Saturday, January 16, 2016

Why Singapore's language 'experts' make up their own erroneous grammar rules.

It may seem strange to anyone who has read any of the 60 blog posts I have published in this blog alone about the ludicrous language errors made by the language consultants and 'experts' from the Speak Good English Movement that the Movement has not been disbanded by the Ministry of Education. I'm equally puzzled. Some of the mistakes involve grammatical rules that are so elementary that only illiterates can possibly stumble over them. If you want to take a look at these blog posts, please go to my one-page list that has links to all the posts.

I have criticised the Speak Good English Movement for making up their own grammatical rules that contradict the rules of Standard English. In one blog post of mine, I showed incontrovertible proof that Ludwig Tan, Vice-Dean (School of Arts & Social Sciences) in SIM University who is also a committee member of the Speak Good English Movement, went so far as to cook up his own grammatical rule which I demonstrated to be not just erroneous but laughably so. Click on the link to see that blogpost for yourself or if it's more convenient for you, you may just click HERE.

I may joke about the committee of the Speak Good English Movement and I may say funny things about them in jest but I have always maintained that they are good people who happen not to be equipped or qualified to occupy the post of the nation's language watchdog. I have also argued elsewhere in this blog that there is no need for such a watchdog but that's a different matter altogether and I won't talk about that here.

Since I have always declared that these are good people whose only fault is a complete ignorance of English grammar (you don't have to be good at grammar to be a good person), what then is the reason for them to make up non-existent grammar rules? Am I implying that they are dishonest? If they are dishonest, how can they be good people?

I really believe they are honest people and have always said so even when I exposed those instances when they made up non-existent grammar rules. But within me, I have always struggled with this apparent blot on their escutcheon. How can I reconcile the act of cooking up non-existent grammar rules with a person's integrity and honesty? Surely a person who makes up a non-existent rule is dishonest?

I'm happy to say that I went through a Eureka moment last night and like Buddha under the Bo tree just at the point when he achieved enlightenment (whatever that means), I instantly knew that I was all along right in defending the goodness and honesty of the Speak Good English Movement. They may be illiterate and they may be ignorant but they are good and honest people.

You see, last night, as I was reading in bed and was about to fall asleep, something in the book jumped up at me. I was reading Michael Swan's book on English usage and there is a passage on determiners. The writer divides determiners into two groups - Group A and Group B. He then goes on to lay a rule governing determiners and as I read that, I suddenly remembered something I had read before. I immediately reached for my phone and looked up my blog for a post I wrote some two years ago.

Two years ago, I slammed the Speak Good English Movement and MOE's language experts for something they wrote in their disgraceful grammar book. Here's the blogpost. It actually began with a question from the public as to which of these three are correct:

1. A friend of John
2. John's friend
3. A friend of John's.

The 'experts' say that only 2 and 3 are correct. A reader then wrote to them and cited a textbook that said all three were correct. Not to be outdone, the experts then posted their considered opinion which is in fact a misquotation from that passage I was reading in Swan's book.

Swan merely states a rule which all of us who speak English observe anyway. That's what most grammars do (which is why many children hate to read them) - they formulate rules for simple things we already know but in a terminology that may baffle children as it certainly baffled the Speak Good English Movement's experts. What Swan says is simple. He groups together determiners which are articles, possessive determiners and demonstrative determiners under Group A. Determiners which are quantifiers are categorised under Group B. He then states the rule that you can't put two Group A determiners together and so you can't say 'The my friend'.

Of course that makes good sense. Anyone who knows English knows that. But the Speak Good English Movement writers misunderstood that and in an attempt to apply the rule, they wrote that 'a John's friend' was not possible because you'd be putting a determiner with a possessive. They then went on to say that you could rewrite the phrase as follows:
Determiner + noun + 'of' + possessive 
Hence you can only say 'a friend of John's' and not 'a friend of John'.

But that's not what Swan says at all. A simple glance of the book will tell any student of English that the section merely deals with a possessive determiner and not ANY other possessives. The example given by the Speak Good English Movement, 'a John's friend', has completely gone beyond the ambit of what that section in Swan's book is dealing with. To misapply that rule to any possessive would be a gross mistake. That's why in my blog post two years ago, I immediately gave the example of 'the boy's bag' to show that the rule they had come up with was nonsense. In other words, the rule mentioned by Swan is perfectly correct. It's the misquotation of that rule by our silly language 'experts' that has effectively created a new but erroneous grammar rule that is not a part of Standard English.

So, what the experts from the Speak Good English Movement have done is to invent an erroneous grammar rule based on their misunderstanding of a valid grammar rule.

That section in Swan's book does not in any way touch on whether 'A friend of John' is correct. It merely explains determiners and their uses. But the experts of the Speak Good English Movement don't know that because they don't understand grammar at all. They misapplied a simple and plain rule on determiners to a totally different and unrelated situation.

What does this tell us? One thing is clear. The experts from MOE and the Speak Good English Movement are not dishonest people. Their only fault is they can't understand English grammar and they come up with their own grammar rule that is erroneous. And they wrongly believe that's what grammarians say.

Are grammars that difficult to understand? Anyone who has been properly educated must have read grammars at least in their early youth. I still read them today. I'm quite sure the majority of Singaporeans understand grammar rules and can apply them correctly. It's the experts from MOE and the Speak Good English Movement who seem to have so much difficulty with simple rules of grammar.

But at least one thing is clear. Experts from the Speak Good English Movement have been shown to make up their own grammar rules that are not a part of Standard English. However, there is no dishonesty in this. They cook up false grammar rules out of ignorance and a failure to understand the books of grammar that they read. As I have always said, they are honest but ignorant. And the Speak Good English Movement must be disbanded.


I forgot to mention one more point. If you look at the blog post I wrote two years ago, you will see that the 'experts' refer to 'John' as a pronoun. That may be one reason for their mistake. They can't even get something as basic as the parts of speech correct! Of course if 'John' is to them a pronoun, 'John's' has got to be a possessive pronoun and that must have led them to apply Swan's rule to the question when it really is not applicable at all.


Swan's book actually addresses the question of possessives too. Swan gives as examples the following correct sentences: 'He's a cousin of the Queen' and 'She's a friend of my father'. So, I was right in saying that the experts from the Speak Good English Movement do not understand the grammar book they read. They apply a rule on determiners to a question about possessives when in fact the book they misquote from actually gives examples which show how wrong the Movement's experts are.

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