The elliptical sentence or clause must follow the structure of the preceding sentence or clause. "They" clearly refers to Singaporeans. If you say "His problem is that they have", it must mean that "His problem is that they have BEEN HEARD BY...".  I did toy in that witching hour of the night with the possibility that Chan might have meant "His problem is that they have been heard by Dr Chee himself, ie that they don't want to elect him". But that doesn't sound right at all.

If we must retain the "they" in the second sentence, what Chan presumably means is this:
Dr Chee's problem is not that he has not been heard by Singaporeans. His problem is they have heard him.
You will notice you can't keep the ellipsis if you want to switch from the passive voice to the active voice. But for an effective punchline, the elliptical form is much better and so you have to preserve the passive voice:
Dr Chee's problem is not that he has not been heard by Singaporeans. His problem is he has.  


  1. The problem with CCS is that he does not realize that he's no longer (sorry, double negatives here) dealing with semi-literate soldiers and Hokkien peng who have to obey unquestionably by keechiu-ing.

  2. I love how you dissected the grammar. I read CCS's letter fast (also at the murky hour of 1am) and stumbled on that last line but didn't really think about it after I got his intended meaning. Thank you for straightening my brain out.