Friday, April 23, 2010

The three basic word-positioning principles for emphasizing ideas

In an essay I posted in the Forum last March 13, 2010, “Which words pack the most wallop,” I discussed at length this basic prescription by William Strunk, Jr. in his book The Elements of Style—the last words of the sentence are the most emphatic. In keeping with this prescription, I suggested 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.

That essay, which I wrote for my column in the March 10, 2004 issue of The Manila Times, was actually the second part of my essay, “Where words pack the most wallop,” that was published in my column the day before. This earlier essay had been missing from my files for a long time, however, and it was only a few days ago that I found it among some old compressed files in my computer. The essay takes a broader look at how to give maximum emphasis to our ideas and recommends three basic word-positioning principles to achieve this in writing.

I am posting that first part of the essay here for a more rounded discussion of word positioning for emphasis, and to give a comprehensive closure to the exposition, I am providing a link to the second part of the essay that was earlier posted here.

Where words pack the most wallop

In spoken English, we can emphasize the ideas we want to emphasize by giving them a stronger stress, leveling off our voice when enunciating minor or neutral ones, and downplaying the points that simply don’t support our contention. In writing, however, the process is rarely that simple. We can achieve emphasis only with our choice of words and how we array them into word clusters, into clauses and phrases, and ultimately into sentences and paragraphs. Mechanical devices exist that help, of course, like underlining, boldface type, italics, headlines and subheadlines, and—in today’s savvy word-processing routines—even colors, clip-arts, and emoticons. But as the aspiring writer soon discovers, much of the emphasis we seek has to be built into the very contours of the individual words as they unfold on the page.

There are three basic word-positioning principles we must know for maximum emphasis in writing English sentences: first, the initial and terminal positions of sentences are by nature more emphatic than their middles; second, when we construct a complex sentence, the main clause gets more emphasis than subordinate clauses; and third, when everything is written and done, the last words of the sentence are normally the most emphatic of all. These are structurally inherent in the English language itself, as we will see more clearly when we study them in closer detail.

The initial and terminal positions of sentences are prime. This principle is perhaps difficult to understand, particularly among those deeply hooked to the idea that the active voice, or the regular subject-verb-predicate pattern, is optimal for language, and that the passive voice should be taboo. On the contrary, the most desirable sentence construction is that which emphasizes the very words or ideas we want to emphasize, regardless of whether they are the doers of the action, the receivers of the action (as direct or indirect objects), or the action itself.

Take this basic active-voice sentence: “We wanted full representation in the board to fiscalize for minority stockholders.” Here, the subject “we” and the action “wanted full representation” in the main clause get the strongest emphasis, followed in degree by the subordinate infinitive phrase “to fiscalize for minority stockholders” at the tailend. We can’t quibble with the construction if this is precisely the desired order of emphasis. But what if “we” are just passive observers expressing a wish on behalf of the minority stockholders? Then the sentence should more properly take, say, this form: “Full representation in the board is what the minority stockholders need.” The object at the tailend of the infinitive phrase, “minority stockholders,” is now out front as the subject.

Alternatively, if we are speaking for the minority stockholders themselves, here’s a construction that better states their case: “Minority stockholders need full-time representation in the board to fiscalize for them.” The sentence can be reshuffled in several more ways to emphasize other aspects, but the point is made: we should position words in sentences for the emphasis we want, not on the basis of an arbitrary structure that does not suit our purposes and fails to carry out our intent.

The main clause gets more emphasis than subordinate clauses. When we construct complex sentences, we should avoid burying our main idea in subordinate clauses. As a corollary to the first principle, main ideas positioned at or near the front or at the tail end of the main clause get more emphasis. Consider this sentence: “They were of the opinion that in the ultimate analysis, inkjet printers are more cost-effective than either the dot-matrix or laser printer.” The most important idea here, of course, is not who gave the opinion, but the opinion itself. So we are well-advised to dig up that opinion and put it in the main clause where it can shine: “Inkjet printers, in their opinion, are in the ultimate analysis more cost-effective than either the dot-matrix or laser printer.” The front- and end-focus now is in a main clause stating the comparative merits of the three printers; credit for the opinion is relegated to the status of a simple interrupting qualifier, which semantically is really all it deserves.

The last words of the sentence are normally the most emphatic. A seemingly paradoxical aspect of written English sentences is that their last words normally get the strongest emphasis; most people would think that the first words would get this emphasis instead, but this simply does not happen in actual practice. Thus, if we want to give the strongest emphasis to what we think is our most important idea, we must literally maneuver it right to the tail end of the sentence, where it can get the strongest stress. Not only that. We must also make sure of ending our sentences with heavyweight rather than lightweight words. (March 9, 2004)

Click this link to “Which Words Pack the Most Wallop,” the second part of this essay that discusses this principle more fully.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 9, 2004 © 2004 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.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The heavy price of misplacing one’s trust and confidence

What is the price of putting your trust in a clueless and incompetent person? Great sorrow and a lifetime of lost opportunities, as I found out for myself in what I consider the most harrowing and life-changing experience of my teenage years. This happened when someone’s unthinking favor resulted in such unthinkable devastation. I recounted that experience in an essay I wrote for my column in The Manila Times in May 2004, and I am posting that essay in the Forum as a cautionary tale for this time that we are about to make crucial choices in our national life. (April 17, 2010)

The evil that ignorance and incompetence can do

Many years ago, when I was in second year high, something happened that changed my family’s fortunes forever. We looked forward to a bountiful harvest that summer in our two-hectare citrus orchard in a farming town in Southern Luzon in the Philippines. After more than 10 years of backbreaking nurture, the orchard’s more than 200 citrus trees had finally reached full fruition. They had already fruited four times during the past two years, yielding fruits so luscious they attracted even wholesale buyers from faraway cities. This time the trees blossomed even more profusely, and my father expected a harvest at least double the previous one. A long awaited prosperity was finally in sight for the family.

Due to unexpected rains in January of that year, however, a dense growth of weeds, cogon, and creeping vines had enveloped the orchard. My father, an elementary school head teacher, was terribly upset by this; if the undergrowths were left unchecked, the trees would choke and the harvest volume would drop. But farmhands were hard to find at the time; most were on extended summer-long rice harvesting sorties elsewhere in the province. Desperate, my father sent word through relatives and friends that he needed someone to clean up the orchard very quickly.

The day after, a man came to our house for the job. He was in his late 50s or early 60s, practically a stranger in our parts because he lived with his in-laws in a faraway village for most the year. He wasn’t the usual weather-beaten person who worked in farms. He arrived astride a strikingly clean carabao (water buffalo), without the usual flecks of dried-up mud that drew swarms of gnats and flies in their wake. He was so neat even in ordinary clothing, sporting a bolo with a handsomely crafted handle and an intricately carved scabbard. Although a man of very few words, he was prone to hyperbole, the way some unschooled people would try to show that they are intelligent and worldly wise. In any case, he convinced my father that he could do the job on contract in four days flat. My father, deathly worried about his citrus harvest, readily accepted the man’s stiff quotation and gave him a hefty cash advance.

The man came back the following morning with two teenage farmhands in tow. I accompanied them to the orchard, which was about 150 meters away, hidden from view by a thick bamboo grove and a clump of trees. On arrival they promptly started hacking away at the undergrowth with their hoes and shovels, cutting deep into the soil, severing the surface roots of the citrus, and exposing earthworms all over the place. I remonstrated against this brutal weeding process, which would usually be done with long bolos, but the man simply laughed and said in the vernacular, “Don’t worry, son, there are more of those earthworms where they come from.” “Yes, but please cut only the grass and the vines and don’t dig deep into the ground,” I said. “Otherwise, you’ll be damaging the roots of the citrus.” “All right,” the man relented. “We’ll cut gentler and shallower, but tell your father that it will slow us down.”

The three made good progress. By the third day they had already cleared over three fourths of the orchard’s undergrowth, methodically piling up the cuttings outside the bare circular areas underneath the foliage of each citrus tree. In the summer heat the cuttings quickly dried up and turned brown and crisp, the sight of which made my father remark with elation that they would soon crumble, decay, and turn into natural fertilizer for the trees. My father was obviously delighted with his decision to hire the man, who had proved very efficient in his work.

Past three in the afternoon of the fourth day, the man and his three assistants came to our house and informed us that they had finished the job. We served them refreshments in appreciation, after which my father gladly handed the man the final payment—plus a generous tip. “Thank you,” was all he said. As he and his assistants were leaving, however, he turned around and added: “By the way, it wasn’t part of the contract, but we thought of doing something extra to spare you the trouble. We burned the cut grass and vines to make the fruit orchard really clean. We set fire to the pile from all four corners of the orchard, so I think all of that unsightly debris should be gone by now. Check it for yourself.”

Even now, many years later, I still can’t imagine by what perverse logic and reasoning anyone could do it, but along with the cut grass and vines, the man had burned practically all of our citrus trees and our future to a crisp. (May 5, 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. This essay originally appeared in the author’s column, “English Plain and Simple,” in the May 5, 2004 issue of The Manila Times.

Epilogue to the devastation

The above personal cautionary tale about the perils of bad thinking struck a responsive chord among some readers of my column. Here’s a representative feedback from a Filipino reader based in the United States:

Dear Joe,

Should I assume that your family didn’t lose the citrus orchard totally in that fire that was set intentionally by that mindless, thoughtless fool? Does your family still till the land? The tragedy happened a long time ago, of course, but do you still have citrus trees in that orchard? What kind of citrus trees were they?

If you ask me what I think breeds stupidity, Joe, it is the absence of common sense. Tragic in a way, but that was a good story. (May 6, 2004)

And here’s my rejoinder to that feedback:

The 200 trees in that ill-fated two-hectare orchard were of the Szinkom variety, Citrus suhuiensis, or dalanghita in Tagalog. The fruit was smaller than the Karachi Ponkan, but almost as sweet with a delightfully mild tartness; the fine, thin skin was easy to peel and turned bright yellow-green when ripe. No less than 90 percent of the trees were severely burned and died that day; the few survivors in the center of the orchard shriveled away and also died after a few months. That orchard was a total loss, but we had a separate, smaller orchard of about 35 older Szincoms; these trees helped offset the severe reduction in the family’s income, but they were wiped out a few years later by the same highly infectious viral disease that killed the Batangas citrus industry. No, my family no longer tills the land; we gave up fruit farming altogether largely as a result of that fire. (May 8, 2004)

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

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Our need for thinking national leaders with the gift of language

How important are knowledge, experience, and wisdom to individuals aspiring for national leadership? How important is the breadth and depth of someone’s vocabulary—whether English or some other language—when that someone aspires to be the country’s president or vice president?

In 2003, at the start of the national election campaign period in the Philippines, I took the position that all of these measures of fitness for public office were absolute musts. Writing in my column in The Manila Times in December 8 of that year, I argued that that the higher one’s responsibility, the wider and deeper the vocabulary needed to be effective on the job. However, I lamented the fact that our country’s electorate then no longer seemed to think so. “Like chronic sleepwalkers,” I wrote, “we have been substituting media-induced perception for reality, glitz and noise for intellect and moral rectitude, and the phantom figures of pollsters-for-hire and audience-ratings meters for the true worth of individuals.”

Once again, in the current national election campaign, the same forces are relentlessly at work to convince the electorate that simple positioning or posturing of a candidate as defender of good-versus-evil is a fair trade-off for ineptitude, inexperience, or recidivism. I tremble at the thought that we are being asked to choose our national leaders largely on this basis. This is why I am constrained to post in the Forum that essay I wrote way back in 2003, “At a loss for words.” I am hoping that in some way, it will serve as a countervailing force against the relentless efforts of the propaganda machines of all the political camps to dumb down our electoral decision-making this coming May. (April 10, 2010)

At a loss for words

A great disappointment in our country’s politics is that it no longer requires knowledge, experience, and wisdom from those considered worthy of election to public office. For so many years now, we have chosen to lead us not a few men and women whose only claim to ascendancy over us is popularity not from achievement but from media exposure, and whose strongest virtue is distracting us from the harsh realities of life, making us laugh, or simply being electronically seen or heard from day to day reading the news, spouting some half-baked opinion, or hawking consumer items for precious extra media mileage.

Like chronic sleepwalkers, we have been substituting media-induced perception for reality, glitz and noise for intellect and moral rectitude, and the phantom figures of pollsters-for-hire and audience-ratings meters for the true worth of individuals.

The point has been reached, in fact, where we no longer demand that those aspiring for high public office at least define themselves, tell us their political ideal, mission, or vision, or assure us that they have a clear idea of what they are doing in the first place. Gone indeed are the days when people who sought elective office could at least talk to us convincingly straight from their own minds and hearts, without the benefit of script or idiot board. The electorate has become so painfully blasé and inept that those touted by self-serving statistics as surefire bets could forever be at a loss for words, yet still get themselves elected handily.

The tragedy of it all is that this is happening at this very time that we need mature, intelligent, and enlightened leadership to turn the nation around. More than ever before, we need men and women not only of action but of words—words to tell us in the most precise terms why this country is not moving forward at all, words to spell out concretely the crucial things to be done or undone to get us out of the hole we are in, and words to inspire us to close ranks and propel this archipelago to the greatness that has eluded it for more than half a millennium now. We need thinking leaders with the priceless gift of language, not necessarily stentorian, but who can define, articulate, and pursue the national agenda intelligently and purposively, with words that ring true whether spoken off the cuff or clothed with the rhetoric that important state occasions demand.

For these big tasks, our country can ill afford any more individuals with very scant vocabulary—whether in Filipino, English, or any other language—and much less those with no experience whatsoever in governance and public affairs. To do so would be like appointing someone who cannot even compute and had not even run a sarisari store to run a huge manufacturing firm like San Miguel Corporation, or allowing a tricycle driver without flight training and only a smattering of English to pilot a Boeing 747 over the Pacific from Manila to Los Angeles.

How perilous it is that for the sake of political expediency, this country’s electorate is again being prodded to gloss over the importance of intelligence and good grasp of language in the art of leadership! All the more disturbing that our supposedly more intelligent political leaders and opinion-makers could tell us without mincing words that popularity and perceived honesty is a fair trade-off for ineptitude. When are we going to learn that the most powerful determinant of intellect is the breadth and depth of one’s vocabulary, and that the higher one’s responsibility, the wider and deeper the vocabulary needed to be effective on the job? One could not even name things in context—much less frame a decent sentence or meaningfully analyze or conclude about anything—if one didn’t have at least a decent grasp and understanding of the totally new activity or enterprise one ventures into.

In his 1993 collection of essays, The Wisdom of Henry Hazlitt, the well-regarded American economist and writer clearly captured the importance of vocabulary in good thinking in these words:

A vocabulary increases and sharpens our observation, as sharp observation in turn leads us to increase our vocabulary. The student of nature who is learning to recognize bushes and trees finds his observation increasingly sharpened as he is told how to identify respectively an oak, maple, elm, beech, pine, spruce, or hemlock. The name both fastens down the results of observation and tells him what distinguishing traits to look for. As a result of his knowledge, a countryman very seldom calls a specific tree simply a tree. The professional forester or nurseryman habitually makes even finer distinctions, such as that between red oaks, black oaks, and white oaks, or between Norway maples, Schwedler maples, and sugar maples.

Perhaps we can avoid the costly political mistakes of our recent past if only our countrymen and our presumptive leaders became more keenly aware of this.


From Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This essay originally appeared in the author’s column, “English Plain and Simple,” in the December 8, 2003 issue of The Manila Times.

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

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Looking back to Easter Sunday’s earthly and celestial foundations

There are things we were thought not to question from our childhood onwards until we become parents ourselves, like the foundations of our faith and the basis for the Holy Week that our predominantly Roman Catholic nation is celebrating now. This was why I was taken off balance seven years ago when my then nine-year-old son asked me why Holy Week wasn’t being held on the same date like that of Christmas Day, which is always December 25. Why, he asked, have the church authorities made the scheduling of Holy Week so complicated and ever-changing? I simply didn’t know the answers then, and my abysmal ignorance compelled me to do some quick research about Holy Week, a celebration that as we all know culminates on Easter Sunday. I then wrote an essay about my findings, “Matters of Faith,” for my column in The Manila Times sometime in April of 2003. It’s an essay that I believe remains relevant even today, so I am posting it in the Forum for your Lenten Season reading. I hope you’ll find it informative and interesting. (April 2, 2010)

Matters of faith

I was making notes for a possible non-English-language topic for this column, thinking that grammar wouldn’t be right for Holy Wednesday, when my nine-year-old tapped my shoulder and asked: “Dad, why is Holy Week from April 13 to 20 this year? Last year, it was from March 24 to 31.* Why not hold it on the same date like that of Christmas Day so it doesn’t get confusing?”

Talk about deja vu! I had wanted to ask my own father that same question when I was about the same age as my son now, but never got to ask. Now I am a father myself—three times over, in fact—and yet could only give a stock answer to veil my continuing ignorance: “It’s because the days of the Holy Week are movable feasts, son. They base it on a religious calendar—you know, that kind where there are names of one or two saints for every day of the year.”

“But why, Dad? They could do the same to every other religious holiday, but they don’t. And another question: Why is Easter Sunday called ‘Easter’? This celebration came from the West, so wouldn’t it make more sense to call it ‘Wester’? And one last thing: Why is the bunny a symbol for Easter? It looks funny and doesn’t seem right.”

Those questions stumped me even more, so I told him: “I really don’t know the answers, son, but tonight I’ll get them for you. Go to sleep now and tomorrow we’ll talk again.”

My little research to answer my son’s questions, I must say, yielded more fascinating answers than I expected. To begin with, it turns out that the movable Holy Week schedules are not totally arbitrary at all. They are always exactly timed in relation to the natural, once-a-year occurrence called the vernal equinox. The equinoxes—there are only two of them—are those times in the year when day is precisely as long as night. The vernal equinox comes in March, marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring, while the autumnal equinox comes in September, marking the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.

The advent of spring was, of course, always a cause for great celebration in the ancient world. The Anglo-Saxons welcomed it with a rousing spring festival in honor of Eoastre, their goddess of springtime and fertility. The Scandinavians called her Ostra and the Teutons, Ostern, but they honored her in much the same way. The importance of this festival to the early Europeans was not lost on the second-century Christians, who wanted to convert them to Christianity. They therefore made their own observance of Christ’s Resurrection coincide exactly with the festival. Then they gradually made it a Christian celebration, even appropriating the name “Eoastre” for it. Thus, contrary to what my son thought, the later use of the term “Easter” for the high point of the Holy Week had absolutely nothing to do with global geography.

People in those early times, however, celebrated the spring festival on different days, mostly on Sundays but often also on Fridays and Saturdays. This became a thorny issue. To resolve it, the Roman Emperor Constantine—who had by then become a supporter of the Christian faith—convened the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. This council came up with the Easter Rule, decreeing that Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. The “full moon” of this rule, however, does not always occur on the same date as the full moon that we actually see; it is the full moon after the ecclesiastical “vernal equinox,” which always falls on March 21. By this reckoning, Easter will always fall on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25. This rule has withstood the test of time, remaining unchanged exactly 1,682 years later to this day.

As to the Easter Bunny, it may be natural for us to think that it is simply a modern-day contrivance to liven up Easter Sunday. It isn’t. Its provenance is even older than that of Easter itself. The prolific rabbit, whose reappearance in spring unerringly marked the end of the brutal winters of those days, actually was the earthly symbol of the goddess Eoastre. Along with the Easter Egg, itself a symbol of rebirth in many cultures, the Easter Bunny was, in fact, a powerful ancient symbol for activity after inaction, for life after death.

In the suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Roman Catholics and the rest of the Christian faithful have similarly found such an enduring symbol. They have thus consecrated the Lenten Season in His Name as their holiest of days, ending it on Easter Sunday in a feast where church tradition and ancient belief find joyful convergence.

These are the things I’ll tell my nine-year-old when he wakes up today and reminds me of what I promised him. (April 15, 2003)


*In 2010, of course, we are celebrating Easter on Sunday, April 4—the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the ecclesiastical “vernal equinox,” which in turn always falls on March 21. This really sounds complicated and rather arbitrary, but there it is.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 15, 2003 © 2003 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.