Sunday, September 18, 2016

ABBA was wrong?

I sometimes snoop around to see what others are saying of me. I'm generally not bothered one wee bit about other people's opinion of me but sometimes, curiosity gets the better of me. But it's always just curiosity and never concern.

Of the many things I'm accused of behind my back by people who only know me through my blog, the charge of pedantry is the most amusing. I can see why they say I'm pedantic. Many people don't read carefully what a writer says online and their opinion of him or her usually comes from the overall impression they get from the cursory reading they do.

It all began a few years ago when I discovered the shocking errors of the Speak Good English Movement in Singapore. This is an organisation started by the Singapore government to counter what they perceived then to be the declining standard of the English language among young Singaporeans. I searched the Movement's website and I was astounded to see that everything they wrote about grammar was erroneous. Despite their obvious ignorance of English grammar and usage, they hold themselves out to be the nation's language watchdog and would pontificate on various points of grammar, but alas, everything they wrote on the language was erroneous and usually, outrageously so.

I soon learnt from their website that the Movement had written or at least contributed to the publication of a grammar book in two volumes and I rushed to a nearby book shop to purchase it. I thought it would be pulled off the shelves if I didn't get my hands on a copy immediately since the book was filled with egregious blunders that even an English-speaking child would not make. I need not have rushed. The book, ENGLISH AS IT IS BROKEN Vols 1 & 2, is still on the shelves of all the book shops and is still the number 1 best-seller in all schools in Singapore. That is the only language book I have ever come across that drips with error from every page and I'm not exaggerating.

I naturally took it upon myself to blog about the errors and before I knew it, I had turned this personal blog of mine into a language blog. That's because there are thousands of errors in the book. I soon came across the language blog of one Ludwig Tan, the Movement's consultant, and the blog was not much different from the Movement's website. Tan is very quick to slam Singaporeans for what he sometimes wrongly perceives to be errors in grammar and usage but he's very forgiving and would even go out of his way to offer excuses for similar sentences found in foreign publications. And like the writers of the Movement's grammar book, Tan is not averse to making up his own grammatical rules which directly conflict with Standard English grammar and usage. I have exposed his many errors in this blog.

I have said in this blog that the Speak Good English Movement are incapable of getting their grammar right, and I've called them the Illiterate Movement. Before you accuse me of being harsh, you must understand the kind of errors they make. In the Movement's grammar book, they state that "Alan and George works as a team" is grammatically acceptable. This is the kind of mistake even illiterates in Singapore don't make.

If you are interested, here is the link to a list of all my blog posts on language. Section 1 A deals with the errors of the Speak Good English Movement generally and Section 1 B is all about the blunders of Ludwig Tan, the Movement's consultant. Both Section 1 A and Section 1 B have a list of about 50 articles.

Those who accuse me of being a pedant are wrong and unjust. The errors of the Speak Good English Movement are numerous and shocking. They make grammatical errors that the average Singaporean wouldn't dream of making. I have seen questions on grammar that school students put forward to the Movement. They tell students who have constructed perfectly good sentences that they are wrong and they insist that the Movement's own flawed sentences be used instead. I have given examples in some of my blog posts. I have said before that everything the Movement teaches on language is contrary to standard English grammar and I am not incorrect. The Movement continues to post short lessons on their website and their Facebook page and I have screen-saved many of them and almost all of them are wrong. It's impossible for me to post all their errors; there are simply too many.

My work in this blog is purely motivated by a sense of duty and a need to let students know that they should not make the mistake of assuming that the Speak Good English Movement is right on the English language. I would not have bothered if the language mistakes were made on the website of any other organisation.

The truth is I don't care two straws about language and grammar. Whenever my kids tell me that I've made a mistake in one of my posts, I'll thank them with a nonchalant shrug and carry on doing whatever it is I'm doing.

Unlike a purist who treats grammatical niceties with respect and expects everyone to abide strictly by the rules of grammar, I am not in the least bothered when I come across grammatical errors. I may take a photograph of the mistakes which I store away in an album but I do not at all think it is obligatory for anyone to comply with the rules of grammar.

(photo owned by AVRO and downloaded from Wikimedia Commons)

I once had an English teacher who was a fan of the pop group ABBA. I thought I could score more marks in a composition exam if I quoted a line or two from one of their songs. I still remember what I wrote. I was describing a self-possessed man who because of the death of his mother, suffered a complete loss of self-esteem. I wrote, 'He used to be so sure of himself but the day his mother died was the day he broke a feather'.

For those who are too young to be familiar with ABBA's songs, the line comes from 'Chiquitita':
You were always sure of yourself
Now I see you've broken a feather.
Imagine my disappointment when I got back my test paper and I saw a red line drawn right across what I had thought was a clever ABBA quotation. My teacher's remark appeared on the margin of the paper: 'This may be an acceptable Nordic expression but it's not English.'

That was a long time ago, but recently, when I was at a party in Northern Italy with my friends from different parts of Europe, I heard the same censorious words again: 'Not English'. Someone had mentioned that kids these days didn't speak German as well as their parents and grandparents. Another person chipped in to say it was the same with the French language. An Englishman who shared the same sentiment as the rest told us how his daughter once asked him, 'Can I have pizza for lunch?' To which he boomed, 'Can I? That's NOT ENGLISH.'  He went on to explain that 'proper English' demanded the use of 'may' instead of 'can'.

But was he right? Hasn't this need for 'may' been drummed into all of us since we were young children? I remember the boys at my school would not be allowed to go to the toilet if we did not say the magic formula, 'Please sir, may I be excused?' Nobody would have dared to alter the sentence structure, far less substitute 'can' for 'may'.

But while 'may' is of course the more formal of the two, 'can' used in this context has a reasonably respectable history, albeit a short one. Its use can be traced to a poet no less distinguished than Lord Tennyson himself in the second half of the 19th century. As in everything, a lot depends on the context but to tell someone that 'Can I have pizza for lunch?' is not English is absolutely ridiculous. In some situations, using the wrong word can lead to a misunderstanding. For example, 'I'll visit you if I can/may'. But those who object to the use of 'can' when asking for permission usually do so out of a misplaced sense of correctness and not with the intention of avoiding an ambiguity.

I'm sure all of us can think of friends who are very insistent on what correct grammar should be even if they don't know a thing about English grammar. Everyone likes to think of himself as an expert in English and I don't mind this one bit so long as the person is not teaching English. I would expect English teachers to know more about grammar because they have a responsibility to their students who will no doubt look to them for guidance. Naturally, I would expect the Speak Good English Movement not to be so clueless about English grammar because they have a responsibility to the whole nation and that's a much higher responsibility. Despite their total ignorance of basic English grammar, the Movement continues to post incorrect lessons on English on their website and their Facebook page. I find this appalling and disgracefully irresponsible.

1 comment:

  1. He used to be so sure of himself but the day his mother died was the day he broke a feather. <- Do you remember if you developed the feather imagery further? Because as a metaphor, it's so cool...... Feather -> flying -> confidence (since you started with "he was so sure of himself). That's the first thing that occurs to me.