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.


  1. Well said The Rambler! Comprehensively agreed upon.
    Thank you so much!

  2. You are about as arrogant as the asses you were ranting about. So whats your point? You can be loud because you think you are correct?

    1. Thanks for your comment. Nobody who knows even the most basic grammar of English will ever doubt that I'm correct. I'm convinced that anyone who thinks the test question is wrong has got to be insane, stupid of ignorant if I may borrow Richard Dawkins' 3 categories although he applied them to quite a different situation altogether.

      If you look at Nadine Yap's Facebook page now, you will see that she has apologised to the teacher and she has somehow agreed that the teacher made no mistake. All her idiotic friends who blasted the teacher are now silent.

      Your last line implies that you are not really sure that I'm correct. Perhaps you might want to read Part 2 of this article in which I gave 6 patterns for the "if" clause and I explained everything in greater detail. Click the link at the end of this article - just above the comments section.

    2. I'm sorry I forgot to answer your other question. What's my point? My point is simple. People who are ignorant of English grammar (and that should cover everyone who commented on Nadine Yap's Facebook page and let's not forget that disgraceful Speak Good English Movement too) should never say others are wrong in grammar. This is basic decency. Criticising someone for bad grammar when you don't know a thing about grammar must be quite an arrogant thing to do. Just think of how insane it would be if you corrected an Inuit for speaking ungrammatical Inuit when you didn't know Inuit grammar.

      I'm also opposed to the kind of cyberspace lynching that Nadine Yap's friends carried out against the innocent teacher.Don't forget that these bullies were totally wrong while the victim was correct. I have screensaved all the horrible things they said of the teacher. Someone on Nadine Yap's Facebook page even said "Please shoot the teacher". It was a clear case of cyberspace lynching and Yap had full control of her Facebook page. Now Yap talks about the importance of being gracious on her Facebook post about this incident. She and her lynch mob friends were wrong. It's easy to talk about graciousness after you have done the lynching only to discover the victim was right and you were wrong.

      That's my point.