Area: coherence (logicality)
Topic: factual nonsense (unintentionally hilarious)
“O-o-o-inspiring!” exclaimed Chen, who had impressed me greatly with her eagerness to extend her English vocabulary and to absorb as much insight into the workings of the English language as I was able to impart during her stay with me.
“Awe, awe, Chen.”
“No, no, Chen, it’s awe: a – w – e.”
“A – w – e,” repeated Chen with appreciable concentration. In fact, she had impressed me greatly full stop. Residentials such as hers requiring the host to engage the student from dawn to dusk, I had prudently prepared a wide variety of topics for conversation, which I tried to vary slightly according to the nationality of the student. The one on school holidays, however, required no modification – or so I imagined.
“This afternoon, we are going for a short walk in the mountains, Chen. I love mountains; that’s why we live here. When I was at school, I spent every holiday climbing. What did you use to do in your school holidays?”
“No, no, I mean when you stopped studying.”
“Stopped? I never stopped studying.”
“You never stopped studying?”
“No, I had a lot of extra … extra-curra … ”
The young lady nodded. “I had a lot of extra-curri … cular activities: English, writing, Olympic Math, Chinese ca … ”
“Maths, Chen, maths: math is American.”
“Our tutor was American.” I did indeed detect a trace of the American twang in her accent.
“ … Chinese calligraphy, Chinese folk music, Chinese chess, ethics and community service and leadership. And we had a sports club.”
“Wow.” Taken aback, I made a rather undiplomatic remark, realising the extent of its tactlessness only after it had slipped out. “We have a saying here: ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,’ ha, ha, ha!”
Chen cocked her head, shot me a bewildered look, pondered my faux pas for a little while and solemnly announced, “And we have a saying in China: ‘All work and no play makes Liang a smart boy’.”
Attempting to cover my embarrassment with a nervous chuckle, I was desperate to steer the conversation onto a more agreeable track. “What’s awe-inspiring, Chen? You were saying … ”
“London. Better than Okinawa.”
“Well, London is amazing, but why are you comparing it specifically with Okinawa?”
“Because, in Okinawa, they have the most certen … center … centen … ”
“Yes,” agreed they young lady, “but this is amazing.”
“What is amazing?”
“To live that long.”
“What are you on about, Chen?”
Chen passed me a copy of The Daily Telegraph, which was one of the newspapers I had been collecting for my students in order to enrich their learning experience. You cannot beat a British broadsheet for the quality of its language, can you?
“Please read.” The revelation she was pointing out went like this.
Other islanders are descendent from slaves, and another group are Londoners made homeless in the Great Fire of 1666.
“Oh, Chen, ha, ha, ha – they didn’t mean it!”
“But … but you said that the British press was … unsur … unsur … ”
“ … passable – unsurpassable. It is, it is – on the whole. But, sometimes, they get their logic in a twist.”
“Like in this funny dance they had in the West? We leaped then.”
“With our Great Leap Forward.”
“Yes … uhrm … it’s probably healthier to leap than to twist – at least for the bones. But the twist I meant was about confusion. Unfortunately, even Londoners don’t get to live that long, Chen. I don’t think Okinawians need worry about losing their longevity record. Look, what they were trying to say is this.”
Other islanders are descendent from slaves and another group from Londoners made homeless in the Great Fire of 1666.
“I s-e-e-e,” reflected Chen with a meditative suck on the pen.
“Actually, illogicalities are quite common. I have a folder overflowing with similar nonsense. Listen to this: it’s about the presidential elections in the United States.” I reached for said folder and pulled out a cutting from The Economist, another paragon of linguistic excellence.
Almost as many under-30s describe themselves as conservative (33%) as liberal (37%). Most voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 and the first George Bush in 1988.
I looked at Chen, whose physiognomy betrayed unadulterated discombobulation. “Do you mean they should have voted for local People’s Congresses – like we do in China?”
“As we do, Chen: like is not a conjunction.”
“As we do,” repeated my young pupil diligently.
“No, no, I didn’t mean that.”
“Why not? It is a good system.”
“I’m sure it is, Chen, but that’s not the point. Think about it: the first sentence is about today’s under-30s, but they hadn’t even been born in 1984, and, in 1988, some would have been merely babies. Even in America, you don’t get to vote in your nappies, do you? Actually, I’m not entirely sure what The Economist is trying to say here; maybe this.”
Almost as many under-30s describe themselves as conservative (33%) as liberal (37%). Most young conservatives voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 and the first George Bush in 1988.
“Or maybe they meant most young people in general. I don’t know; whatever it is, it’s not what they said, Chen.”
Another suck on the pen, accompanied by a nod, suggested that my young pupil had got the message.
“What about this one, Chen? It’s also about America; I mean about being granted American citizenship. From The Guardian.”
What the judge actually told us was that we now had equal rights to anyone in the country who had lived there for 3,000 years.
Although Chen had, gratifyingly, burst out laughing more or less instantaneously, there was a further elucidation to be proffered. “So you see, Chen, it’s not just grammar you have to watch – logic is every bit as important. To be coherent, The Guardian should have written something like this.”
What the judge actually told us was that we now had the same rights as anyone who could trace their ancestry in the country as far back as 3,000 years.
“It is longer,” observed my young pupil.
“It is, Chen, but that’s a small price to pay for precision. I’ve got so much nonsense in my collection you wouldn’t believe. And I’ve written a little ditty about a lack of coherence.”
Let us jubilate and cheer
When a message does cohere,
But it happens quite a lot
That it’s bunkum which does not.
“O-o-o-ins … I mean awe-inspiring,” announced Chen.
“Thank you, Chen.”