Alternative facts

Last night, I learnt the most ingenious expression in the English language, uttered by Trump’s White House Secretary Kellyanne Conway. When pressed by the media on the Trump administration’s exaggeration of the figure of the turnout at the inauguration ceremony, she said they had been citing “alternative facts”.

Oh my God. So there is no intended misinformation; there are no lies. There are only “alternative facts”.

To correct, or not to correct …

Is it OK to say: (a) please reply me (請覆我…); (b) to apply a course (申請一項課程), and (c) I have a good news to tell you (有一件好消息 …)?

Once in a while, I receive messages from people with the above sentences. Then I’m caught in this dilemma, especially if the message is an informal one from a student I know well – To correct, or not to correct, the language errors? 

Yes, we may say that this is Chinglish, and so should not be tolerated. But we now have a variety of colloquial English which Hong Kong people often use between themselves: ‘add oil’; ‘I very concern …’; ‘I don’t think so lor’; ‘Do you sleep on your office?”; “You don’t listen me, you don’t care me”; “I love you but you no love I”; etc. Even Michael Chugani, an English-speaking journalist, has named his new book as “Is Hong Kong game over?” These expressions are not ‘standard English’, but to sociolinguists, a non-standard variety has its social functions, in particular, to indicate in-group solidarity. Singaporeans, for instance, are not ashamed of using Singaporean English when communicating between themselves. Certain occupational groups in society deliberately swear at each other in conversations to indicate their occupational identity.

Now, the difficulty I’m facing is that, if these expressions come from my students, I cannot tell whether my students are using these forms to indicate familiarity, or whether they are genuine errors. If the former, I make myself a nuisance if I correct them. If the latter and if I hold my tongue, I’m not helping my students, most of whom are English language teachers.

So, to correct, or not to correct ……

How many letters are there in the English alphabet?

Twenty-eight years ago, I was an inspector of schools with the Education Bureau (then Education Dept). One day, after observing a lesson, I chatted with the teacher, who complained that many of her students didn’t even know ‘the 24 letters’ of the English alphabet. I smiled, faking understanding and agreement.

This morning, I learnt that indeed there was a time in history when there were only 24 letters in the English alphabet – it was only after the early 16th century when ‘i’ came to be distinguished from ‘j’, and ‘u’ from ‘v’ (The Fight for English by David Crystal, p. 32). Interesting!

(And a reminder for teachers: Don’t say ‘my students don’t even know all the alphabets.’ There is only one alphabet in English, and it contains 26 letters.)

Should I say to my students, “英文is my second language’?

This is an advertisement from an English tutorial centre that I saw in the paper today.

I find this advertisment quite funny. If Tann wished to emphasise the fact that she was a native speaker, why did she say the second part of the sentence in Cantonese? If she wanted to sound friendly, why didn’t she say the whole sentence in Cantonese?

Sure, a lot of advertisements today use mixed code. But given the service they are selling (English courses), and the point they wish to emphasise (the tutor is a native speaker), this slogan has a somewhat comical effect!

‘Friend me, then facebook me.’

In a previous issue in the Ming Pao column co-authored by me and Dr Benjamin Au Yeung, we talked about new words created by Facebook and Facebook users. I noted that while we could say ‘to unfriend someone’ on Facebook, we only had ‘to add someone as a friend’, not ‘to friend someone’. Indeed, ‘to add someone as a friend’ is still the official expression used by Facebook.

On the other hand, ‘facebook’ as a verb, as in ‘Facebook me’, and ‘She facebooked all her friends from high school’ has been around for some time. But ‘to facebook somebody’ is not the same as ‘to add someone as a friend’. It means more like connecting with someone on Facebook.

Today, I ran into ‘to friend someone’ for the first time. On p. 163 of his book Free: How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing, Chris Anderson writes: “… which is what ‘friending’ someone creates”. He was talking about people adding each other as friends on Facebook. Admittedly, Anderson still had to put ‘friending’ in quotation marks. But now that ‘friend’ as a verb has formally appeared in a book (from Random House!), the usage may pick up. I’m now looking forward to being able to say to people soon: ‘Hey, friend me!’

(Postscript: I looked up ‘to friend someone’ on Urban Dictionary, and it was there. But there was only one submitted example under the heading, and it was posted in Feb, 2008.)

Journeying in English: Recent encounters

Episode 1 

I was booking a table for lunch and the guy at the other end of the telephone line asked me to spell my last name. So I said “es-zed-ee”. He couldn’t get it. I repeated and he still couldn’t get it. Then I said “ESee-yiZED-Yee”, and he got it at once.

Episode 2

I was having breakfast at a McDonald’s, and the lady at the next table was shouting at her five-year-old son: “It your foot; it your foot.”

Episode 3

– Since two years ago, every reminder that has landed in my email inbox has been titled “Gentle reminder.”

– Four weeks ago, I saw this sign in a parking lot that reminded people to be careful with their personal belongings. The sign began with “Warm reminder.”

– Three weeks ago, I had a short trip to Macau. There was this notice at the immigration counter urging people to be careful about H5N1. The notice was titled “Warming reminder.”

– Last Sunday, I went to the exhibition for the “River Scene at Qingming”. There were huge posters everywhere with the heading “Friendly reminder.”

– When will I be able to find a reminder that just says ‘reminder’?

Episode 4

There is a book for TESOL teachers titled “Teacher language awareness” written by Stephen Andrews of HKU. I think this is a very clever book title, because the title itself is promoting language awareness, by inviting people to figure out whether it means “Awareness of the language that teachers use in teaching”, or “Language awareness for teachers.” So I related my amusement to Icy, who emailed Stephen Andrews immediately about my response. (Then Andrews explained to Icy why he didn’t go for ‘language awareness for teachers’, even though this was the actual meaning.)

Episode 5

A former student sent me a message on Facebook asking whether it is appropriate to begin an answer to a Why question, in a reading comprehension exercise, with ‘It is because …’. Of course, we know that this is still standard practice in some schools in Hong Kong, as there is this deep-rooted belief that simply saying ‘Because ….’ is ungrammatical since it is not a complete sentence.

Then we had a detailed discussion on Facebook about ‘It is because …’, ‘Because …’, ‘This is because …’, and ‘The man killed the cat because …’ My position is that we should focus on the meaning when marking the answer to a comprehension question. We should not penalise students for writing an ‘incomplete’ sentence.

Moreover, beginning an answer to a Why question with ‘Because’ is a very natural thing to do (in a reading comprehension question), and in fact, even the word ‘because’ can often be omitted. Also, beginning an answer with “It is because” is not grammatically wrong, but not quite natural when you are giving a simple, matter-of-fact, answer to a question. We use ‘It is because’ only when we wish to foreground or emphasise a reason, or contrast one reason with another. A simple corpus search (such as the British National Corpus) will indicate the appropriate usages for ‘It is because …’

Three weeks ago, I was doing the session on the teaching of reading with my PGDP class, and I briefly mentioned the issue above while talking about the limitations of traditional reading comprehension questions (as opposed to task-based reading). I didn’t know that many of them would talk to their colleagues at school about this issue after that session.

One week later when we met again in class, some of them reported their colleagues’ disagreement to me. One teacher reported that it is the practice (of deducting marks for not beginning with ‘It is because’) of the secondary section of the school, so the primary section has to follow suit. One teacher said her colleague wanted me to cite my grammar reference source. One teacher said that her colleague insisted that “It is because” was required in public exams. One teacher consulted her NET colleague, who couldn’t see what was the problem with ‘It is because.”

I was quite amused because I didn’t know that so many of the teachers would follow up by talking about this issue with their colleagues, and also because there were such strong feelings about my questioning of a common English structure found in the classrooms of Hong Kong.

So I did two things afterwards. I looked up “It is because” again in the British National Corpus. I looked up the Answer Key in English Language public exams (TSA, HKCE, HKAL, LPAT) in Hong Kong to find out the ‘official’ form of the answer to a Why question.

And I invite teachers to do the same. This is a useful activity in language awareness.

Meanwhile, let me clarify:

The structure ‘It is because …’ is not grammatically wrong, and it does exist (though often followed by ‘that’, i.e., ‘It is because ….that …’; or prefaced with ‘If …’, i.e., ‘If ……, it is because …’). But as an unmarked, factual, answer to a Why question in a reading comprehension exercise or test, ‘It is because’ is an unnecessary, and somewhat unnatural, opening. And I still stand by my view that when we grade the answer to a comprehension question, we should focus on the meaning. If we want to penalise students for writing an incomplete sentence, we should do it elsewhere, say, in marking compositions.

British National Corpus:

Is “paid area” Hong Kong English?

There is this short article in the English section of today’s Ming Pao:

Thinking about English﹕Paid Area Publishing Date: 2010/4/26

【明報專訊】Does anyone know of any other place in the world which uses the description “paid area”? I think this is Hong Kong English, of which MTR English is a distinct sub-species.

by John Wotherspoon

Is this Hong Kong English, and hence problematic?

“Paid area” is acceptable.  (See:

Noun phrases having a similar contruction are “married quarters” (quarters for married staff), and “disabled toilet” (toilet for disabled people). If we give it a bit of time, we’ll be able to find many other similar examples. In fact, we use a lot of shorthand expressions in daily life. Otherwise our speech will be unnecessarily cumbersome.

Even if this is Hong Kong English, if it serves a particular purpose and context, it should be accepted. I am sure there are many expressions in each of the major English-speaking countries which are incomprehensible to people in other English-speaking countries. Is that a ‘problem’?

Finally, just treat ‘paid area’ as a compound noun, that is, a combination of two words that produce a noun with a special meaning.