Picking tenses

Posted on Thu 02 Sep 2010 @ 5.41am UTC

Update 7th Sept. 2010: This article now recategorised under Colour Section. No other changes made.


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Readers, this is a TL;DR type of post.

Far too many things irk me (and a few other people besides) about how Hong Kong uses English. ‘Use’ being the operative word here. The place makes no discernible effort to speak or write English. It takes to English only if and when it is for work or some other ‘official’ purpose. In truth, English is despised privately by most Hong Kong Chinese in this erstwhile British colony solely on the idea that ‘we’re Chinese.’

“My boss hates the present tense.”

That “boss” can’t be trusted to do a good job because obviously he is totally clueless about what is happening, language-wise.

I can’t recall who exactly told me this, but it has been playing on my mind for several months now. This is quite rare even for me. I’m not the type who churns and tumbles over the language proclivities of others. Either they speak the language or they don’t. I’ve long gotten used to the unique and sometimes perverse ways and preconceptions the Hong Kong Chinese take to the English language. The mainland Chinese trumps Hongkongers at least in this matter because the mainlanders don’t have the excuse of having been British subjugates.

I make a living by handling important legal and financial documents for IPOs capitalised as much as US$100 million. The ability to stay ‘tuned in’ language-wise while printing or editing or writing or compiling them is kind of important.

* * *


English tenses cannot be picked off (BrE)/cherrypicked (AmE) on a whim.

You’d be doing it wrong—really, really wrong. Pick and choose (i.e. select carefully) is okay enough, but picking off bits that you feel pleases you is a big no-no in English. You just end up sounding like a douchebag or a ninny, or both.

How would you feel, as a Chinese speaker, if a foreigner pick off bits of Mandarin or Cantonese (or any other dialect) for use? We don’t mind. Yeah, right, you ungrateful piece of unpatriotic scum. That’s why even the standard of Chinese is so abysmal in Hong Kong.

Corollary: Be consistent with our tenses. We’ve been taught this since the earliest of schooldays. Consistency means to hold together with regular usage, that is, to be in agreement with the actual way people speak and write that language. Consistency does not mean shoehorning everything into one tense. This is the great difference between how Asians and the English-speaking people understand the word ‘consistent.’

* * *


English is most grammatical when compound tenses are used.

To cut a long story short, authentic English is significantly Anglo-Saxon but substantially Norman French (since 1066), so it uses a combination of different tenses (even in the same sentence) to put across the message. You probably wouldn’t know this first-hand unless you’ve had to study English side by side with French and Latin as school subjects (which 99% of people in Asia wouldn’t have).

* * *


The open secret is that English grammatical rules are more aligned to Latin than they are to English.

My apologies to Professor Randolph Quirk (vice chancellor of my ex-university) and some other eminent language experts for saying this. They know it’s true and it’s high time for a reality check.

English has never jibed well with the rules of grammar. It’s no surprise. The English language before and even centuries after the Norman Conquest never got round to developing grammatical rules for itself. It relied on the grammar of Classical Latin and 4th-century Vulgate (or Church) Latin. In other words, the literati (for the most part the church scribes, the only ones at the time who could read and write) shoehorned Latin grammar into the English language. It was initially done for religious purposes, which in mediaeval times was for reproducing the Bible. By the 1400s when movable-type printing appeared, the Latin grammars had become entrenched and institutionalised as English grammar. Trouble was, the written-down English grammar was for the most part identical with Latin grammar. Some brave souls amended the English grammar to fit in with reality, but the effort was piecemeal, ambiguous, contradictory or even self-contradictory in many cases.

For example, the age-old rule against split infinitives is pure bleeding nonsense with no factual basis. Split infinitives don’t occur in Latin (which is why the rule came about) yet English has split infinitives, e.g. to boldly go where no man has gone before. The confusion comes from ‘split’ — as if ‘split’ somehow meant there was something wrong with an infinitive being split. It’s just a name to describe when an infinitive is separated in some way. It’s like saying Hong Kong has a split legal profession (solicitors vs. barristers) — it’s not a defect.

Of course, it would have been so much more logical or easily grasped had it been renamed something like ‘adverbial infinitive’ or ‘compound infinitive’ or even ‘non-contiguous qualifying adverbial infinitive.’ You wouldn’t realise this unless you took Latin or the Classics as school subjects (as yours truly unfortunately did). So rigid or strict application of grammar actually makes your English less grammatical. And more comical.

Corollary: The split-infinitive rule is a perfect case of an insane rule that lasted down the centuries still makes its mark on the unthinking or the ignorant. Schools in England used to be strict about this rule. Today, we’ve relented a bit with weasel advice like ‘Split infinitives are not incorrect, but you should limit their use unless there is no other way to express things.’ True, but the same restraint could be said for every other grammatical rule in existence or use anyway. Noun clusters are not incorrect, but you should limit their use. Verb clusters are not etc, etc, etc. Phrasal verbs are not etc, etc, etc. Idioms are not etc, etc, etc. The list goes on. Hilarity ensues.

Corollary: The split-infinitive rule and other rules continue to be perpetuated by an absolute majority of grammarians and linguistic types. It is also perpetuated by so-called stylebooks such as Strunk & White that are mostly badly written, judgmental and without much factual basis, and therefore practically worthless. Not to put too fine a point on things, those rules (and the books that support them) help grammarfags (i.e. academics) sustain and even fuel their careers. Please pay attention to the vested interests of people who tell you to do what is right instead of what works.

Corollary: In linguistics, a language is examined with reference to standard grammars for that language (if available) in order to produce a regular and reproducible analysis. The trouble is that many linguists (i.e. those who work in linguistics, not those who speak many languages) often forget the first thing about their jobs. They check the language against the standard grammars, and then pronounce this, that or the other as ungrammatical. They forget that they need to update the standard grammars to accommodate the features and deviations they find in the real-life languages they come across. Learning or analysing languages is not archaeology: the subject matter or material doesn’t stay still.

Rider: Sociologists tend to do the same thing but in a much more deleterious way: fit features of a real-life society into theory rather than adjusting theory to real life. Think of the Marxist theory of social classes and Weberian class analysis for proof. Which is why sociology tends to have such a highly incestuous relationship with linguistics. Studying a society or parts thereof is not like studying a picture: the subject matter is more like a fast-moving RPG videogame with first-person action gameplay properties.

Corollary: Yours truly have seen (professionally speaking) way too much of strict grammaticalisation to know it can totally and permanently degrade your writing or speaking. Teach grammar too early to children and you wreck their chances for life to learn anything else because all knowledge (including maths) comes via language.

* * *


Fixes to language problems are time-consuming and (from your point of view) expensive.

The National Union of Journalists in the UK sets the worldwide benchmark for editorial rates. The NUJ recommends an editing rate of £33 (US$50) an hour, and that’s just for journalistic editing by an editor with 10+ years of experience. The rate skyrockets for academic or literary editing because the average academic or literary figure can’t be trusted to write properly since their mentality is “we are not writing for the layman.” Bollocks. They’ve been laymen before they became experts. That kind of attitude ultimately costs cold, hard cash.

Protip: Forget Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, the Chicago Manual of Style, etc, etc, etc. Most don’t work for you, and if they did, they’d only work for a specific purpose or publication. Below is the way to read in English (and the literature experts among you would find the order hard to beat):

N.B. This list is for learning or making your English better. It’s not supposed to be for improving your ‘literature’ or literary taste.

(1) The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers (revised by Sir Bruce Fraser, 1973 edition, Penguin). Later (post-1986) editions of Plain Words have been badly mangled by dysfunctional editors (i.e. those with academic backgrounds) so it’s a waste of good money. The “boss” mentioned at the top of this story deserves to be force-fed this book eight hours a day for a solid 21 days.

Online version of The Complete Plain Words is at: http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/gowerse/index.htm

(2) How to be an Alien (André Deutsch, 1946; Penguin, 1973) by Hungarian satirist George Mikes (‘mee-kaysh’), but anything by him rocks. His works are highly readable because English was his second language. His humour is extremely subtle, coming through almost imperceptibly but bright and happy. It won’t make you laugh, but smile pleasantly inside.

Online version of How to be an Alien is at http://f2.org/humour/howalien.html

(3) A Ladybird Book of Flags by David Carey; illustrated by J.H. Wingfield (Ladybird Books series 584, 1968) — yes, no mistake! In my opinion, the best possible balance between literary flair and technical conciseness.

(4) Animal Farm by George Orwell (Penguin, 1939). The second book most lied about reading.

(5) Stephen Potter’s hilarious Lifemanship (1950) and One-Upmanship (1952), both Penguins — a paragon of Englishness in English.

(6) Anthony Grey’s A Man Alone (1972) for an example of the power and force of simple words in simply structured sentences. This is the very best of journalistic writing from the generation of people who had a more literary education than ours today.

(7) George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (Penguin, 1933).

(8) Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1951). For learning how to speak and write with simple words — the height of good taste and learning.

(9) George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin, 1948). The book that nearly everyone lies having read. Learn the proper use of active and passive voices.

Online version of Nineteen Eighty-Four is at http://www.netcharles.com/orwell/books/1984.htm

(10) Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) from the man who also wrote Robinson Crusoe (1719). For grappling with complex sentences with simple words and complex tenses.

(11) Anything by Albert Camus (preferably in the original French)—for proper use of adverbs and other qualifiers for straight description and effect that the French are past masters of.

(12) Any of Jean-Louis “Jack” Kerouac’s novels (alas, not his poetry, for they are too hard). Kerouac, along with Allen Ginsberg, writes about the Beat Generation: a must for rebels without a cause.

(13) Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-98; Penguin edition of any year). Not the easiest read, but shows what polished English is meant to be. Not the most English of English prose (for Gibbon, an Englishman, spent his formative and young adult years in France). Not a style of writing (or speaking!) to emulate or aim for, but as an altar to abide under.

Shameless self-gratuitous plug-in: Yours truly owns a six-volume set printed in 1803. Haters are goin’ to hate.

Now you’re properly conditioned to read anything, even pretentious, overwritten and overbearing shite like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, especially Brideshead Revisited (by W. Somerset Maugham), Charles Dickens and the bitchy, sarcastic crap by Virginia Woolf.

Special remark: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926, a.k.a. Fowler’s Modern English Usage) by Henry Fowler is highly optional if (and only if) you don’t take up Gower’s Plain Words. Fowler’s precepts to encourage a direct, vigorous writing style and to oppose all artificiality could not be understood properly by a non-native English learner without also taking on Plain Words. It has to be Gowers first, supported by Fowler, not the other way round, shmucks.

Rider: Most teachers and English aficionados in Hong Kong take Fowler’s precepts to heart — a good thing. They preach but I have yet to see practice. Ninety percent of these people have never even heard of Gower’s Plain Words, which speaks volumes about the knowledge and/or passion for English of these people.

Special special remark: If you’re into a more hardboiled style of writing that slices though the crap and get to the point, try Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series of crime novels, such as I, the Jury (1947).

Or Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1950) and The Big Sleep (1939).

Or Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930), which might be a little hardgoing for the average Asian learner of English.

These will help kill the wordiness that often infects Hong Kong-style English writing; great for writing short essays that hit the teacher stone cold dead.

* * *


English is a stress-timed language in speech and a tense-driven language in writing.

Differential stresses (or tones) on spoken words provide positional or stance meanings. Differential tenses in writing provide time and space meanings. Shoving everything into one stress (or tone, as in speaking in monotone) can make it highly insulting to the listener, e.g. Yeah, right. Forcing everything crowbar-like into one tense creates radically different meanings or great ambiguity for the reader, e.g. Our conclusions were given below. Are they given or not? Are they still your conclusions or not?

Corollary: Just because you dislike the sound or flavour or demeanour of a particular tense because of some unknown internal psychological issue inside you, it doesn’t make it right.

Corollary: Chinese (all dialects) is a topic-driven language wherein all words are usable in all tenses (i.e. Chinese verbs have little or no tense forms) and verbs often are qualified with other words functioning as adverbs. This boils down as the ultimate reason why the Chinese for the most part have massive trouble with tenses and even more with adverbs. It is also why it’s doubly hard for Chinese to learn many other European languages, which sort words by masculine/feminine/neuter gender and have more cases and voices than English, all of which totally throw the Chinese off.

Rider: My maternal grandfather (StandardE) / mother’s father (IntE) in his living years said the Cantonese are famous for picking off bits of any language they want to speak or write in (and that includes Mandarin/Putonghua and Standard Written Chinese). Hong Kong is 95% Cantonese. I can’t prove what grandpa said about the Cantonese, but I trust his words (for he was factually knowledgeable in a hell of a lot of things). The Cantonese are the Italians of the Far East: they never stop talking, they talk in paragraphs, they start writing with long (and longwinded) sentences — just like the Italians but without the Italian flair for hyperbole and sublimation in the same breadth. I don’t even need to be a brain surgeon to realise this much.

* * *

It’s only a small remark. Why get so worked up about it?

The worst things start off as small hiccups. Small hiccups snowball into small boulders that roll into bigger and bigger ones until they squash everything in their path. It’s the same with the story of the English language in Hong Kong, and probably most of Asia.

Not to put too fine a point on things, we have an ethical duty to upkeep our two languages of communication. One of them is English — and it is our most pre-eminent moneymaking medium. We make money through English with the rest of the world for Our Landlady (China) and, in turn, the same with China for the rest of the world. Our two-way street of filthy lucre is set in stone in English, not Chinese, contrary to the ivory-tower prognostications of China watchers and academics that litter the library, the Internet and the usual media outlets.

* * *

Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?

I make no representations: I’m no expert in linguistics. All I’ve ever done were three or four university courses in sociolinguistics over a two-year period as part of some stupid professional eligibility requirement shamelessly set up by my industry and the government for the sake of political correctness.

Discount that, and you or I don’t have to be brain surgeons to see my points are still valid. Some details might be a bit icky, but overall it’s okay. All that is needed is you and I have to be natural-born English speakers (or native or L1 English speakers, as the academics have it).

* * *

Who put you in charge?

The same mandate that put the grammarfags in charge — nothing.

The key difference is you accept and grovel at and lap up their grammatical faeces like there’s no tomorrow. You’re like the grammarfags in every possible respect — you won’t change your mind and you won’t change the subject.

You listen only to those who speak in your own voice that you’ve fallen in love with. You respect only those who are proud to be ignorant and choose to be slaves because it’s safer and less uncertain to see yourself and your loved ones die in a language hovel. You cower under the oppression of Those Who Don’t Have Your Best Interests At Heart. You could only envy those who feel the exhilaration of victory of overcoming their own prejudices. For you, Orwell’s words War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength are paragons of all possible virtues.

No, nothing put me in charge. I’m only saying what is and what isn’t. You don’t even have to agree with me. *snorg*

* * *

Are you a know-it-all? Are you really an L1 English speaker?

Could be. You be the judge.

My family is unusual on two counts even by Hong Kong standards. We’re English speakers in an ocean of Cantonese speakers. As Chinamen, we’re nominally Mandarin mummers (we’re northerners) but we’ve evolved into total Cantonese yakkers by dint of living here.

I won’t bore you with details. Suffice it to say, we’ve been speaking English as a family or at-home language for generations — six if counting by family traditions, four if by family records.

I also grew up in half a dozen different countries: Italy first, then Brazil, Singapore, Japan, France, Germany, the USA, the UK, Lebanon and, of course, Hong Kong. I don’t exclusively use English.

Those mugs people who know me personally can attest to my standard of English. I make mistakes because I am human. I apologise for any mistakes I make, but I make no apologies for making them. What I know, I know extremely well. What I don’t, I say so. I can’t say I see many people doing that.

* * *

You sound like an asshole, telling us not to follow those grammatical rules. Your rules are just as much grammar rules as those rules.

Takes one to know one, doesn’t it?

* * *

If there’s anything we’ve learnt today and it is that to hear only what we like to hear (只聽到我們願意聽的) often leads to massive problems for others — as well as for those others who clean up the mess after you. It costs their time and effort, so it eventually ends up costing you money. Your choice. Choose wisely.

* * *

“Why should I get punished more than House?”

“House doesn’t learn but you probably will.”

© Learn English or Starve, 2010.

Posted in: Colour Section