Friday, August 28, 2009

Defending ourselves from insidious political propaganda

Whether or not they constitute premature election campaigning under our fuzzy laws, the expensive TV commercials and print ads currently being run by some aspirants to the Philippine presidency are nothing less than crass political propaganda. They are a deliberate attempt to get ahead by foul means, very much like an Olympic runner’s sprinting ahead of the pack even before the starting gun is fired. Sportsmanship and fair play still reign supreme in the Olympics, of course, so that runner would be automatically disqualified for such a brazen act. Not so in the incorrigibly roughshod world of Philippine politics, where false pretenses and shameless dissimulation are routinely tolerated as justification for outright violation of the rules.

The sly, eager-beaver politicians callously foisting on us their early propaganda obviously have this agenda: to create a vote-worthy image for themselves, to manipulate the results of the political surveys in their favor, and to create a bandwagon effect for their putative candidacies. Such an agenda is, of course, not objectionable in itself—it’s only the timing of its execution that’s morally and legally in question here. Indeed, once the election campaign season starts, we can expect even more intense, go-for-broke political propaganda from the successful beneficiaries of this premature election campaigning.

In the months leading to the 2004 national elections, I tried to put propaganda in both its historical and contemporary perspective by writing about it in my column in The Manila Times. I did the piece, “A Primer on Political Propaganda,” in the hope of helping people fortify their defenses against blatantly dishonest and deceptive propaganda. To foil the single-minded goal of political propagandists to short-circuit our rational thought, I proposed that we should do two things: know at least the most basic tricks they use to subvert rational thinking, and cultivate an open and objective mind to prevent ourselves from being deceived and making wrong decisions.

On the eve of what promises to be another propaganda-saturated national election campaign season, I make the same proposals once again to protect the country from being led by the nose to political perdition.

A primer on political propaganda

Propaganda did not start as something undesirable or downright evil. In fact, it had its origins in what many of us would consider the holiest of causes. Almost four centuries ago, in 1622, Pope Gregory XV was confronted with a twin-horned problem: heathens were fiercely resisting Christianity in the new lands that the papacy wanted to evangelize, and where the faith had already made a beachhead, heretics were attacking its very genuineness and patrimony.

Alarmed, the 68-year-old pope, once a fiery and outspoken doctor of laws but now afflicted by a dreadful bladder stone barely two years into the papacy (he died of the illness a year later), decided to form a special task force. He called it the Congregatio de propaganda fide, or “the Congregation for propagating the faith,” and gave it the task of putting more teeth to the worldwide missionary activities of the Roman Catholic Church.

That congregation’s successes and failures are today firmly etched both in the world’s religious geography and in the inscrutable, sometimes shockingly irrational ways that people on both sides of the great religious divide view that world. That, of course, is a fascinating subject crying for an intelligent discussion, but at this time, we will limit ourselves to how the entirely new word “propaganda” crept into the language, first into Latin and later into English, and how its practice evolved into a deadlier hydra than the twin-horned devil it was originally meant to vanquish.

Today, as most of us know, the word “propaganda” has become a noun that means “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” In plain and simple English, it is a one-sided form or persuasion seeking to make people decide and act without thinking. This blight on the logical thought process becomes virulent when serious clashes in religious, political, and ideological beliefs become inevitable. And what makes the once pious word and activity even more unchristian and linguistically anomalous is that it is waged as fanatically by the really bad guys as by the presumably good guys on our side.

The essential problem with propaganda, of course, is its single-minded goal of short-circuiting rational thought. As practiced in the Philippine election campaign, for instance, it is excessively bigoted in agitating our emotions, in exploiting our insecurities and ignorance, in taking advantage of the ambiguities and vulnerabilities of the language, and in bending the rules of logic whenever convenient or expedient. Propaganda can delude both the ignorant and intelligent alike, and the even greater danger is that even astute people could become its victims and crazed believers, as we are witnessing right now.

To fortify our defenses against political propaganda, we have to do two crucial things ourselves: (1) know at least the most basic tricks used by political propagandists to subvert rational thinking, and (2) cultivate an open and objective mind to counter their deceptions and sleighs of the mind.

A practical first step for this propaganda-defusing process is to critically scrutinize those aspiring for the top national positions. For our own and this country’s sake, and no matter what the poll surveys and the TV or radio commercials say, we must cut the candidates down to size. We must for decision-making purposes think of them simply as applicants for a specific job, or consider them as nothing more than branded products on the supermarket shelf.

By looking at a candidate as just another job applicant, we can greatly loosen the grip of his or her propaganda on our senses. That will allow us to dispassionately go over his or her application and résumé and make a reasonably sound judgment on the following basics: (1) communication and writing skills, (2) quality of mind and self-appraisal, and (3) qualifications and job-related work experience. Anybody who skips this elementary procedure for hiring entry-level stock clerks and senior corporate executives alike is obviously an incompetent, irresponsible fool who deserves to be fired outright. And yet, as we can all see, skipping this very basic process is what many propagandists of national candidates would like the Filipino electorate to do.

It would be even more instructive to treat the candidates simply as products on a supermarket shelf. We can then proceed to mercilessly strip them of their elaborate branding and packaging to see the intrinsic worth of the actual product inside. It would shock many people to know that the cost of the packaging of certain shampoos in glitzy sachets can run to as much as 85 percent of their total selling price. How much more profound their shock would be to find that some highly touted candidates, when stripped of their glitzy imaging and positioning, have less probative value for the national positions they are seeking than the paper their faces and names are printed on.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 29, 2004 issue © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Draconian demands for front-page editorial excellence

Normally, front-page headline stories in the national newspapers get the most lavish editorial attention, with nitpicky copy editors and section editors and possibly the editor in chief himself or herself making doubly sure that the facts are right, the numbers are right, the context is right, the headlines and typefaces are right, and the grammar and usage in the stories are perfect in every way—from spelling and capitalizations down to the last hyphen, comma, period, and close quotes. In the days when I was a newspaperman myself, in fact, it was considered a journalistic disgrace for even a single error—no matter how minute—to get to the printed page. A wrong word or two in the inside pages was forgivable, but for the front-page headline story? You could lose your job or damage your reputation irreparably if it happened!

So how are the four major Metro Manila broadsheets these days faring against such draconian demands for editorial excellence in their front pages? Let’s take a look at the lead paragraph of the front-page headline story of each of them for their issue on the same day last week:

Newspaper A:

“The configuration of the 2010 presidential election continued to take shape, with another possible team emerging and two popular evangelists flexing muscle.”

Newspaper B:

“Even if it’s a red letter day, people from all walks of life will paint the town yellow on Friday as they pay tribute to the late former Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., who was assassinated 26 years ago while fighting for Philippine democracy.”

Newspaper C:

MANILA, Philippines - With the rising popularity of Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, Liberal Party (LP) stalwarts are being torn between him and Sen. Manuel Roxas II in their quest for the party’s standard-bearer in the 2010 elections.”

Newspaper D:

“Malacañang apparently needed former President Fidel Ramos more than the former leader needed it—at least when the subject was the 2010 elections.”

From the looks of it, the English grammar and usage of these lead sentences are far from perfect—and the errors in some are serious enough to cause some of the editors to lose a few nights’ sleep at least.


Let’s now analyze each of the four lead sentences above and see how they can be improved.

Newspaper A:

The configuration of the 2010 presidential election continued to take shape, with another possible team emerging and two popular evangelists flexing muscle.”

My digital Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines the word “configuration” as, first, the relative arrangement of parts or elements and, second, as “shape.” In other words, “configuration” is synonymous with “shape.” The main clause of that lead sentence could therefore also read as “the shape of the 2010 presidential election continued to take shape”—which means that it’s a tautology or a needless, circuitous repetition of the same idea, statement, or word.

It’s really a wonder how such an obvious tautology could crop up in the lead sentence of a story written by as many as three reporters; one would have thought that at least one of them would have noticed it and objected to it. But since this obviously didn’t happen, perhaps the section editor or the editor and chief could have blue-penciled the offending clause construction and supplied a better word than “configuration.”

This is all Monday quarterbacking, of course, so what we need to do now is figure out how to get rid of the tautology in that sentence. My first instinct is to replace “configuration” with “contour,” but a quick check with my dictionary tells me that “contour,” while a tad different in semantics, is also practically synonymous with “configuration.” Another possible word is “character,” but on second thoughts it sounds somewhat judgmental to me. (Now I can appreciate the predicament of the writers and editors when they were making their word choices for that sentence! My advantage over them, of course, is hindsight and the luxury of time.)

At any rate, I think I’ll settle for the word “makings”—it means “potentiality”—as the most semantically appropriate choice for that sentence:

The makings of the 2010 presidential election continued to take shape, with another possible team emerging and two popular evangelists flexing muscle.”

At the very least, it gets rid of the tautology in the original sentence for good.

Newspaper B:

Even if it’s a red letter day, people from all walks of life will paint the town yellow on Friday as they pay tribute to the late former Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., who was assassinated 26 years ago while fighting for Philippine democracy.”

First things first: the compound term “red letter day” needs a hyphen between “red” and “letter.” When we do that, “red-letter day” becomes a legitimate modifier that means “of special significance.” Without that hyphen, “red letter day” becomes literal and its meaning becomes difficult to figure out.

I’m also bothered by the mixing of so many metaphors and figurative expressions in that sentence. The metaphors there are, of course, “red-letter day” and “paint the town yellow,” while the figurative expressions are “from all walks of life,” “pay tribute,” and “while fighting for Philippine democracy.” The use of “red-letter day” is perfectly acceptable usage, of course, but “paint the town yellow” as a variation of the metaphor “paint the town red” is semantically questionable. The expression “paint the town red” means “going out for a night out with lots of fun and drinking,” and the use of “red” is actually an allusion to the kind of unruly behavior that results in much blood being spilled.

Now, the writer’s unilateral changing of “red” to “yellow” in the metaphor “paint the town red” violates the three major attributes of a true idiom, which is that its words are not compositional and not substitutable and that the idiom itself is not modifiable. When we say that an idiom is not compositional, this means we can’t compose or construct an idiom from the individual meanings of its component words. When we say that the words of an idiom are not substitutable, this means that when any of its words is replaced with a related word or even a close synonym, the idiom collapses and loses its intended meaning. And when we say that an idiom is not modifiable, this means that changing the way the words of an idiom are put together or inflected alters its meaning or, worse, changes it beyond recognition. In sum, “paint the town yellow” is a false, semantically unwarranted expression that shouldn’t have been used in that lead sentence.

The figurative expressions are “from all walks of life” and “pay tribute” are perfectly acceptable usage in that lead sentence, but to say that the late former Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was assassinated 26 years ago “while fighting for Philippine democracy” is to go overboard semantically. That he did fight for Philippine democracy is beyond question, but to say that he was assassinated while in the act of doing so is too much of a stretch. It would perhaps be more prudent to simply say that he was assassinated “when he returned to the Philippines to fight for Philippine democracy.”

Overall, then, I would suggest the following reconstruction of the original lead sentence in that newspaper to make it more on the level semantically:

“It will be a red-letter day on Friday when Filipinos from all walks of life pay tribute to the late former Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., who was assassinated 26 years ago when he returned to the Philippines to fight for Philippine democracy.”

Newspaper C:

MANILA, Philippines - With the rising popularity of Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, Liberal Party (LP) stalwarts are being torn between him and Sen. Manuel Roxas II in their quest for the party’s standard-bearer in the 2010 elections.”

When you are “torn between” two lovers, as the old song goes, it means that you love both and couldn’t decide whom to choose. On the other hand, when you are “being torn between” two lovers, that means you are literally and physically being torn apart by some outside force between two people whom you love—and you are bound to be physically harmed in the process. That is the fundamental difference between the idiom “torn between” and the literal expression “being torn between”—the first is a figurative adjectival phrase, and the second is a literal verb phrase.

For this reason, I think that lead sentence will be much better off grammatically and semantically when shorn of the verb “being” before “torn.” Also, I think the use of the word “quest” is a little bit too subjective and melodramatic for what should be an objective news story; “choice” would be a more level-headed word.

So here’s the sentence as improved:

MANILA, Philippines - With the rising popularity of Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, Liberal Party (LP) stalwarts are torn between him and Sen. Manuel Roxas II as their choice of party standard-bearer for the 2010 elections.”

Newspaper D:

“Malacañang apparently needed former President Fidel Ramos more than the former leader needed it—at least when the subject was the 2010 elections.”

On the face of it, there seems to be nothing grammatically wrong with this lead sentence of a headline story—until we reach the latter part that refers to the 2010 elections in the past tense. We then realize that there’s a serious disconnect or inconsistency in the use of tense between the main clause and the parenthetical that follows it.

Indeed, since the matter is still unfolding and unresolved anyway, we can make that sentence grammatically and semantically aboveboard by putting all of its verbs in the present tense. Look:

“Malacañang apparently needs former President Fidel Ramos more than the former leader needs it—at least when the subject is the 2010 elections.”

Now we can say that all four problematic lead sentences of the leading broadsheets are as grammatically and semantically excellent as we can make them.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Machiavellian ways of some aspirants for my country's presidency

My Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines Machiavellian as “marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith,” but it doesn’t say if acts of that kind also constitute bad manners. In other words, it’s okay to do those acts on the Machiavellian principle that “the end justifies the means”—and so what if good manners are trampled upon if the plum is the highest position in the gift of the land?

This is obviously the justification in the minds of those who, on the flimsiest of pretenses, are now brazenly advertising themselves for the Philippine presidency in utter disregard of the law against premature election campaigning. Due to their vaulting ambition, they can hardly wait and don’t mind at all that their self-promoting TV commercials may be patently illegal and socially objectionable besides. How then, some of us might ask, can we trust them to be decent and trustworthy in exercising the great powers and prerogatives of the presidency?

But then, what’s happening now is simply history repeating itself. Way back in 2003, the so-called or self-appointed “presidentiables” of the time did the same preelection period campaigning as brazenly—and the fact is that they all got away with it with nary a slap on the wrist. Indeed, it was their shameless audacity in doing so that prompted me to write the essay below, “The Grammar of Manners,” in my column in The Manila Times in July of that year. Going over the piece now, I find that my observations then about the Machiavellian ways of Philippine politics are still resonant today—and at much higher decibel levels at that!

The Grammar of Manners

“Mind” is a very tricky English word, probably as deceptive as the statistical practice of equating popularity with fitness for the presidency. My dictionary defines “mind” in so many ways. As a noun it is “the seat of awareness, thought, and feeling”; “the intellect”; “memory and remembrance”; “one’s opinion”; and “the focus of one’s thoughts and desires.” As an intransitive verb, it means “to object to”, “to remember,” “to take care of,” “to take charge temporarily,” “to apply or concern oneself with something,” “to be obedient to,” and “to take heed or notice.” With such a profusion of meanings, it is no wonder that “mind” is among the most misused of English words.

The most embarrassing misuse of “mind,” I think, happens in the grammar of manners. I remember long ago my abysmal ignorance about this when I attended a party in Manila for the first time, one hosted by an English professor. I was the last to enter her living room among a batch of adolescent guests, and as I did so she called out with quintessential sophistication: “Mr. Carillo, do you mind closing the door? The wind and flies outside are so bothersome.” The remark was so incomprehensible to me that I could only stare at her for several pulse-pounding seconds. Finally I stammered: “Yes, of course, Mrs. Reyes!” And with that I gingerly closed the door.

Then, as I walked towards her to pay my courtesies, I noticed her staring at me as if she had seen a ghost. But she regained her composure quickly and became her professorial self. “Mr. Carillo,” she began gently, “You didn’t answer me right. You should have replied, ‘No, Ms. Reyes, not at all!’ That’s the polite and cultured way of saying that you didn’t object to my request for you to close the door. You see, the verb ‘mind’ in ‘Do you mind closing the door?’ doesn’t mean ‘please.’ It means ‘object,’ as in ‘Do you object to the idea of closing the door?’ It’s not the same as “Could you, please?’, which you can politely answer with a ‘Yes.’ Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mrs. Reyes, I understand,” I said, and made a motion to leave.

“Don’t you go yet, Mr. Carillo,” she said, gently taking hold of my wrist, “I’d like to give you a few more lessons in the grammar of manners. The food can wait. When I said that ‘No, not at all’ is the polite reply to ‘Do you mind?’, it doesn’t mean you don’t have the option to say ‘Yes.’ For instance, if I asked, ‘Do you mind not staring at me?’, you actually have the option of saying ‘Yes, I do mind, because I just love staring at you,’ but of course that would be impolite—not the answer, but the act of staring at me. If I asked, ‘Do you mind if I light my cigar?’, you can politely tell me, ‘Yes, Mrs. Reyes, I mind very much—I am terribly allergic to cigar smoke, and I don’t like women who smoke cigars.’ Of course, if the idea of cigar smoke or women doesn’t bother you, you can readily tell me, ‘No, not at all’ or ‘Go right ahead.’ Do you get the drift?”

“Yes, Miss Reyes, I do.”

“Great, Mr. Carillo! That means we’re off to a good start. You may go now and join the guests for dinner.”

That terribly humiliating lesson in the grammar of manners sent me on a weeklong search for the other meanings of the treacherous word. In fact, I was to discover so many other slippery idioms using “mind” and set out to internalize all of them: (1) “We’re of the same mind” means we share the same feeling or opinion; (2) “They can’t fool around with me if I just put my mind to it” means they can’t do any hanky-panky if I firmly don’t allow them; (3) “We’re not in our right minds if we elect overtly deceptive people” means we are crazy to do that; (4) “Mind to think out clearly who to trust” means we should remember not to trust the untrustworthy; (5) “Mind to figure out why these politicians are suddenly all over media endorsing commercial products” means we should find out what they really are up to; and finally, (6) “Mind what our conscience tells us” means to obey what we know to be true, ethical, and just.

Now that we have looked closely at the various meanings of “mind,” I’ll ask this question: Do we mind that some pollsters are foisting on us the deceptive art of equating popularity with fitness for the highest post in the gift of the nation? I pray that the answer is “Yes, we do mind and we’ll tell them to go practice their modern witchcraft elsewhere!” I do hope this is our answer, or else God help us all! (July 3, 2003)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, July 3, 2003 issue © 2003 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 7, 2009

We can never be too careful with our syntax

We can never be too careful with our syntax, or the way we choose our words and string them together to form expressions that can accurately convey our ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Indeed, self-control in whatever language is crucial whether we are simply sweet whispering nothings to a beloved’s ear, composing or enunciating a eulogy to a dear departed, or reporting a momentous unfolding event for one of the major broadsheets or national TV networks.

For instance, when we get too excited and whisper “Honeysuckle…” instead of the expected “Honeybee…” as an endearment, we might be misunderstood as being lascivious and get a mighty slap in the face instead of being nuzzled tenderly by the object of our affection.

When we make a front-page headline story about a major funeral begin with the phrase “Flower petals fell from the sky…”, we give the reader the false, discordant impression that other forms of petals*—metallic or meteoric perhaps—could conceivably occur in nature or, against all human experience, fall from heaven just like that.

And if we are a TV anchor of a running newscast and a military spokesman has just explained to us the mechanics of a 21-gun salute for a departed former head of state, the TV viewers might get the feeling that fomenting a coup d’etat is high on our personal agenda when—perhaps just giving flight to our private fancies or simply due to sheer mental fatigue—we say apropos about nothing that “people shouldn’t think that the firing in all those military camps is a sign that they are now staging a coup d’etat.”

Worse still, of course, we might come up with an outright verbal fallacy when we banner a front-page story about, say, the state of Philippine education with an irrelevant, illogical headline like this: “State of public education: 1 doctor per 90,000 studes.” (That, of course, should be “State of school health care: 1 doctor per 90,000 studes”!) Indeed, such a serious violation of syntax in the mass media was what impelled me to write the cautionary essay below, “Verbal Fallacies Nearer Home,” more than six years ago.

Truly, in these euphoric days of extended mourning in the Philippines, when fatigue sometimes gets the better of our grammar or of our good sense, I think that not a few people need reminding to be more careful with their syntax or risk being misunderstood or being viewed as having plain bad English.

*Petal - one of the modified often brightly colored leaves of the corolla of a flower. My digital Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary offers no other definition for this word, so a “flower petal” could only be a tautology, a redundancy; indeed, the word “petal” alone would have done so beautifully in that lead sentence. (If at all, as I told my son today after he saw my posting and asked why the generic “flower” is redundant in that usage, the modifying word should have been a specific name of a flower, like “rose,” “yellowbell,” or “frangipani” and the modification would have been perfect.)

Verbal Fallacies Nearer Home

Over breakfast last Monday, just when I was about to wrap up my series on the logical fallacies, my wife Leonor wagged the front page of her favorite newspaper at me and said: “Look at this headline at the very top of the paper. It says ‘State of public education: 1 doctor per 90,000 studes.’ I can’t say exactly what the problem is, but I think there’s something terribly wrong here.”

I stared at the headline and blinked: “‘State of public education: 1 doctor per 90,000 students’? Mmm... I think the headline-writer really meant ‘State of school health care: 1 doctor per 90,000 studes.’ The poor guy must have missed a lot of sleep. That there’s only one doctor per 90,000 students in the public schools certainly couldn’t be a measure of the state of public education. Literacy and quality of instruction perhaps, but doctors? That’s really weird!”

“So why do they make a headline like that?” Leonor asked. “Look, they must have been pretty convinced that they were correct. They even printed exactly the same headline on Page 2.”

“Well, in formal logic, that headline would be called a fallacy of irrelevance, which is better known by its Latin name of ignoratio elenchi, meaning ‘irrelevant conclusion.’ This type of fallacy tries to establish the truth of a proposition with arguments that support an entirely different conclusion.”

“You mean the guys putting out this paper don’t know that? Don’t they teach formal logic in mass communication or journalism?”

“Of course they do! Formal logic is a college requirement, but sometimes, when mental fatigue sets in, even the best minds become susceptible to fallacies of irrelevance. The worst case is the non sequitur, another Latin term that literally means ‘it doesn’t follow.’ Non sequiturs are arguments that fail to establish a connection between their premises and their conclusion. And then, of course, there are the so-called verbal fallacies, those false conclusions people make when words are used improperly or ambiguously. That headline is, if I’m not mistaken, also a classic case of the verbal fallacy of abstraction. That’s the logical error of focusing on only one aspect of reality and then pronouncing it to be the whole truth.”

“Well, I’m sure the country’s Education officials can simply ask schools to teach logic better. It’s scary. If this newspaper can be this illogical right on the front page, I can’t imagine how it will be with the lesser ones.”

“It’s really scary, Leonor, but I’m not very sure if our Education officials will be of much help,” I said. “It looks like they have the same problem with English and logic—probably even worse. Just yesterday, while passing by their central offices along Meralco Avenue in Pasig, I saw a huge streamer and a big billboard of theirs that almost made my eyes pop out.”

“Why?” she asked, sipping her coffee. “What did the streamer and billboard say?”

“Well, the streamer on the front gate carried an Education department message in big, bold letters: ‘Join in the Observance of the Celebration of the 105th Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Philippine Independence Day.’ Those words exactly.”

“You must be kidding! That sounds so wordy and so stilted and so convoluted to me, even if I’m not a grammarian like you. I would have simply said, ‘Let’s All Celebrate Our 105th Philippine Independence Day.’ But is that a fallacious statement?”

“No, just very bad English usage,” I said, “but it makes me wonder how they can enforce President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s directive to restore English as the country’s language of instruction. I think they have a language proficiency problem themselves.”

“Well, Dear, that’s just too bad, but that’s not your problem,” she said. “You have your own day job to worry about. So finish your coffee now. But wait, you haven’t told me yet what was in that billboard. What did it say?”

“Well, the billboard had something to do with iodized salt. It said that it was a joint project of the LGU, DEC, DOH, Kiwanis, Australian Aid, and UNICEF—the big guns in development, you might say. But you wouldn’t believe the slogan they had on that billboard. It said: ‘Be Intelligent. Use Iodized Salt Every Day.’”

“So what’s wrong with that? Seems to me like sensible nutritional advice.”

“My dear,” I chided her, “don’t you see? That slogan is actually a very serious verbal fallacy. It’s called the fallacy of equivocation. It uses the word ‘intelligent’ in more than one sense, yet gives the impression that only one is meant. The first fallacy is that you can make yourself intelligent simply by an act of will. The second is that using iodized salt every day will make you intelligent. They are a double non sequitur, a double absurdity. Both childish oversimplifications—and very dangerous.”

“I see what you mean. You’re right, and now that really scares me like hell!” (June 26, 2003)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 26, 2003 issue © 2003 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.