Saturday, September 26, 2009

Watch out for those tricky contronyms or antagonyms!

The English language has its generous share of words that can mean the opposite of themselves. Such words, for which some grammar pundits have coined the terms contronyms and antagonyms*, include “bound” (which could mean either “moving” or “tied up”), “cleave” ( “to cut,” “to seal together”), citation (“award for good behavior,” “penalty for bad behavior”), “oversight” (“error from carelessness,” “watchful care”), “fast” (“moving rapidly,” “fixed in position”), and “ravished” (“raped,” or “overcame by delight”). They obviously could give us trouble if we aren’t careful enough, so it pays to be watch out for their skulking presence in the language.

As I’m sure you’ll remember now, one very commonly used contronym is “presently,” which could either mean “at present” or “very soon.” I confess that I often catch myself about to utter it to mean “at present”—this stands to reason from its spelling and sound—but some dialogue in a British movie in my mind stops me on my tracks and quickly redirects me to a safer word like “now” or a tamer phrase like “at this time.”

So precisely how do we use “presently” with the least danger of embarrassing ourselves? Or would it be wise to avoid using this tricky word together and use one of its more reliable and surefire synonyms? In the essay below that I wrote for my “English Plain and Simple” column at about this time last year, “Is ‘presently’ present or future?”, I offer some prescriptions and caveats for dealing with that slippery adverb without earning a reputation for being English-challenged.

*Contronyms, antagonyms. Both of these nouns are still neologisms, or new words whose existence is not yet acknowledged by the mainstream dictionaries. From what I can gather, the term "contronyms" was coined by Richard Lederer in his book Crazy English; Jim Ellis, in his family website, lays claim to having coined the term “antagonym.”

Is “presently” present or future?

Let’s settle this vexing word-choice problem once and for all: Do we use the adverb “presently” to mean “at present” or “very soon”? I realize that I had already taken a position on this matter years before in this column—that the word should mean “very soon” and not “at present”—and I must admit that when I’m copyediting manuscripts, I always itch to change “presently” to “now” when the author had obviously used the word in that sense, as in “The couple presently lives in a charming little apartment.” But then, when I watch a British movie with snotty butler telling snotty master “I’ll be with you presently, sir,” I’m absolutely sure that the word means “very soon” instead.

The truth of the matter is that “presently” has two acceptable senses in current usage: “currently” or “at the present time,” and “very soon” or “in a short time.” The neologisms “antagonym” and “contranym” have been coined for words like this, which could sometimes mean the opposite of itself. At any rate, The American Heritage Book of English Usage says that “at the present time” or “currently” was actually the original sense of “presently,” one that dates back to the late 14th century. For some reason, though, the usage seems to have disappeared from the written record in the 17th century. This disappearance, my digital Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary implies, was probably what prompted the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary to declare in 1909 that that sense of the word had become obsolete—even as the OED observed that the sense remained in regular use in most English dialects.

Since then, some language critics have became partial against the “now” sense of “presently,” declaring it erroneous usage. They insist that “presently” should be used only in its primary sense of “soon” or “in a short time.” In fact, according to The American Heritage Book of English Usage, only 50 percent of its Usage Panel found the “now” sense of “presently” acceptable. (In one recent official count, the Usage Panel had 180 members, including such notables as Jacques Barzun, educator; Alfred Kazin, English professor; Henry Louis Gates Jr., humanities professor; Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, and Pat Conroy, novelists; Paul Theroux, travel writer; and William Zinsser, writer-editor.) This, of course, puts sentences like “The 29th Olympics is presently being held in Beijing” in serious jeopardy. Indeed, it’s obvious that if the Usage Panel had their way, they’d rather restate that sentence as “The 29th Olympics is [now, at present, currently] being held in Beijing.”

I must admit that it was the collective judgment of all these English-language notables that had persuaded me to take a firm position in this impasse. I’m not saying that the “now” sense of that word is incorrect, but being not a native English speaker and not bound by a particular English dialect, I’d rather rely on how professional users of American English perceive the meaning of a word than on simple dictionary meaning or anecdotal evidence.

Thus, to avoid confusing myself and my readers, I would never use “presently” in this sense: “They are presently in Boracay Beach on their honeymoon.” Hands down, I would use “now” as first option, and perhaps use “at present” only if I have already used a lot of “nows” in preceding sentences. As to “currently,” I’d shy away from it because the word sounds to me too officious for comfort. These, too, would be my advice to writers who until now are unsure of how to deal with “presently.”

One more question needs to be answered, of course: When do we use “presently” to mean “very soon,” if at all? Well, perhaps when we’re in London to visit the Queen, and the cab driver is badgering us to hurry up while we’re buying some souvenirs, we can tell him with absolute nonchalance: “Just you wait. I’ll be with you presently.”

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, Saturday, August 16, 2008 issue © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Weaning ourselves from a wrongheaded use of “between”

There’s usually no problem when people use “between” as a stand-alone preposition to mean “from one to another,” as in “There’s no secret between us,” or to mean “something shared or in common to,” as in “The inheritance was divided between the patriarch’s four sisters.” But when it comes to “between” in the sense of “setting the limits or endpoints of a range,” many young professional writers often flub the usage. Seemingly from force of habit, they would write, say, “The taipan’s fortune is estimated between P50 billion to P60 billion,” where, of course, the preposition “to” need to be replaced by the conjunction “and” to make the grammar of the sentence beyond reproach: “The taipan’s fortune is estimated between P50 billion and P60 billion.”

It was the high incidence of such faulty usage in manuscripts for intended for publication that prompted me to write the essay below, “A recurrent misuse of ‘between’,” late last year in my column in The Manila Times. I hope that reading this essay could help wean off more people from this wrongheaded preposition usage that, if committed repeatedly, could mark them as less than grammar-savvy English writers or speakers.

A recurrent misuse of ‘between’

One grammar error I frequently encounter in my work as a copy editor is the misuse of the preposition “between” in the sense of setting the limits or endpoints of a range. This usage of “between” being so basic in English (as in “between you and me” and “between heaven and earth”), I used to think that getting it wrong was simply due to oversight by the writer or to what we might charitably call a typing error. But over the past three years or so, my coming across this grammar transgression much too often has convinced me that there’s actually more to the problem than meets the eye.

Consider the following sentences (I have changed some particulars to protect the identity of the writers): “Putting up a water refilling station requires an initial capital outlay of anywhere between P600,000 to P1.1 million.” “Plain chocolate contains between 30 percent to 70 percent cocoa solids.” “Each shop can carry between 1,000 to 1,800 items, with groceries comprising the bulk of its sales.” “The tunnel provided the perfect setting for the locals, who could only go partying between 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. because of the curfew.” “The estimated investment recovery period for the restaurant is between one to three years.” “His distributorship moves between 1,000 to 2,500 units a month.”

In all of the six “between”-using sentences above, of course, the grammatically acceptable usage is not “between _______ to_______” but “between _______ and _______” instead: “Putting up a water refilling station requires an initial capital outlay of anywhere between P600,000 and P1.1 million.” “Plain chocolate contains between 30 percent and 70 percent cocoa solids.” “Each shop can carry between 1,000 and 1,800 items, with groceries comprising the bulk of its sales.” “The tunnel provided the perfect setting for the locals, who could only go partying between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. because of the curfew.” “The estimated investment recovery period for the restaurant is between one and three years.” “His distributorship moves between 1,000 and 2,500 units a month.” This is because in all of the six sentences, the “between”-phrase is describing not the range itself but a point somewhere within that range.

Now, for those who’d rather use “to” because they feel queasy using “and” as go-between for the endpoints of the range, there’s a perfectly acceptable alternative: get rid of “between” and replace it with the preposition “from,” and, if possible, get rid of “from” itself afterwards. The original five sentences will then read as follows: “Putting up a water refilling station requires an initial capital outlay of anywhere from P600,000 to P1.1 million.” “Plain chocolate contains from 30 percent to 70 percent cocoa solids.” “Each shop can carry 1,000 to 1,800 items, with groceries comprising the bulk of its sales.” “The tunnel provided the perfect setting for the locals, who could only go partying from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. because of the curfew.” “The estimated investment recovery period for the restaurant is one to three years.” “His distributorship moves 1,000 to 2,500 units a month.”

Note that the third, fifth and sixth sentences above did away with “from” and are none the worse for it. In all six sentences, though, it’s clear that the phrase at hand is describing not a particular point within that range but the range itself.

There’s one other thing to make sure of when converting an erroneous “between _______ to _______” phrase to a “from _______ to _______” phrase in which the endpoints are dates: don’t change the “to” to a hyphen. When correcting, say, “The business flourished between 1995 to 2007, then floundered during the 2008 economic meltdown,” avoid reconstructing the sentence as “The business flourished from 1995-2007, then floundered during the 2008 economic meltdown.” For clarity and elegance in construction, always spell out the “to”: “The business flourished from 1995 to 2007, then floundered during the 2008 economic meltdown.”

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, November 15, 2008 issue © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


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Friday, September 11, 2009

The vulnerabilities of our free speech and press freedom

Free speech and press freedom are beautiful in theory; in practice, however, they can often be used for organized, large-scale deception or outright lunacy masquerading as legitimate news or informed opinion. Let’s face it: when national election season comes in our country, political operators ruthlessly manipulate the print and broadcast media to advance their interests, and some candidates with obviously low levels of intelligence or discernment make fools of us—and often make such fools of themselves as well—by mouthing uninformed, superstitious, or daft statements on television or radio.

Network TV and radio are, of course, highly vulnerable to this abuse of the freedom of self-expression. This is in sharp contrast to practically all of the other information media, which have strong built-in checks against such abuse—newspapers, magazines, and other printed literature have copyeditors and photo-editors to prune out excesses in the written word and in visuals, while movies, video shows, and other forms of canned entertainment have directors, editors, and producers to methodically expunge excessively abusive language and images. But not so with live TV and radio broadcasts, where hardly any form of regulation is exercised over messages and language being aired live during news coverages or live talk shows. (Remember that time in the recent past when, on stage during a political rally in Makati City covered live by network TV and radio, a high elective public official made such a sordid spectacle of himself by spouting a particularly vile obscenity against the country’s president?)

Indeed, through these two very powerful and highly pervasive media, anybody can say any fabrication, self-serving propaganda, or utter nonsense in front of the video camera direct to millions of viewers or listeners. Lately, in fact, in the guise of instant opinion polling during talk shows on controversial topics, some TV channels now also blithely allow libelous text messages or outright invectives to scroll continuously at the bottom of the TV screen. Where is the wisdom, good judgment, and sense of fair play in such forms of unbridled media abuse? What happened to the need for civility and decency in our public discourse?

We can only hope that no matter how heated the forthcoming polical campaign turns out, our country’s broadcast TV and radio networks will not abdicate their responsibility for restraint and self-regulation. They should be ever be self-aware and vigilant that apart from being the most manipulative of all the mass media (a power that can actually be harnessed for the public good), they are the most easily manipulated mass media as well. For their own long-term survival, they shouldn’t allow this country’s much-vaunted free speech and press freedom to go straight to the gutter.

Related to these thoughts of mine, many of which I had previously expressed in my columns in The Manila Times shortly before and during the 2004 national election campaign season, I wrote the essay below, “Caution in times of reasonable doubt,” to remind us to be much more discerning and critical when subjected to the barrage of election propaganda from all sides of the political spectrum. I feel that the points I raised in this essay have once again become relevant now that we are seeing the beginnings of another season of ruthless character demolition and counterdemolition.

Related Reading:

It’s not only in the Philippines that civility in public discourse is seeing serious erosion. In the United States, as if taking the cue from the strident, demonizing language that we hear day in and day out in our domestic TV newscasts, a Republican representative called the US president a liar while the latter was addressing the US Congress.

Do we bewail or cheer the parallel?

Read “‘You lie!’ further erodes discourse” in Yahoo News

Caution in times of reasonable doubt

There was a time when the spread of false information took a much slower and largely linear path. A jealous or enraged person concocts a lie against a perceived enemy, whispers the lie to a neighbor’s ear ostensibly in the strictest of confidence but certain that in no time at all, that neighbor will break that confidence and whisper the same lie to another neighbor, who, in turn, can be expected to ensure that the process gets repeated ad infinitum. The lie then acquires an attractive reality of its own. Still, there was a downside to the process. Word of mouth was relatively slow, so even the most resourceful prevaricator needed at least a few days or weeks to fan the tiny flame of a lie to a major conflagration.

Modern communications technology has changed all that. These days, radio and TV, the daily papers, landline and mobile telephony, e-mail, and now even the mechanisms of the law itself make disinformation as fast as blabbering a sound-bite over the broadcast networks, punching the “Send” key of a cellular phone or computer keyboard, or filing fabricated charges against one’s target in a fiscal’s office. Organized deception has become a thriving industry, ruthlessly exploiting the inherent vulnerabilities of the very same mechanisms that make democracy possible.

This is clearly manifest in the current election campaign. Every seeker of public office is a prime target. Both the good and the bad are fair game for political demolition. Each of them—whether a true leader, visionary, zealot, crackpot, or nincompoop—is prey to the dangerous phenomenon described by the British psychologist R. H. Thouless in his “Law of Certainty”: “If statements are made again and again in a confident manner, then their hearers will tend to believe them quite independently of their soundness and of the presence or absence of evidence for their truth.”

Thouless has pinned down one fundamental flaw of the human psyche: its profound tendency to believe statements based on repetition instead of actual evidence. Of course, few would take pleasure in the notion that even the intelligent and more discerning among us can be so gullible, but other investigators have validated the “Law of Certainty” and have come up with even more disturbing corollaries: (1) The exposure effect, demonstrated by Borstein in 1989, which states that repeated exposure of people to a stimulus results in the enhancement of their attitude toward it; (2) The twin repetition-validity effect and the frequency-validity effect, established by Brown and Nix in 1996, the first confirming that belief in a supposed truth increases with repeated exposure to it, and the second, that the rated truth of a stimulus is determined by how often it is repeated; and (3) The truth effect, demonstrated by Schwartz in 1982, which states that when messages of questionable truth value are repeated, their repetition tends to move their truth-value ratings toward the truer end of the scale.

The “Law of Certainty” and its corollaries are, of course, the principal tools of ideologues, religious extremists, and political propagandists in foisting untruths in the minds of their targets. They know that by sheer repetition, the feeble resistance of rationality soon caves in and crumbles. This is why in this election campaign season, practically all of the communication channels in our midst are bristling with deceptive messages. Their financiers and practitioners have no time to lose and everything to gain, and can take comfort in the fact that the effort costs so little and that the laws against it are so weak and inutile.

Now, the big question we have to ask ourselves is this: Shall we be sitting ducks to these blatant deceptions? What is our defense against the syndicated lie and half-truth? Thouless gave us what I think is a sound course of action: be thoughtful and skeptical, and adopt a position of caution when there’s reasonable cause for doubt about a particular assertion. In plainer terms, we should never, ever make a fool of ourselves by taking scurrilous political messages at their face value.

So the next time we see a derogatory blind item in the papers, a slanderous e-mail in our electronic mailbox, or a poison text message on our cellular phone, we should not honor it even with a single thought. We should resist the temptation to pass it on. We should stop it on its tracks by skipping it or by zapping it with the “Delete” button. That’s the only way we can run the character assassins out of business. If we don’t, who knows, they just might succeed in getting us to elect people who will send this country further down the road to perdition.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 27, 2004 issue © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The misguided journalistic practice of fiddling with idioms

In my recent postings in My Media English Watch at Jose Carillo’s English Forum, I have called attention to the misguided practice of some newspaper reporters to fiddle with English idioms to put color to their stories. Take a look at some of their more flagrant idiom modifications: “people from all walks of life will paint the town yellow,” “people desperate to shore up their cash,” “it may look like a tit for tat,” and “for four years and running, the bank...”* Even worse, some reporters have a strong tendency to mix two or more metaphors in a single lead sentence, such as describing desperate people as becoming more likely “to fall prey to glib tongues” when “all kinds of scams rear their ugly heads.”

It really isn’t a linguistic crime to fashion a sentence with the help of an idiomatic expression that fits the idea to a T (“fits the idea to a T” is another idiom, by the way); after all, idioms are handy, off-the-shelf rhetorical devices that can quickly drive home a point that would otherwise take the writer so many more words to express. But to use two or more of them in the same clause or sentence is, to say the least, bad judgment on the part of the writer (and of the editor who tolerates the idiom overuse). And to fiddle with idioms and alter them to suit the writer’s literary whim or the exigencies of the moment is nothing less than a language atrocity. It’s a practice that I believe newspaper writers—and every writer for that matter—must stop if they are to remain role models for good English usage.

I wrote the essay below, “The Nature of True Idioms,” over two years ago in the face of what I saw as a growing tendency of some writers in the major Philippine broadsheets to misuse or overuse idioms. There has sadly been a resurgence of that practice in recent weeks, so I’m running the essay again in the hope of fostering a better appreciation and understanding of the need to curb or at least moderate that tendency.

*The original, correct phrasing of these idioms are as follows: “paint the town red,” “to shore up their finances,” “tit for tat” (without the article “a” before the idiom), and “for four years running” (without the “and”). The idiom “paint the town red” had actually been modified to “paint the town yellow” ad nauseam by so many print and broadcast media outlets in the wake of the death of former Philippine President Corazon Aquino.

The nature of true idioms

Idioms are collocations—the linguist’s term for certain common arrangements of words—that don’t translate. Every learner of a new language discovers this when he or she starts encountering its idioms. Whether a phrasal verb, an idiomatic expression, a proverb, or a euphemism, an idiom congeals into a fixed, indivisible form once established, and it loses both cogency and meaning when we attempt to express it in different terms or in a different language. For instance, the idiom “eat your heart out” (be jealous) disintegrates when we change, say, “eat” to “chew”(“chew your heart out”), “heart” to “aorta” (“eat your aorta out”), or “out” to “bits and pieces” (“eat your heart to bits and pieces”). Worse, it becomes nonsense when translated into another language, as what happens when we say it as “laklakin mo ang puso mo” in Tagalog.

These things happen because idioms are essentially metaphors that draw their communicative power from shared knowledge or experience between the speaker or writer and the audience. It’s either we know and accept an idiom or we don’t, and it would be foolhardy to use it—much less to fiddle with it—without being sure that the audience knows it, too. True idioms are embedded in the culture of most native speakers of the language, which is why nonnative speakers can’t really get proficient in another language unless they make an effort to learn its most common idioms.

We must beware, though, that not every collocation is a true idiom. For instance, the expression “spirits are up” may sound like an idiom but it really isn’t. We can actually replace its operative words—“spirits” and “up”—with other words and it would still hold and be meaningful in other ways: “spirits are down” or “spirits are low,” “energy is up” or “energy is down,” or “motivation is up” or “motivation is down.” In contrast, the phrasal verbs “turn in” (hand over), “turn out” (to prove to be), “turn off” (to cause a loss of interest), “turn over” (to overturn), and “turn down” (to reject) are true idioms, each change in preposition giving the collocation an entirely different meaning.

Indeed, the true idioms of a language share three common features that differentiate them from plain and simple collocations: (1) They are not compositional, (2) Their words are not substitutable, and (3) They are not modifiable.

An idiom is not compositional. We can’t compose or construct an idiom from the individual meanings of its component words. For instance, the idiom “take a lot of flak” (get strongly opposed or heavily criticized) draws its metaphorical power from the quandary of combat pilots whose aircraft are met by bursting shells (the “flak”) fired from anti-aircraft guns. In its current form, however, this collocation no longer has anything to do with combat pilots, flak, or aerial warfare; only the aspect of strong opposition is retained in its meaning and it has since been largely applied to serious intra-office or political disputes.

The words of an idiom are not substitutable. When a word in a true idiom is replaced with a related word or even a close synonym, the idiom collapses and loses its intended meaning. This is what happens to “take a lot of flak” when we change “take” to “sustain” and “flak” to “gunfire” to form “sustain a lot of gunfire”—a different but purely literal collocation.

An idiom is not modifiable. Changing the way the words of an idiom are put together or inflected alters its meaning or, worse, changes it beyond recognition. Imagine the semantic consequences when we modify “take a lot of flak” to, say, “get flakked a lot” or “take so much flakking”!

True idioms are meant to make ourselves quickly understood through the common knowledge and understanding we share with our audience, so it doesn’t really pay to monkey around with them.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, July 23, 2007 issue © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.