Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A Basical Book Review

Ngữ pháp Tiếng Anh cơ bản - A basical English grammar. Author: Phạm Văn Bình. Publisher: by Nhà Xuất Bản Đại Học Sư Phạm (University of Education Press), 2003.

You saw it right. The word in the title is "basical". A simple vocabulary mistake on the cover does not auger well for a book - especially one dispensing linguistic advice. I could not believe my eyes when my fiancée brought it home, purchased for the sum of 10,000 đ. (Don't scoff: that's real money here. It's more than the price of a meal, and equivalent to two Xe Ôm rides in the inner-city area.) Why didn't the author use "basic" instead? It's a pretty adequate adjective as it stands. It uses less letters. Perhaps the the author thought "-al" gave it extra adjective power to sell more books.

What problems are there? The first is the proofreading, or lack of it. Consider punctuation marks like the exclamation mark, the question mark, and (of course) the simple period. In most English examples, it is placed just after the last letter of the last word. That is right and proper. (This is an example.) Other examples insert a single space beforehand (This is an example .) or omit it altogether. (This is an example) Those cases are not good at all. English learners may pick up bad habits this way, which is why I jump on them. (Punctuation errors are regrettably common in the essays I've marked.) Other problems are when the typesetters make mistakes inside the word itself, with the possibility of misleading learners. For example, there's an unnecessary hyphen in "acciden-ce" on page 3. On page 115 (my favorite), "written" is split into "writte" and "n" on separate lines.

But the primary problem is usage. A lot of the examples concocted for the book feel wrong to this native speaker. They fit the "rules" of English grammar, but no-one I'd know would ever say them. To explain the present continuous tense, the book writes is "She is a gentle girl, but she is being angry now." Replace "angry" with "difficult", and it sounds a lot better. A little further: "The sun is ever shining". If you're writing pretentious poetry, "ever" is perfect., but if you don't want people looking funny at you in a business meeting, use "always" instead. On discussing adverbial clauses, the book uses "He stood behind the door that they might not see him." I'd place "so" before "that" myself.

Then there are the outrageous errors. When describing compliment clauses: "The most importance now is you should look after her carefully." "Importance" is a noun, not an adjective - so how can you make the superlative out it? Replace "importance" by "important thing" to make the example correct. The author uses "Accidence" to describe nouns, and I don't even know if "accidence" is a real word.

In the book, most of the examples are both grammatically correct and feel right to me. But for educational books, "most" isn't good enough. You want the error rate down to 0.001%, if not zero - and the reader should be able to figure out where the remaining ones are. "First, do no harm", and teaching readers your own mistakes is harm as far as I'm concerned. The textbook companies back home would reject this submission on sight.    

I'd have two pieces of advice for the author. The first is to retype it out by computer - preferably on a word processor. You can probably lay it out better than the typesetters. (The University of Education Press can't even make a simple table look nice, and to get IPA, they need to scribble it in.) The second is to get a native speaker to run over your proof, and correct any mistakes in grammar and usage. (Including the fucking cover.) Yes, sir - you are not a native speaker, and I can tell. And if you are too proud to get a once-over on the book, be dammed to you.

Score: 4/10.