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Engleesh April 1, 2007

Posted by Tim in Literary, Thoughts.

[No, this is not an April Fool’s post – had a lot of fun telling friends there had been a fire/riot at MMU and it would be closed tomorrow though]

If you’re acquainted with me you’ll probably know English is my “thing”. People ask me for the meanings of words all the time, or to proofread articles and resumes. Heck, when I read the newspapers sometimes I subconsciously analyze the text while reading the story. Here’s a picture:

Grammar Nazi

I’m told that I could spell Pinocchio by the time I was 2 (although I can’t spell it with confidence at the age of 23). Mum started me on Peter and Jane, then Enid Blyton books.

The majority of books I read when I was young were by Enid Blyton, and I still don’t allow Mum to throw them away. Which seems like a very long time ago – a time when I laughed at “Timmy the dog” sharing my name but not at Julian’s brother “Dick”, or “Fanny” from the Faraway Tree series. I’ve heard that in modern editions they replace “Dick” with “Rick”; “Fanny” with “Frannie”…

From Enid Blyton I graduated to staples like Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and The Three Investigators. In retrospect, their storylines were frequently recycled and the writing intentionally kept simple. Should have switched to Roald Dahl and children’s classics earlier. I was also indignant when, many years later, I would discover that they were all ghost-written and there was never a “Franklin W. Dixon” or “Carolyn Keene“! I picked up a bad habit in that period as well: to this day, when I’m at home I simply need to have a something to read when making “chocolate cakes” (maybe you should have second thoughts borrowing any books from me).

In my teens I graduated to Reader’s Digest, Sherlock Holmes, Oscar Wilde stories, and well the list goes on. Today I read TIME, Slate, Slashdot; and myriad blogs, forums, and mailing lists – only the former is print media!

Writing, though, was and is a different creature entirely. It didn’t help that in school there was more focus on Malay, which I didn’t like. For one, written Malay at school simply did not correspond to written Malay in the real world, whether in speeches or in newspaper articles. For another, essay writing was mind-numbingly formulaic. Every sentence was apparently required to begin with cohesive devices e.g. Selain itu, Walau bagaimanapun, Namun begitu, Oleh itu; every paragraph needed to have one isi (point) and two or three huraian (elaborations). When I was active in the MMU Student Publication Board I received quite a few articles written with this production line method. If they were loaves of bread I could have knocked the writers unconscious, the articles were so stale!

English was a bit better since I was good enough to go for the fiction topics in exams, although this occasionally backfired when I had writer’s block in the middle of an essay. The teacher Ms. Mabel also awarded extra points for using “big” words, which I seldom benefited from (although I understand the reasoning behind it), as I am not accustomed to the practice of utilizing pompous vocabulary elements needlessly in the course of my literary compositions. I remember a classmate who tried hard to use big words whenever he could, which made for funny reading as some sentences would have all their adjective replaced with bombastic equivalents, and the rest would read normally.

There was one period when I was honestly challenged in learning English though, and that was when I was taking tuition from Aunt. Molly (calling her Mrs. Ooi sounds weird). She ran English classes using a Singapore syllabus, and on top of that I was Std. 5 and attending the Form Two classes. There was a lot more critical thinking required; the syllabus was way ahead of our local one. I remember Charng Yee (who was also in Std. 5) being in the same class, and we trounced the seniors in tests!

In youth group I was one of the “Three Professors”, dubbed as such after a lenghty exchange on our mailing list that left everyone else bemused – I don’t recall much of it, other than the word “especially” being in dispute. I also remember Anna’s mother giving me a most enlightening lesson: borrow FROM, lend TO (“May I borrow your pen [from you]?”, not “May I lend your pen?”). There was also once a visiting aunt, who is a teacher, brought along student essays to mark during her stay. We had fun laughing at the poorly-written ones.

I rarely sat down and wrote stories or articles though. Maybe because there weren’t reasons to outside of school, or because I was lazy. The SMS/instant messaging phenomenon could be a factor; you get too used to expressing yourself in short bursts. Take for example this email from one of my lecturers, whose English when lecturing is impeccable:

There was a big hoo-ha some time ago about Malaysians reading an average of only two books a year (which became a very popular huraian to put in any SPM essay remotely connected to education). Would it be surprising I count myself among them? I read everything online these days, mostly Wikis, blogs, and news. I rarely read fiction any more. It could be that I’ve grown too skeptical and it’s hard to suspend belief. I find myself thinking “Hey that’s not realistic”, “I’ve seen this plotline before!”, or “What’s the writer trying to get me to believe?” Or it could be that the quality of TV has improved: there are programs that entertain or get you thinking just as well as a book could – well, except Harry Potter. But that’s disputable. Could be that I don’t have money to buy books :).

I think that a question, just as pressing, is: how often do people write, excluding work/student related reports, SMSes and instant messages? For a lot of people I know the answer would be “never”. Now, conversations, verbal debates, and speeches all have their place – although you hardly see a reputable orator who doesn’t write well. Writing however gives you the opportunity to organize your thoughts; to go through and refine what you want to communicate twice, thrice, four times over.

Which is why blogging can be a release: I find myself constantly thinking “what’s the most convincing way to put this?”, or “does it sound right?” Not everyone gets to go on TV or publish a book; anyone can write a blog about anything.



1. Wilz - April 11, 2007

Well, I’m pleasantly surprised that you’re blogging now. I guess it’s just a matter of time for someone who generally thinks and writes as much as you do.

I just want to comment about that fiction reading thing – I can’t agree more. Although suspension of disbelief is still reasonably alright for me, I cannot stop analyzing the stories that I am reading. I do the same for movies and TV, but at least for those, the story is unfolding too fast to spend too much time analyzing them.

I find myself criticizing a book and second-guessing the author all the way through, and that reduces my enjoyment by quite a bit. Can’t help myself though. Bleh.

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