Saturday, March 17, 2018

Fools or Liars?

A couple of months ago, I was seated by myself in my favourite restaurant eating my favourite meal when I overheard a conversation at the next table which was occupied by a small family consisting of a Brit (presumably so from his accent), his Asian wife and their young son of kindergarten-going age. The boy was eating fish and chips and he said very loudly, 'These are my all chips'. His father very swiftly corrected him, 'These are all my chips'.

The boy said something in reply and although he didn't say it clearly, I could tell he felt that placing 'all' next to the word it modifies would convey his meaning better. I was quite amused because this was one bright plucky boy who was very quick to defend his own stand. The boy went on to give simple examples in which everyone says 'all chips'.

The father told the child he was wrong and he had to say 'all my chips'. The boy asked a legitimate question: why is that so? I pretended to pay close attention to my food but I'm ashamed to admit that I was listening to every word like a village gossip. I wanted to listen to the father's reply.

The father said there was 'no "why" to anything in English'. You just have to say it one way and that was that. The boy, quite rightly, refused to accept such a ridiculous answer. An older boy would have known that such an answer is always an admission that his father did not know the answer to the simple question why you can't say 'my all chips'. The boy replied that if there was no reason, he would speak in any way he liked. The boy's mother who I could tell was not highly educated then chipped in and said, 'You must listen to your father. He must know his own language'. The father readily agreed and added, 'Your dad isn't a fool, you know? There's just no reason for it. You just have to say it that way.'

But the boy wasn't having any of this. He repeated his earlier examples to show that 'all' could immediately precede 'chips', as indeed it can. Resigned, his father said there was no point discussing further because 'that's language for you; it's not logical'. He added as he looked fondly at his son, 'You just have to accept what I say. Your father isn't a fool'. The boy looked distinctly dissatisfied but his father was by then beginning a more serious conversation with his mother which was of no interest to me and I carried on eating, this time, really paying attention to my food.

The father's reply is the same reply I've heard on the lips of many Singaporeans. There's no logic in grammar. You just have to say it this way. What these people fail to realise is there is logic in grammar if they understand grammar. The fact is they are ignorant of English grammar.

Six years ago, I recounted in this blog the story of another eavesdropping experience I had and I'm glad I wrote it here because I could recall vaguely the incident but not the details and a quick search in this blog led me to the blog post. Here's the link to the article.

While the father in my recent eavesdropping incident didn't know why his son could not say 'my all chips', the father at a concert hall 6 years ago didn't know what an adverb was. I am not saying that these two fathers made bad parents for not knowing the basics of English grammar. Neither am I judging them for not knowing the grammar of their 'own language', as the wife of one of them called it. Lots of people don't know the grammar of any language and those who do know grammar may not know the grammar of their 'own language', whatever that may mean. And there are many who don't even speak their 'own language'. I doubt very much if the pop entertainer Madonna can speak fluent Italian or French, which is, strictly speaking, her 'own language'.

It may be sad and pathetic that a father can't even explain to his son why he can't say 'my all chips' but from my own rough estimate, more than 99% of the people in this country probably can't do that either. It's not a bad thing. And I'm not picking on those who are not highly educated. Ignorance of grammar is almost universal and it transcends the social divide. I'm pretty certain 99% of top professionals in medicine, law, finance and the sciences do not know grammar. Almost all PhD students (except those who are reading linguistics) do not know grammar. But we must be clear on one point. A knowledge of grammar is not a prerequisite for good parenting and I'm pretty certain there are many distinguished linguists who aren't good parents. What I object to which is also what I find most baffling is the assumption these two fathers made that they knew grammar when they obviously didn't. I don't believe they intended to deceive their own children. But what made them believe they knew something they were so clearly ignorant of?

What is it about grammar that makes everyone pretend to be an expert in it even though he has zero knowledge of the subject? This same assumption that they are language experts was made by a large group of people many years ago when they cyber-lynched a schoolteacher on Facebook and I was compelled to defend the innocent teacher on this blog. See this link for the first article on that incident. After I exposed the errors of the mob, the cyber-lynching instantly stopped and the host on Facebook even apologised to the teacher. All I had to do was to show these people that their assumption that they knew grammar was absolutely incorrect. But why were they unaware of their own ignorance and why did they need to be shown that they knew no grammar? I don't know Swahili grammar and I don't need to be told that I'm ignorant of it.

Again, I do not think the people who insulted the teacher on Facebook in that incident (one of them even suggested having the teacher shot!) had any real knowledge that the teacher was right but they just wanted to hurt her unjustly. They probably believed the teacher was wrong and they themselves right. But how could they not be aware that they had no knowledge of grammar? How could they speak about grammar with seeming authority when they must have known that they knew nothing about it? I would never presume to tell an Inuit speaker that he speaks ungrammatical Inuit because I am aware (as one whose sanity is not compromised) that I know no Inuit. But what made these people who are no less sane than me believe that they knew enough grammar to criticise the teacher?

We see the same problem with the Speak Good English Movement. It has published three books (more accurately, booklets) on English grammar and almost every page contains some hideous error. Its website and Facebook entries disseminate misinformation on grammar and usage. I don't believe there is any deception intended. You would have thought that they surely must know that they have no knowledge of grammar. But like the two fathers and the Facebook mob, the Speak Good English Movement make the same false assumption that they are experts on grammar when they really don't know a thing about it.

Can a father who does not know why you can't say 'These are my all chips' be described as honest if he says he understands grammar? Is a father dishonest if he doesn't know what an adverb really is and yet he attempts to teach his child grammar? Are the rowdy Facebook vigilantes liars since they castigated an innocent schoolteacher for a supposed error when they themselves did not know the different types of conditional clauses in English grammar? Is the Speak Good English Movement honest when it holds itself out as Singapore's authority on English and yet the 3 books on English grammar that it has published contain outrageous errors on almost every page?

The father in the restaurant seemed to equate a lack of knowledge of English grammar with foolishness and he said it at least twice. Without knowing it, he was declaring himself to be a fool because anyone could tell he didn't know the answer to a simple question asked by his son. If ignorance of grammar is foolishness, he is  a fool indeed. And so are the father in the concert hall, the Facebook vigilantes and the Speak Good English Movement. But are they all really fools?

I've thought long and hard about this odd behaviour of so many people and I think I now know what the problem really is. The two fathers, the Facebook vigilantes and the Speak Good English Movement are all honest.  What they have in common is they all speak English but they have little or absolutely no knowledge of grammar. It's very tempting for an English-speaking person who knows no grammar to use first principles to make some sense of a grammatical question that is put to him. Grammar is not like the Force in Star Wars. If you have no knowledge of grammar, you can't just shut your eyes and feel the Force as Yoda does and instinctively come up with an answer. But that is precisely what the two fathers, the Facebook vigilantes and the Speak Good English Movement are doing.

I've already explained that all these people aren't dishonest. They are not liars. They believe they possess a knowledge of English grammar just because they are able to speak English. They are badly mistaken but they are not dishonest. But are they fools? Of course not. The two fathers may be rocket scientists for all I know. All that we can conclude is the two fathers, the Facebook vigilantes and the Speak Good English Movement are ignorant of English grammar. But they are neither fools nor liars. This is something we must be clear about in our mind when we deal with such people.

It's all right for the fathers to disseminate misinformation to their kids. That's their prerogative as parents. But the Facebook vigilantes and the Speak Good English Movement are different. They have the potential to affect others adversely. I really hope the Facebook vigilantes have learnt from their disgraceful behaviour and will in future keep their lips sealed. It's only right that people should not render an opinion on a subject matter that they are ignorant of. The Speak Good English Movement continues to peddle misinformation in their publications, website and Facebook page. The whole Movement should be disbanded without any further delay.

I am positive the Speak Good English Movement lacks to this day any knowledge of grammar. Their latest 2017 grammar book called Grammar Rules is chock-full of  errors and I'm not talking about errors that are the result of carelessness which are always excusable. The errors in Grammar Rules are errors that prove that the writer or writers are ignorant of even basic grammar. If you want to look at a sample of the errors in the Movement's latest Grammar Rules (published last year), please see these two blog posts of mine (there are a lot more errors and I may one day add a few more blog posts):
1.The Speak Good English Movement's new grammar book.
2. The Speak Good English Movement's new grammar book Part 2.

For a long list of articles on language especially articles on the countless errors of the Speak Good English Movement, please click here.

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