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.

1 comment:

  1. "...It is that logic and language are not necessarily always congruent..."

    Just a thought: Teaching English then could be disastrous, for it could malign some to follow other people who appear better in the language. These people could use it to abuse, don't you think?