Friday, November 27, 2009

Watch out for the language register of your English!

Except perhaps for readers of my column in The Manila Times way back when it started in 2002, not many people know that I had made it my self-imposed task to make Filipinos aware that if their English was bad, it was largely because of our society’s fervid addiction to legalese or jargon as its default English. My early columns therefore trained their guns on legalese and its kindred English varieties—corporatese, bureaucratese, academese, researchese—and advocated plain and simple English instead. I would then take a dig at how many of us write like two-bit lawyers or use big, fat words in the false belief that they will impress our readers or listeners and make them better disposed to what we are telling them.

One of my earliest pieces on this theme was a playful, satiric essay entitled “The Great Gobbledygook-Generating Machine,” which later drew a resonant response from a fellow communicator in the United Kingdom. This was followed by some shoptalk between us about corporate jargon and other forms of obfuscation. I am posting in the Forum my account of that exchange of views simply as a reminder that aside from good grammar and usage, we need a keen awareness of the language register or tenor of our English to communicate effectively with it.

Shoptalk on jargon and gobbledygook

An essay that I wrote for my column in The Manila Times away back in 2002, “The Great Gobbledygook-Generating Machine, was featured in January 2006 by, a well-regarded English-usage web magazine based in Massachusetts. That essay, which later became Chapter 12 of my book, English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, takes a playful dig at a little electronic device on the Internet that can churn out around 40,000 insights on how to run companies in grammar-perfect but nonsensical English. Click this link to read that essay in the Bookshop section of Jose Carillo’s English Forum.

I was quietly happy just to see that little piece of mine still alive and relevant even after the passing of the years, but I was truly delighted when I received a very touching congratulatory e-mail for it from a fellow editor and writer in Wales in the United Kingdom. Jude Roland, who runs a professional writing service in Monmouthshire, wrote me a note so evocative about the travails of putting other people’s English writing into good shape that I have decided to share it with Times readers.

Here’s that e-mail:

Dear Jose,

I enjoyed your piece enormously. Much of what I laughingly call my “career” has been spent in trying to de-mystify the corporate jargon and obfuscation of other writers, who seem to feel more important and knowledgeable when they issue incomprehensible communications.

For more than three decades, I have advocated and encouraged clarity and directness. But those of us who care deeply about the potency of English now have to contend with something worse than commercial nincompoops [mishandling the language]. In the UK in particular, for at least five years in the 1980s, educational “experts” had been saying that it was “more important for children to express themselves in writing than to worry about spelling and grammar.” And oh, have the chickens come home to roost!

Add to this the universal overreliance on computer spell-checkers with their inherent idiocies, and you have a formidable problem. Neither you nor I, alas, will be able solve it!

But please do go on fighting the good fight and continue writing lively, cogent essays. Perhaps, when climate change finally destroys Earth, some remnants of humanity will remain, and in the long, slow climb back from the brink, their leaders may again learn to cherish and venerate “the word.”

Jude Roland

And here’s my rejoinder to that note:

Dear Jude,

I apologize for this much-delayed reply. I have been so frenetically busy during the past two weeks doing a very challenging substantive editing job for a major client that I could hardly find time to deal with my correspondence.

I’m glad to know that you are a kindred spirit pursuing a career demystifying corporate jargon and other forms of gobbledygook, but I beg to differ with you by saying that I rarely find my job a laughing matter. It’s always a deadly serious business to be welcomed with wide, open arms. I’m sure that many professionals—medical surgeons, dentists, and physical therapists in particular—feel the same way about their work even if few of them would dare to admit it. In fact, I’ll probably be ruing the day when people all over the world have finally learned how to write English on their own clearly, precisely, and without obfuscation. By then, I’ll really have no choice but to pull down my shingle for keeps.

In the meantime, Jude, you and I will just have to continue the good fight for plain and simple English—both as an honest livelihood and as a thankless personal advocacy. We should do it in much the same way that the magnificent peacemakers of this planet have been suing for lasting peace on earth for thousands of years now—assiduously, sometimes so stridently, but largely to no avail.

(February 13, 2006)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 13, 2006 © 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Good English is more than just perfect grammar and syntax

Mastery of the grammar and syntax of a language, even if complemented by a wide vocabulary, doesn’t automatically mean mastery of the language itself. For instance, two very intelligent Asian nationals of my acquaintance—they aren’t Filipinos, by the way—boast of getting perfect scores in the TOEFL and TOEIC grammar and sentence structure tests, but as they themselves admit and as is painfully evident from their spoken English, they have such an inadequate grasp of conversational English that they would rather die than get into an open conversation with a native English speaker in the presence of other people. And although they are very well-educated and highly cosmopolitan in outlook, their written English compositions get so muddled in many parts that even a typical high school undergraduate’s C-minus essay would look brilliant in comparison.

The reason for this state of affairs is, of course, that achieving excellent English takes more than just a wide vocabulary and perfect grammar and syntax. As important if not more important, it needs a strong sense of logic, context, and nuance as well as a respectable familiarity with the English idioms. Without these, the English-language learner will forever stick out like a sore thumb when talking among native English speakers.

I had gathered these thoughts of mine for the two-part essay below, “Logic and language,” that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times over three years ago. I wanted my readers to realize that, first, logic and language are not necessarily always congruent, such that our English may be grammatically, semantically, and structurally perfect but our ideas may be contextually or logically wrong; and that, second, English—like most other languages—is highly idiomatic in actual usage, often unpredictably ignoring its own grammar and syntax to quickly or forcefully bring home a point.

I trust that no matter what level your English is now, you will also find the essay instructive and useful in your own quest for stronger mastery of the language.

Logic and language

Part I

Sometime ago, while watching an otherwise engaging talk show on a local TV network about the decline in the English proficiency of Filipinos, I was taken aback when the following transcripts of supposedly bad spoken English were flashed onscreen for discussion:

“Half of this game is ninety percent mental.” (Baseball manager Danny Ozark of the Philadelphia Phillies)

“We are ready for an unforeseen event that may not occur.” (Former US vice president Al Gore)

“If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure.” (Former US president Bill Clinton)

“Smoking kills. If you die, you’ve lost an important part of your life.” (Former Hollywood actress Brooke Shields)

Having been uttered not by Filipinos but by Americans, I thought that these examples were irrelevant to the discussions at hand—a terribly wrong-headed backgrounder on the subject of English usage by Filipinos. With better research, the talk-show producers surely could have found much more illustrative examples of bad English uttered by Filipino speakers themselves. Also, I think we should be more forgiving towards the inexactitude of such remarks. They are usually made on the spur of the moment under the crushing glare of TV cameras and the press of so many proffered microphones, so their peculiar English are rarely representative of the normal English of the speakers who blurt them out.

But what I found even more jarring about the quoted statements is that they were not illustrative of bad English at all. The first quotation, in particular, is perfectly good English—“Half of this game is ninety percent mental.” Its grammar and semantics are unimpeachable, and as to its logic and arithmetic, what’s wrong with saying that baseball games are 0.5 x .0.9 = 0.45 mental? We surely can’t fault the logic of such a precise conclusion made by a highly experienced baseball coach.

The other three examples are contextually faulty, of course, yet they are definitely aboveboard in their English grammar and structure. The problem is not in their English but in their logic. Each of them is a “malapropism,” which the Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines as “the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase.” Often cited as a malapropism is the following supposed remark of Henry Ford about the Model T, the American car that he had mass-produced: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Another is this one by the 1940s movie mogul Sam Goldwyn: “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” On the home front, some of us may still remember the following malaprop remark of a Filipina many years back after winning a major beauty title: “I would like to thank my father and my mother, and most especially my parents.” As these examples clearly show, malapropisms may be contextually or logically flawed but are not necessarily grammatically and structurally wrong.

This brings me to the point that I would like to make about English, one that I am afraid the TV talk show missed altogether and that many learners of English as a second language often overlook. It is that logic and language are not necessarily always congruent. Our English may be grammatically, semantically, and structurally perfect but our ideas may be contextually or logically wrong. Such was the case with all but the first of the malapropisms presented by the TV talk show, which therefore doesn’t qualify them as instructive examples of supposedly bad English. On the other hand, our English may sound bizarre or strangely illogical on close scrutiny—like, say, the expression “Please keep an eye on your valuables” that we often see in restaurants—yet make complete sense to our readers or readers.

We will explore this matter more deeply in the next part of this essay when we take up the highly idiomatic character of English as spoken by its native speakers. (May 8, 2006)

Part II

Many people lament the fact that English is so difficult to learn as a second or third language. They complain that although English forces learners to learn so many rules for its grammar, semantics, and structure, these rules are in practice more often violated than followed. How come, they ask, that the verb “turn” (to move around an axis or center) can mean so many things when paired off with different prepositions, such as “turn on” (excite), “turn in” (submit), “turn over” (return or flip over), “turn out” (happen), and “turn off” (lose interest or switch off)? And why do native English speakers say peculiar things that seem to have no logic or sense at all, like “We are all ears about what happened to you and Veronica last night” or “The top city official made no bones about being a former number-games operator”?

English is, of course, hardly unique in being idiomatic. Like most of the world’s major languages, it unpredictably ignores its own grammar and semantics in actual usage. But the sheer richness and complexity of English idioms—or the way native English speakers actually communicate with one another—makes it much more difficult for nonnative speakers to learn English than most languages. With scant knowledge of the English idioms, nonnative speakers may be able to master the relatively simpler grammar, semantics, and structure of English yet sound like robots when speaking or writing in English.

There are five general categories of English idioms: the prepositional phrases, the prepositional idioms, common idiomatic expressions, figurative or metaphoric language, and euphemisms.

A prepositional phrase consists of a verb or adverb form that ends in a preposition. The preposition used often doesn’t have a particular semantic significance or logic but had simply become entrenched through prolonged use, and the literal meaning of the verb or adverb isn’t changed by it. Some examples: “approve of” (not, say, “approve for” or “approve with”), “concerned with” (not “concerned of” or “concerned by”); “except for” (not “except of” or “except with”), and “charge with a crime” (not “charge of a crime” or “charge for a crime”).

A prepositional idiom, on the other hand, is an expression consisting of a verb whose meaning changes depending on the preposition that comes after it. As shown earlier, the verb “turn” can form so many prepositional idioms. Another verb that yields various idioms when paired off with different prepositions is “hand”: “hand in” (submit), “hand out” (to give for free), “hand over” (yield control of), and “hand down” (transmit in succession).

The common idiomatic expressions are concise, nonliteral language that native English speakers have grown accustomed to using for convenience. Some examples that also play on the verb “hand”: “to wash one’s hands” (to absolve oneself), “hand to mouth” (having nothing to spare beyond basic necessities), and “out of hand” (beyond control).

Figurative or metaphoric language is a form of idiom that compares two things in an evocative, nonliteral sense to suggest the likeness or similarity between them. It uses the so-called figures of speech, such as the simile and metaphor. A much-used example is the expression “the face that launched a thousand ships”—a literary allusion to Helen of Troy—to mean a provocatively beautiful woman.

Finally, a euphemism is a polite expression that people customarily use for things that they find unpleasant, upsetting, or embarrassing, such as sex, death, bodily functions, and war. Some examples: “to pass away” (die), “to rightsize” (to lay off excess personnel), and “collateral damage” (civilian deaths).

Obviously, the thousands upon thousands of English idioms can only be learned through long and intensive exposure to English as spoken and written by its native speakers. Formal grammar, semantics, and structure can only lay the bare foundations for English proficiency. Only when we have become adequately conversant with its idioms can we really say that we know our English. (May 15, 2006)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 8 and 15, 2006 © 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Figuring out the number of ways to skin a cat

Should the verb be in the singular or in the plural form?

Answering this question is usually a very simple matter when we know for sure if the subject of the sentence is singular (“The cat is in the bag”) or plural (“The politicians are now coming out of the woodwork”), or even when there seems to be a quarrel between notion and grammar (“Everybody is scandalized by the his unrepentant behavior”). This is because we can always readily apply one of the most basic rules of English grammar: the subject-verb agreement rule, which, of course, provides that the number of the subject—whether singular or plural—should always agree with the form of the verb—the singular form when the subject is singular, and the plural form when the subject is plural. It’s all that simple.

Not so, however, when the sentence is in a form in which it isn’t clear if the subject is singular or plural. There are several of such sentence constructions in English, and a grammar-savvy friend of mine pounced on me with one a few years ago, challenging me to figure it out. As I recall in the column below that I wrote in 2005, the grammar puzzler took me quite a while to dissect and unravel.

An English-language conundrum

While fine-tuning my book, English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, for its second printing [this was four and a half years ago], I received e-mail from faraway Stockholm with this note about a particular usage in the book: “Here’s a conundrum, Jose: Should it be ‘There is more than one way to skin a cat’ or ‘There are more than one way to skin a cat’? Consider this as a question submitted to your column.”

The interlocutor was my cyberspace friend Niels Hovm√∂ller, a knowledgeable Swedish gymnasium (secondary school) English teacher and educational software developer who had admirably taken it upon himself to help me put the book’s English on even firmer and surer footing. Purely for love of the language, he was going over the text by line and word for word, promptly e-mailing me incisive—and sometimes tart—comments like the one above every time he found some doubtful grammar or semantic usage in my prose.

Before I answer Niel’s question, though, let’s find out first what “conundrum” means. This is a recurrent word in philosophy and linguistics, but probably not very many of us have bothered to find out what it means. The first of its three Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary meanings is “a riddle whose only answer is or involves a pun,” but Niels is obviously using it here simply to mean “a question or problem having only a conjectural answer.”

That said, I will now fearlessly answer his question: without any doubt, the correct usage is the singular construction, “There is more than one way to skin a cat.” As in the case of many grammar conundrums, however, I will be able to justify my answer only as we go along.

We all know that in English, “there is” or “there are” expressions—the linguistic term for them is expletives—are commonly used to declare or affirm that something exists. They came about because native English speakers generally feel uncomfortable saying such simple declaratives as “A cat is on my bed” or “Errors are in your manuscript.” To assuage their discomfort, they tack on “there is” or “there are” to such statements even if many grammarians think that expletives only serve to weaken prose: “There is a cat on my bed.” “There are errors in your manuscript.”

The simple subject-verb agreement rule in English, of course, applies even to expletive constructions: use “there is” if the subject is singular, like “apple” or “book,” and if the subject is a non-count noun, like “water” and “air”; but use “there are” if the subject is plural, like “apples” and “books.” In the conundrum above, however, it is not crystal clear if the subject of the sentence, “more than one way,” is plural or singular. Many people would argue that it is plural because more than one way—presumably at least two—is being invoked. For the subject-verb agreement to reflect that plurality, they reason out that the correct expression should be “There are more than one way to skin a cat.” Many of us obviously would bristle seeing such an awkward sentence construction, but we now have to conquer our bias against it so we can objectively determine once and for all if the usage has no possibility whatsoever of being correct.

One English grammar rule can actually help us resolve this conundrum. That rule says that when a clause begins with “there is/there are,” the verb should agree in number with the first noun or pronoun being linked by that verb. Under this proximity rule, we say “There is a woman and three men in the car,” not “There are a woman and three men in the car.” When we decide to put the plural subject ahead in that sentence, however, we obviously can use only the plural construction: “There are three men and a woman in the car.”

Now we are ready to frontally tackle Niel’s conundrum: Should it be “There is more than one way to skin a cat” or “There are more than one way to skin a cat”? Invoking the expletive construction rule above, there should be no doubt now that in those two sentences, the subject most proximate to the expletives “there is/there are” is “one way,” which obviously is singular. Therefore, the noun phrase “more than one way to skin a cat” that was built around that singular subject should also be treated as singular. The plural usage would apply, of course, if the subject were “two ways” or a number more than that—“There are more than two ways to skin a cat.” “There are more than nine ways to skin a cat.”—but this is obviously not the case here.

With this, I am confident that we have now resolved Niel’s conundrum for good. (March 21, 2005)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 21, 2005 © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The pleasures of engaging in English wordplay - Part II

Ever wondered how some people have moved us or inspired us to do great things their way, or mesmerized us, put blinders on our eyes, then made us do irrational things that we would never have dreamed of doing had we not been under their spell?

If so, then the speakers—unless they had recited great poetry—must have been using chiasmus. This figure of speech towers above all the other rhetorical devices in its ability to lower our built-in defenses and arouse our emotions. We could very well call chiasmus the linguistic incarnation of charisma—that rare and elusive power of certain people to inspire fierce loyalty and devotion among their followers.

The use of chiasmus dates back to antiquity. In the 6th century B.C., the extremely wealthy Lydian king Croesus went on record using it: “In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.” Such wisdom in only 13 words! Is it possible that he became fabulously wealthy because he was so adept at chiasmus and—by implication—at compelling people’s obedience? Or did he become so good at coining chiasmus because his wealth had allowed him the leisure to craft it?

Now take a look at this familiar line from U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, on which so many English-language elocution students had labored investing their own vocal energies over the years: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Just 17 words, but they give us the feeling of an immensely satisfying four-hour lecture on good citizenship. Then see chiasmus at work in this charming line by the English physician and author Havelock Ellis: “Charm is a woman’s strength; strength is a man’s charm.” And, one more time, hark to this timeless sage advice from Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”

By now you must have already discovered for yourself the fundamental structure and mechanism of chiasmus: it reverses the order of words in two parallel phrases. Take this chiasmus by the legendary Hollywood actress Mae West: “I’d rather be looked over than overlooked.” “Looked over” is “overlooked” in reverse, making the speaker wickedly but deliciously imply that she enjoys being ogled at. Or take this arresting advertising slogan of a Philippine insurance company: “If someone depends on you, you can depend on Insular Life.” By some linguistic alchemy, the parallel word reversals arouse our senses, disarming us so we readily accept their claim as true. Chiasmus has this power because it heightens the sense of drama in language by surprise. It is no wonder that it holds the distinction of being mankind’s all-time vehicle for expressing great truths and, conversely, also great untruths.

Most types of chiasmus reverse the words of familiar sayings in a felicitously parallel way, as in the French proverb, “Love makes time pass, time makes love pass.” For chiasmus to succeed, however, the two insights offered by the word reversals should both be true and survive subsequent scrutiny. (They could also be untrue, and therein lies the danger in chiasmus in the hands of demagogues and charlatans.)

But chiasmus need not be an exact reversal of a familiar saying. Take what the English writer Richard Brinksley said on beholding for the first time the woman whom he was to later marry: “Why don’t you come into my garden? I would like my roses to see you.” This implied chiasmus cleverly reverses this usual invitation of proud homemakers: “I’d like you to see my roses.” And chiasmus also nicely takes the form of questions, as in this line from Antigone by the 5th century Greek dramatist Sophocles: “What greater ornament to a son than a father’s glory, or to a father than a son’s honorable conduct?"

If chiasmus is this pleasurable, does it mean that we should spend a lot of time composing it ourselves to impress people? Not at all! Chiasmus is meant to be used very sparingly, to be reserved only for those very special moments when saying them can truly spell a make-or-break difference in our lives, like preparing for battle, wooing the hearts and minds of people, ruing abject failure, or celebrating great success. In our everyday lives, it is enough for us to spot a good chiasmus so we can savor its wisdom, and to have the wisdom to know when we are simply being conned with fallacy or propaganda masquerading as great truth. (October 16, 2003)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 13 and 16, 2003 © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.