Monday 25 June 2018

Undistinguished: Why I would refrain from making fun of anyone's English

English is hard.

Sometimes you write “extinguished” when you mean “distinguished”, or “it’s” when you mean “its”.

Or “South Korean leader Kim Jong Un” when you mean “North Korean leader Kim Jong Un”.

Or you imply that the travel photos on your Instagram are taken by you when they’re not.

Even I make mistakes in this column.

Recently, I received an e-mail from a reader regarding an article where I spoofed the letter US President Donald Trump wrote to North (not South) Korean leader Kim Jong Un cancelling the June 12 summit.

Remember that? Those were the days.

In the article, I also described how I almost ordered the summit commemorative coin from the White House Gift Shop website.

The reader wrote:
You mentioned that the cost of the coin was US$19.95 and the shipping charge was US$60.50. You further mentioned that the latter was three times more than the former.

Let’s see if that is correct.

If the shipping charge is one time MORE THAN the cost of the coin, it would be $19.95x2=$39.90.

If it is two times MORE, it would be $19.95x3=$59.85.

If it is three times MORE, it would be $19.95x4=$79.80.

The correct way to state the shipping charge as compared to the cost of the coin is as follows: The shipping charge is slightly more than three times the cost of the coin.

So basically, I put the words “more than” in the wrong place.

Just my luck I have a maths and English geek reading my column.

I wrote back to him: “You’re right, of course. In my defence, I was trying to write like Trump.”

The sad thing is that my column is checked by at least four other people before it goes to print, but bloopers still slip through, of course.

Like I said, English is hard.

So I sympathise with the Chinese food court worker who was berated by a self-proclaimed Singaporean for not being able to speak English in the viral video.

Ironically, the day before I saw the video, I sort of had the opposite problem with a non-Chinese food court worker.

This was in the Tangs Market food court in the basement of Tangs in Orchard Road.

My wife wanted me to order for her fishball noodles with the fat yellow noodle, but I didn’t know what to call the fat yellow noodle in English.

In Mandarin, it’s “shou mian”. In Hokkien, it’s “sek mee”.

The only samples the woman taking my order had in front of her were mee pok and mee kia. So I couldn’t even point.

When I said “fat yellow noodle”, she thought I meant mee pok, which is a flat yellow noodle. One letter makes all the difference.

If the noodles were for me, I would’ve accepted the mee pok, having once made a cameo appearance in Eric Khoo's Mee Pok Man, but I was ordering for somebody else.

Eventually, I spoke to the Chinese cook in Mandarin and he immediately understood what I wanted.

But I felt bad that my English wasn’t good enough to communicate with the non-Chinese food court worker.

And I’m a writer!

Despite not knowing how to use “more than” in a sentence.

Which is why I would refrain from mocking anyone making a mistake like not being able to distinguish “distinguished” from “extinguished”.

Let he who is without grammatical sin and does not live in a linguistic glass house cast the the first stone.

Or something like that.

English is hard.

- Published in The New Paper, 25 June 2018