Syntax of Scientific English by Lee Kok Cheong

I hereby declare: It is not necessary for me to finish reading every book I start.

In other words, next time a book bores me as much as this one did, I am going to stop reading it.

I admire what the author set out to do: analyze English-language textbooks to help university teachers guide non-native speakers of English in understanding science.

But this book-length research paper is basically just a bunch of lists. It’s about as dry a piece of writing as one could imagine. In fact, I never imagined it would be this dry, or I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place.

More about the Book

Different kinds of science textbooks, it was hypothesized, would make more use of certain types of syntactic structures, thus reading comprehension would rely more on interpreting those structures correctly, thus identifying which structures are needed in which subjects will allow subject and language teachers to focus more on teaching those structures. Fine.

Language is a subject that interests me deeply, and this year I’ve been working with non-native science text every day, so some insight would have been extremely welcome. Still, it was hard for me to force myself to read through pages and pages of “There were this many of this structure in this text, whereas there were only this many in this other text, and this many in this other text, and this many in this other text, which indicates that this structure is more important in this text than in those other texts.”

Oh well.

From the standpoint of armchair time travel, the book is an interesting artifact. I love the typography of the cover, and the physical construction of the book. It’s a hardcover. It’s not cloth-bound, but it does have stitched signatures.

The author’s description of his process was interesting too: he transcribed a bunch of sentences (totaling about 3,000 words) from each four different textbooks onto little pieces of paper and categorized them manually. It was 1978. He considered using a computer, but decided it wouldn’t really be able to help with the work.

“It is not the aim of the present study to carry out a parsing programme, where a computer could be used to analyse the sentences…. Though computerization of data would save time and labour, it would not give one as deep an insight as manual classification would. Where linguistic insight is so important to one’s research in comprehension, impersonal computerization may not be essential.”

About the Author

I was wondering whether the author, Lee Kok Cheong, was still alive, because if so then he’s seen a lot of improvement in the ability of computers to analyze text.

Well, he’s not still alive. The first thing that came up when I Googled his name was the Wikipedia page about his murder.

Professor Lee was the Head of the English Proficiency Unit at the National University of Singapore. He was born in 1939 and killed in 1993 at the age of 54. He was killed by three young Malaysian men in his house, which they robbed. Some people think the Singapore newspapers made too much of the fact that he was gay. He had previously invited one of the men to go home with him; that was how the man and his two friends knew there were things there worth stealing.

Any murder is a sad story. The sadness of this particular story is greater in that some journalists (and presumably many readers) succumbed to the temptation to blame the victim. If he hadn’t been a promiscuous homosexual, he wouldn’t have invited this random, dangerous stranger into his house—so the thinking goes. Singapore only this year officially decriminalized homosexual acts. It’s not a comfortable place for LGBT people, but it’s less uncomfortable now than it was in 1993, and that’s an improvement. It’s a shame Lee isn’t around to see it.

When and Why I Read Syntax of Scientific English

I bought this at the National University of Singapore "EResource Discovery Day" book sale. It was published by Singapore University Press. The topic is interesting and relevant to my work, but I'm not sure the analysis will be.

Genre: Linguistics/English
Date started / date finished: 02-Aug-23 to 27-Aug-23
Length: 290 pages
ISBN: na
Originally published in: 1978