Saturday, March 27, 2010

Here’s hoping for better English in this year’s graduation rites

It has been a full six summers since I wrote the essay below, “The sorry English of our graduation rites,” for my English-usage column in The Manila Times. That was right after my wife and I attended the high school graduation of our eldest son, when I had the extremely unpleasant experience of listening to the various graduation dramatis personae speak English with varying levels of inadequacy, from guest of honor and school officials down to the high school, elementary school, and kinder school pupils finishing at the top of their respective classes. I fervently wished then—as I fervently wish now for their present-day counterparts—that their English, even if not precisely in the correct language register for such occasions, would at least be grammatically correct and enunciated properly. But there they were at about this time in 2004, matching ill-fitting words and mangled syntax with strident pomposity, and all I could do was sit there and whisper to my wife, “Why has our English come to this?” “If all those speeches by young and old alike are prepared, scripted speeches to begin with, why is it that their English could be so grammatically and semantically fractured?” “Shouldn’t someone in the school anticipate and oversee these things to lessen the discomfort and disappointment of parents and guests attending graduation ceremonies?”

That was six years ago, of course, and in the intervening years I have continued my self-imposed advocacy for good English, writing an English-usage column for the Times every week and coming up with three English-usage books in the process. Every graduation season, though, I would wonder if my efforts have had any perceptible impact on the quality of English in the Philippines in general and on the English of the country’s graduation rites in particular. It will be another two years before I expect to attend another such graduation ceremony—that will be when my youngest son graduates from high school—so in the meantime, I could only rely on anecdotal accounts by my friends and acquaintances about the quality of the English of the graduation ceremonies of their sons, daughters, or grandchildren—circa 2010.

I hope to hear from them soon about their recent graduation ceremony experience and I’ll be crossing my fingers and hoping for the best until then.

The sorry English of our graduation rites

Truth to tell, I had intended to begin this column with a scathing diatribe against the massacre of English during most graduation ceremonies in our English-speaking part of the world. That urge welled up in me a few weeks ago when my wife Leonor and I attended the high school graduation of our eldest son. I knew that if I didn’t watch out, the urge would burst forth as deadly spleen, and that I would be hard put to collect and whip it up into a civilized column. So unbearably morbid was my discomfort with the subject that I thought I couldn’t trust myself to ever write about it with grace and equanimity.

But even in this jaded day and age, miracles still happen, even if not of the religious sort. What forestalled my feared uncontrolled exercise in cruelty was finding good, no-nonsense English by example: Philippine businessman John Gokongwei Jr.’s address to the 2004 Ateneo de Manila graduating class. Serendipitously, the text of his eminently readable speech appeared right beside the print edition of this column morning of the other day. There, by the grace of God and Mr. John Gokongwei’s nonpontificating good sense, was English plain and simple—the kind of English I had long been laboring to promote, the unassuming, unpretentious English I had wanted to hear during my son’s graduation rites but didn’t.

From now on, when asked for a yardstick for plain and simple English, I would simply point to Mr. Gokongwei’s commencement prose as an exemplar. Look at how delightfully homespun and self-effacing he begins: “I wish I were one of you today, instead of a 77-year-old man, giving a speech you will probably forget when you wake up from your hangover tomorrow.” And look at this gem of irony in his account of his transition from market vendor to viajero (traveling trader): “When I had enough money and more confidence, I decided to travel to Manila from Cebu to sell all kinds of goods, like rubber tires. Instead of my bike, I now traveled on a batel—a boat so small that on windless days, we would just float there...During one trip, our batel sank! We would have all perished in the sea if it were not for my inventory of tires. The viajeros were happy because my tires saved their lives, and I was happy because the viajeros, by hanging on to them, saved my tires.”

I know only one business tycoon of a stature comparable to Mr. Gokongwei’s who speaks and writes like this—Mr. Warren Buffett, the multibillionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the large US-based financial services and investment company. Months ago I had quoted him in my column to illustrate the great semantic power of plain and simple English when used by those who really know and passionately believe in what they are talking about. The disarming clarity and frankness of Mr. Buffett’s 2001 annual report should, like Mr. Gokongwei’s, be a good model for our own efforts at using English.

Here’s a passage from Mr. Buffett’s annual report that shows his remarkably simple, no-nonsense English:

“Though our corporate performance last year was satisfactory, my performance was anything but. I manage most of Berkshire’s equity portfolio, and my results were poor, just as they have been for several years. Of even more importance, I allowed General Re [his reinsurance company] to take on business without a safeguard I knew was important, and on September 11th, this error caught up with us. I’ll tell you more about my mistake later and what we are doing to correct it…Another of my 1956 Ground Rules remains applicable: ‘I cannot promise results to partners.’ But Charlie [Mr. Munger, his vice chair] and I can promise that your economic result from Berkshire will parallel ours during the period of your ownership: We will not take cash compensation, restricted stock or option grants that would make our results superior to yours. Additionally, I will keep well over 99% of my net worth in Berkshire…Charlie and I are disgusted by the situation…in which shareholders have suffered billions in losses while the CEOs, promoters, and other higher-ups who fathered these disasters have walked away with extraordinary wealth… urging investors to buy shares while concurrently dumping their own, sometimes using methods that hid their actions. To their shame, these business leaders view shareholders as patsies, not partners.”

Does this mean that we should become business tycoons first to achieve plain and simple English? Must we first make a big mark in the world to begin speaking without pretension and artifice, and not to always angle for big words to compensate for lack of substance? I don’t think so.

But we have to begin somewhere. Ideally, we should teach our children the art of using plain and simple English as early as preschool, then pursue the effort relentlessly all through primary school, high school, and college. We should encourage students to write clear, simple, and logical prose instead of rewarding their semantically convoluted essays and term papers with unmerited A+s. We should encourage clear, logical, and rational speech instead of lionizing young orators with a gift for bombast, but whose semantic repertoire consists of nothing more than memorized phrases that could not have conceivably sprung from their own minds.

For this year’s graduates and graduation ceremonies, of course, my prescriptions come too late. But it is never too early for the next ones in 2005. Whether graduate or guest speaker, we must curb our profound tendency to embellish speeches with worn-out words or words that don’t befit us, like “endeavor” and “crossroads,” “embark,” “momentous,” and particularly the treacherous adverb “indeed,” which only a very few semantically capable people can use with justice. Then, as parents, we must fight the temptation to ghostwrite our preschoolers’ valedictory speeches, and spare them the trauma of gabbling with adult concepts and salutations they don’t understand, and which make them sound like short-circuited robots. We must, for God’s sake, make our graduation rites the exemplar for good, plain, and simple English as Mr. Gokongwei’s in his compelling address to the Ateneo graduating class. (April 8, 2004)

From English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today's Global Language by Jose A. Carillo, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

No earthly reason why the clergy should be bad in English grammar

In their efforts at evangelization, should the major organized religions just rely on the momentum and stickiness of their respective belief systems? Or should they make a purposive and continuing effort to be better communicators and defenders of the faith, whether using English or any language for that matter?

I have often pondered these questions over the years and even wrote an essay about the subject, “The Grammar of Clerics and Preachers,” sometime in 2003 after listening to a priest give his homily during a mass in Metro Manila. That priest had bungled his English grammar and had stumbled on his English phrases and idioms far too often for comfort, and I felt that this was an untenable state of affairs that needed the immediate action of the church leadership.

Within a few hours after my essay came out in the Internet edition of The Manila Times, however, I received the following e-mail from one of the faithful overseas:

“Regarding your column on the grammar of preachers, let me say that none of us is perfect. I must admit that I’m not that great either when it comes to English grammar. We even have a Filipino priest who has been here in America for over 10 years, but who still finds it next to impossible to correctly pronounce just a simple English word; he also doesn’t know the difference between ‘she’ and ‘he,’ but of course I know what he means. However, if you listen closely to the message of God that he is trying to tell you through the homily, you will be surprised that all those grammar errors fade away. Let God’s message reach your heart and mind instead. And for their big and little imperfections, our priests need our prayers, too.”

I really wonder if the church hierarchy should follow the line of least resistance being advocated above and leave everything to God, or start being really proactive and make sure that its seminarians and even its full-fledged priests will get much more intensive, rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage from now on.

The grammar of clerics and preachers

A few Sundays ago, my two sons and I attended Holy Mass in one of those improvised worship halls put up inside Metro Manila malls. The priest, in his late thirties or early forties, read the opening lines of the Eucharist in pleasantly modulated English, his voice rippling the familiar words and phrases like the chords of a well-tuned piano. His cadence and pronunciation reminded me of the late Fr. James Donelan, S.J., then chaplain of the Asian Institute of Management, who used to say morning mass at the institute in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He would regale the middle-aged management students with English-language homilies of simple beauty and depth, and then, in his formal humanities class, he would lecture them with delicious erudition about the cultural wealth of the Western civilization. Now, listening to the young priest at the mall, I thought that here at last was one more man of the cloth of possibly the same weave. I thus settled down on my chair confident of hearing a well-delivered homily to strengthen my resolve as a believer for the week ahead.

That expectation was soon dashed to pieces, however, for as soon as the priest no longer read from the book and started speaking extemporaneously, it became clear that his command of English left a lot to be desired. He could not even make the form of his verbs agree with the number of his nouns and pronouns, and his grammar was so gender-blind as to be irritating (“The woman walked in the storm and go under the tree to deliver his baby.”). His command of the prepositions was likewise disturbingly inadequate, and he stumbled on his English phrases and idioms far too often for comfort.

I therefore listened to the rest of his homily with increasing distress. Of course, I couldn’t presume that the rest of the congregation shared my discomfort; perhaps I was just too exacting in my English grammar that I tended to magnify what could really be minor mistakes. But two weeks later, I asked one of my sons—then a high school senior—to validate my impressions of that homily. Having attended grade school in a Jesuit-run university, he would normally be squeamish about criticizing priests about anything, but he told me without batting an eyelash that he thought the priest’s English grammar was bad because he kept on messing up his noun-verb agreement and gender usage. I really needed no better confirmation of my impressions than that.

Looking back to that incident, I think that the country’s priests and preachers—more than anybody else in our highly Anglicized society—need better than just average English-language skills to effectively practice their vocation. We expect TV and radio broadcasters to have good English so they can properly report or interpret the news for us; we expect classroom teachers to have good English so they can effectively instruct our children on well-established, often doctrinaire areas of learning; and we expect lawyers to have good English to ably defend us in our mundane civil entanglements or prosecute those who have criminally acted against us and against society. But priests and preachers have a much more difficult job than all of them, for their goal is to teach us modes of belief and behavior that are matters not of fact but of faith. They ask us to believe with hardly any proof. And whatever doctrine they espouse, their mission is to help us experience the sublime, to make us shape our lives according to the hallowed precepts of prophets or sages of a bygone age. This is a definitely a tall order even for one with the gift of tongue, for it demands not only the fire of belief but also good or excellent command of whatever language he or she uses to preach.

Since I was a child, my impression has always been that priests and preachers stay in school the longest—ten to eleven years if my memory serves me well—because they have to master the craft of language, suasion, and persuasion better than most everybody else. My understanding is that this is why seminarians study for the priesthood far longer than students pursuing a degree in medicine or law. I would think that those years of long study could give them a truly strong foundation in English grammar and usage, in listening skills, and in reading skills, then imbue them with a facility with the language that couldn’t be matched by lesser mortals. However, as shown by the fractured English of that priest delivering that homily at the mall and of so many other priests I have listened to over the years, that foundation has been resting on shaky ground indeed.

I therefore think it’s high time that the church hierarchy took steps to remedy this problem. This might be a tall order, but if nothing is done about this, I’m afraid that the established religious faiths would lose more and more of their flock to less virtuous but more English-savvy preachers—preachers who may have rickety or dubious religious platforms but who have honed their gift of tongue and powers of elocution to a much higher degree. I therefore suggest, for their own sake and for the long-term survival of the faith, that all seminarians and even full-fledged priests be given a much more rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage. They need to effectively smoothen out the grammatical and semantic kinks in their English to become more able promoters and defenders of the faith.

As the old saying goes, God helps only those who help themselves. (May 23, 2003)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 23, 2003, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Are the last words of a sentence really the most emphatic?

In his original 1918 edition of The Elements of Style (that was long before E. B. White came up with a chapter on style that made him a co-author of the book), William Strunk, Jr. came up with this perplexing prescription in his discussion of the principles of exposition:

“The proper place for the word, or group of words, which the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end of the sentence…The word or group of words entitled to this position of prominence is usually the logical predicate, that is, the new element in the sentence…”

Strunk gave the following example to illustrate his point:

The modifying phrase at the tail-end of the sentence: “This steel is principally used for making razors, because of its hardness.”

The logical predicate at the tail-end of the sentence: “Because of its hardness, this steel is principally used in making razors.”

To writers steeped heavily in the journalistic writing tradition, this prescription obviously seems counterintuitive at the outset. Almost to a man or woman, they would say that to give the most prominence to a word or group or words, it should be positioned right at the beginning of the sentence—like a good news lead should, as in this example from a recent front-page lead story of the Philippine Inquirer:

“President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has declared a state of calamity in Mindanao, a move that will allow cities, towns and provinces on the island to release 5 percent of their budgets so they can quickly procure generators to address the acute power shortage.”

Few would hazard submitting to their editor that same lead sentence constructed this way:

“A state of calamity in Mindanao has been declared by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a move that will allow cities, towns and provinces on the island to release 5 percent of their budgets so they can quickly procure generators to address the acute power shortage.”

In his book, Strunk conceded that a subject coming first in its sentence may be emphatic—as in the case of the noun form “President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo” in the sentence above—but hardly by virtue of its position in the sentence alone. Indeed, apart from the journalistic tradition of preferring the active voice to the passive voice, the newsworthiness of the noun form (the subject or the doer of the action) normally merits its placement up front in the sentence over and above other factors in composition.

So far, so good.

But then Strunk made the surprising corollary that “any element in the sentence, other than the subject, becomes emphatic when placed first.” He gave the following inverted sentence to prove his point:

Deceit or treachery he could never forgive.”

On close inspection, we find that this construction indeed gives strong emphasis to the “deceit or treachery,” as opposed to this normal sentence order for that statement:

“He could never forgive deceit or treachery.”

But Strunk then emphasized that as a rule, the subject of a sentence must take the position of the predicate to receive special emphasis. He offered the following sentence as an example:

“Through the middle of the valley flowed a winding stream.”

The normal construction for that sentence is, of course, this:

A winding stream flowed through the middle of the valley.”

The first version of the statement, which puts “a winding stream” at the tail-end of the sentence, is evidently more emphatic than the second, which puts “a winding stream” at the front of the sentence.

For his final words on the subject, however, Strunk made the following provocative—and as I already said, perplexing—prescription:

“The principle that the proper place for what is to be made most prominent is the end applies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition.”

Now that’s really a harder proposition to fathom.

At about this time in 2004, I wrote an essay in my column in The Manila Times in an attempt to make sense of this puzzling prescription by Strunk. I’m sure that this prescription still perplexes many serious students of English composition, so I am now posting that essay in the Forum in slightly modified form to help clarify the matter.

I am aware, though, that some of the points discussed in my essay remain debatable or controversial, so I would welcome all comments for and against the positions I have taken.

Which words pack the most wallop

One basic principle in writing more powerful sentences, as prescribed by William Strunk, Jr. in his book The Elements of Style, is this: the last words of the sentence are the most emphatic. In keeping with this prescription, I think that one way to give the strongest emphasis to our most important idea is to maneuver it toward the tail end of the sentence. In this manner, we can assure our main ideas of a prime position where they can get remembered best.

Take a look at this sentence that violates that rule: “One characteristic that I detest in Candidate X is his irritating presumption that we can read his mind by not speaking at all even if he absolutely has to.”

Although we can perfectly understand that sentence, we can see that it’s a bit mixed up in its construction. And notice that eight words into the sentence, the opening phrase “one characteristic that I detest in Candidate X” has not yet formed a complete idea; worse, the ending phrase “even if he absolutely has to” trails off into a dangle. The result? The most important idea has been shunted into the phrase “his irritating presumption that we can read his mind by not speaking at all,” which in turn got buried between a strong but insubstantial phrase and a dangling phrase.

In contrast, we can easily unleash the main ideas of that sentence by putting them in prime positions—namely at or near its beginning or, best of all, at or near the end: “Candidate X remains silent even when he absolutely must speak out, irritatingly presuming that we can read his mind; this is something I really detest in the guy.” This version immediately zeroes on the subject, clearly pinpoints his weakness, then demolishes him with a powerful clause—“this is something I really detest in the guy”—at the strategic end-position of the sentence. The ideas at the front and end flanks of the sentence—at the end flank most of all—now command our undivided attention. And this construction yields still another bonus: it gives the sentence the natural flow and rhythm of speech.

It should be obvious by now that the final building blocks for emphatic sentences are the words we use to end them. Aside from ensuring that they are in prime positions in the sentence, however, we must also be conscious of the kind of the words we are using. Indeed, to choose those words wisely, we first need a clear appreciation of the relative semantic strengths of the various parts of speech in the English language. Their hierarchy of strength, from the weakest to the strongest, is as follows: prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, adjectives, verbs, and nouns.

That the prepositions and conjunctions are low on the semantic totem pole is evident in our day-to-day experience; newspaper headlines, for instance, routinely eliminate prepositions and conjunctions and yet are able to retain the core message of the full statements. To be sure, prepositions and conjunctions smoothen the linkages between ideas and make language more elegant, but when push comes to shove they are actually dispensable.

This is why it’s not a very good idea to end sentences with a preposition or conjunction, as our previous sample sentence did when it ended itself with the preposition “to”: “One characteristic that I detest in Candidate X is his irritating presumption that we can read his mind by not speaking at all even if he absolutely has to.” Remember that old caveat against dangling prepositions? It doubtless took root from the fact that prepositions like “to” and “with” are such weak words for ending sentences.

Adverbs, in turn, are generally unhealthy to prose when they are used to end sentences; this is particularly true with “the bad, old adverbs” ending in –ly, like “ecstatically” and “fantastically.” Worse, sentences that end with them are often not only emasculated but embarrassing: “They embraced and kissed each other genuinely and affectionately.” Adjectives as endings fare much better than adverbs, but are still rather icky: “Their embrace and kiss were genuine and affectionate.”

In contrast, verbs as endings are a vast improvement over prepositions, conjunctions, and adverbs, as we can see in this sentence: “With genuine affection, they embraced and kissed.” But nouns as endings are the most emphatic and most euphonic of them all: “They embraced and kissed with genuine affection.”

Also, we normally condemn the nominalization of verbs because they often rob verbs of their strength and sinew. From the stylistic standpoint, however, verbs-turned-into-nouns often make the best sentence endings, laden as they are with the valuable tagging information that resides in nouns and the action of the verbs that congealed in them. Compare the following two sentences, the first ending with verb phrases and the second with those same verbs turned into nouns:

Ending with verbs: “When all is said and done, our prime objective is to totally control and dominate the seas.”

Ending with nouns: “When all is said and done, our prime objective is to exercise total control and dominion over the seas.”

There should be little doubt as to which of the two sentences packs the stronger wallop.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 10, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. Revised and updated March 12, 2010. All rights reserved.


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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Steeling ourselves against outright political deception - III

This week I am posting in the Forum the third in the series on logical fallacies—the last—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 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 10. 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.

The first in the series two weeks ago 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. The second in the series took up last week the fallacies of relevance, namely 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.

This time we are taking up the last of the three, the so-called verbal fallacies.

Watching out against the verbal fallacies

We began our discussion of the logical fallacies by grouping them into three broad categories: material fallacies, fallacies of relevance, and verbal fallacies. We have already taken up the material fallacies, or conclusions that are not adequately proven because they contain wrong presuppositions, as well as the fallacies of relevance, those arguments that seek to persuade people to accept evidently nonlogical propositions. This time we will focus on the verbal fallacies, or the false statements or conclusions that result when words are used improperly or ambiguously, whether by ourselves or by other people. They are the fallacies of ambiguity, equivocation, amphiboly, composition, division, and abstraction.

We must keep in mind that the problem with verbal fallacies is not so much faulty logical thinking as the inadvertent or deliberate lack of clarity in language. This generally results from the wrong or slippery use of words, whether spoken or written, and it sometimes happens by accident, as in a slip of the tongue, an error in penmanship, or hitting the wrong key of the word processor. Normally, no great harm is done in such cases. When used deliberately with malice or ill intent, however, these misuses of language can trick or mislead people into making wrong decisions or choices. This is particularly true during major political campaigns, when candidates frenetically engage in all sorts of verbal legerdemain to prop themselves up or demolish their opponents.

Let’s now take up the verbal fallacies one and by one and give illustrative examples of each:

Ambiguity. The use of undefined words or words whose meaning is vague constitutes an ambiguity. For example, let’s take a look at this campaign slogan of a presidential candidate that’s currently airing on Philippine radio: “Candidate X: Pinili ng Taong Bayan” [Chosen by the People]. These obvious questions arise: What was he chosen for and in what context and in what manner? And who were those people who chose him and how many were they? And even if they chose him, so what? The answers to these questions are perplexing and unclear, thus putting such slogans in the class of verbal fallacies by ambiguity.

Another case of an arresting verbal ambiguity is this slogan of another presidential candidate, currently airing on radio: “Panata Ko—Tapusin Ang Kahirapan!” [My Pledge—Put an End to Poverty!]. It’s a magnificent but vague commitment—and really now, how plausible is it? Precisely how will the candidate end such an intractable sociological problem as poverty? What if the listener happened to be enormously rich—would that promise still apply to him or her? Pledges like this, no matter how well-intentioned, constitute a verbal fallacy by looseness of language.

And here’s a slogan in the TVcommercial of a senatorial candidate: “Gusto Ko, Happy Ka!” [I Want You to Be Happy!]. Sounds arresting and disarmingly candid, but what does it really mean? And how does the candidate’s desire to make you happy relate to his fitness for the position he’s gunning for? The problem with this slogan lies in its vague, seemingly child-like message, putting it the class of fallacies by ambiguity.

On a less political note, the fallacy of ambiguity also results when the writer’s definitions of the words he uses don’t match those of the reader’s. Take this newspaper headline: “Helicopter powered by human flies” (“Human-powered helicopter flies” better?). Or this newspaper passage: “The sociologists visited the Tasadays [a supposedly Stone Age tribe in the Philippines, later shown to be of doubtful authenticity] and took photographs of their half-naked women, but they were not properly developed.” (How was that again? Which or what were not properly developed? The women’s bodily features or the exposed photographic negative? Try fixing that sentence in your mind.)

Equivocation. People commit this fallacy when they loosely use a word in more than one sense, yet give the impression that they mean only one. Since they sometimes can’t even differentiate the meanings, they may not even know they are equivocating.

Here are some examples of the fallacy of equivocation:

“All fair things are virtuous. My fiancée is fair; therefore, my fiancée is virtuous.” Here, the word “fair” is being used in two senses: in the first, “impartial and honest,” and in the second, “lovely and pleasing.” Likewise, the word “virtuous” is also being used in two senses: in the first, “righteous and morally upright,” in the second, “chaste.” Both premise and conclusion therefore aren’t valid here, so the statement is actually a verbal fallacy of equivocation.

‘Be Intelligent. Use Iodized Salt Every Day.” This was the slogan of a multisectoral nutrition campaign a few years ago that promoted the regular intake of iodized salt. It’s a catchy slogan, of course, but note that while it uses the word “intelligent” in more than one sense, it gives the impression that only one is meant. In the process, it commits two verbal fallacies in a row—that you can make yourself intelligent simply by an act of will, and that using iodized salt every day will make you intelligent. These are obviously oversimplifications—verbal fallacies, in fact—that are unworthy of serious belief.

Literature, too, has its share of fallacies of equivocation—but largely for the pleasure to be derived from wordplay. In particular, the playwright William Shakespeare was an inveterate punner, one who wasn’t above using words in four different senses all at once. In his play Love’s Labour’s Lost, a character rhapsodizes: “Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile.” (Here, “light” is used to mean “intellect,” “wisdom,” “eyesight,” and “daylight.”). The Bard of Avon would also willfully mix up the use of verbs, adjectives, and nouns, as when a character says in this line from The Merry Wives of Windsor: “I will description the matter to you.” (Try that in English grammar glass and your teacher’s sure to flunk you!)

Amphiboly. This fallacy results from ambiguous or faulty grammatical structures. The error is not with a specific word but with how the words connect or fail to connect. English is particularly susceptible to amphiboly because its vocabulary is so rich and its sentence structures so flexible.

Here are two examples:

“Slow Men At Work” (Without ambiguity: “Slow: Men At Work”). Here, of course, proper punctuation makes all the difference.

“Big Bargain: New highchair for toddler with a missing leg” (Without ambiguity: “Big Bargain: New toddler’s highchair with a missing leg”). Here, we have a misplaced modifying phrase that needed to be relocated to its proper place.

A classic case of amphiboly arises when the adverb “only” is variously positioned in these sentences: “She only wrote that.” “Only she wrote that.” “She wrote only that.” “She wrote that only.” Four possible positions in all! A careless writer could very well chose a position for “only” that makes the statement yield a meaning other than what he or she intended, and that statement would be an amphiboly.

Composition. This is the fallacy of assuming that a group as whole will have the same attributes as the individuals that comprise it. Consider the following examples:

“Atoms have no color. Flowers are made up of atoms.Therefore, flowers have no color.” (What is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole.)

“The numbers 3 and 5 are both odd. 3 and 5 are parts of 8. Therefore, the number 8 is odd.” (8, of course, is very much an even number!)

“An elephant eats more food than a human; therefore, elephants as a group eat more food than do all the humans in the world.” (We humans grossly outnumber the elephants, so we consume more food than they.)

Division. The converse of the fallacy of composition, this fallacy assumes that the individuals in a group have the same qualities as the group itself. In reality, though, what is true of the whole isn’t necessarily true of its parts.)

“The United States is the world’s richest country; therefore, all Americans must be rich and live very well.” (This simply couldn’t be true, for there are slums in the U.S., too!)

“That rock band is the best our city has; therefore, its members are also the city’s best rock band players.” (For all we know, that band may only have a so-so bass guitarist.)

“The average Filipino family has 3.3 children. The de la Cruzes are a Filipino family. Therefore, the de la Cruzes must have 3.3 children.” (This conclusion obviously doesn’t follow. Apart from the fact that the size of the average family won’t necessarily be equal to the the size of any family among the whole set of families, it’s also an impossibility for a family to have a fractional number of children.)

Abstraction. This fallacy is the classical error of postulating or believing that everything that one comprehends through pure reasoning can actually happen in reality. This is the audacious illogic in the following quote in some inspirational posters: “Everything your mind can conceive, your body can achieve.” Sounds a very desirable possibility indeed, but saying it is actually the height of naiveté or lack of knowledge about the ways of the world.

Another form of the abstraction fallacy is taking a quoted statement out of context. For example, a London newspaper carried a review with this critique of a theatrical performance: “I couldn’t help feeling that, for all the energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry, the audience had been shortchanged.” The promoters of the stage play then pared this statement down to this blurb in their newspaper advertising: “…having ‘energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry.’” That, of course, is a fallacy of abstraction that shamelessly distorts the intent and spirit of the original statement.

Politics is often replete with such fallacies of abstraction. Take a look at this slogan of a presidential candidate: “Di pa tapos ang laban, ipagpapatuloy ko” [The fight’s not over yet, I’ll continue it!]. Precisely what fight was that and whose fight was it? Against whom or what? And what’s the point of wanting to continue that fight? And finally, will the voter automatically benefit from that fight being continued by this particular candidate?

The slogan of another presidential candidate also makes use of a similar fallacious abstraction: “Pag May Erap, May Ginhawa” [If There’s Erap, There’s Great Relief]. This, of course, is wordplay using a popular Filipino folk saying, “Kung may hirap, may ginhawa,” where the Tagalog word “hirap” (suffering) has been deftly and ingeniously replaced by the similar-sounding nickname of the candidate. It’s obviously an inspired and memorable slogan, but it can easily be shown to have no bearing with reality at all.

Indeed, against all the verbal fallacies we have discussed above, vigilance over language—whether those of others or our own—is actually our only sure and effective line of defense. Let’s keep that in mind particularly in this frenzied political campaign season.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 25, 2003, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. Revised and updated March 5, 2010. All rights reserved.


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