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. 

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