Going on Record as Being Right

by Doreen Simmons

Ruminative Aunt Eva has recently been pondering the potential ethical gulf between knowing that you are right and going on record as saying so.

Dear Aunt Eva,

I am beginning to think that I was recently dealt a card from the bottom of the pack by a professor I know. He showed me three English sentences, all saying the same thing in slightly different ways, and asked me which was "right."  Well, what he actually said was, "We would like you to confirm our opinion. We think that A is the only correct form, but have been told by a certain person that B is better and C is also possible."

Aunt Eva, warning bells went off in my mind when I read the three sentences: A was, strictly speaking, correct, but it was stilted and old-fashioned. B was indeed the best, and read like the natural utterance of an educated native speaker. And C was indeed a possible alternative; it was a little colloquial but certainly better than A. But what was I to do? The professor's English is nowhere as good as he thinks it is, but he has been very kind to me and I owe him a lot. I was also told when I arrived in Japan that confrontation is to be avoided. So I waffled a bit, but in the end I gave him what he wanted: support for what he already believed was right. Afterward, though, I began to worry: had I allowed myself to be used to injure the person who had claimed, correctly, that B was better than A? Aunt Eva, what is the cutoff point at which we have to tell the truth and face the consequences?

I. M. Leary

Aunt Eva answers:

Dear Mr. Leary,

This is indeed a thorny problem, and I wish there were a single, once-and-for-all rule that you can apply. On the one hand, we have entrenched authority; while on the other, we have unimportant little you. Put that way, it seems that you do not have much choice. On the other hand, considerable changes have taken place in attitudes to English in Japan over the last two or three decades. Perhaps the most obvious case was the "Dictionary Wars," which started when one standout Japanese academic published vociferous complaints about certain entries in the Kenkyusha J-E dictionary (popularly known among translators as the "Green Goddess"). Gradually more authoritative foreigners, notably in the British Council, were drawn into the free-for-all, until finally it seemed that the entire foreign teaching industry was speaking with one voice: in respect of some of the suspect citations, GG was indeed wrong and could no longer be cited automatically as an established authority. Unfortunately the man who had originally raised all the stink subsequently overreached himself, as bloodlust took over from reasoned criticism, but by now the damage had been done.

Every so often, throughout the years, there have been attempts to pour scorn on Tokyo University's English entrance exams, which are published after the event in one of the papers. One particular instance concerned the sentence "Have you any money about you?" which was given as the correct answer to a multiple-choice question. Someone complained that it was incorrect; someone else, that it was obsolete. The British Council was appealed to and, to the best of our recollection, replied that the expression was indeed possible in British usage but was old-fashioned and not commonly used. Aunt Eva was too modest to join the public outcry, but found the origin of the question in the pre-1995 edition of the Kenkyūsha Dictionary of Collocations, which cited the example: "Have you any money about (= with) you?"The beginning of the previous paragraph in the section on "have" was revealing of the mindset of the compiler, and I quote in entirety: "Have after! = Pursue! or Let us pursue!?" The extensively revised Second Edition, first published in 1995, omits "Have after!?" altogether (and I don?t think anybody would complain about that) and in a "money" context gives "He had 100 dollars on him."

The row about whether the offending sentence was wrong, right, or obsolete raged for some little time; Aunt Eva personally found it of greater significance that the Todai academics had clearly lifted this exam question from the Dictionary of Collocations. Consider, too, the position of the foreigner who has been asked, sometimes as a favor, sometimes for a fee, sometimes both, to check the English of a work to be published. How often have we read a review that ends with a dishonorable mention, sometimes by name, of some unfortunate who has allegedly helped with the correction of the English text. In one case the author flourished the review at his hapless colleague—himself a respected academic—and hissed, "I entirely agree with him! Your English was terrible! I corrected all the mistakes I could find, but obviously I must have missed some!"

What we can do with this kind of person, who takes a look at our editing and says, "Why, I can write better English than that!" and proceeds to make a fool of himself? Not much, when the work is in print. Pray that the reviewer knows the score. But it is a very good idea to keep two copies of any work you do, just as insurance: as it came to you and as it left you.

The pride and self-assurance of the Japanese academic continues to ride high, however; the difference is that there is a new generation of younger academics who sometimes have a very good grasp of English indeed. There have always been some of those around, of course; but they tended to be muzzled by the dead hand of authority; specifically, the authority of the senior professors who alone decided who would be promoted to the next stage of the career track that would eventually land the yes-man into the same position of authority.

But in your case, Mr. Leary, your own instinct suggests that you were being manipulated into hammering a junior academic whose English is, in fact, better than his professor's. And as you rightly surmise, you may have got yourself into an ethical quandary, albeit with the best of intentions.

Another of Aunt Eva's friends landed a plum job: adviser to a committee of Japanese professors who were producing English examinations and textbooks. Was this a sign of humility on their part? No way. The colleague who had recommended him for the job was on eggshells: Do not offer an opinion without being asked, and when invited to give an opinion on the correctness of a sentence that you don't think is very natural, think hard, and if in any circumstances whatsoever it is a possible utterance, agree that it is acceptable. "So I just agree with them all the time," he observed proudly to Aunt Eva and another friend. After all, that's what they're paying me for." And here Aunt Eva will draw a curtain over the subsequent expostulations. In recollection, the scene is like a Disney cartoon fade-out, with three people yakking away in a rapidly shrinking circle.

Mr. Leary, you have really answered your own question. How you put your answer into practice, however, is a matter for your own conscience.

Signed, Eva Hartupp


From Newsletter No. 95 (December 2001)