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.