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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Scientific English Requires No Commas


I saw this on Facebook today HERE.

According to MOE Science Teachers, the rules of English punctuation are different in Scientific English. Can MOE provide citations to manuals of Scientific English that state the rule as follows: In scientific english, commas are not required to indicate a pause in reading? I have heard of scientific jargon but I have never heard of scientific grammar rules. In their effort to differentiate students... the A from the A*, teachers have gone beyond testing what was never taught. They're now testing wrong grammar that was never taught.

This would be funny if PSLE stakes weren't so high... if our children didn't get hurt (and not understand what they had done wrong)... if children who write perfectly good English weren't branded merely "A calibre" and not "A* calibre... and thenceforth shunted to a lower class (just because they didn't know wrong grammar). Seriously, if you're gonna use a particular question as a DIFFERENTIATING QUESTION, you should make sure that it's a GOOD item. It's not funny. It's a national tragedy because these things happen in schools right across the nation.

Coming on the heels of a parliamentary pronouncement by the Senior Minister of State, Indranee Rajah, that tuition adds no value to students, this only shows MOE's capacity for denial - which I wrote about HERE. This capacity is so great that MOE actually denies the rules of English Grammar and makes up their own.

(1) Imagine the scenario of a first man telling a second man as they both get slowly dehydrated in the hot desert, "It's not hot. It's all in your mind. It's actually freezing cold." Clearly, the first man is delusional. The freezing cold is all in HIS mind.

(2) Similarly, MOE (through Indranee Rajah) tells us, "Tuition is unnecessary. It's all in your mind." Clearly, MOE is delusional. The "unnecessary" is all in THEIR mind.

(3) Similarly, MOE is telling this parent of a child in a brand name primary school, "The need for a comma to indicate a pause is unnecessary. It's all in your mind." Clearly, MOE is delusional. That commas are unnecessary in scientific speak, is all in THEIR mind.

For the record, my kids had no tuition. However, Little Boy wasn't taught what he needed to know to tackle PSLE. He self-studied using materials I imported from all over the world. The materials and the teaching given by his teachers were not enough.

It is IMPOSSIBLE for teachers to teach the new PSLE syllabus effectively in classes of 40 using crappy textbooks. We ask TOO MUCH of our teachers. Many cannot THEMSELVES cope with the Higher Order Thinking questions. This stresses teachers too. Why expect teachers to teach what they do not master? Why expect our kids to do what the teachers cannot do? I would like to see every primary school teacher take the PSLE every 3 years to see if they can score A* too.

If you can't read the post above, I have magnified the question and reproduced the text below in large font.



This P6 science question is taken from a paper that is set by a local brand name primary school. The majority of the students who took this test gave the answer as (4). The science teacher insisted that the answer is (2). The reason given was that sentence D should be interpreted to mean that only light energy is given off when an electric current passes through it. 

The children, as well as many other adults who are well versed in the English language, unanimously agreed that the students were correct to interpret the sentence as meaning that the bulb will give off light energy (though it does not rule out other forms of energy) only if an electric current passes through it (so if there is no electric current, the bulb will not give off light energy. 

 The HOD called to clarify that her teacher (and therefore the dept) is correct. She apparently said that there is nothing wrong with the statement, and that it is not meant to be read in an 'English' way, but rather in a 'scientific' way. She then proceeded to read the sentence aloud, pausing after the word 'only'. When it was pointed out to her that there is a need for a comma after 'only' if it is to be read with a pause, she insisted that that was the 'scientific' way of reading the sentence, and went on to qualify that laymen would not be able to distinguish between the scientific reading and the English reading, but that the students, having studied the subject for four years, were expected to tell the difference. According to her, this would set the A* students apart from the A students. 

Since when has our English language developed a 'scientific' dialect?! And if you cannot apply standard English language rules to reading the questions of a paper set in English, then perhaps we need to clarify that the paper is written in Scientific-English instead? What kind of nonsense is this?


9 comments:

Lysithea said...

Hi! Just my 2 cents worth for this post.

To me,

if the statement was:

It gives off light energy only, when an electric current passes through it.

or

It gives off light energy, only when an electric current passes through it

Both statements are incorrect, whether it's grammatically or not

because for it to be a correct statement, it should be:

It gives off light and heat energy (only) when an electric current passes through it.

Unknown said...

HOD is speaking SINGLISH!!!!!!

Unknown said...

HOD speaks SINGLISH!!!!!!!!

RF said...

Think the proper way to explain this question would be if the wire was heated up, it will also give off light energy.

Petunia Lee said...

Lysithea - I do believe that even WITH parentheses, the sentence is ambiguous and may be interpreted in 2 ways. To disambiguate the sentence, it is necessary to clearly indicate which clause the adverb "only" belongs to. If the comma is after "only"... then the adverb "only" describes "gives off light energy". If the comma is before "only"... then the adverb "only" describes "when an electric current passes through it". These are known and accepted grammar rules.

Placing the adverb "only" in parentheses does not disambiguate the sentence because with a divider on either side of the word, we still cannot tell what the adverb "only" describes.

It would just be simpler to write "Only light energy is given off when an electric current passes through it." In this case, the placement of the adverb "only" makes it clear which clause in the sentence it describes.

Unknown said...

The teacher & the HOD should both apologise to kids & parents for their dogmatic ignorance. Or be fired.

Stuly Kan said...

The question should be : it only gives off light energy and no other forms of energy when an electric current passes through it.
So called 'scientific' English should be more precise and unambiguous and not less so. The English used here is Unscientific and it is dishonest to claim otherwise.

The low level of English amongst teachers is a consequence of putting higher priority on the second language. A person with superior second language can take it at a higher level eg higher Chinese and get two extra points. But a person with very good English is not given an option to take higher English.

Our national language policy favors second language over the English national language. This has multiple repercussions at many levels
: , racial, social, communicative, thinking, national identity etc.
My son and his classmates had to correct their English teachers spelling when he was in primary three

Ting said...

Before reading the comments and the caption of the picture, I read the question and I realised that I would still choose (4) as the answer. For a moment, I was puzzled and I didn't see the point of the whole fuss raised by the online community.

Perhaps years of being frustrated by the amount of close-reading and interpretation required by primary school questions when faced with similar questions has caused me to read every single question and option very closely. And I feel that secondary school and JC has only increased the amount of close-reading that I have done, not only for sciences but also for GP, and (from my point of view) other humanities subjects as well; in short, everything. My GP teacher once told me that the choice of every single word of each comprehension passage (my school sets their own passages rather than adapting from books, magazines etc.) is debated over. Even taking this with a pinch of salt (yes, it does sound like too much of an exaggeration), one can infer the importance of the choice of words and the habit of close-reading and answering the question as precisely and accurately as possible.

This then leads me to wonder if the extent of the reactions (of both the parent and the online community) is really called for.

"She then proceeded to read the sentence aloud, pausing after the word 'only'. When it was pointed out to her that there is a need for a comma after 'only' if it is to be read with a pause, she insisted that that was the 'scientific' way of reading the sentence, and went on to qualify that laymen would not be able to distinguish between the scientific reading and the English reading, but that the students, having studied the subject for four years, were expected to tell the difference. According to her, this would set the A* students apart from the A students."

In all honesty, I believe that the teacher meant to emphasise the word 'only'. Arguably a case of nit-picking, the argument spirals downwards from there. Although there is no need for a comma if the sentence structure were to be kept the same (it wouldn't make grammatical sense), the whole idea of "scientific-English" seems like a feeble attempt by the teacher to defend herself.

On the other hand, from personal experience, close-reading can make a difference between A* and A students (in the context of primary schools) or even between a B and a C student (in secondary schools/JCs). While I understand that parents feel outraged at the emphasis on such minor details (I was too, in primary school, and I still am occasionally in JC), to survive in the system seems to be a good enough reason for students like myself to suck it up and accept things as they are. I believe that the effectiveness of the Singapore education system in preparing us for our entrance to society is another debate altogether.

Petunia Lee said...

Ting - The Teacher's answer is (2), not (4).