Singaporeans not using verbs in the past tense

From ‘Reverse trend of speaking poor English’, 28 April 15, ST Forum

(Amy Loh Chee Seen): IT IS unsurprising that netizens derided the Singapore and Asian Schools Math Olympiads question for its poor English (“Maths question catches world’s attention”; April 15). The standard of Singapore’s English has sunk so low that poor English has become acceptable, whether in spoken or written form.

Despite years of campaigns to “speak better English”, parents and teachers unintentionally propagate ungrammatical English. If this continues, the language that current and future generations speak here will bear little resemblance to English. One mistake is the utter disregard for the way a verb should be used in the past tense in reported speech, in the passive form and as an adjective.

New hoardings at a condominium construction site proudly promote its proximity to a “shelter walkway”, restaurant menus list “steam fish” or “grill pork chops”, and shops announce hours when they are “close”.

We write as we speak, and conversations are replete with past events told in the present tense. A Singaporean interviewee on CNN once described his grandmother making herbal soup for him as he “studies” for exams, even though he had mentioned earlier that she died years ago.

Why does our society accept this? It is accepted because we speak more and more Mandarin or Malay. Our Asian verbs do not have different forms for tenses, causing us to fail to recognise incorrect English.

As long as our spoken English stays uncorrected, we will continue to speak and write poor English. A friend of mine was even mocked for her clear enunciation of words in the past tense. It has become “uncool” to speak English correctly.

Unless we reverse the trend, we may well need to produce a dictionary or provide translation services to make our Singapore version of English intelligible to foreigners.

The ‘Cheryl’s birthday’ question is an example of poor tense management (Albert and Bernard just BECOME  friends with Cheryl..), but even the best speakers and writers of the language make such errors occasionally. It’s not necessarily a Singaporean problem as the writer believes; bad tense, a misplaced ‘s (as in womens’, childrens’ or it’s) and comical “quotation marks” are textbook bloopers that happen everywhere else in the English-speaking world.

It’s a goldmine for purists out there. I still see construction signs that read ‘Sorry for the Inconvenient’ or ‘Inconveniences’, or shops that say they are ‘Opened’ for business. And then there’s this:

You have movies titled ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’ (it should be ‘shrank’), and Two Weeks Notice (Weeks’), which may be too subtle for the non-English professors amongst us to sniff out as mistakes.

There’s no evidence, however, that we have been speaking ‘more Mandarin or Malay’ in recent times, nor has poorly written English become ‘acceptable’ today. Someone who writes in his CV ‘I have make $1 million for my last company’ is looked upon less favourably than another candidate with impeccable grammar. A boss is not going to earn anyone’s respect if he writes in email ‘Please make sure you met the timeline’. If you write in your Tinder profile that ‘I like women who reads books’, you’re going to be left-swiped into oblivion. If you garble your grammar in public, you will be picked on, which is a healthy sign that people here still care about the language, that speaking and writing well correlates with one’s social status. 

Bad sentence construction is one thing, but using words inappropriately in an attempt to sound sophisticated like ‘I will revert irregardless after I have actioned on our teleconversation’ is equally painful to the ears, nevermind how familiar you are with the usage of ‘lie, lay, laid and lain’. Don’t get me started on ‘I LITERALLY blew my top at the bad English in this passage!’ or neologisms like ‘value-add’. Bad English doesn’t mean just sloppy grammar; in the examples above, it’s getting the meanings of words utterly, inexcusably WRONG while believing you’re ultra-cool using them. Some have become so embedded no one ever attempts to correct them, especially if they come from your superior.

Some of our deliberate bastardisations of the language have become standard Singlish. ‘Understooded’ is a blatant hyper-correction of the past tense of ‘understand’. We ‘verbalise’ a noun like agar to ‘agarate’ (estimate), and then turn it back into a zombie noun like ‘agaration’. We tell a friend after a bad fight ‘I don’t friend you’, instead of ‘I’m not going to be your friend anymore’. There is ‘confirm’ and ‘double confirm’, not ‘confirmed/double confirmed’. Our censors even once tried to replace the title of an Austin Powers movie from ‘The Spy Who Shagged Me’ to ‘SHIOKED Me’. Thankfully, Shiok has since remained an expression of pleasure and nothing more.

Another possible culprit for our declining standards in English is the rise of internet-speak and texting, where not only is there a criminal neglect of tense, but the spawning of spelling variations and abbreviations in a bid to save time, like ‘tomolo/tmr‘. We order ‘roast chicken’ not roasted chicken, but we retain ‘fried’ not ‘fry’ chicken. We add ‘already’ to indicate a past event so that we don’t have to change the present-tense verb, for example ‘ Yesterday I already pay you what!’. We don’t articulate the ‘-ed’ when we say stuff like ‘Last night I wash my car’, or ‘ I wrap the present yesterday’. Instead of watching stuffy British drama serials we are entertained by cat videos or downloaded Korean soaps with bad subtitles. In place of books, we have Facebook updates, influencer blogs and baby photos with nonsense for captions. In other words, we’ve become lazy. ‘Yes that would be great!’ is now being replaced by a single ‘thumbs up’ emoticon. If emoticons are left to fester and evolve their own syntax like some sentient virus, we’ll start talking to each other with ‘lols’ and facial expressions, and eventually be forced to relearn the alphabet song, not to mention revise our present and past tenses.

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