Monday, March 21, 2016

The perfect infinitive and perfect gerund forms and their usage

Two important grammatical forms that I don’t recall having ever taken up at length here in the Forum are the perfect infinitive and the perfect gerund. I was asked about their usage sometime in 2011 but having been so pressed for time when I wrote my reply, I only managed to come up in the Forum with what looks to me now as a bare-bones discussion of the two forms, and of just two of their particular applications at that. To make up for that less than adequate treatment, I will now discuss the perfect infinitive and the perfect gerund more comprehensively this time.


The form and uses of the perfect infinitive

Let’s take up the perfect infinitive first.

The perfect infinitive has this form: “to have + the past participle or ‘-ed’ form of the verb,” as in the sentence “She declared with great fervor to have met all the qualifications required of presidential candidates, but that declaration has been challenged in court.” Working with a main verb in the sentence (“declared” in the example given), the perfect infinitive (“to have met”) often refers to things that might have happened in the past.  However, the perfect infinitive form can also used to refer to an action that will be completed at some point in the future, as in “The company hopes with great expectations to have finished its restructuring by April.”

We can see that this form differs from the simple infinitive that we are more familiar with, as in the sentence “They want her to drop her candidacy.” In such sentences, the action in the simple infinitive (“to drop” in the example given) coincides in time or is simultaneous with the action of the main verb (“want”).

Sentences that use the perfect infinitive often mean the same thing as their perfect tense or past tense equivalent. Take a look at these examples: “He is ecstatic to have attained his quarterly sales quota.” (“He is ecstatic that he has attained his quarterly sales quota.”) “She regrets to have turned down his marriage proposal.” (‘She regrets that she had turned down his marriage proposal.”) “The board seems to have lost confidence in you.” (It seems that the board has lost confidence in you.”)

The perfect infinitive can also be used in a clause with a verb that has no subject to refer to events that did happen in the past or to events that might have happened but didn’t happen, as in these examples: “To have earned the highest honors in class despite being blind was an outstanding feat.” (The blind student did get the highest honors.) “To have won the debating championship would have great, but even landing third runnerup was a great consolation.” (The debater lost the championship.)

Now let’s take a look at the usage of the perfect infinitive “to have been,” which as I mentioned earlier I had taken up briefly in the Forum in 2011. This special form of the perfect infinitive has two applications, namely:

1. As a noun form to denote a hypothetical state or condition in the past, or a state or condition in the past that has been determined to be true only now: “To have been his associate would have boosted her political career.” (as the subject of the sentence) “It’s great imagining to have been her costar in that movie.” (as complement) “The legislator was found to have been unqualified for public office in the first place.” (as adverbial modifier).

2. As a noun form to denote a state or action in the past that is no longer subsisting (used with the passive form of such telling verbs as “say,” “believe,” “consider,” “assume,” “suppose,” and “think”): “He is reputed to have been an outstanding student leader in the 1960s.” “She is widely thought to have been the most beautiful woman of her time.”

(Next: The perfect gerund)

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its February 7, 2016 issue, © 2016 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

The form and uses of the perfect gerund

Last time we took up the perfect infinitive as a grammatical form that, in tandem with the main verb of a sentence, either refers to things that might have happened in the past, as in “The board seems to have lost confidence in you,” or to an action that will be completed at some point in the future, as in “The company hopes with great expectations to have finished its restructuring by April.” This time we will take up in greater detail the form and uses of the perfect gerund.

Recall that a gerund is a verb form with “-ing” affixed to it to make it function as a noun, as in the sentence “The therapist suggested jogging as a simple antidote to lethargy.” Here, “jogging” is a gerund that serves as the direct object of the verb “suggested.” It has no tense and does not in itself indicate the time when its action takes place.

simple gerund can refer to the same time as that of the verb in the main clause, as in “She loves listening to classical music” (where the act of “listening” happens at the same time as “loving” it), or it can refer to a time before that of the verb in the main clause, as in “He regretted not joining the literary club when he was in college” (where the decision of  “not joining the literary club” obviously happened before “regretting” that decision).

In contrast, a perfect gerund differs from the simple gerund in two respects: (1) It always refers to a time before that of the verb in the main clause, and (2) It is only used if the occurrence of the action expressed by the gerund is not obvious from the context of the statement.

The perfect gerund has the form “having been + past participle of the verb,” as in this example: “She deniedhaving been divorced.” Here, the perfect gerund “having been divorced” is used to make it unmistakably clear that such marital status refers to a time before the woman’s denial. On the other hand, in the sentence “She denied being divorced,” the simple gerund “being divorced” is used to indicate that the woman was indeed not a divorcee precisely at the same time that she denied it.

Perfect gerunds of certain verbs can also take the passive form, as in “She complained of having been unfairly bypassed for promotion.” Here, the passive perfect gerund “having been unfairly bypassed” functions as a complement of the verb “complained.” The sense is that the bypassing of the woman for promotion happened at a time before that of the verb “complained.” (By the way, that sentence using the passive perfect gerund is the equivalent of the complex sentence “She complained that she has been unfairly bypassed for promotion,” where the present perfect passive form “has been unfairly bypassed” is used.

A special form of the perfect gerund is “having been,” where the verb “be” in the perfect gerund isn’t followed by the usual action verb but by a noun or noun phrase instead. As I had taken up very briefly in Jose Carillo’s English Forum in 2011, this form is used to denote a state or condition that no longer subsists at the time of speaking, as in these sentence constructions:

1. A sentence using a perfect gerund as subject: “Having been a student journalist is a big advantage to mass communication majors.”

2. A sentence using a perfect gerund as object of the preposition “about”: “Edna very seldom talked about having been a beauty queen.”

3. A sentence using a perfect gerund as direct object of the verb: “The former long-serving CEO hated having been a dummy all along.”

This winds up our two-part discussion of the perfect infinitive and the perfect gerund.

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its February 13, 2016 issue, © 2016 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Once again, all lovers should thank their lucky stars for Valentine’s Day

“If you must write about Valentine’s Day,” my wife Leonor admonished me the other day, “don’t be a spoilsport. By all means take a break from your grammar columns, but don’t try to take away the romance from Valentine’s.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Leonor,” I said, “I won’t be a spoilsport. Why would I want to do that? On the contrary, I want to tell lovers all over the world that they are right on target in doing the things they do on Valentine’s Day. I mean, you know, exchanging love tokens, whispering sweet nothings, having dinner by candlelight—good, old romance the way it should be.”

“Then you’ve got nothing really new to say,” she said. “You’ll just recycle the same old story that everybody recycles this time of year.”

“Not with this one, Leonor. I have a new thesis: that people should thank their lucky stars they can celebrate Valentine’s Day not so different from how the ancient Romans did it. As you know, those people started it all almost a thousand years before the Christian evangelists came to Europe. They had this much-awaited love festival on February 14, precisely the same day as today’s Valentine’s Day. It went by another name, of course. They called it the Lupercalia.”

“Umm...interesting,” Leonor said. “Tell me more about it.”

“The Lupercalia, in plain English, was the ‘Feast of the Wolf-God.’ It was an ancient fertility rite in honor of a god who protected sheep from the wolves. Its high point was a mating game, a lottery for young, unmarried men and women. The organizers would write the names of qualified, interested women on small pieces of parchment, then drop them into a big vase. Each qualified male drew one piece from the vase, and the woman whose name was on that piece became his date or ‘steady’ for one whole year.”

“That simple? Unacquainted couples were paired with no courtship, no legal and religious mumbo-jumbo?”

“Yes, Leonor, and they had a whole year to find out if they were temperamentally and sexually compatible. If they were, of course, they married and raised a family.”

“How wonderfully uncomplicated, but how unromantic! And my heart bleeds for the young couples that had an eye for each other beforehand. With, say, 1,000 women’s names in that lottery, the probability of a woman getting picked by a man she already liked would be next to zilch; so were the chances of a young man picking the woman he really liked. And the chances of a mutually attracted pair being mated? That’s 1/1,000 multiplied by 1/1,000 or one in a million, right?”

“Right, Leonor! A priori romances simply couldn’t bloom unless the partners decided to mutually violate the rules. But there was one good thing going for that lottery, I think: it leveled the playing field for love and procreation. It must have exquisitely churned and enriched the gene pool of the ancient Romans.”

“Maybe so, but don’t you think their ritual was so elemental, so...shall we say, ‘uncivilized’?”

“That’s saying it mildly, Leonor. It scandalized the early Christian missionaries. They found it decadent, immoral, and, of course, unchristian. So they tried to change it by frying it with its own fat, so to speak.”

“How?”

“Well, the clerics simply revoked the practice of writing the names of young, unmarried women on the pieces of parchment. They wrote on them the names of the Christian saints instead. And you know what they offered to the young, unmarried man who picked the name of a particular saint?”

“What?”

“The privilege of emulating the virtues of that saint for one whole year.”

“What spoilsports, those clerics! Why would any sensible lover whether male or female want to play that sort of game? For Pete’s sake, that lottery was for love and romance and chance encounters, not for sainthood!”

“That’s right, so the Romans resisted the new mechanics and stuck to the old. It was two centuries before the evangelists again tried to stamp out the Lupercalia in a big way. In 490 A.D., Pope Gelasius canonized a Roman by the name of Valentine. He was, by tradition, a priest martyred 220 years before for violating a ban on performing marriages during wartime. Valentine was stoned to death on a February 14, Lupercalia Day, so his feast day was conveniently made to coincide with it. In a sense, the clerics finally succeeded in Christianizing the ancient rites, but only in name and only edgewise, in a manner of speaking. As history would prove, no power on earth could stamp out its earthly and earthy attractions.”

‘You’ve got a lovely story there,” Leonor said, “and you kept your promise of not being a spoilsport. So Happy Valentine’s Day, my love!”

“For you, Leonor, Happy Lupercle’s Day just this once, OK?” (February 13, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the February 13, 2004 issue of The Manila Times. This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 145 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A full-dress review of the perfect tenses

In the English language, we generally mark occurrences through time with the simple past tense, the present tense, and the future tense. However, these simple tenses prove inadequate for capturing the idea that an act or occurrence has been completed or not, that it continues or has stopped, or that it has become a done thing. The English language takes recourse to the so-called perfect tenses to describe an action, occurrence, or circumstance more fully as it has unfolded or is unfolding in the time continuum.

The series of five essays below, written for my weekly column in The Manila Times though the month of December 2015, makes a full-dress review of the perfect tenses. The first essay was in reply to a question raised by Forum member Miss Mae about a certain doubtful usage of tense, and the four subsequent essays sought to clarify and render with greater precision the four tentative conclusions about the perfect tenses that she presented after reading that first essay.

1 – What a sentence needs to take a true perfect tense

This intriguing grammar question was posted recently in Jose Carillo’s English Forum by member Miss Mae:

“Sir, in the sentence below from an article in the Humanity in Action website, why is there no ‘had’ before the verb ‘developed’?

“‘The communist legacy of isolation and the consequent stereotypes that developed also exerted a huge influence on the self-perception of people with disabilities.’”

My reply to Miss Mae:

It’s clear from your question that you considered that sentence to be in the past perfect tense, so it should have used the verb form “had developed” instead of “developed” to read as follows: “The communist legacy of isolation and the consequent stereotypes that had developed also exerted a huge influence on the self-perception of people with disabilities.”

Using the past perfect form “had developed” in that sentence is incorrect, however. This is because the sentence you quoted isn’t in the present perfect but in the simple past tense. The long noun phrase “the communist legacy of isolation and the consequent stereotypes that developed” is its subject, “also exerted” is the operative verb, and the noun phrase “a huge influence on the self-perception of people with disabilities” is the sentence complement.

Indeed, in that sentence, the word “developed” isn’t functioning as a verb. Together with the conjunction “that,” it forms the descriptor “that developed” to modify the subject, “the communist legacy of isolation and the consequent stereotypes.” That descriptor—it doesn’t use the auxiliary verb “has” or “have” or “had”—simply reports that the development took place without indicating whether it has ended, is ending, or will end sometime in the future.

So when would “had” be needed to work with “developed” in a sentence? It’s when we need to use the true perfect tenses to indicate the completion or “perfection” of that development in relation to a particular event or point in time.

We use the past perfect tense (had + past participle of the verb) when that development was completed with respect to another action or event in the past, as in “The communist legacy of isolation had developed before the country could institute democratic reforms.”

We use the present perfect tense (have + past participle of the verb) when that development is completed with respect to the present, but precisely when isn’t specified: “The communist legacy of isolation has developed because of the weakness of the country’s democratic institutions.”

And we use the future perfect tense (will have + past participle of the verb) when that development will be completed with respect to another future action or event: “The communist legacy of isolation will have developed by the time the country’s dictatorship decides to stop its brutal expansionist tendencies.”

Part 2 - A full-dress review of the perfect tenses

Last week, I discussed why the verb form “developed” rather than “had developed” is the correct usage in this sentence: “The communist legacy of isolation and the consequent stereotypes that developed also exerted a huge influence on the self-perception of people with disabilities.” This was in reply to a question by Miss Mae, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, who thought that that sentence is in the perfect tense and should have used the form “had developed” instead.

On the contrary, I explained, the sentence she quoted isn’t in the perfect tense but in the simple past tense. I then briefly sketched how the perfect tenses work to indicate the completion or “perfection” of an action in relation to a particular event or point in time.

My explanation drew this rejoinder from Miss Mae:

“I couldn’t help but feel that I now understand the perfect tenses better. But am I really right? These are what I have concluded from your grammatical prescriptions: (1) Use the past perfect tense when the action was completed before another action, (2) Use the present perfect tense when it is unknown when the action was completed, and (3) Use the future perfect tense when the action still has to be completed in the future.”

My reply to Miss Mae’s rejoinder:

I’m glad that my column last week enhanced your knowledge of what the perfect tense is, but I’m afraid that your three conclusions about its usage are rather fragmentary and even misleading. Evidently, my quick review of the perfect tense in last week’s column has not been comprehensive enough, so I will now make a full-dress review of that admittedly very challenging grammatical form. I’ll do it more slowly and in more detail this time to make sure that their mechanisms and uses are clearly understood.

In English, the perfect tense is a verb form that indicates that an action or circumstance occurred before another event or point in time, and focuses attention on the outcome of that occurrence rather than on that occurrence itself. This tense has three basic forms: the present perfect, the past perfect, and the future perfect. Grammatically, all three of them use a form of the auxiliary “have” together with the past participle of the verb, but the third (the future perfect) also adds the auxiliary “will” to indicate futurity of the action involved.

Take a look at this present-perfect sentence, for instance: “The lovers have prepared for their wedding.” The focus in this sentence is on the present outcome of the lovers’ preparation, which is the fact that they are now ready to be wed. This is in contrast to the sense of the present-tense sentence “The lovers prepared for their wedding,” which focuses instead on their action of preparing for that wedding. (Give yourself a few moments to understand and internalize that distinction in your mind.)

Before getting down to the nitty-gritty of the perfect tenses, however, we need to take up two major sources of confusion about them. The first is the use of the word “perfect” in the term “present perfect,” and the second is the use of the term “past particle” for the form that the main verb takes in the perfect tense.

The word “perfect” in “present perfect” strongly implies “being flawless or exact in every detail,” but its intended sense is actually that of a “perfected” or “completed” action at a certain point of time. As to the term “past participle,” it really has nothing to do with the past tense. It just so happens that a verb’s past participle is often exactly the same as its past-tense form; indeed, many grammarians consider “past participle” a misnomer and suggest calling it “perfect participle” instead.

Part 3 – The present perfect tense

In a rejoinder to my column that made a quick review of the perfect tenses (“What a sentence needs to take a true perfect tense,” December 5), Miss Mae, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, made three conclusions about their usage that were rather fragmentary. I therefore started a full-dress review of the perfect tenses last week, emphasizing that they (a) indicate that an action or circumstance occurred before another event or point in time, and (b) focus attention on the outcome of that occurrence rather than on that occurrence itself.

One of Miss Mae’s slippery conclusions was that the present perfect tense is used “when it is unknown when the action was completed.” To put that conclusion in the proper perspective, let’s now take up the specific uses and workings of the present perfect.

Conceptually, the present perfect tense is used to refer to an event that occurred in an unspecified time in the past, in which the action has been completed but the time period is not or is of indefinite duration. The present perfect therefore cannot be used to refer to a specific past time—only to an unspecified or indefinite one.

Thus, it is incorrect to construct sentences like “The war-torn country has taken stringent austerity measures a year ago” or “Two feuding presidential candidates have debased Philippine politics severely last week.” The time frames of  “a year ago” and “last week” being both specific and definite, they fail to satisfy the requirement of the present perfect.

In those two sentences, the present perfect will work only if “a year ago” and “last week” are dropped: “The war-torn country has taken stringent austerity measures.” “Two feuding presidential candidates have debased Philippine politics severely.” The first sentence is now silent about exactly when the country took austerity measures, and the other about exactly when the two candidates debased Philippine politics.

The present perfect works in at least six specific ways to define events and occurrences as they unfold in time, as follows:

(a) To express a state or condition that began in the past and leads up to and including the present: “Congress has stalled on the Bangsamoro bill for months.” “The detained murder suspect has remained silent for days.” “The defenders have kept their resistance for years.”

(b) To express habitual or continued action: “She has worn high heels since eighteen.” “He has flouted conventions all through college.” “They have sworn to crush infidels even at the cost of their lives.”

(c) To indicate events occurring at an indefinite time in the past (used with the adverbs “ever,” “never,” and “before”): “Have you ever been to Geneva?” “Some women have never gone out of their own villages.” “He denies that he has courted that starlet before.”

(d) To indicate that an action happened only recently (used in tandem with the adverb “just”): “The boy has just finished eating breakfast.” “We have just watched a real shouting match on TV.”

(e) To indicate that an action happened more than once, but it’s not important or necessary to know exactly when: “I have toured Europe four times.” “He has rewritten his unpublished novel 15 times.”

(f) To indicate that something that happened in the past still continues to influence the present: “She has contemplated on having a new hairdo every day this week.” “Traffic jams have brought the city to a standstill, so the city council has intensified its search for better ways of dealing with the problem.” 

The present perfect gives us the power to better comprehend the conditions of the moment by marking them in relation to things that took place before, thus intensifying our perception of time as well as the reality of occurrences and events.

Part 4 – The past perfect tense

Let’s continue our full-dress review of the perfect tenses, this time focusing on the past perfect tense. We will do so to clarify the second of three slippery conclusions about the perfect tenses that were presented by Miss Mae, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, in her rejoinder to my column last December 5. Her second conclusion was that the past perfect tense is used “when the action was completed before another action.”

That the past perfect tense is used for an action that was completed before another action is, of course, basically correct, as in “She had left to work in Dubai when her job application for a coveted Manila-based job was accepted.” This is just one of the uses of the past perfect, however. Another use is for a continuing condition that ended in the past with usually only an implicit reference to another past outcome, as in “The dead felon had taken the wrong path.”

Grammatically, the past perfect is formed in much the same way as the present perfect, with one major difference. We use the past participle of the main verb in the same way as the present perfect, but this time we pair it off with “had,” the past tense of “have,” to form the past perfect component, which we then pair off with at least one other action in the simple past tense. The typical past-perfect sentence thus consists of at least two separate actions, one in the past perfect and the other in the simple past.

The past perfect, unlike the present perfect, doesn’t cover actions that may extend to the present. Instead, it emphasizes the fact that one action, event, or condition ended before another past action, event, or condition began, as in “The couple had left for the airport when their daughter called that her flight was cancelled.” The past participle is carried by the action of the couple, “had left for the airport,” which took place before the daughter’s action of making a call about the cancellation of her flight.

In practice, the past perfect is most useful in showing the hierarchy or succession of past actions in compound or complex sentences. In particular, if the action in a coordinate clause happened before the action in the other coordinate clause, the past perfect becomes the appropriate tense for the dependent clause. Take this compound sentence, for example: “The applicant reported for the job interview promptly at 10:30 a.m., but the hiring officer had left for an emergency manager’s meeting.” The action in the second clause, “the hiring officer had left for an emergency manager’s meeting,” has to be in the past perfect because it took place before that of the first clause, which is the applicant’s reporting for the interview.

In complex past-perfect sentences, the independent clause takes the simple past tense. Consider this sentence: “The poll body disqualified the candidate because, among others, she had made material misrepresentations in her certificate of candidacy.” Both the action in the independent clause, “the poll body disqualified the candidate,” and in the dependent clause, “she had made material misrepresentations in her certificate of candidacy,” happened in the past, but the latter takes the past perfect because it precedes the former in time.

Then there is a baseline use of the past perfect that doesn’t require the explicit use of another action completed before another past event. Take a look at this sentence: “The heavy rains had lasted a month.” It states an action that began and ended sometime in the past, as opposed to the present perfect “The heavy rains have lasted a month,” which denotes a condition that began in the past and continues up to the present.

Part 5 – The future perfect tense

To complete our full-dress review of the perfect tenses, we will now take up the future perfect tense. We will do so to correct the third faulty conclusion about this tense that was presented by  Miss Mae, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, in her rejoinder to my column last December 5. Her understanding was that the future perfect is used “when the action still has to be completed in the future.”

This description of the future perfect misses out on this crucial aspect: the completion of the future action or event should be with respect to another future action or point in time. To get a better sense of this, imagine that we have travelled in time and are now looking back at actions or events that will be completed after the present time (the here and now). Indeed, the future perfect will be a kind of present tense from the viewpoint of the future instead of the present.

The future perfect sentence has this general form: (Subject) + (“will have”) + (past participle of main verb) + (time relation to another future action, expressed in the present tense). Consider this example: “The woman will have cooked dinner when her friends arrive.” The sentence describes an action that continues into the future—the future perfect component—and another action or point in time, expressed in the simple present, in which the action culminates.  
           
Specifically, the future perfect tense can be used for these four distinct scenarios:

1. A future action that will be completed before another future time or event: “The Supreme Court will have decided the candidate’s disqualification case by then.” (The act of deciding the case is done before some unspecified time in the future.) “By the time his wife comes back from her morning jog, he will have finished writing his report.” (The wife’s coming back takes place after the writer finishes his report.)

2. An action or condition that will continue up to a certain point in the future: “The executive will have held the job for 20 years when he retires in June.” “The astronaut will have been in the Space Station for a year by the time he goes back to Earth.” (In both sentences, an existing condition remains unchanged until a specific future time.)

3. A future event that will occur before a specific time or action in the future: “When yearend comes, the family will have moved to their new house.” “By the time the disqualification case against her gets decided, the candidate will have tangled with every convention and established authority.” (The independent clauses “the family will have moved to their new house” and “the candidate will have tangled with every convention and established authority” take place prior to the time frames of their respective dependent clauses.)

4. A future event whose completion is more important than how long it will take to complete it: “By the time he gets paroled, the convict will have stayed in prison for 10 years.” “At this rate, he will have taken the bar examinations six times by the time he obtains his license to practice law.” (The future perfect dramatizes the importance of the end-point of a process rather than the process itself.)

Keep in mind that in future perfect sentences, the independent clause cannot begin with the conjunctions “when,” “while,” “before,” “after,” “by the time,” “as soon as,” “if,” and “unless.” Only the dependent clause can use them. Thus, this future perfect construction is incorrect: “Anita leaves for Dubai next week when she will have obtained her work visa.” The correct construction: “When Anita leaves for Dubai next week, she will have obtained her work visa.”

This ends our four-part full-dress review of the perfect tenses.

This series of essays first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its December 5, 12, 19, and 26, 2015 and January 2, 2015 issues, © 2015, 2015 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Redux 5: Remembrances of 10 Christmases Past

December 26, 2015

Dear Fellow Communicator,

Merry Christmas and a Happy, Prosperous New Year!

In the spirit of the Christmas Season, and particularly for the benefit of members of Jose Carillo’s English Forum who joined us only after December 2014, I am reposting this special Christmas feature that first appeared in the Forum five years ago. In this retrospective, 10 Forum members from various parts of the world recall their most memorable Christmas experiences or share their most intimate thoughts about Christmas. Whether celebratory, affirming, or contrarian, their thoughts remain timely and timeless as ever—a veritable springboard for our own reflections about Christendom’s holiest of seasons.

THIS MONTH IN THE FORUM (December 2015):
·       My Thoughts Exactly: Redux 5: Remembrances of 10 Christmases Past (Forum members from various parts of the world reflect on Christendom’s holiest of seasons)
·       Readings on Language: Contemporary Discourse in English Gets Plagued with “Verbal Eczema” (British novelist bewails the rise of subtly insulting and patronizing English expressions)
·       Media English Watch: Frenzied Arrival Reporting for the APEC Dignitaries (News reporters wrack their brains for alternatives to the verb “arrive,” to no avail)
·       Badly Written, Badly Spoken: What Does a Sentence Need to Take the Perfect Tense  (A later event or point in time to show the completion of a prior action or event)
·       News and Commentary: French Expected To Be World’s Most Spoken Language By 2050  (This will be due to sub-Saharan Africa’s burgeoning francophone populations)
·       Use and Misuse: Can “People” and “Persons” Be Used Interchangeably? (Yes, but for the singular form, using “person” is the better, more flexible option)
·       You Asked Me This Question: “Deployment” is Lingua Franca For Sending of OFWs Abroad (This military term is now generic for spreading out people for a deliberate purpose)
·       The Finest in Language Humor: Christmas Q&A for English Buffs (Sampler – “Q: What do you call Santa’s helpers? A: Subordinate clauses.”)
·       Getting to Know English: The Perplexing Workings of the Double Possessive (The evident superfluity of this default usage does seem like grammatical overkill)
·       Time Out from English Grammar: Focusing on Three Things at Once is Courting Information Overload (When a point called “decision fatigue” is reached, it’s difficult to think straight)
·       Advice & Dissent: Two Free-Thinking Advocates Discuss God, Sundry Subjects (Now you can read online the 2011 interview that became a sensation when it first came out in print)
·       Advocacies: William Zinsser on Writing: “Short is Better Than Long. Simple is Good.” (Beloved advocate of clarity and brevity in English prose writes 30)
·       How Good is Your English?: Debatable Answer Choices in English Practice Test (They can confuse when too arithmetical, too arbitrary, and too culture-bound!)

See you at the Forum!

Sincerely yours,
Joe Carillo

Click this link to go the website now: http://josecarilloforum.com

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Wordsmithing verbs of destruction in English

A Hong Kong-based Filipina English teacher, Isabel F., recently shared with me this story about the usage of a verb of destruction:

“I’m a longtime listener to BBC iPlayer Radio and early this morning, I caught the program ‘The Why Factor’ hosted by Mike Williams. He read out some of his listeners’ mail criticizing him for using the word ‘decimated’ to describe something that had been destroyed. They pointed out that ‘decimated’ really means having destroyed or killed 1 in 10, according to the historical fact that Roman legions would kill 1 in 10 men as a form of punishment.

“Williams said he consulted an authority, British journalist and writer Oliver Kamm, who told him that the criticism is pure pedantry because ‘decimated’ is accepted today to denote ‘destroy or demolish completely.’

“I thought that you, as a wordsmith, would be interested in this.”

My reply to Isabel F.:

Your account of how the verb “decimate” evolved definitely interests me but not as a “wordsmith” in the context of being a word expert but only as one who happens to work with words as a source of livelihood. I’m making that distinction to make it clear that I’m not putting myself in the same league as Oliver Kamm, whose book on grammar, Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, I featured in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently (http://tinyurl.com/o7tgt8o).

Yes, I absolutely agree with Kamm that it’s pure pedantry—the unimaginative emphasis of minutiae in the use of knowledge—to insist that “decimated” be limited to the sense of having destroyed or killed 1 in 10. That’s its original sense, of course, having come from the Latin “decimatus,” for the practice of punishing mutinous Roman military units by the brutal execution of one soldier, chosen by lot, in every 10.”

Over the centuries, however, “decimate” had evolved in usage to mean “exacting a tax of 10 per cent.” It later lost the percentage aspect to mean just “reducing drastically especially in number,” as in “Unchecked urban migration severely decimated the rural population.” Eventually, it also became generic for “causing great destruction or harm,” as in “Serious citizenship and residency questions could decimate the poll-survey frontrunner’s chances of winning the presidency.”

Those are vast leaps in the meaning of “decimate” as a verb of destruction. But if some British English speakers find them disturbing, they would likely be shocked—nay, infuriated—to know that English speakers elsewhere in the world are even more aggressive in wordsmithing verbs like “decimate” beyond recognition.

Among Filipino speakers of English, in particular, the verb “salvage” has suffered an even worse fate. We all know that “salvage” normally means to rescue or save someone or something from wreckage or ruin, as in “Victims of Typhoon Lando came back to salvage their belongings from their devastated homes.” In recent years, however, “salvage” acquired the opposite meaning of “to kill” or “to assassinate,” as in “Which is a better way to deal with a serial plunderer—to salvage him or jail him for life?”

The website ArchipelagoFiles.com describes that sense of “salvage” matter-of-factly: “The word gets a whole new meaning when used in the Philippines wherein it has become synonymous to murder. To salvage is to kill. The word is often used by the media in referring to murder cases wherein the victims were put to death for being criminals. The victims are aptly called salvage victims. So if you are reading this and you happen to be a non-Filipino, consider yourself warned. When a Filipino says he’s going to salvage you, he’s not going to save you, he’s going to do just the opposite.”

In a very real sense, therefore, the benign “salvage” has become a verb of destruction in much the same way as “decimate”—only much deadlier.     

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 24, 2015 issue © 2015 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

In English, it’s the helping verb that takes the tense

This rant about bad English grammar was posted in the Facebook page of Jose Carillo's English Forum recently by visitor Zzyggy Zubiri:
           
“Pardon my grammar and punctuation, for I wasn’t a very good student then. My English may not be that good but still, I find from reading Internet forums that unlike people in India and in other nations that use English as a second language, Filipinos have a very irritating, if not confounding, way of using the past tense with words like ‘did’ or ‘would,’ as in ‘did helped’ or ‘would cared.’ Now I’m starting to think that by sheer force of numbers, they may be correct.

“Is this what our teachers are teaching in school nowadays or should the teachers themselves be taught? Or, more disturbing is—am I wrong?”

My reply to Zzyggy Zubiri:

Even by sheer force of numbers, not by a long stretch are those Filipinos correct when they use the past tense of the verb with words like “did” or “would,” and I’m absolutely sure that their English teachers aren’t teaching them that terribly wrong usage either. It’s just that being nonnative English speakers, many Filipinos can’t seem to grasp the fact that in English, it’s the helping verb—not the main verb—that takes the tense.

I’ve taken up this grammar quirk every now and then in this column and in the Forum over the years (http://tinyurl.com/olyxuw5). However, as I had pointed out to an incredulous lawyer puzzled by the cluelessness of some people about that usage, it does need some brainwork to grasp the difference between the tensed main verb and the non-tensed bare infinitive in English sentences.

The thing to keep in mind is that in English, the auxiliary or helping verb “do” works in two basic ways: (1) as an intensifier to emphasize or to insist on something, (2) to indicate that a question is being asked and to give an emphatic answer, whether positively or negatively. But mark this rule: in both usages, it’s not the main verb but the helping verb “do” that takes the tense.

1. “Do” functions as an intensifier. It emphasizes a response to a probing question in the present tense or past tense, taking the position right before the main verb of the response. For instance, to the question “Do you really know this woman?” or “Did you really know this woman?”, the typical emphatic positive response is “Yes, I do know this woman” or “Yes, I did know this woman.” In such responses, it’s the helping verb “do” that takes the tense. The main verb remains in its base form (the infinitive stripped of the function word “to”), which we shouldn’t confuse with its present-tense form. Thus, in the examples presented above, “know” is a bare infinitive and doesn’t take any tense at all.

2. “Do” indicates that a question is being asked. As we all know, “do” takes the front-end position in present-tense and past-tense questions, as in “Does she take unsolicited advice?” and “Did she take unsolicited advice?” In future-tense questions, the auxiliary verb “will” or “would” takes the place of “do,” as in “Will she take unsolicited advice?” or “Would she take unsolicited advice?”

Take note that in positive answers to such questions, it’s not the main verb but the helping verb “do” or “would” that takes the tense: “Yes, she does take unsolicited advice.” “Yes, she did take unsolicited advice.” “Yes, she would take unsolicited advice.” When the answer is negative, the helping verb must be positioned before the word that negates the main verb: “No, she does not take unsolicited advice.” “No, she did not take unsolicited advice.” “No, she would not take unsolicited advice.”

Always, it is not the main verb but the helping verb that takes the tense.

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, August 22, 2015 issue © 2015 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.