Friday, February 26, 2010

Part II – Steeling ourselves against outright political deception

This week I am posting in the forum the second in the series on logical fallacies that I wrote for my column in The Manila Times in 2003. That series was specifically meant for the 2004 national elections, so I am presenting it here in an updated and modified form to suit current political realities. From the language standpoint, of course, the situation then and now are largely the same. The electorate and the entire citizenry are once again taking a heavy barrage of election propaganda—a few forthright and fair, some using emotive language designed to cover weak arguments or inadequate facts, and the rest shamelessly foisting outright fallacies and untruths.

This torrent of political propaganda will surely turn into a veritable deluge in the run-up to the polls on May 11. I am therefore hoping that by running this series on logical fallacies, the Forum can help its members steel themselves against any attempts at outright deception from whatever source, enable them to sift through bias and motive in political statements, make them rise above partisanship and self-interest, and guide them to vote wisely and rationally.

Last week we took up the material fallacies, namely false cause, hasty generalization, misapplied generalization, false dilemma, compound question, false analogy, contradictory premises, circular reasoning, and insufficient or suppressed evidence.This time we are taking up the so-called fallacies of relevance.

Watching out against the fallacies of relevance

Arguments that seek to persuade people to accept evidently non-logical propositions are called the fallacies of relevance. In this form of fallacy, the premises and evidence offered are actually irrelevant to the conclusion, but are couched in language that makes them psychologically or emotionally persuasive. People often have very strong opinions about the issues in this type of fallacy, so they seldom notice that their attention is being diverted from the real issue. On the strength of a finite person’s persuasion alone, fallacies of relevance are often so obviously false that they can hook in only the unwary, the predisposed, and the gullible. But with the growing sophistication of their practitioners in using the modern mass media, particularly television and radio, this form of illogic has developed enough power to break the rational defenses even of the intellectually sophisticated and astute.

The fallacies of relevance had already been identified and catalogued as early as 2,600 years ago during Aristotle’s time, fascinating logicians and charlatans ever since. So widely discussed in philosophical and political circles were they that most of their Latin names became part of the English lexicon.

The 13 most common of them are the fallacies of irrelevance (ignoratio elenchi), personal ridicule (ad hominem), appeal to the people (ad populum), appeal to authority (ad verecundiam), appeal to ignorance (ad ignorantiam), appeal to pity (ad misericordiam), appeal to force (ad baculum), appeal to money (ad crumenam), emotive language, tu quoque, genetic error, anthropomorphism, and non sequitur. We will now look at their anatomy, dissect a few specimens, and show why their kind of reasoning should really not be given any credence.

Fallacies of irrelevance. Better known as ignoratio elenchi (irrelevant conclusion), this broad category covers practically all of the fallacies of relevance. They try to establish the truth of a proposition with arguments that support an entirely different conclusion. Example: “I have been accused of fathering my secretary’s child, but she actually signed an affidavit that the child is actually the fruit of artifical insemination. Therefore, I could not have possibly fathered that child.”

That the woman declared under oath that her child was conceived through artificial insemination would seem to clear the man of wrongdoing. However, it really isn’t conclusive proof that he didn’t father that child. What if the woman, out of love or terror or poverty or charity, is simply trying to protect his reputation? The affidavit—that all-purpose device of law to support truth and falsehood alike—doesn’t really settle the biological and parental aspect of the premises. The only thing it proves is that the woman signed it. (Thankfully, modern science has developed the DNA test to spare us from the dilemma put forth by fallacies of this type.)

Personal ridicule (ad hominem). When one ridicules another instead of directly addressing the premises of his or her argument, one commits the fallacy of personal ridicule: “You wouldn’t believe someone of such low social stature, would you?” “She maybe right about the country’s economic situation, but don’t you remember that she was outrageously wrong twice during the past 10 years?”

Easily the most popular variety of this fallacy is the so-called “straw man,” the tactic of misrepresenting someone’s argument to make it easier to refute. The trick is to distort an aspect of someone’s premises to make it less credible, attack the now distorted position, and then claim that the whole argument has been refuted. As an example, take the following conversation:

Niece to uncle: “Uncle, I’d like to take up mass communications instead of nursing. I think I’m not really cut out for nursing.” Uncle to niece: “You unthinking moron! Mass communications graduates are dime a dozen. Nursing is the most in-demand job abroad these days!”)

Appeal to the people ((ad populum). This is the fallacy of using the presumed feelings, actions, and prejudices of the general population to support an invalid argument: “67.8% of our TV texters think that that high official couldn’t be guilty of corruption. He really must be innocent!”

Three insidious varieties of this fallacy are mainstays in product advertising and political campaigns:

· The bandwagon: “Nine out of every 10 doctors use X toothpaste. It’s high time you did!”

· Appeal to belief: “All of the people in this town are true believers. You must be the son of the Devil if you aren’t.”

· Appeal to common practice: “Everybody cheats during elections, so I will not be left behind in my exercise of a legitimate political right.”

Appeal to authority (ad verecundiam). This is the fallacy of supporting dubious or patently false premises with the opinion of a leader, authority, or expert in a field other than the field being discussed: “Our beloved Brother Y got a message from Heaven that M should be our next president. We really have no choice but to vote for M.” It may sound ridiculous, but the danger to modern society is that fanaticism of all stripes almost always makes this kind of fallacy work with people of certain persuasions—especially clueless believers.

Appeal to ignorance (ad ignorantiam). This is the fallacy of assuming that a premise is correct because it cannot be disproved. Here’s its basic form: “There’s no proof that what you say is true; therefore, what you say isn’t true.” The same illogic runs here: “We have no evidence that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, so no intelligent life must exist elsewhere in the universe.”

The same faulty reasoning props up the “guilty until proven innocent” fallacy, in which police authorities make their suspects wear the orange garb of prisoners and allow the broadcast and print media to feast on them. They score media and political points in doing this, of course, but they are actually engaging in a blatant appeal to ignorance. It runs roughshod over the legal presumption that someone is “innocent until proven guilty,” and there’s absolutely no way of erasing the stigma of guilt on those so treated even if they are eventually found innocent of the crime imputed to them. (When suspects are caught in the act or if the evidence of wrongdoing is strong, their detention away from intrusive and prejudicial media exposure is probably a more rational, just, and humane thing to do.)

Appeal to pity (ad misericordiam). Trying to get support for one’s premises not on logical grounds but on compassion is known as the fallacy of appeal to pity. In Philippine parlance this is the “paawa” (“have mercy on me”) effect; elsewhere it is known as the “victim mentality.” This form of illogic marks many court pleadings, as when a defense lawyer asks for leniency towards his self-confessed client: “Your Honor, he may have killed the winning candidate but he is a highly intelligent law graduate whose conviction will forever ruin what could be a most illustrious legal and political career.”

When their academic performance falters, some scholars are also known to resort to this fallacious tack: “Ma’am, if you give me a grade of 2.0 I’ll lose my university scholarship. I’d be forced to stop schooling because my family is dirt poor.” Appeals to pity often work not because they are logically sound but because they tug at our emotions and sense of magnanimity.

Appeal to force (ad baculum). When the usual means of persuasion fail, some people use threat and intimidation to compel others to accept their argument. This is the appeal to force, and it’s the most insidious fallacy of all because it marks the end of civility and the beginning of belligerence: “Park here at your own risk.” “If I hear that line from you again, you better start looking for another job.” “If they convict me in this court case, they will have another ‘People Power’ in their hands.” “Mr. Senator, you have just called me a crook. Say that again without parliamentary immunity and I’ll slap you with a twenty-million-peso libel suit!”

The protection racketeer’s appeal to force is, of course, the most viciously audacious of them all: “You have such nice glass panels in your jewelry boutique, Mr. de la Cruz. My organization sees to it that such nice things remain that way. That’s good for business, and good for us, too. Tomorrow, at 12:00 noon, my man will come here to tell you how little it will cost you.”

Appeal to money (ad crumenam). This is the fallacy of thinking that money is a reliable standard of correctness, and that the more moneyed one is, is more likely one will be right. Passing motorist commenting on a car collision: “That Ford Expedition is obviously not the aggressor because it’s brand-new and much more expensive than that old Beetle, and it was that respectable-looking executive driving it. Look, that careless driver of the Beetle is not even shaven and is only in a dirty undershirt!”

In the so-called appeal to poverty (argumentum ad lazarum), this fallacy works in reverse: “That Ford Expedition is obviously at fault because it’s much sturdier and bigger than that old Beetle. The Expedition’s driver must have bullied the poor Beetle’s driver and raced him to the intersection.” Of course, these are both illogical ways of looking at the situation, for we know that neither greater wealth nor poverty indicates greater good or truth.

Emotive language (argumentum ad populum). This is the fallacy of using emotionally loaded words to establish a claim without proof; the appeal is not to reason and logic but to the beliefs or feeling of the majority of the people towards a particular issue.

One remarkable example of emotive language in history is the response of Spain’s Queen Isabella when Christopher Columbus broached to her the idea that based on his trans-Atlantic voyage, the Earth must be a sphere. She said: “The Earth must be flat. Millions of people know that it is. Are you trying to tell them that they are all mistaken fools?” (Based on modern scientific knowledge, of course, they were!)

As we all know, emotive language is the bread-and-butter stuff of political advertising: “Manuel Villar: Sipag at Tiyaga” (Hard Work and Perseverance), Noynoy Aquino: Hindi Ako Magnanakaw” (I Am Not A Thief), “Gibo Teodoro: Galing at Talino” (Expertise and Intelligence), “Pag May Erap, May Ginhawa” (Where there’s Erap, There’s Great Relief). By using a powerful emotional appeal, each of these political slogans tries to short-circuit logical evaluation of the candidate’s fitness for the Philippine presidency.

Tu quoque (“You also” or “You, too” fallacy). This is the fallacy of demolishing someone’s position by presenting evidence that his or her past actions or beliefs are inconsistent with the position or view he or she is presenting now. A very common example in Philippine elections is this argument: “Your party cheated heavily to win in the last elections, so why is your party advocating honesty now and condemning my party for preparing to do what you did in the coming elections?” It’s the obnoxious tit-for-tat mentality that bedevils supposedly free and democratic elections.

Genetic error. This is a variation of the ad hominem (personal ridicule) fallacy, one that doesn’t necessarily attack the person directly but attacks instead the origins of the position he or she is proposing. This fallacy is termed “genetic” because it’s based on the notion that the original source of an idea is a reliable basis for evaluating its truth or reasonableness.

One example of the genetic error fallacy is this argument: “You believe that that there are measurable differences in IQ among the different human races? You must be a despicable racist then!”

This highly emotional diatribe is invariably raised against scientists who as much as privately and quietly raise such a possibility based on their objective and dispassionate researches. Understandably, people of any race would find such a view so horrid and patently unacceptable, but this belief has no bearing at all on whether such IQ differences do, in fact, exist. Indeed, where an argument comes from is irrelevant in an honest-to-goodness effort to establish logical proof.

Anthropomorphism (pathetic fallacy). This type of fallacy treats animals or inanimate objects as if they had human feelings, thoughts, or sensations. Although using the pathetic fallacy can be a good way to make complex concepts or difficult ideas more easily understood, it can be carried to unreasonable, illogical extremes.

One useful pathetic fallacy is this personification of the behavior of gases: “Air hates to be crowded, and when compressed it will try to escape to an area of lower pressure.” Of course, being an inanimate entity, air is incapable of hating and of trying to escape; it just behaves according to natural law. Still, attributing human traits to air makes its behavior more comprehensible to us.

Anthropomorphism, however, can take a less useful and odious form: superstition. For example, growing a fortune plant right outside the door of the house is supposed to bring good luck to the homeowner. However, when the fortune plant doesn’t grow well despite being adequately taken care of, it’s the extreme in anthropomorphism to conclude that the fortune plant detests the homeowner and won’t bring good luck to him or her. Conversely, it’s also the extreme in anthropomorphism to believe that when the fortune plant grows robust, it will bring great fortune to the homeowner. In reality, regardless of whether its owner has good or bad luck, the fortune plant will grow largely on its own accord, depending only on the care that it gets.

Non sequitur (Latin for “it doesn’t follow”). In formal logic, a non sequitur is any argument whose conclusion doesn’t follow from its premises. The conclusion may either be true or false, but the fallacy in the argument arises from a disconnect between the premise and the conclusion. Indeed, all of the formal fallacies we have taken up above are special cases of non sequitur.

There’s no need to look far for examples of non sequiturs, for the campaign trail for the 2010 Philippine national elections is littered with them: “Kung Walang Corrupt, Walang Mahirap” (If No One’s Corrupt, No One will Be Poor); “Para sa Mabilis na Pag-aahon” (For Quick Recovery); “Pagbabago Sigurado” (Change for Sure); “Ipagpatuloy ang Magandang Simula” (Let’s Continue Our Beautiful Beginning).

Simple scrutiny of each of these slogans will quickly show that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise; in other words, the statement is a fallacy, unrealistic and logically indefensible. Their only legitimate use is as attention-getters—nothing else.

Next: The verbal fallacies

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 13-19, 2003, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. Revised and updated February 25, 2010. All rights reserved.


What do you think of my ideas in this essay? Click the Reply button to post your response.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Steeling ourselves against outright political deception

Now that the campaign season for the 2010 Philippine national elections is underway, I’ll start posting in the Forum the series on logical fallacies— to put it more plainly, on illogical or erroneous thinking—that I wrote for my column in The Manila Times in 2003. That series was specifically meant for the 2004 national elections, so I am presenting it here in an updated and slightly modified form to suit current political realities. From the language standpoint, of course, the situation then and now are largely the same. The electorate and the entire citizenry are once again taking a heavy barrage of election propaganda—a few forthright and fair, some using emotive language designed to cover weak arguments or inadequate facts, and the rest shamelessly foisting outright fallacies and untruths.

This torrent of political propaganda will surely turn into a veritable deluge in the run-up to the polls on May 11. I am therefore hoping that by running this series on logical fallacies, the Forum can help its members steel themselves against any attempts at outright deception from whatever source, enable them to sift through bias and motive in political statements, make them rise above partisanship and self-interest, and guide them to vote wisely and rationally.

Watching out against the material fallacies

Practically every language textbook cautions us against the logical fallacies, which have bedeviled mankind from the very beginning and even long after Aristotle had painstakingly classified them and issued strong cautionary words against them over 2,400 years ago. Logical fallacies are those errors in our judgment that often result from fuzzy thinking, errors that—on hindsight—we sometimes can correct not long after. For political ends, however, some propaganda practitioners have developed the high art of using language to deceive and to deliberately trap us into making them such errors in judgment. This is the danger that logical fallacies foist on us in our everyday lives and much more so during hotly contested electoral campaigns.

We can group logical fallacies into three broad categories: material fallacies, fallacies of relevance, and verbal fallacies. Let us see now how they operate and attempt to befuddle the minds of even supposedly rational thinkers, including ourselves.

Material fallacies

When we present an argument, we use two basic tools of language: premises and presuppositions. Our premises are what we start our arguments with; to be believable, of course, these arguments must be self-evident or are already part of so-called “common knowledge.” For instance, nobody will dispute the fact that the sun rises from the east, so everybody in his right mind accepts it as true, as a “given.” What we should be wary about, however, is the validity of our presuppositions. We fall victim to these presuppositions because they generally cannot be proved or disproved. We often take them on based on blind faith and nothing more

Take this statement, for instance: “More people die in cities than anywhere else. Therefore, living in the city will hasten your death.” The material fallacy here is, of course, assuming that one outcome is caused by another just because one happens after the other. In reality, the two outcomes could have both been caused by another event, or they could be totally unrelated, as in this case.

As we can see, a conclusion is not adequately proven when an argument’s premises contain wrong presuppositions, which of course are artfully hidden by the better propagandists or, in their more benign form, by well-versed academic debaters. With this in mind, we will now formally look into nine of the most common kinds of material fallacies: false cause, hasty generalization, misapplied generalization, false dilemma, compound question, false analogy, contradictory premises, circular reasoning, and insufficient or suppressed evidence.

False cause. This is the kind of material fallacy that was given as the first example above—the assumption that an event is caused by another event simply because it happens after the latter: “More people die in cities than anywhere else. Therefore, living in the city will hasten your death.” Statistically, because of the denser populations of cities, more people do die in cities than in the countrysides, but this is only because of the sheer number of city dwellers who will eventually die whether from natural or other causes. It doesn’t follow, though, that living in the city will hasten your death. For instance, if you are a sickly person, the modern medical facilities of city hospitals could very well prolong your life rather than hasten your demise.

The most common false-cause fallacies are, of course, superstitions. Despite being educated well, for instance, many people fall prey to this false-cause belief: “Never proceed on your way when a black cat crosses your path. It’s bad luck and many people had died when they did so.” It just so happened that sometime in the past, perhaps one or two people died from one cause or another after proceeding when a black cat crossed their path, but this doesn’t mean that this is a sure outcome of that eventuality.

Even more common is the false-cause fallacy of the chain letter: “Juan de la Cruz didn’t forward his copy of this e-mail to three other people, and three days later he died.” Who among us has not been taken in by this veiled threat?

Hasty generalization. We fall victim to this fallacy when we make a general rule based on only a few examples, or on examples that are really exceptions. This statement is an example: “His parents were great public administrators; therefore, he will be a great administrator, too.” What’s the hasty generalization there? It is the presumption that the traits and skills for good public administration can be passed on genetically to one’s offsprings without fail. If this were true, then all a country needs to do to administered well perpetually is to breed a family—nay, a dynasty—of genetically excellent public administrators. As we all know, of course, this remains a pipe dream for all nations all over the world. All of them must still take a chance in apparently competent, experienced individuals to administer their country over a certain period of time and see what happens—for good or bad. Life’s like that.

Misapplied generalization. When we misapply a certain generalization to a specific case that’s actually an exception to the rule, that generalization becomes materially fallacious. Look at this generalization: “Vegetables are nutritious; therefore, this piece of cabbage must be nutritious.” Cabbage is nutritious, of course, but maybe that particular cabbage you are holding and want to cook may already be rotten and no longer edible—hence not nutritious anymore.

Here’s another such generalization, an even more scalding one: “The graduates of X University have not worked hard and made a genuine effort in college, unable to keep any of their appointments, and presented carelessly written papers.” The fallacy here, of course, is the misapplied generalization. Indeed, the accusation may be true of certain students, but it’s unlikely to be true to the students of X University in general. It would have been fairer and more accurate to specifically address the accusation to—and rebuke—the students who were actually guilty of such academic transgressions.

False dilemma. Who has not been fascinated by the sensuous sell? “I allow only X [bathing soap, body lotion, intimate ointment] to touch my skin.” “I wear Y [briefs, panties, jeans] or nothing at all.” This is the materially fallacious argument that prods us to overlook alternative possibilities, thus creating a false dilemma for us.

This type of fallacious reasoning is also called the “either-or fallacy”—someone poses what looks like a dilemma when there are actually other viable alternatives. For example, someone respectable may have demonstrated an apparent skill in correctly predicting the outcome of horse races. Would it be correct then to make the following statement about that person? “Either that man’s a fraud or he’s psychic. Since it’s obvious he’s not a fraud, he must be truly psychic.” That, however, is committing the fallacy of false dilemma, for it’s also possible that he’s a respectable person demonstrating psychic powers fraudulently, or a fraudulent person who truly possesses psychic powers.

Compound question. You must have already encountered aggressive door-to-door preachers who, when politely told that you are too busy, would tell you in an aggrieved, mildly threatening tone: “You mean to say that you dare refuse God to enter your house?” This is the classic compound question, otherwise called the complex question or loaded question, devilishly phrased to limit the possibilities of one’s answer. Its simpler variation is the so-called persuasive definition, which deceptively fashions the terms of the argument to support the conclusion.

Also called “poisoning the well,” the compound question is designed to prevent or avoid any opposing arguments and incriminates the answerer regardless of the response he or she gives. This is because any answer would admit the preliminary conclusions built into the question.

Another example of the compound question is this: “Do you expect me to believe that lie?” If you answer “no,” you are countering the stated expectation but at the same time admitting that what you said is a lie; if you say “yes,” you are actually saying that you are lying but that you expect the lie to be believed.”

False analogy. When an analogy is drawn between dissimilar or totally unrelated objects or ideas, the result is a false, unreliable analogy—the well-known “mangoes and bananas” comparison: “Bananas are as delicious and tasty as mangoes.” But here’s a more complex, deceiving example: “Minds, like rivers, can be broad. The broader the river, the shallower it is. Therefore, the broader the mind, the shallower it is.” On closer scrutiny, we find that this analogy is false because minds and rivers are actually totally dissimilar and unrelated objects—the first abstract and the second physical—that are not at all amenable to such a simplistic comparison.

We all know how powerful an analogy could be. It can persuade us to transfer the feeling of certainty we have about one subject to another subject that we may not have an opinion yet. But analogies are often undependable and must always be viewed with extreme caution. This is because they rely on the questionable principle that because two things are similar in some respects they are similar in some other respects. Indeed, when relevant differences outweigh relevant similarities, a false analogy results.

Contradictory premises. A basic rule in logic is that a conclusion is valid only when its premises don’t contradict one another; thus, an argument with conflicting or inconsistent premises is automatically invalid. That is the problem with this classical question: “What will happen if an irresistible force meets an immovable object?” The fallacy here is that in a universe where an irresistible force exists, no immovable object could also exist because the force wouldn’t be irresistible.

Just three more of these brain-teasing fallacies: “Into what shape of a slot would a rectangular circle fit?” “If God is all-powerful, can he create a rock so huge and so heavy that he cannot lift it?” “If X is more popular than his rival Y, how can Y perform better than X in the same elective position?” Of course, since the premises of these questions cannot both be valid, there’s really no way of logically answering them.

Circular reasoning. This material fallacy results when the assertion to be proved is later used in the argument as an already proven fact. Also known as “begging the question” and as petitio principii in Latin, circular reasoning is common even among the intelligent; people just have a natural predisposition to it.

We engage in varying degrees of self-deception to keep our self-respect or massage our egos, which may not be an entirely bad thing psychologically: “I must be good-looking because I really think so.”

“I may not be as good as they are but they are actually no better than I am.” “Many of my intelligent friends believe in “manananggals” [bat-winged witches]. I believe not only in “manananggals” but in “tikbalangs” [giant man-horses] as well. Therefore, I must be more intelligent than my friends.” (Intelligence does not increase with higher levels of superstition.)

“Although I take bribes as a government official, I am a man of integrity because I treat people well and give generously to charity; I treat people well and give generously to charity because I am a man of integrity.” (Charity and kindness of this type, of course, doesn’t prove integrity.)

Circular reasoning becomes dangerous when large sectors of the population actively pursue it both as a way of life and as a communal pastime: “He or she will make a good president because he or she promotes [disease-prevention, better ways to do laundry, comradeship in drinking, vigilance against crime] by aggressively pitching a [multivitamin brand, detergent, rum, flashlight batteries].” This kind of perverse logic permeates the airwaves, the print media, many public forums, and our day-to-day interactions, forever trying to mesmerize us into making knee-jerk purchase and voting decisions. Indeed, it would be a wonder if a nation that habitually thinks like that can move forward at all.

Insufficient or suppressed evidence. This is the material fallacy that (1) uses as proof only the facts that support the predetermined conclusion, or (2) disregards or ignores all other pertinent facts. A loyal handmaiden of circular reasoning, this form of illogic gently prods people to close their minds to contrary evidence and decide solely on gut-feel.

Look at these examples from our social and political landscape:

“This buffoon makes me laugh so I’ll vote for him; he has no public service experience, but he’s a fast learner so I’m sure he’ll learn to govern fast enough.” (What happened to managerial competence?)

“We’ve had lawyer-presidents since way back when, and terrible things always happened to this country; so this time, I’m voting for any non-lawyer with low IQ and absolutely no experience.” (What about electing competent professional managers and tried-and-tested community leaders instead?)

“Let’s make Z our governor; he’s already a millionaire with no more motivation to steal.” (Since when was greed demonstrated to vanish when one becomes wealthy?)

This completes our discussion of the nine major kinds of material fallacies: false cause, hasty generalization, misapplied generalization, false dilemma, compound question, false analogy, contradictory premises, circular reasoning, or insufficient or suppressed evidence. We will take up the fallacies of relevance next to help us better analyze more complex premises and propositions. By seeing more of the intricate pathways and pitfalls of fuzzy thinking, we should be able to put a little more precision, a little more science, a little more hindsight, and a little more sense of history to both our personal and national decision-making.

As one teacher of formal logic beautifully puts it, good thinking is doing much better in “learning to navigate through logical space.”

(Next: The fallacies of relevance)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 13-19, 2003, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. Revised and updated on February 21, 2010. All rights reserved.


What do you think of my ideas in this essay? Click the Reply button to post your thoughts on Jose Carillo’s English Forum.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentine’s Day isn’t just a hoary myth woven from thin air

Tomorrow, February 14, is Valentine’s Day, so I’m yielding to the temptation of posting in the Forum an atmosphere piece I wrote in 2004 at about this time for my column in The Manila Times, “The real score about Valentine’s Day.” Of course, I perfectly understand that there’s absolutely no need to explain the vocabulary, grammar, and semantics of love, for we should all be intimately familiar with them by now. As for the genesis of and rationale for Valentine’s Day, however, I’m sure that most people—like me at the start—only have the vaguest idea. So I decided to look deeper into the matter to see if St. Valentine and Valentine’s Day are simply myths woven from thin air by calculating clerics trying to square love triangles, or perhaps just a clever marketing pitch by commercial interests out to make a fast buck from the lovers, the lovelorn, and the loveless—in sum, from all of us.

What I found out about Valentine’s Day, however, is something more elemental, more germinal, and more intriguing than I had ever imagined, and I couldn’t wait to share it with Forum members—before Valentine’s Day whizzes past us and leaves us breathless and pining for one more round of it next time next year.

So here’s my essay on my findings about Valentine’s Day…

The real score about Valentine’s Day

“If you must write about Valentine’s Day,” my wife Leonor admonished me the other day, “don’t be a spoilsport. By all means take a break from your grammar columns, but don’t try to take away the romance from Valentine’s.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Leonor,” I said, “I won’t be a spoilsport. Why would I want to do that? On the contrary, I want to tell lovers all over the world that they are right on target in doing the things they do on Valentine’s Day. I mean, you know, exchanging love tokens, whispering sweet nothings, having dinner by candlelight—good, old romance the way it should be.”

“Then you’ve got nothing really new to say,” she said. “You’ll just recycle the same old story that everybody recycles this time of year.”

“Not with this one, Leonor. I have a new thesis: that people should thank their lucky stars they can celebrate Valentine’s Day not so different from how the ancient Romans did it. As you know, those people started it all almost a thousand years before the Christian evangelists came to Europe. They had this much-awaited love festival on February 14, precisely the same day as today’s Valentine’s Day. It went by another name, of course. They called it the Lupercalia.”

“Umm...interesting,” Leonor said. “Tell me more about it.”

“The Lupercalia, in plain English, was the ‘Feast of the Wolf-God.’ It was an ancient fertility rite in honor of a god who protected sheep from the wolves. Its high point was a mating game, a lottery for young, unmarried men and women. The organizers would write the names of qualified, interested women on small pieces of parchment, then drop them into a big vase. Each qualified male drew one piece from the vase, and the woman whose name was on that piece became his date or ‘steady’ for one whole year.”

“That simple? Unacquainted couples were paired with no courtship, no legal and religious mumbo-jumbo?”

“Yes, Leonor, and they had a whole year to find out if they were temperamentally and sexually compatible. If they were, of course, they married and raised a family.”

“How wonderfully uncomplicated, but how unromantic! And my heart bleeds for the young couples that had an eye for each other beforehand. With, say, 1,000 women’s names in that lottery, the probability of a woman getting picked by a man she already liked would be next to zilch; so were the chances of a young man picking the woman he really liked. And the chances of a mutually attracted pair being mated? That’s 1/1,000 multiplied by 1/1,000 or one in a million, right?”

“Right, Leonor! A priori romances simply couldn’t bloom unless the partners decided to mutually violate the rules. But there was one good thing going for that lottery, I think: it leveled the playing field for love and procreation. It must have exquisitely churned and enriched the gene pool of the ancient Romans.”

“Maybe so, but don’t you think their ritual was so elemental, so...shall we say, ‘uncivilized’?”

“That’s saying it mildly, Leonor. It scandalized the early Christian missionaries. They found it decadent, immoral, and, of course, unchristian. So they tried to change it by frying it with its own fat, so to speak.”


“Well, the clerics simply revoked the practice of writing the names of young, unmarried women on the pieces of parchment. They wrote on them the names of the Christian saints instead. And you know what they offered to the young, unmarried man who picked the name of a particular saint?”


“The privilege of emulating the virtues of that saint for one whole year.”

“What spoilsports, those clerics! Why would any sensible lover whether male or female want to play that sort of game? For Pete’s sake, that lottery was for love and romance and chance encounters, not for sainthood!”

“That’s right, so the Romans resisted the new mechanics and stuck to the old. It was two centuries before the evangelists again tried to stamp out the Lupercalia in a big way. In 490 A.D., Pope Gelasius canonized a Roman by the name of Valentine. He was, by tradition, a priest martyred 220 years before for violating a ban on performing marriages during wartime. Valentine was stoned to death on a February 14, Lupercalia Day, so his feast day was conveniently made to coincide with it. In a sense, the clerics finally succeeded in Christianizing the ancient rites, but only in name and only edgewise, in a manner of speaking. As history would prove, no power on earth could stamp out its earthly and earthy attractions.”

‘You’ve got a lovely story there,” Leonor said, “and you kept your promise of not being a spoilsport. So Happy Valentine’s Day, my love!”

“For you, Leonor, Happy Lupercle’s Day just this once, OK?”


From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the February 13, 2004 issue of The Manila Times. This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 145 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

What do you think of my ideas in this essay? Click the Reply button to post your thoughts.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Not just a curiosity piece but a little primer in verb-formation

Five years is such a long time from the word-creation standpoint of a language—particularly if that language is English. Since 2005, in fact, the English vocabulary has grown to probably over 700,000 words today from the Oxford English Dictionary’s benchmark 615,000 words that year, growing at the rate of about 25,000 words a year as projected by the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged). The brash, less discriminating U.S.-based Global Language Monitor, however, had put the 2006 figure at 991,833 words, then made such a big to do about the 1,000,000th mark having been surpassed early in 2009. Whatever the actual vocabulary figures, there’s no stopping and denying the fact that the English language is indeed growing, growing, and growing…getting more robust and more expansive because of so many advances in science and technology.

This growth in English neologisms has not only been in new nouns but in many new verbs as well. Indeed, before 2005, hidebound grammarians were bewailing the surge into the English lexicon of such computer-technology verbs as “firewall” (meaning to protect a computer system from hackers and spammers) and “architect” (meaning to design and develop a new computer setup), and the corporate world was then still getting the hang of such strange new verbs—yes, verbs not nouns—as “conference,” “leverage,” “impact,” and “office.” Today, most of these new verbs are now de rigueur in English, which now must cope and live with even newer neologisms like the verb “text” (meaning to send a written message by mobile phone) and “unfriend” (meaning to remove from one’s list of friends in Facebook).

I had pondered this noun-to-verb conversion syndrome in an essay that I wrote for my column in The Manila Times towards the end of 2005. Today, although many of the neologisms swamping English then have now become firmly entrenched in the language, I find that the same word-formation principles and processes are still very much at work. I am therefore posting the essay here not just as a curiosity piece but as a little informal primer and cautionary tale on word formation.

The noun-to-verb conversion syndrome

One major word-formation process in English is to use the noun itself as a verb to express the action conveyed or implied by the noun, without changing the form of the noun in any way. This direct noun-to-verb conversion, one of the so-called “zero derivation” processes in linguistics, has been taking place since language began. It has given English such basic action verbs as “eye” to mean “to watch or study closely,” “nose” to mean “to search impertinently,” “face” to mean “to deal with straightforwardly,” “mouth” to mean “to talk in a pompous way,” “elbow” to mean “to shove aside,” and “stomach” to mean “to bear without overt resentment.” Rather than come up with a new word for the action that a body part typically can do literally or figuratively, English speakers simply made that body part stand for the action itself; later on, they did the same for tools, machines, and technologies. It has been estimated that by this process, something like one-fifth of all English verbs had been formed from nouns.

Creating verbs this way, which is facetiously called “nerbing” by some language observers, is particularly tempting in English because it saves time for the speaker or writer and simplifies sentence construction. For instance, rather than saying “She made a catalogue of the books,” we can use the noun “catalogue” as the verb itself, knock off the verb “made,” and say “She catalogued the books” instead. In the same token, rather than saying “The wealthy couple served as parents for the orphan until she reached legal age,” we can use the noun “parent” as the verb, drop the verb “served,” and say “The wealthy couple parented the orphan until she reached legal age.” A bonus in both cases is that aside from saving on words, the language is enriched by a new verb—a “nerb,” a synthetic term that we will use here simply for convenience.

Traditionally, jobs and the professions and occupations have been among the most prolific generators and users of English nerbs: “He mentored the student in the art of debating.” “She liaisoned with media for an entertainment company.” “He engineered the merger of the two companies.” “The unscrupulous accountant doctored the corporate books.” “The government legal counsel secretly lawyered for the powerful political family.”

Scientific, medical, and manufacturing processes have also tended to produce a generous share of nerbs: “We centrifuged the donor’s blood to harvest stem cells for the leukemia patient.” “The laboratory technician chromatographed the mixture for possible contaminants.” In this latter type of nerbs, the name of the machine is directly converted to a verb that describes its action, streamlining what would have been a longer phrase built around the verb “use” (as in “They used a centrifuge to harvest stem cells for the leukemia patient.”).

During the past few decades, of course, advances in information technology and computers became the richest and most frenetic source of “nerbs.” Totally new verbs grew out directly from the names of such new technologies as the telephone, photocopier, fax machine, and e-mail. Thus, practically all English speakers now use such highly efficient nerbing shortcuts as “They telephoned [phoned] me just now,” “She photocopied the contract,” “My assistant will fax you the document tonight,” and “I’ll e-mail you the file tomorrow.”

The developers of these new technologies themselves have been prodigiously creating nerbs to describe new technical procedures and processes: “You must firewall your computer to protect your system from hackers and spammers.” “Please refer to this manual to architect your new portal server-based dynamic workplace.” Management and industry have likewise been riding on this trend by using such nouns as “conference,” “leverage,” “impact,” and “office” into verbs that some grammarians find deplorable, as in “They’ll conference out of town next week” and “She now offices at home for convenience.”

Some language observers fear that direct noun-to-verb conversion has become such a serious syndrome in English, one that promotes confusion instead of understanding among its users. As Sir Kingsley Amis, the late English novelist, poet, critic, and teacher, had observed about the phenomenon, “There are times when this sort of verb seems to be growing too fast for comfort, and one suspects that now may be such a time…[Such verbs] may be quicker to say, but then cutting your arm off will reduce your weight faster and more irreversibly than any diet or exercise.”

It is highly unlikely that the nerbing syndrome can be stopped, however, but we can at least help prevent inappropriate nerbs from swamping English by using usefulness and aesthetics as criteria for evaluating nerbs before using them ourselves. This way, only those that foster brevity as well as accuracy and clarity to language can survive and become welcome entries to the English lexicon. (December 05, 2005)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, December 5, 2005, © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


What do you think of my ideas in these essay? Click the Reply button to post your comments.