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


  1. If you are going to explain this brouhaha plainly, you will need to use fewer words. :)

    1. Thanks for the comment. I did try to be brief but as I wrote this post, I felt I had to explain how so many people could make such a dumb mistake. If you go to Nadine Yap's Facebook post you will be amazed to see people from all over the world being swept by this incredible tsunami of illiteracy and with one voice they condemned the test question as ungrammatical. How could a bunch of ignoramuses be so bold and brazen as to make pronouncements on a subject they obviously haven't the foggiest about? And they castigated the teacher too! It's the insanity of the whole scene that excited my interest in the first place. The more comments I read on Yap's Facebook page, the more intriguing the whole thing became to me. If I may borrow Alice's words, it just got curiouser and curiouser. Naturally, something as unusual as this cannot be dismissed with just a few words.

      But I'm sure at least in this Part 2, I have made everything much clearer since I have listed all the possible patterns for the "if" clause. I honestly would never have dreamt that I'd have to do this for the benefit of English-speaking adults who included many from English-speaking countries such as Britain, the US and Australia. I'm sure for some of these people, English must be the only language they can speak and yet they can't even tell if a simple English sentence is grammatical. I shudder to think what the insides of their heads look like.