Tuesday, May 24, 2016



School principals are traditionally viewed as the paragon of literacy and scholarship. One would not expect to see grammatical errors in something as important as the school principal's message in a school magazine. A school principal does not write his or her message without first weighing every word he or she uses and checking every sentence to ensure it is elegant, felicitous and grammatically correct. He or she will no doubt cast an eye over the entire message to see that it's properly punctuated before it's published. The Principal's Message sets the tone for the entire magazine. It echoes the ethos of the school and as everyone knows, the school magazine will be read not only by the students of the school but also by parents and members of the public. A shoddily written Principal's Message that has grammatical errors and poor punctuation is a disgrace not only to the principal himself but also to the entire school, former students of the school and anyone else associated with the school.

I don't normally read school magazines but for the purpose of this exercise, I will look at the principal's messages by principals from two schools, one a boys' school and the other a girls' school.

The principal's message in the latest issue of MGeSprit, the school magazine of Methodist Girls' School, (March 2016) has this sentence:
She is capable, talented and confident, and a caring servant leader who seeks to be sensitive to the needs of others.
This is a minor error which I'm sure Ms Grace Ng overlooked possibly in her haste. This is an error commonly made by those of us who love to write as we think but do not read through what we have written. Although I point out this error in Ms Ng's message, I acknowledge it's an error I'm particularly liable to make. Reading through what I've written is something I really hate to do. But this is no excuse for a school principal. A mere cursory reading of the sentence is enough to alert her to her error. The fact that it is not corrected is evidence to me that nobody read through the Message she wrote. Perhaps she assigned that task to a secretary or a clerk or her assistant who sent it off for publication without reading through it. But it's a message that carries her name and she bears  the embarrassment of this blunder.

But while that is an error due to a mere oversight, the errors of Winston Hodge, the principal of Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), are far more serious and they can be seen littered all over his message.

Hodge has a fascination for long sentences but he lacks the ability to cast them grammatically. He loves to puff up his sentences with needless and repeated phrases and there are too many of them for there to be any meaningful rhetorical effect. On the contrary, they sound comical to me. Here are some examples:
In a world of shifting sands, in a world where the favoured flavour of the season lasts just a fleeting moment...' 
'Small personal or institutional compromises – if undetected, if allowed to fester, if not dealt with decisively...' 
The moment we start to lose sight of these founding principles, the moment we ignore a spot of corrosion...'.  

Sentences that are long and contain repeated phrases may be tedious and stylistically undesirable but if Hodge could get his grammar right, one would have nothing further to say. But sadly, he flouts the rules of grammar blatantly. There are too many errors for me to deal with in such a short article as this but  I'll just pick the first and last sentences of his Message and you will get the drift. I'll begin with the last sentence since it can be dismissed with just a short paragraph.

I will not comment on Hodge's conjunctive use of 'so' in view of current usage and the observation of most grammarians that standard speakers now feel that it is unobjectionable but I must point out a glaring error in this sentence which, by any standard today, is still ungrammatical.  The reader no doubt understands what Hodge means by this sentence but I'm sure it is as painful for the reader as it is for me to see Hodge struggling with the correlative and getting it wrong. I accept that this error is common in speech and on internet postings. Most bloggers (and I'm no exception) write lengthy sentences when provoked by some injustice or error and many of us do not read through what we have written, possibly because of the sheer length, and we click the 'submit' button and go on our merry ways. But a personal blog or an internet posting cannot be viewed in the same light as a formal address by the school principal on the occasion of the 130th anniversary celebration of the school.

Next, let us examine Hodge's first sentence:

The sloppiness of this sentence is sure to put many readers off even if they do not know what today's grammarians call such a construction. But the name is not important. Unless you have studied grammar and can still remember it,  the name grammarians give to each construction means nothing to you. But not knowing the name does not stop most of us from remembering that such a sentence is in essence a Subject-Verb-Complement or SVC sentence with a nominal relative clause as subject. Such a construction has to be, as Randolph Quirk observes, 'completely accountable in terms of the categories of the main clause and the subordinate clause'. Anyone who has even a fleeting acquaintance with English grammar must know that a noun, a noun phrase, a gerund and a bare infinitive are all perfectly acceptable in the complement but not the finite verb which is what Hodge uses.  I'm sure this sentence which is the first in Hodge's Message must have put many readers off even if they do not know its precise grammatical problem. I had a poor impression of Hodge the moment I read this first sentence. I felt certain I would see many more examples of shoddy writing further in the Message and I was right.

Before I go on with Hodge's other errors, I should mention that a sentence with such a mistake can sometimes be saved by interpreting it as an ellipted form of an alternative construction by reading an apposition into it but even then, Burchfield dismisses it as 'unattractive and inelegant'. However, Hodge's sentence can't be so saved. The intervening 'that' prevents such a reading.

I know some people will accuse me of being pedantic since such a sentence structure can be heard everywhere in the English-speaking world. That such a mistake is common in speech and informal writing and can be seen on blogs and in internet forums, and sometimes in newspapers too is no excuse for the principal of a school to make it in the very first sentence of an important message. A school principal should be the final bastion of correct grammar and he should hold fast to the accepted rules of grammar and only relent when the language has so evolved that grammarians are finally agreed that a once condemned structure is now acceptable in Standard English.

There are other errors in Hodge's Message which are quite unacceptable and I daresay will remain unacceptable however much the language evolves. Here is an example:

Did Hodge even read through what he had written before having it published? This reminds me of a funny meme that was circulated online years ago: 'In Vatican City, I saw the Pope, a convicted paedophile and a child molester.' Doubtless the meme was circulated by advocates of the Oxford comma but the point is clear - proper punctuation is important.

Hodge's garbled sentence could easily be corrected by merely repositioning a phrase and adding two commas to read, '...to be a school where, in Oldham's words, "clear ideas of duty..."'

Finally, let's look at this:

I'm positive the meaning intended by Hodge will elude any reader who reads the above for the first time. It conveys the message that in 1907, Oldham wrote in the country of Malaya which was also referred to as 'Nature's Wonderland' in the same way that Penang was once called the 'Pearl of the Orient'. But that is not what Hodge means to say. Hodge does not mean that Oldham wrote it in Malaya (the country) which is also known as 'Nature's Wonderland'. It was much later that it occurred to me that perhaps Hodge meant to say that Oldham wrote in his book, Malaya, Nature's Wonderland. But I dismissed the thought because I could not get myself to believe that the principal of this school could be so wrong in his language that he could barely be understood. And then I googled 'Malaya, Nature's Wonderland' and sure enough, Oldham did write a book with that title. This is terribly embarrassing. Hodge's language blunders are so bad that he could not even be understood. All he had to do was simply to italicise the title of the book and his meaning would have been clear.

Let us not forget that this is not the usual newsletter from the school principal to his students. This is a formal address by the principal on the occasion of the celebration of the 130th anniversary of Anglo-Chinese School (Independent). It is rather amusing, don't you think, that after 130 years, the best for this school is, as its motto humbly and truthfully proclaims, still an illusory yet-to-be?

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