David Deterding

English Language Myths: 30 Beliefs that Aren't Really True. Adam Brown. Singapore: McGraw-Hill, 2003. 130+xiii pp. ISBN: 0071205349

This book discusses in some depth thirty myths about the English Language that are commonly held in Singapore. Some of these myths concern ideas that are simply wrong, such as the misconception that only one tense can be used in a sentence, some involve cases where Singapore usage differs from that found in such places as Britain and America, like the belief that kindly is roughly synonymous with please, and some involve issues where there are no easy answers, such as whether RP provides a suitable model for pronunciation, and whether Singapore speakers of English can be regarded as native speakers or not.

Discussion of many of the issues is illustrated by a wealth of examples gleaned from corpora of current usage such as Cobuild Direct, from classic works in English by authors like Shakespeare, Dickens, Oscar Wilde and George Orwell, and from the language of well-known modern writers and public figures such as Gore Vidal and Margaret Thatcher. This helpful and colourful exemplification of the issues by reference to a wide range of different texts illustrates how modern corpora and CDROM-based collections of literature can be used exceptionally effectively to provide empirical evidence for the existence of a particular grammatical pattern or feature of language usage.

While some of the myths discussed in the book may be prevalent in many language communities around the world, such as the belief that a sentence should not begin with and or but, there are others that are really only relevant for Singapore, like the completely unfounded claim that Singapore English has a narrower pitch range than other varieties of English. In fact, most of the myths make some reference to Singapore usage, and it seems likely that readers from outside of Singapore may be left a little bewildered in places. It is therefore perhaps a pity that the title of the book does not indicate clearly that it is principally targeted at Singapore readers and those with an interest in Singapore English, for it seems likely that a clearer focus of this nature in the title might enhance the sales within Singapore.

If this results in a loss of sales in Singapore, that will be a great pity, as the book contains a huge amount of well-researched and thoughtfully presented information that many users of English will find invaluable and fascinating. Much of this does not just give direct advice but also supplements it in considerable detail. For instance, in addition to helping to dispel the myth that all words ending in -us have a plural ending in -i, as for example the plural of platypus is platypuses and not *platypi, it is interesting to be given a survey of how a range of different dictionaries deal with such words. And in fact, in some cases, the dictionaries do not agree, such as whether funguses is acceptable as the plural of fungus or not. So the survey of this issue presented in the book provides useful data about what is acceptable, what is preferred, and what is generally not found in standard usage.

The presentation is always kept clear, and considerable effort has been made to ensure all the text will be comprehensible even to non-specialists. Occasionally, in order to keep the explanations reasonably simple, they are not completely comprehensive. For example, a wh-question is described as involving the inversion of the subject and (part of) the verb (p.116), but this definition is a little simplistic as it excludes wh-subject questions such as Who can come? and What hit me?, neither of which involves any inversion. However, the inclusion of a comprehensive definition that encompassed all wh-questions would certainly make the text far more cumbersome, and so it probably does make sense to keep it simple even if this occasionally results in it being not strictly accurate.

It is hoped that this book will be used widely, and that in addition to providing authoritative information about a wide variety of language issues, it will help to dispel at least some of the myths that seem to abound locally. For example, it would be wonderful if students could realise that the past perfect is not generally used in Standard English simply to describe events that happened a long time ago, that there is nothing wrong in beginning a sentence with because, and that would is not a polite alternative to will when talking about the future. If this book can succeed in enabling people to gain a better understanding of these and a host of similar points, it will have served a valuable role indeed.

From: SAAL Quarterly Vol 59, August 2002