Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sex and the Church

What do you do when you receive your monthly church magazine? Most people just throw it away. But this month's magazine of my church has something that's really hilarious.

There's an article by a young father about how to be a good father. But the way he writes the article is truly hilarious.

This is what he writes which is sure to raise eyebrows. Mind you, this is in a church magazine.

This is what he says further:

And I don't think he's talking about sex therapists.  He goes on to give the following advice:

I find this particularly amusing because as far as I know, the Bible does not say a word about HOW God fathers anyone, not even his only begotten son, our Lord Jesus Christ. 

In the Gospel According to St Matthew, we are told that Mary was 'found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.' And the angel told Joseph that 'what is conceived in her (Mary) is from the Holy Spirit.'

I believe these vague and imprecise words are what led to some guesswork by the Mormon Church. From what I understand, the Mormons believe that there was some intimate union between God the Father and the Virgin Mary in order for Jesus to be conceived. But I'm not sure if this is nothing more than some scurrilous propaganda spread by mainstream Christians against Mormonism or if indeed the Mormons do advocate such a potentially blasphemous belief. If I'm mistaken, I apologise to all Mormons for this view which I must say is extremely common among most people. Just google it if you don't believe me.

But can the Mormons be blamed if indeed they hold such a view? I must confess that I have just deleted huge chunks of what I've written on this blog because I'm not sure if this subject is appropriate. Most of us have such a jaundiced view of sexual intercourse that we think anything that is even remotely connected to it must be filthy and sinful. But I'll heed the advice one of my readers gave me in an email to me. 'Please write more about language and less about religion'. And I think she's right. Nobody is offended when you criticise their language. Language is nothing more than mere words and a collection of noises whereas religion is potentially explosive. People get so worked up over it. Let's look at the language then and stay away from religion.

The writer of the article finally writes this:

This must be the first time I found an article in a church magazine so incredibly hilarious. I really think the church should employ a proofreader to go through all articles before distributing its monthly magazine to all parishioners.

The peculiarity of the language lies in the fact that while you can mother a child by looking after him and acting towards him like a mother, you can't say you are fathering a child by doing the same thing if you're a man. Fathering a child means an entirely different thing.

To father a child is, to use the delicate words of the OED, to 'procreate as a father.' But I prefer the more graphic description in the Cambridge Dictionary which simply says 'To father a child is to become the father of a child by making a woman pregnant.' What these dictionaries are trying to tell us and particularly, the writer of the article in the church magazine is there's a bit of the rumpy-pumpy in the whole idea, if you'll pardon my French. Don't talk loosely about fathering a child unless you really mean it. If what you mean is simply looking after a child, then say so.

As I've said earlier, you can talk about mothering a child if all you do is to act like a mother to the child and you can be as chaste as the Blessed Virgin herself. This meaning of 'mother' as a verb has been in use since the 19th century. But alas, there is no corresponding meaning for 'father' when used as a verb when all you want to say is that you are looking after a child like a father without any reference to 'making his mother pregnant', if I may borrow some of the words from the Cambridge Dictionary.

But there used to be a long time ago. From around the time of Chaucer and that's many hundred years ago, the word 'father' when used as a verb could also mean to act as a father to or to look after a child. But that meaning is now archaic and today, if you say someone fathers a child, it has only one unmistakeable meaning and it's not something you'd expect to read in a church magazine.

[EDITOR, 25 October 2015]: What I wrote above about the position of the Mormon Church is not incorrect at all. I've since looked up the internet on this matter and here's a good link that discusses the beliefs of the Mormon Church on the Incarnation of our Lord: CLICK HERE.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

What's in a Name?

In the biblical story of creation, we are told that the first task God gave Adam was to name everything that was around him. Adam was to come up with a word for everything. But are names or words all that important? Each name is just a representation of an object and even if you alter its name, the object remains the same. Or as Shakespeare elegantly puts it, "That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet."

But would it? After centuries of usage, words do carry connotations of their own. I won't forget a function I attended many years ago as a student. I was seated next to an Indian lady who introduced herself to me as Dr Nalla Tan. The name immediately rang a bell. I asked her if she was the Dr Nalla Tan who wrote books on puberty for prepubescent children. I told her that my father got me one of her books just as I was entering the cusp of puberty. She asked me which book of hers I had read for she had written several. Without a moment's hesitation, I replied, "Below the Navel". She gave me a look of annoyance and replied coldly, "It's BEYOND the Navel".

I remember blushing to the roots of my hair as I muttered my apology. There's very little one could say to an author whose respectable book for children to learn about their own bodies had, with a single word, been turned into something of the same genre as Harold Robbins' or Sydney Sheldon's raunchy novels. We didn't say much to each other after that and I'm not sure now whether it was because the function had started or the iciness with which she greeted my faux pas had chilled the milk of human kindness within her.

A single word could change the whole evening's atmosphere. But I really wasn't to blame. I wasn't being flippant. I had thought all along that the title of the book was Below the Navel. The book, as I recall, had drawings of the human anatomy and to my adolescent mind and I couldn't be faulted there, it was all about the region below the navel. It didn't once occur to me that the title of the book was really BEYOND the Navel.

As luck would have it, my knack of ruining an evening with a single word continued well into my adulthood. I was at a dinner with my wife and we were seated at a table consisting of visiting professors from the UK and a married couple of Chinese descent who were Singaporeans. The table conversation somehow drifted to stories of King James I of England and I regaled everyone at the table with an interesting story I had read about King James and a young man of athletic build. The Chinese woman found it hard to believe that James I was homosexual and she said, "Well, that's not in MY history book", to which I replied perhaps a little too quickly, "Your history book is probably expurgated".

It was only after the dinner that my wife told me that the woman was furious with me for having said that and she had kept silent for the remainder of the dinner while occasionally staring daggers at me and I had to be really blind not to have noticed it. And I really didn't notice it. My wife explained further that the woman probably misunderstood the word "expurgate" to mean something disparaging when that wasn't my intention. I had merely meant that a decent lady like her would probably not read books replete with accounts of the seedier side of life.

But a single word can sometimes be the cause of fun and laughter. Many years ago, I took an airport terminal train in the US with my wife and just before departure, there was a loud announcement: "This train will depart momentarily." My wife and I looked at each other and we burst into laughter. We were certain the train would depart for just a few seconds and return to where we started from. When I got home, I looked up the dictionary and to my surprise, I discovered that in the US, "momentarily" could also mean "in a moment" and not just "for a moment" which is the meaning of the word anywhere in the world outside America.

The world would be less complicated if Americans spoke English (and didn't invent their own language) and everyone understood what "expurgate" meant and writers of sex education books would just title their books BELOW the Navel as they should since, unless I'm very much mistaken about sex education books, that really is where their focus is.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Brouhaha in Singapore over Nothing Part 3

This is a continuation of the saga created by ignorant but hyperctitical netizens and if you want the full picture, please go to:

As it turns out, Nadine Yap now acknowledges that the teacher was right and she and her entire motley crew of loud-mouthed rabble were wrong. That is something I have been saying from the start and I'm glad I got someone close to the school to refer the teacher to my blog posts.

Suddenly, everyone is silent on her Facebook page. Gone are the ignoramuses who bandied the subjunctive about without fully understanding its significance. "A little learning is a dangerous thing", Pope tells us but nothing is more dangerous than a little learning in an inflated ego. I can't understand how anyone who is totally unfamiliar with English grammar can have the audacity to declare a sentence ungrammatical. How arrogant can such a person be? I would never presume to condemn a Pakistani teacher for ungrammatical Urdu. How can these people whose knowledge of English grammar is evidently no better than my knowledge of Urdu grammar arrogate to themselves the authority to pontificate on what is correct English and denounce a teacher when she has done no wrong? They were a loud, strident and violent mob and one of them even wrote, "Please shoot the teacher!!"

I am normally not bothered about ungrammatical English and it's not in my nature to go about telling others they are wrong. But the gross injustice of this cyberspace lynching compelled me to speak up for the teacher.

Now, all is well and everyone is agreed that the test question was not wrong and the teacher was correct and only those who commented in Nadine Yap's Facebook thread and criticised the teacher were mistaken. But not quite. Some of them still feel there has to be some error somewhere and they are loath to admit that Yap's daughter didn't answer the question correctly. One of them just posted her view that the question is wrong in grammar. I asked her to read both my two posts which I'm sure properly addressed the issue (see the links above).  And I asked her why she said the question was wrong. She didn't answer for some time and I thought that after reading my blog, she must have sheepishly realised her mistake and decided to lie low and being a peace-loving chap, I decided I should say nothing further.

So that you don't have to go back to my previous blog posts, here's the question that she says is ungrammatical:
If you are celebrating a family member's birthday, how do you plan to celebrate it?
Mind you, nobody is talking about the elegance of the sentence. Elegance is not the issue. The only question is whether it is grammatical.

A friend of mine who has been following this entire episode told me that she was certain the woman would say nothing further. But she came back with this post:

I'm grateful to this woman for allowing me a glimpse into how a person who has no knowledge of grammar thinks. Most of my friends do not like to expose their lack of knowledge and they get upset with me when I try to probe just to understand better the way they reason out a sentence that they claim to be ungrammatical. Most people would just become ominously silent when I ask them why they think something is wrong. But this woman openly tells me and I'm grateful to her for it.

She's doing what most people do when they have no knowledge of grammar.  When she mentions that a sentence is "weird", that tells me immediately that she's using her own limited exposure to the language to determine if a sentence is correct. This is of course highly unreliable given the fact that most people who are unacquainted with the rules of grammar probably are not au fait with a wide range of English literature and it's understandably disastrous if they draw their boundaries of what correct grammar should be according to their own inadequate knowledge. If a sentence structure is unusual to them, they are more likely to dismiss it as ungrammatical even if the sentence has the full backing of grammarians and the great works of literature.

That something is weird to her does not mean a thing to me. But thankfully, she goes on to explain why there's this tingling sensation she feels that makes her decide that a sentence is weird. This is what she says:
"If you are making lemonade" invites you to imagine a scenario where you are in the process of making lemonade.
I'm so delighted with this woman because for the first time since this episode started last week, I finally understand why some people object to that question. I need to know how they think. Sadly, some people mistakenly think that I'm testing them to see if they are fools when I ask them for their view on a point of grammar. Unfortunately, I used very strong language in this blog when I reviled the Speak Good English Movement for the countless errors that they've made. Click here for a summary of all the posts I've written on the Speak Good English Movement and others.

But while I may slam with harsh words a corporate entity such as the Speak Good English Movement, I do not, as a rule, criticise individuals for their language errors. I do not mind if someone speaks or writes ungrammatical English. I am a firm defender of Singlish and other variants of English. I am only harsh to people who wrongly criticise others and what Nadine Yap's friends did to the teacher is one example of the kind of outrage that will make my hackles rise.  Especially when the poor teacher was right and the mob wrong.

The error is obvious. This woman has a poor understanding of the progressive tense. When she sees it, she imagines that the act referred to is being done. As she puts it, "you are in the process of making lemonade". This simplistic understanding of hers is something taught in kindergarten picture books. You see the drawing of a boy walking with his school bag and the sentence at the bottom of the picture says "John is walking to school." He's in the process of walking. Voila! That's the progressive tense.

But the progressive tense in English has many other uses and one of them is the expression of futurity. I will just pick a simple example from one of my grammar books so there is no argument as to its correctness:
"Are you going to the meeting (tomorrow)?" 
I'm sure you can think of thousands of other examples and I don't think anyone who has the least knowledge of the English language will dispute this. Of course "Will you go to the meeting (tomorrow)?" also indicates futurity. And this is one mistake many people with a poor grasp of English grammar frequently make. As I have commented in my earlier posts, the people who castigated the teacher for not using the subjunctive mistakenly thought that since the subjunctive would have been quite correct, anything else had to be wrong. Hence, many of them mistakenly thought that an indicative would always be wrong where you could have a subjunctive and somehow in their ears, the subjunctive sounded better and perhaps the indicative sounded "weird".

What the woman says further is a little confusing. She gives an example of a sentence that is irrelevant because there is no sense of futurity in it. She gave another sentence she says is all right but she does not say why it is OK. That's the kind of reasoning you would expect of someone who's only guided by her own limited familiarity with the different sentence structures.

Now that it's clear that "If you are celebrating a family member's birthday..." can be a reference to the future, let's see whether it can be followed by a present tense in the next clause.

There are many examples that I can think of (and some are direct examples from established grammar books). Here's one:
If you are driving to London, which route do you take? 
You can also reverse the order of the clauses in this way:
Which route do you take if you are driving to London?
Both are perfectly right. Again, I don't think there's any English-speaking person who would object to the above sentences. Of course you can also say, "If you are driving to London, which route will you take?" They aren't mutually exclusive. The fact that one sentence is correct does not necessarily give it a monopoly over all other equally correct sentences. That is something people who do not have an understanding of English grammar must always bear in mind.

Here's another example where the "if" clause contains a futurity and the following clause carries a present tense:
If you won't arrive before six, I can't meet you.
Or you can also have:
If you aren't arriving before six, I can't meet you.
Here's another example:
If she won't be here before midnight, there's no need to rush.
If she isn't coming before midnight, there's no need to rush.
The beauty of the English language lies in the myriads of ways something can be expressed in different words, all of which are grammatical but each of which may carry a slightly different nuance. This beauty is fragile and can easily be destroyed by people who use the language indiscriminately and without a decent knowledge of grammar. A language is highly dependent on the people who use it. If the majority of speakers of a particular language speak an ungrammatical form of the language, over time, what is non-standard will become standard language. If you follow the progress of the English language, you will notice changes in grammar so that what used to be condemned as ungrammatical might in some instances be perfectly acceptable today. In many cases, the culprits are language users in America who tend to blunt the finer distinctions in usage.

But nothing is more insidious than those who do not know grammar but insist on telling others what they think is right and wrong based on their feelings of whether something sounds "weird". There are many ways you can construct a sentence. Unless a usage or sentence structure is specifically condemned by grammarians to be wrong, it's best not to make any pronouncement on grammar based solely on your own feelings. You should resist the temptation to make up your own grammar rules (which is what Singapore's Speak Good English has done many times). You are probably going to get them wrong and you will only disgrace yourself or worse, persecute an innocent teacher. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Brouhaha in Singapore over Nothing Part 2

In my previous post, I explained why those who commented on a mother's Facebook page were all wrong. The mother had posted her daughter's test paper in which her daughter's answer was corrected by the teacher. Everyone on her Facebook page vilified the teacher and insisted that her daughter was right. I have read my blog post again and as far as I can see, I have explained clearly and succinctly why they were all wrong. At least that's what I thought until some friends of mine who had read my blog post continued to hold the view that the teacher's question was ungrammatical. How could they do that?

I asked one of them. Apparently, my previous post was a little too long-winded. I had also made the assumption that people knew basic English grammar. Anyone whose knowledge of grammar is zilch (and that means everyone on that mother's Facebook page) would find what I had written tedious and incomprehensible. So my friends who had gone to my previous blog post did not read what I wrote. They saw the link to the newspaper article and read that instead.

If it's true that many people don't really follow what I wrote in my previous post, I will have to make amends here. I will have to explain so clearly that even a child of ten can follow easily and that is what I'm determined to do. And I will be brief. I understand from the comments I've received that most people do not like to read long articles. From now on, brevity will be second nature to me.

Let's look again at the test question.

This is the original test question the class was given:
If you are celebrating a family member's birthday, how do you plan to celebrate it?
The child answered as follows:
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 the child's answer to read:
If I am to plan a birthday, I will plan it for my mother. Instead of getting a cake I will make cupcakes.
Let's also follow the reasoning, if any, of the people who commented on the mother's Facebook page:

They say the child's answer is grammatically sound. [As I stated in my earlier post, this is NOT the issue]. They praised the child's use of the subjunctive. Again, this is neither here nor there. We mustn't be muddle-headed. The issue is simply whether the teacher was wrong in correcting the child's answer. They then proceeded to say that the question given by the teacher is grammatically wrong. Here is where I take issue with them. I've read every single one of their comments just to understand how a large group of people could be afflicted by this collective insanity. Many of them did not say why they thought the question was wrong but some of them gave the reasoning that an "if" clause should always be followed by a subjunctive. For authority, many of them cited the "If I were a rich man" line in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof". To them, the question "If you are celebrating..." is erroneous because there is no subjunctive.

Any basic English grammar book will tell you that the "if" clause can exist without a subjunctive. In fact, the "if" clause frequently does not have the subjunctive. One reason why I had that "Oh my God!" tone of despair in my previous article is I just couldn't believe that any English-speaking person could be so incredibly wrong. If any of my children had displayed such a monstrous ignorance of basic English grammar in their earlier years, I believe I would have been quite stern with them. And the people who commented on the mother's Facebook page are presumably adults. In my book, any English-speaking adult has got to be a lunatic if he says that the "if" clause must have a subjunctive.

I will write down all the possible patterns that I can think of for sentences beginning with "if". I will strive to be comprehensive but bear with me if I inadvertently leave out a few. The most basic must be the simple present in both the conditional and matrix clauses. Then we have the present, or continuous, or perfective in the conditional clause and a modal in the matrix clause. Next, is the past in the conditional and past modal in the matrix. I bet most of my readers will probably say that for this pattern, a subjunctive is obligatory. But no, even for this pattern which traditionally has a subjunctive, I can think of a few exceptions and if you don't believe me, let's have a bet and the loser pays for dinner. Next is the past perfective in the conditional clause and past perfective modal (+continuous) in the matrix clause. I can also think of two other patterns that aren't so common but that grammarians say are perfectly grammatical and acceptable: a modal in both the conditional and the matrix clauses and a past progressive in the conditional clause and a past modal in the matrix.

Of the six patterns I have listed above, only one of them has to have a subjunctive or at least I can't think of an exception for it. There is one more pattern that usually carries a subjunctive in the clause but even then, it doesn't always have to. The other four patterns cannot have a subjunctive. Do you see now why I say you've got to have your head examined if you claim (as many do on that mother's Facebook wall) that the "if" clause must have a subjunctive and that the question given in the test paper is grammatically wrong because it lacks one?

Even if, like the Speak Good English Movement, you don't know a single grammar rule, you must at least know that "If you are celebrating a family member's birthday..." is different in meaning from "If you were celebrating a family member's birthday..." and that alone should stop you from declaring the first construction to be ungrammatical. It simply means a different thing. The child's answer is more suited to the second question which was not the question in the test. The teacher was merely guiding the child to answer only the question that she was asked. And this is one thing every child should be taught from an early age. I've seen uni students going off on a tangent when answering questions. They probably didn't have this teacher to point out their mistake to them in their formative years. What the teacher did is perfectly correct. But what the mother and her ignorant friends did is outrageous. In their utter ignorance of basic English grammar, they insisted the question "If you are celebrating..." was wrong because there was no subjunctive. They failed to realise that there are at least 6 patterns for the "if" clause as I have enumerated above. I can think of a few examples where the subjunctive is obligatory but the test question is not one of them. The teacher who set the test question was free to choose any one pattern that suited the meaning he or she intended.

And how can something as simple as this escape them?  The answer is obvious. They don't know even the most basic rules of grammar but they haven't got the decency to shut up. Birds know the rules of chirping and pigs know the grammar of oinking but alas, many human beings don't know the grammar of the language they use daily. But I have no quarrel with ignorant people. What I can't stand are people who despite their total ignorance of grammar insist on telling others they are wrong when they are not. This is precisely what the Speak Good English Movement is notorious for doing and I have in more than 50 articles in this blog alone exposed the flagrant errors made by the Movement.  If you would like to see a tidy one-page summary of all the articles I've written on this subject, please click here.

But what is even more alarming to me are those who quote that "If I were a rich man" line from "Fiddler on the Roof" as authority for their proposition that the "if" clause has to have a subjunctive, as if any departure from the lyrics of a musical would render a sentence ungrammatical.

I have no doubt that the recommended treatment for such people in Psychiatry 101 has to be nothing less than the combined restraints of both the straitjacket and the padded cell.

EDITOR'S NOTE [16 October 2015]:

Nadine Yap has apologised to the teacher and has admitted that she and the rabble on her Facebook page were wrong while the teacher was right. But one intrepid woman insisted that the test question was wrong and so as not to flood Nadine Yap's facebook page, I told the woman that I would respond to her comment on a further blog post. After I wrote it, I was told by friends that this is by far the most comprehensible post on the matter. Here it is:

Brouhaha in Singapore over Nothing Part 3

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.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Language, Truth and Hypocrisy

I have unintentionally pilfered two thirds of the title of AJ Ayer's remarkable book but I'll let the title remain because it suits the thrust of this post.

Just recently, I visited my mother and she was recounting stories after stories to me, many of which I paid hardly any attention to until she mentioned a recent "pot blessing" at her church. As a former altar boy and one who's thoroughly familiar with all the rituals of the Church, "pot blessing" rather floored me. What the devil is that? I'm familiar with the blessing of all kinds of inanimate objects from a large building to small items of jewellery but why on earth would a pot be blessed?

As it turns out, "pot blessing" is a common term in some church circles and it was first coined in the US, the land of fringe Christianity. The real word is "potluck" which also originates in the US. When my mother said she went to a pot blessing, it was only a potluck dinner she went to.

But why don't they say "potluck"? If you have moved in Christian circles for as long as I have, you will notice that there is a class of Christians who avoid all mention of the word "luck" or "fortune". To them, attributing anything to luck would be an affront to God who has a purpose for everything and controls everything. Whenever they encounter the word "luck", they change it immediately" to "bless". "Good luck!" becomes "God bless!" Although my mother is not that loony and she does say "Good luck" in her normal conversations, it's unfortunate that that monstrosity "pot-blessing" somehow crept into her vocabulary.

But this is nothing new. I have more than once been told that God was in charge of our destiny when I wished someone "Good luck", as if I didn't know that taking charge of people's destiny and, if I may add, often mucking it up, was a part of God's job description.

I'm familiar with the lengths we go to in order to whitewash our wrongs. When I was a boy, my friends and I would say we "disliked" someone when we meant we hated him. While our sentiments for the person were precisely what the word "hate" most accurately describes, we thought that by using a weaker word, we could free ourselves from the sin of hating another. Today, I see grown men and women doing the same thing I did as a kid and they seem blissfully oblivious to their blatant dishonesty.

The people who are quick to avoid the word "luck" seem quite at home with the days of the week. Pick any day. Tuesday is named after the god of battle Tiw in Norse mythology. This god is the same as Mars, the Roman god of war. "Wednesday" comes from Wodnesday and is named after the Germanic god Woden. Thursday is named after the god Thor (which most people today know best because of some Hollywood movie) and Friday after the Old English goddess Frigg, the equivalent of the Roman Venus. Saturday is of course named after the god Saturn. Even the Lord's day, Sunday is named after the sun which was once a god just as Monday is named after the moon which was once worshipped as a goddess.

Finally, the one word that takes the prize for hypocrisy must be "humble" used as a verb. In today's world, everyone, whether he's an Academy Award winner or a school prize recipient, no longer says he's proud to receive the award but rather, he's "humbled" by the award. But what I read in this month's church newsletter emphatically takes the cake. This is the title of the article:

It's an article written by a woman who attended a workshop to help those with financial difficulties. She was moved when she heard the stories of those who were struggling to make ends meet. But this is how she described her feelings:

I have removed anything that might even remotely reveal the identity of this good woman. The purpose of this blog post (like all my other posts) is not to single out any one specific person or to criticise him or her in any way. I'm more interested in the bigger linguistic picture but I have no choice but to take my examples from real publications.

What we have here is a woman who says she was humbled to hear of other people's financial challenges. Does she mean that she was moved? Or saddened? Or even that irritating word that is overused in Christian circles - edified? Perhaps she was edified by tales of how people in worse financial circumstances than she could continue to trust in the Lord? The English language is rich with a wealth of vocabulary that is capable of describing every single emotion that the human heart can feel. She was certainly not humbled and should not have used that word.

Why do people say they are humbled when they are clearly not? Now, I'm not talking about that good woman but I'm focusing my attention on the rest of the world including Oscar Prize winners. The reason is obvious. They are being hypocritical. It's the same old "I dislike him but I don't hate him" line that I used to mouth as a pious Christian boy who carried the silver candlestick to the altar every Sunday. It's the same "I hate the sin but not the sinner" line we hear from adult homophobes who love victimising the LGBT community and other defenceless minority groups but are too self-righteous to admit the truth.

When someone says, "I am humbled to receive this Award", what he really means is "I'm ecstatic to receive it but as a rank hypocrite, I want everyone to think of me as the paragon of humility even at this proud moment of my life."

Any living language is susceptible to change. As the world's most used language and one that has long transcended geographical boundaries to become the world's only neutral language that is not anchored to any one national culture, English undergoes such a rapid change that no book can definitively spell out all the current changes in the language. These changes which are affect not only grammar and syntax but also the meanings of words are usually caused by ignorance of the English-speaking public. The masses who are not so knowledgeable about the niceties and nuances attached to each word,  are apt to use a word in a way that is contrary to standard usage and over time, that incorrect usage becomes standard usage. I have no doubt that one day, the dictionaries will add a new definition to the word "humble" to allow for such a hypocritical use. And it will be a change brought about purely by our hypocrisy.