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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