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.


  1. Dear Jose

    I apologise for using the comment field to ask you the following question.

    Once I said to a New Zealand friend, 'I received many presents for Christmas' and she said that this misuse of the quantifier 'many' made me sound like a foreigner - English is actually not my mother tongue. 'Many' just gave it away!

    So, what was wrong? Is 'many' that objectionable in affirmative sentences?

    and yet, I've heard the very same friend say, 'there are many cars stranded' and this statement did sound perfectly natural and neutral in style. She's a native speaker of English by the way.

    So, what's the rule for the natural use of 'many' in assertive contexts?

    Could you possiby write a post about it?

    Thanks again for your very informative and scholarly blog.



  2. Yes, when you use “many” as a quantifier in affirmative sentences like “I received many presents for Christmas,” it could sound to native English speakers that you’re bragging or overstating the number of presents you received. They might find the statement forgivable when said by a young child, but they are likely to find it objectionable when said by an adult speaker. This is because the quantifier “many” means “consisting of or amounting to a large but indefinite number,” and native English speakers don’t expect people to literally receive “an indefinite number of gifts,” and even if they do, they are expected to be prudent about it by using a quantifier that somehow diminishes the actual quantity like, say, “some gifts” or “a few gifts.”

    On the other hand, it’s perfectly all right for people to use the quantifier “many” when asking a question like, say, “Did you receive many presents for Christmas?” This is intended to give wide latitude to the person being asked in giving the quantity. Even so, there’s an unstated expectation that the reply won’t be so assertive or expansive as to take the form of “Yes, I received many presents for Christmas”—even if, in fact, literally many presents were received. Instead, the socially acceptable answer would be in any of these forms: “Yes, I received some.” “Yes, I received quite a few.” “Yes, I received quite a number.” Indeed, an answer like “Yes, I received quite a lot” or “Yes, I received a lot” or “Yes, I received lots of gifts” might be perceived as an overstatement or as verging on bragging.

    This rule may not be cast in stone, but the use of the quantifier “many” should be particularly avoided for objects in affirmative or assertive statements like “I received many presents for Christmas”; for the same reason, the quantifier “much” should likewise be avoided in affirmative or assertive statements like “We have much money in the bank.” (Among close friends, of course, it’s perfectly all right to say “I received lots of presents for Christmas” or “We have lots of money in the bank.”) In contrast, “many” and “much” can be freely used in questions like “Do you have many contacts in the industry?” and “Do you have much money in the bank?” They can be used in negative replies as well, like “No, I don’t have many contacts in the industry” or simply “No, not many,” and “No, we don’t have much money in the bank” or simply “No, not much.”

    In contrast, when someone says “There are many cars stranded,” as your native-English-speaker friend did, the statement sounds perfectly natural and neutral because the quantifier “many” fits the semantics of the statement very well, for “a large but indefinite number” of cars—a number that’s visually verifiable—could in fact be involved in the stranding. Also, there’s no ownership claim. Thus, even if the quantity given by the speaker is expansive, the listener has no reason to doubt or quibble over the assertion.

  3. Dear Joe

    I'm very flattered that you've answered my question so thoroughly. I find your explanation most interesting and very insightful. The indefinite nature of 'many' does indeed fit the sematics of questions, as it allows for a wide range of responses. I'd never thought of that.

    I also find your explanation regarding 'there are many cars stranded' very apt.

    However, may I play devil's advocate? If 'many' does indeed refer to a large but indefinite quantity, then I should be able to say, 'I saw many fish, while I was snorkelling in New Caledonia'. Now, in response to this statement, another New Zealand friend commented (in writing) that this use of 'many' was 'strange' and that I sounded like 'a non-native speaker', 'trying to be correct'.
    And yet, 'many', as a large indefinite quantity, should fit a school of fish, shouldn't it?

    Just like you, I think 'many' should be avoided in the object position in assertive contexts, although I'm not so sure why. Is there actually any literature that backs this up? Any references of grammar books that actually spell this rule out?

    Thank you so much again. And congratulations on your erudite blog.

    I'm looking forward to your further comments.


  4. Thanks for the compliment!

    Yes, “many” indeed refers to a large but indefinite quantity, as in the case of, say, “a thousand fish in the sea.” But a native speaker of English just won’t say “I saw many fish while I was snorkeling in New Caledonia.” It’s not because it’s wrong grammatically or semantically; it just happens to be not idiomatic to native English speakers. They would rather say “I saw a lot of fish while I was snorkeling in New Caledonia” or “I saw a great deal of fish while I was snorkeling in New Caledonia.” Many of them would even elide that sentence to “I saw a lot of fish while snorkeling in New Caledonia,” where the words “I” and “was” are dropped for a more concise, streamlined expression. Others would rather use an approximate word of measure, as in “I saw hundreds of fish [or thousands of fish] while I was snorkeling in New Caledonia.” But rarely—if ever—will you catch native speakers say “I saw many fish while I was snorkeling in New Caledonia.” It’s not their idiom to use “many” in such instances; in fact, hearing someone use that word instead is one of their surest ways of identifying a foreigner or a stranger to their language—which of course is just another way of saying “a nonnative English speaker.”

    I haven’t come across any literature that formally and specifically addresses the mechanics of these idiomatic nuances of quantifiers. What I know about them is simply the accretion of my own personal use and study of English over the years, so I’m afraid I can’t name a particular authority or reference for it. At any rate, I would like to invite you to visit my English-usage website, Jose Carillo’s English Forum, sometime. You might find some of the English grammar and usage discussions there useful in your continuing quest for better English.