English, Stones and Glasshouses

2003-02-14
Media should be aware of the exceptional influence they have over language.
For some time now, it has become fashionable, even politically correct, to lament the appalling English standards of the Hong Kong people. Cheap shots are being fired everyday at students, teachers and the salaried class.

The prosecuting counsel, however, seems so busy accusing others that he rarely stops to reflect on his own sins. One is therefore driven to the spot of murmuring about stones and glasshouses.

Examine, for example, the following paragraph taken from the recently released consultative document "Action Plan to Raise Language Standards in Hong Kong" by Michael Tien, Chairman of the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research :

"For a number of years, there has been growing concern within the community over language standards and the need for a more concerted approach to improve the language competencies of our population if Hong Kong is to remain a truly cosmopolitan city." (page 1, first paragraph)

This is by no means such a terrible sentence as some quoted later in this essay, but it is clumsy, awkward and stylistically offensive.

The sentence will read much more elegantly if it is emended as follows :

"For a number of years, there has been growing concern within the community over language standards, and an increasing belief that if Hong Kong is to remain a truly cosmopolitan city, a more concerted approach to improve the language competencies of its people needs to be formulated."

That important people in our government are capable of writing like that is perhaps disappointing but not surprising. One would think that the quality press could be relied on as the final gatekeeper, one of the few remaining guardians of the English language. Don't bet on it.



Appalling English Standards

Authoritative, sober and influential, the South China Morning Post has always been the uppermost echelon of Hong Kong's quality press. It was in its heyday a major local institution with quasi-official status. One, therefore, could be forgiven for thinking that the following paragraphs were taken from an article published not in the South China Morning Post, but its struggling competitor :

"Those who have learned the basics of English grammar and usage will find that any effort put into learning the intricacies of the language pays off quickly.

The student is at an advantage because he or she is well past the difficult early stages of language learning, when lack of motivation could have resulted in loss of interest. Any teacher will say a lack of motivation makes for slow learning at best. You, on the other hand, are already proficient in English, or at least written English."


Under the heading of Speak and write better with a click or a course, this in fact forms part of the article published in the South China Morning Post on January 25, 2003.

This is the kind of sentences that give newspaper writing a bad name. Used well, pronouns can serve as a cohesive device that makes the logic of the argument, and the relationship between events and persons clear to the reader. What principally renders these two cited paragraphs confusing, however, is exactly the sloppy, almost absent-minded manner in which the writer uses pronouns and refers to the subject. For no apparent reason, the subject is referred to variously as "those", "the student" and, most perplexingly, "you". Apart from this, there are so many usage and grammatical errors in the quoted passages that they should be used as materials for rewriting exercises.

The passages should be rewritten altogether, but the following is an attempt to improve them by local revision :

"Students who have mastered the basics of English grammar and usage will find their efforts to learn the intricacies of the language pay off quickly.

They are at an advantage because they are well past the difficult early stages of language learning, when the lack of motivation on the part of the learner could easily result in a loss of interest. Most teachers agree that the learner's lack of motivation makes for slow learning, or worse. These students, however, are already proficient in English, at least written English."


Admittedly, a persistent and meticulous faultfinder will always have a field day with a newspaper. There are so many articles that some of them are bound to be less than well written. But what about the editorial, the one piece of newspaper article written by or on behalf of the editor giving an opinion on a topical issue? One has every right to expect such an article to be logical, well thought-out, cogently argued, and free of grammatical errors and stylistic lapses. Now consider an editorial published in the South China Morning Post again on January 25, 2003 under the heading of UN must push Bush, Blair in their place.

The editorial begins with the following paragraph :

"The lessons of conflict resolution are clear-war is the final option, to be turned to only when all others have been tried without success. This is the view of a chorus of nations alarmed by the United States-led military build-up against Iraq."

This otherwise fluent paragraph is marred by its choice of words. The use of the word "lessons" is not justified since there is no mention of either an experience that acts as a warning or an example from which one has learnt. "Tried without success" is a poor substitute for "exhausted". "A chorus of nations" is apparently used here to mean a group of nations acting in concert, but in that sense,chorus can only refer to a group of people singing and dancing together, usually in a show. The paragraph, therefore, will read much better if it is amended to:

"The principle of conflict resolution is clear-war is the final option, to be turned to only when all others have been exhausted. This is the view underlying the chorus of criticism of nations alarmed by the United States-led military build-up against Iraq."

Many paragraphs later, the editorial says :

"Mr. Bush is using the excuse of disarming Iraq to fulfil his goal of regime change. He insists military means are the only way that this can be achieved."

This paragraph is problematic because it is liable to cause the reader at least momentary confusion. A reader who takes the pronoun this to mean regime change will be puzzled by the obvious illogicality between the two statements. This ambiguity is unnecessary and can be easily removed by rewriting the paragraph as follows :

"Mr. Bush insists military means are the only way to disarm Iraq. But he is in fact using it as an excuse to fulfil his goal of regime change."

Editorial writers should pay attention to their words, so as to leave the reader free to concentrate on the argument put forward. Ideally, the reader should never have to pause to consider what thought is being expressed. That is why editorial writers need to cultivate a vivid awareness in writing of the words and constructions they are using. They must make deliberate efforts to avoid ambiguity, and render their writing unobtrusive, so that its sense can be readily understood and the reader is never distracted from it.


A Subtle Instrument

I don't regard civil servants or journalists, as a class, as uniquely bad writers. And no suggestion is intended that the government document and newspaper from which I have quoted are worse in this aspect than others. Indeed, examples of erroneous grammar, style and usage are so common that I have not needed to seek them out in what I should not ordinarily read. I believe, however, journalists, editors and those whose trade is in the printed word should be aware of the exceptional influence they have over language. The ways they write, splendid or lousy, stand as a reference to others. Students who are not sensitive to how words are chosen and sentences constructed inevitably absorb mistakes they come across in reading.

There is a difference between good writing and bad writing. We are eroding the difference between the two and defining excellence down, if we let the above quoted passages pass for good writing. The English language is a subtle instrument, and all its users must strive to improve the way they employ it by understanding better how it works.

None of us is infallible in writing. In this sense, we are all living in glasshouses. It does not mean, however, that we should not be throwing stones - being hit by stones is sometimes the only way to learn, just that we should always have the humility to admit errors and accept corrections.
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