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Know the rules in mastering English
Published on: Sunday, July 01, 2018

By Richard A. Gontusan

LET’S face it. We Malaysians generally speak the English Language at three levels – the vulgate, the informal and the formal. At the vulgate level, many Malaysians would say, “Come lah, come lah to my house this evening.

I will be happy.”

Some Malaysians would say the same statement at the informal level, “I would be pleased if you could come to my home this evening.”

For a few, they would say it at the formal level, “It would render me tremendous pleasure if you could make your presence felt at my residence this evening.”

In my fifteen years of facilitating a professional course in Business English Language Skills for corporations and government bodies, I have discovered that many course participants possess a command of the language at the vulgate level. I would usually challenge them to move from the vulgate to at least the informal level, short of the formal. At the formal level, very few people would be willing to communicate with us in the language.

Even so, many of those who use the language at the informal level know the language largely by ear.

If it sounds correct, then it must be correct. When asked for explanations, they would struggle to do so convincingly.

I don’t teach English per se now. That task would require the skills and patience of a trained English teacher.

I should know because I was an English teacher for a year at a secondary school in Kota Kinabalu, a job I took immediately after Form Six. I confess that it was while teaching English to lower secondary school students that I actually became solidly familiar with the Rules of English Grammar. Prior to that teaching stint, I had written and spoken English by ear. Although I eventually graduated with degrees in Economics and Management, English has always been my favourite subject. At the American university which I attended, my interest got the better of me, leading me to take up courses on expository writing and creative writing to enhance my knowledge of this important language.

The course I facilitate now is basically remedial in nature, in that it helps the participants to understand the rules that govern the use of the language. With a concrete knowledge of the rules, a participant would be self-guided on the correct use of the language.

Before the writing exercises, the participant would need to know and understand the Eight Parts of Speech, and the rules that govern every part. Many Malaysians commit mistakes in the use of the language because they are oblivion to the rules. The Eight Parts of Speech constitute Noun, Pronoun, Verb, Adjective, Adverb, Conjunction, Preposition and Interjection.

Properly armed with the rules in the use of pronouns, a participant would know soon enough that it is incorrect to say or write, “They are better than us,” “She is better than him” or “I am better than them.”

Correctly, it is “They are better than we,” “She is better than he” and “I am better than they” respectively.

Knowing the rules would help a participant understand the difference in the meanings between these two sentences, “I saw him steal the pen” and “I saw him stealing the pen.” The first means that I saw the complete action while the second says that I only saw a part of the action. Declaring to a judge that I saw the person “stealing” a pen would be inconsequential as the person could have returned the pen there and then.

I did not see the complete action.

A participant would also need to know that the rules governing the use of prepositions prohibit one from saying or writing, “She gave the cake to Mary and I” or “Between you and I, you are smarter.” It is always, “She gave the cake to Mary and me” or “Between you and me, you are smarter.”

I have come across many participants who would write, “Although he studied hard, but he failed the examination.” This glaring mistake arises from the participant’s lack of knowledge of the rules governing conjunctions. Furthermore, the excessive use of the conjunction “and” downgrades the maturity of a sentence, for want of more appropriate conjunctions.

This might come as a surprise to many, but the phrase “due to” has been incorrectly used by Malaysians all this while. The phrase “due to” is an adjective, and according to the rules, the use of the phrase in this sentence, “The match was cancelled due to the rain,” is incorrect because the adjective “due to” cannot describe the verb “cancel.” An adjective may only describe a noun. Therefore, the correct sentence is, “The cancellation of the match was due to the rain.” The adjective “due to” correctly describes the noun “cancellation.”

Alternatively, one could write, “The match was cancelled owing to or because of the rain.”

The rules point out that only an adverb may describe a verb or an adjective. The word “quickly” in the sentence, “He runs quickly,” is an adverb as it describes the verb “runs.” In the sentence, “She completed the brilliantly successful task,” the adverb “brilliantly” describes the adjective “successful,” which in turn, describes the noun “task.” As would be noticeable by now, an adverb usually ends with an “ly,” although this is not always the case.

Another crucial topic that would need to be addressed during a remedial course would be on the use of tenses.

A tense is a verb-based method used to indicate the time, and sometimes the continuation or completeness of an action or state in relation to the time of speaking. The concept of tense in English is a method that is used to refer to time – past, present and future. Hence, in English, if the tenses are incorrectly used, it could confuse the reader or the listener as to the meaning of the message being delivered, spoken or written.

The English language possesses twelve basic tenses – Simple Present, Present Continuous, Present Perfect, Present Perfect Continuous, Simple Past, Past Continuous, Past Perfect, Past Perfect Continuous, Simple Future, Future Continuous, Future Perfect and Future Perfect Continuous.

While it is not necessary to know all these tenses and their uses, the participant should at least know four tenses exceedingly well – the Simple Present Tense, the Simple Past Tense, the Simple Future Tense and the Present Perfect Tense, especially when it comes to the all-important Subject-Verb Agreement.

For example, in the use of the Simple Present Tense, the participant must correctly write or say, “The boy plays football every evening” or “The boys play football every evening.” Notice that for the singular subject, “the boy,” the verb “plays” carries an “s,” while for the plural subject, “the boys,” the verb does not.

This rule is rampantly ignored by many Malaysians. Of course, in the Simple Past Tense, it is, “The boy or the boys played football yesterday.”

Lacking the knowledge of the rules governing tenses could cause pertinent difficulty when it comes to differentiating the meanings of these two sentences, “They asked me a question” and “They have asked me a question.” Many Malaysians are blissfully oblivious to the difference, thinking that both are in the Simple Past Tense.

Putting it simply, the first sentence means that the question has already been answered while the question in the second sentence has yet to be answered. The first sentence is in the Simple Past Tense, while the second one, in the Present Perfect Tense.

A comprehensive remedial English language lesson would include a topic on the moods of the language.

The language is succinctly expressed in three moods – the Narrative, the Imperative and the Subjunctive.

In the Narrative mood, the language is expressed in the form of an ordinary sentence, “It is sunny today.”

An element of instruction is necessary to express it in the Imperative mood as in, “Please close the windows.”

It becomes tricky when the language is expressed in the Subjunctive mood, which requires the presence of an element of fantasy or probability. When the language is used in the Subjunctive mood, one would say or write, “It is high time we went home” or “If I were a millionaire, I would buy everyone a present.”

In the Subjunctive mood, the tense used is in the Simple Past Tense, although, strictly speaking, it is not in the past tense. Another example, the auxiliary verb “would” is being liberally used in this article in the Subjunctive mood to demonstrate politeness, not necessarily as a past tense of “will.”

To write well, one must be fully conversant in the rules highlighted. Furthermore, while writing, one must be mindful of the concept of Parallelism, for without it, a sentence loses it balance. For example, the sentence, “In the morning, the workers were busy doing their work, while in the afternoon, they loitered in the pantry,” lacks balance. To remedy the sentence, one would need to check it for Parallelism, and rewrite it as, “In the morning, the workers were busy doing their work, while in the afternoon, they were loitering in the pantry.” Parallelism balances the verbs “were doing” and “were loitering,” and places them in the same order.

Correct pronunciations, of course, should not be ignored. Nowadays, one is spoilt for choices on websites in the internet which offer assistance on pronunciations. I would recommend the Oxford Dictionary Online, after all, the type of English we use in Malaysia is the British English. All it takes is some effort to find the correct pronunciations for, among others, the words, “us.” “liaise,” “often,” “climber,” “memorable, “atmosphere,” “surface,” “comparable,” “comfort,” “develop” “particular,” “debtor,” “guests,” “salmon” and “abalone.”

Like every other language, English is an evolving language. Nowadays, for example, the noun “impact” is being unabashedly used as a verb, which was not the original intention. Users of the language now merrily write or say, “Every student brings their books to school,” when the correct version should be, “Every student brings his or her books to school,” since the adjective “every” introduces a singular noun, in this case, “student.”

It has been said that rules made are meant to be broken. Granted, at the very least, we should know what the rules are before we break them.

Many Malaysians are fond of combining vulgate and informal English in their conversations, resulting in a confusing mixture of tenses in the process. The confusing mixture shows in their writings as well.

I would suggest the use of just informal English at all times, regardless of the circumstance.

To move from the vulgate to the informal, all it takes is to know the rules highlighted here, and put them into practice immediately. Constant use, correctly, will facilitate the permanent move from vulgate to informal.

It is as easy as that.


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