Friday, June 25, 2010

Avoiding the embarrassing pitfall of misusing certain English words

Some otherwise good writers in English ruin the fine tapestry of their writing by habitually misusing certain words and phrases—mostly adverbial modifiers, similar sounding or similar looking verbs, and adjectival modifiers with overlapping but not necessarily the same meanings. If not spotted and corrected by a good editor, these misused words and phrases could mark the writer of a published piece as either reckless or not so competent with his or her English.

I wrote the essay below, “Some often misused English words,” for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2004 to keep writers and speakers on red alert against these very common pitfalls in word usage. I think now’s as good a time as any to reactivate that red alert, so I have decided to post that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum. I do hope that it could spare Forum members from an embarrassing situation or two arising from the misuse of these words and phrases.   

Some often misused English words

Let’s discuss some frequently misused English words and phrases, and I suggest we begin with the problematic word-pair “maybe” and “may be.” The first is, of course, an adverb that means “perhaps,” as in “Shifting from ceramic to plastic maybe a good alternative.” The other, “may be,” is a compound verb that means the same thing: “You may be wrong about this, but I will support your decision.” Always keep in mind, however, that “maybe” and “may be” are not interchangeable in writing, and that the first syllable of “maybe” is pronounced with a much heavier stress than the second, while the two words of “may be” get equal stress.

Now let’s proceed by taking up six similar looking, similar sounding, or very closely related word-pairs or phrase-pairs that often get mistaken for each another:

Respectively/respectfully. The adverb “respectively,” of course, denotes that the order of mention of sequentially listed items corresponds to precisely the same order of mention as their antecedent words: “Eduardo, Jennifer, and Alberto made it to the honor roll. They took the first, second, and third honors, respectively.” On the other hand, the adverb “respectfully” means “marked by or showing respect,” as in “Normally very assertive, she talked respectfully when she addressed the presiding judge.”

Rightly/rightfully (rightful). The first means “in a proper or correct manner, but with no presumed legal basis,” as in “They rightly decided to boycott the proceedings.” In contrast, “rightfully” means “having a right or just claim to some property or position”: “She proved that she was rightfully the owner [or “the rightful owner”] of the bank account.”

Assure/ensure/insure. These three words are perhaps among the most carelessly interchanged synonyms in English. Their meanings differ very substantially, however, and the verbs “assure” and “ensure” behave differently as well. “Assure” means “to convince” or “guarantee,” while “ensure” means “to make certain.” “Assure” needs a direct object to work properly, “ensure” does not: “You have to assure me that you will come promptly at noon tomorrow.” “You have to ensure that you will come promptly at noon tomorrow.” On the other hand, “insure” means “to guard against loss”: “It is prudent to insure your car with comprehensive accident coverage.”

Compose/comprise/consist of/include. Correctly choosing among these closely related but definitely unsynonymous words will perhaps remain slippery both to native and nonnative English speakers. As a rule of thumb, parts compose a whole, and the whole comprises or consists of its parts. The differences between them may also be stated this way: “comprise” could refer to all parts or only major parts, “consist” means that all parts are listed, but “include” does not guarantee that the list of those parts is complete. See how these words work: “Two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom compose a water molecule.” (Conversely: “A water molecule is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.”) “A water molecule comprises [consists of] two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.” “A water molecule includes two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.” Never catch yourself making this grammatical atrocity: “A water molecule is comprised of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.”

Almost the same/very similar/nearly identical. Like the misshapen phrase “almost unique,” the phrase “almost the same” is extremely informal and is particularly unsuited for technical or scientific writing: “The two computers had almost the same features.” Things are either the same or they are not. Better and more precise for expressing the idea are the phrases “very similar,” “nearly identical,” “highly comparable,” or—in the case of quantitative comparisons—“nearly equivalent”: “The two computers had very similar [nearly identical, highly comparable] features.” “The hard disk capacities of the two computers are nearly equivalent.

On the contrary/in contrast. Some people use these two phrases interchangeably, little knowing the fundamental differences between them. “On the contrary” is a subjective qualifier—often used in informal speech—indicating disagreement or opposition to another person’s position or opinion; “in contrast” is an objective qualifier that dispassionately indicates a marked distinction or opposite effect. Feel the difference: “On the contrary, sir, I am very much opposed to your proposal.” “In contrast, the subordinate was adversarial toward his superior’s proposal.”

Healthy/healthful. “Healthy” has always meant “enjoying or having good health,” and the other “full of health” or “promoting good health.” Some advertisers, however, have lately been taking undue liberties with “healthy” in their product advertising, making absurd claims like this: “The healthy milk that’s good for you.” Don’t be taken in by the misguided semantic acrobatics; stick to “The healthful milk that’s good for you” to keep your prose sound and wholesome.

As always, when stumped by confusing words or phrases, don’t just hazard a guess as to what they mean. Eliminate all doubts by checking them with your dictionary. After all, your job as speaker or writer is not to share your confusion but to clarify things for your listeners or readers. (January 20, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 20, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Elliptical sentences often read and sound better than regular sentences

Effective writers in English make an earnest effort to be truly economical with words. They don’t only methodically knock off redundancies but also prune needlessly repetitive phrasing that might just turn off readers. In fact, when there’s no danger of breaking the flow of the exposition and of being misunderstood, they also deliberately drop certain predictable words and phrases from sentences and just depend on the reader to mentally fill them in based on context. This final step in streamlining exposition yields what are called elliptical sentences—sentences that actually read better and sound better even if they have grammatical holes in them.

Constructing elliptical sentences is an advanced form of writing, but it can be mastered by studying the various patterns of the ellipsis—the grammatical hole in an elliptical sentence—and through continual practice. To familiarize Forum members with the elliptical construction basics, I have posted in this week’s edition of the Forum “The virtue of elliptical constructions,” a condensation of a two-part essay I wrote in 2005 for my English-usage column in The Manila Times. I’m sure all those who desire a dramatic improvement in their writing will find it worthwhile to read and study it. 

The virtue of elliptical constructions

Often in our English-language readings, we come across sentences that have certain words evidently missing yet surprisingly read right and sound right as well: “Those who wish to [...] can very well join me.” “The youngest staff in the office is as competent as the eldest [...].” “If she wants more of those 1905 coins, my brother can give her plenty [...].” In each instance, although a noun and a verb have been shed off somewhere, the sentences prove to be grammatically and semantically correct. They are, in fact, none the worse for the grammatical holes in them.

As suggested by the three periods enclosed by brackets, each of those grammatical holes is an ellipsis, and the sentences where they occur are called elliptical sentences. We can say that elliptical sentences reflect the natural aversion of humans to unnecessarily repeat themselves. The elliptical sentences shown above, for instance, are simply more concise constructions of these sentences: “Those who wish to join me can very well join me.” “The youngest staff in the office is as competent as the eldest staff in the office.” “If she wants more of those 1905-issue coins, my brother can give her plenty of those 1905-issue coins.”

By now the pattern and logic of elliptical constructions should be clear: they gracefully knock off repetitive words and phrases. The ellipsis takes it for granted that the reader would just mentally fill in the gaps with the missing grammatical elements.

As a rule, elliptical sentences consist of two independent clauses, one containing the grammar elements the other has left out. The independent clause with the missing elements is the elliptical clause—an abbreviated adverb clause stripped of its subject and verb.

Consider this sentence: “Although she is known for her ravishing beauty, Cornelia has an uncommonly vile temper.” Its adverb clause is “she is known for her ravishing beauty,” with “although” as subordinating marker; the independent clause is “Cornelia has an uncommonly vile temper.” Now see what happens when we make the adverb clause elliptical: “Although […] known for her ravishing beauty, Cornelia has an uncommonly vile temper.” Even after shedding “she is,” the sentence works just fine—more concise and emphatic, in fact, than the scrupulously complete one.

Ellipses can streamline sentences in many ways. Here are some of the common elliptical forms we’ll usually encounter in our English-language readings:

(1) The routine omission of “that” in modifying clauses, particularly in spoken English. This is the most familiar use of the ellipsis. Example: “They knew […] two years would be the shortest time […] they would need to subdue the enemy forces.” (Normal form: “They knew that two years would be the shortest time that they would need to subdue the enemy forces.”) Tongues are normally averse to wagging too many “that’s.”

(2) Elliptical noun phrases. Example: “Jennifer asked for the pink blouse but the salesclerk gave her the red […].” (Normal form: “Jennifer asked for the pink blouse but the salesclerk gave her the red blouse.”) Quite naturally, the disciplined mind resists the need to belabor the obvious.

(3) Ellipsis of the verb and its objects or complements. Example: “The beleaguered Supreme Court chief justice would fight it to the very end if he could […].” (Normal form: “The beleaguered Supreme Court chief justice would fight it to the very end if he could fight it to the very end.”)

(4) Medial (middle) ellipsis.  Example: “Arlene will take care of the girls and Eduardo […], the boys.” (Normal form: “Arlene will take care of the girls and Eduardo will take care of the boys.”) This fine ellipsis separates sophisticated English-language users from rank beginners.

(5) Ellipsis of clause. Examples: “They can leave now if they want […].” (Normal form: “They can leave now if they want to leave now.”) Certain elliptical clauses, however, need a comma to indicate that some words have been intentionally left out; otherwise, confusion might arise. Properly elliptical: “My tour group chose Paris; theirs, Rome.” Improperly elliptical: “My tour group chose Paris; theirs Rome.” (Normal form: “My tour group chose Paris; their group chose Rome.”)

(6) Ellipsis when words are left out in comparisons using “that” or “as.”  This is the trickiest ellipsis of all because we need to first establish the correct pronoun by filling in the missing words in the elliptical clause. Consider these two sentences: “Helen loves you more than I.” “Helen loves you more than me.” Gut feel tells us that only one of them is grammatically correct, but both actually are. For each of the sentences, in fact, we can fill in the missing words in a different way. The first turns out to be the elliptical construction of “Helen loves you more than I love you”; the second, of “Helen loves you more than she loves me.” Each is as grammatically and semantically airtight as the other.

Isn’t it nice that with the ellipsis, we can have it short and sweet both ways? (April 25 and May 2, 2005)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 25 and May 2, 2005 issue, © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. This condensed version subsequently became Chapter 70 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The two most dreaded English clichés have gone viral again

Several times during the past eight years, I had written against the overuse of what has been condemned in many countries as the two most irritating clichés of the English language: “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time.” I was hoping that my efforts would at least create a ripple of awareness that could help reduce the incidence of these two clichés in our public discourse, but I can see now that my hope was largely misplaced. For rather than slink into oblivion, the two clichés are back with a vengeance. Indeed, during the long campaign for the May 10 Philippine national elections and the interminable joint Congressional canvas for the presidency and vice presidency, the resurgence of the two clichés on national TV became so viral that I would often turn off the TV set to spare myself from further unpleasantness. It was incredible that despite worldwide condemnation, the two dreaded clichés could still issue so often and so fluidly—and with such great relish—from the mouths of politicians and campaigners and program moderators and TV news anchors alike. 

So should we now throw in the towel and just let the viral resurgence of “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time” in our airwaves and public forums run its course and spend itself? Not just yet. In my case, I’m giving the fight against them one last college try, so to speak, by posting in the Forum the essay below, “On those two most dreadful clichés,” that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in December 2007. Who knows that it might just prove to be the tipping point that would lead to the ultimate banishment of these two clichés from our English? (June 12, 2010)

On those two most dreadful clichés

Precisely what’s so special about “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time” that probably one out of four Philippine legislators and public officials and probably the same ratio of TV talk-show hosts, news anchors, and guests are mouthing them much too often and with such relish these days?

Nothing really. “At the end of the day” is simply a longer, flamboyant way of saying “ultimately,” “in the end,” or “after all,” while “at this point in time” is similarly a longer, flamboyant way of saying “now” and “currently.” And these two adverbial phrases—old-time gram­marians call them “ablative abso­lutes”—aren’t really meant to call attention to themselves. Like such modifiers as “clearly” and “defi­nitely,” they are designed simply to call attention to a point being made by the speaker, so they need to be used very sparingly to avoid irritating the listener or reader.

What’s very disturbing, however, is that many people think that liberally spicing their talk with these expressions is a sign of wis­dom, discernment, and sophisti­cation. Little do they know that on the contrary, “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time” have for several years now been condemned as the two most irritating clichés in the English language.

In a survey conducted in 70 countries in 2004 by the London-based Plain English Campaign, in particular, “at the end of the day” ranked first and “at this moment in time” (a variation of “at this point in time”) ranked second among the most hated English clichés world­wide. As the group’s spokesman so aptly observed when the rankings of the most irritating clichés were announced, “Using these terms in daily business is about as pro­fessional as wearing a novelty tie or having a wacky ring-tone on your phone. When readers or listeners come across these tired ex­pressions, they start tuning out and completely miss the message—assuming there is one.”

Again, in 2005, in a poll of 150 senior executives all throughout corporate America by the tem­porary staffing company Accountemps, “at the end of the day” ranked first among the 15 most annoying clichés.

Finally, in 2006, in a poll of 10,000 news sources that included 1,600 American newspapers, the Australian-based database company Factiva found “at the end of the day” at the top of the 55 most overused English clichés. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, to use a cliché, for that poll did not cover the US broadcast media where the overuse of “at the end of the day” is decidedly much more pro­nounced.

If “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time” have indeed become such a dreadful bane to the English language, why is it that they are now enjoying such wide currency in the Philippines? They have become such pernicious semantic crutches for so many public officials, media people, and students, and their dependency level is such that they may no longer be able to speak their minds without overusing those two clichés.

I suspect that not so far back, a highly influential public figure either in government, media, or academe must have triggered this domestic overuse of “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time.” Perhaps he or she must have used these two clichés much too often during a major event that was covered live by all of the local TV networks, thus setting such a wrongheaded example for English-savvy speech for audiences all over the land.

It no longer matters who that culprit was, but there’s no doubt that we are now in the midst of an “at the end of the day” and “at this point in time” pan­demic, and the only way to stop it is for all of us to totally retire these damaged semantic goods from our writing and speech—right now. (December 22, 2007)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, December 22, 2007 issue, © 2007 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The subject-verb agreement rule isn’t really a fail-safe prescription

Just when they think they already know the language well enough, learners of English soon discover to their dismay that its most basic grammar rule isn’t exactly fail-safe. There are indeed many situations when the subject-verb agreement rule just won’t hold; contrary to the norm, some evidently plural nouns won’t take the plural form of the verb, while some plural nouns inexplicably demand the singular form of the verb to be grammatically correct. What seems to be the problem in such grammar situations?

The problem, of course, is that in some sentences, the form of the verb—whether singular or plural—doesn’t always grammatically and notionally agree with the number of the subject or doer of the action. For instance, the sentence “Everybody has taken lunch” is universally accepted to be grammatically correct,  but the noun “everybody” is actually plural in sense while the verb “has” is grammatically singular in form! When grammar and notion are in conflict, in fact, the subject-verb agreement rule can no longer be automatically and confidently applied.

English actually has several special grammar rules for dealing with such disagreements between notion and grammar, and I discuss them in the essay below, “What do we do when notion and grammar disagree?”, that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in August 2005. I have posted that essay in the Forum for the benefit of those who might still be baffled and hobbled by these grammatical quirks of the language. (June 5, 2010) 

What do we do when notion and grammar disagree?

One of the earliest and most useful grammar rules we learn in English is that a verb should always agree with its subject in both person and number. Stated more simply, singular subjects should take the singular form of the verb and plural subjects should take the plural form of the verb. This is actually an easy rule to follow because in English, in contrast to highly inflected languages such as Spanish and French, verbs in general—with some notable exceptions that include the irregular verb “be”—don’t inflect or change in form to agree with the subject in number.

In fact, it is only in the present tense, third-person singular that English verbs change form to agree with their subject in number. As we all know, this involves adding  “–s” or “–es” to the tail end of the verb: “He speaks.” “She laughs.” “It flies.” In both the first-person and second-person present tense, however, verbs don’t change form at all regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural: “I speak.” “You speak.” “We speak.” “They laugh.” “They [as a plural of “it”] fly.” Of course, verbs do change in form in the past tense, mostly by adding “–ed” at their tail ends, but the number of the subject does not influence the change in any way: “I laughed.” “She laughed.” “It laughed.” “You laughed.” “We laughed.” “They laughed.”

The subject-verb agreement rule is no doubt one of the most important and most pervasive frameworks of English usage, but as most of us know, applying this rule is not always that simple. This is because aside from ensuring grammatical agreement between verb and subject, English also takes into account notional agreement—or agreement in meaning—between them. Of course, when there is both grammatical agreement and notional agreement between verb and subject, applying the subject-verb agreement rule is simplicity itself. Such is the case with this sentence: “She dances.” Both subject and verb are singular here, so they are grammatically and notionally in agreement. When grammar and notion are in conflict, however, the subject-verb agreement rule cannot be as easily and as confidently applied.

One such conflict situation arises when the subject is singular form but plural in meaning, such as “team,” “family,” “electorate,” and certain other nouns denoting a group. Take this sentence: “The team are quarreling among themselves.” At first sight, it looks like a badly constructed sentence because “team” is singular in form, so it stands to reason that the verb shouldn’t be the plural “are” but the singular “is” instead, as in this sentence: “The team is quarreling among itself.” When we examine that sentence closely, however, we find that the word “team” is actually intended to mean its individual members and not the group as a whole, so “team” here definitely has a plural meaning and role. The correct usage is therefore the original plural-verb construction, “The team are quarreling among themselves,” in which there is notional agreement between subject and verb.

In certain other cases, however, grammatical agreement can take precedence over notional agreement in determining the number to be taken by the verb. Consider these sentences: “Everybody has taken lunch.” “Everyone has finished dinner.” Although the subjects “everybody” and “everyone” are both grammatically singular in form, they are actually plural in meaning, being both notionally similar to the plural “all.” Thus, a strong argument can be made that the nouns “everybody” and “everyone” should use a plural verb. What has evolved as the standard usage in English, however, is that verbs in such cases should agree in number with the singular form of “everybody” or “everyone” and not with its plural meaning. This is why “everybody” and “everyone,” despite their being notionally plural, consistently use the singular “has” instead of the plural “have” in such present-tense constructions.

The subject-verb agreement rule becomes even tougher to apply in constructions where there is strong ambiguity in the choice of the number to be taken by the verb. Take this sentence, for instance: “A wide assortment of dishes has been/have been ordered for the party.” The traditional approach, of course, is to make the verb agree with the grammatical subject of the sentence, which in this case is the singular noun “assortment,” so the singular verb “has been” becomes the logical choice. However, it can also be convincingly argued that the noun phrase “a wide assortment of dishes,” which is plural in sense, is the proper subject, so the plural “have been” can also be a logical choice. Using the plural verb for such constructions is actually gaining wider acceptance, but the singular verb remains the favored usage. What this means is that we can have it either way without messing up our grammar.

Now let’s take up four other situations that can put us in a quandary when applying the subject-verb agreement rule.

As many of us no doubt have already encountered, the rule actually fails when sentences have two subjects, one singular and the other plural, such that the verb cannot agree in number with both of them. Take a look at this sentence: “Either Eduardo or his parents is/are responsible for this mess.” Which of the subjects should determine the number of the verb—the singular “Eduardo” or the plural “parents”? The subject-verb agreement rule isn’t of much help here, so English takes recourse to the so-called “agreement by proximity” rule. This rule says that in the case of compound subjects in “either…or” constructions, the verb should agree in number with the subject closer to it. Thus, by virtue of the proximity of their subjects to the verb, these sentences are both grammatically correct: “Either Armand or his parents are responsible for this mess.” “Either his parents or Armand (himself) is responsible for this mess.”

Another complication to the subject-verb agreement rule arises when a singular subject is followed by the conjoining prepositional phrases “as well as,” “in addition to,” and “along with,” which all serve to add another subject to a sentence. We therefore would expect that the resulting compound subject is a plural one that needs the plural form of the verb. On the contrary, however, the accepted usage is that the verb in such constructions should be singular in form: “Rowena as well as Ana commutes to work every day.” “The luggage in addition to his laptop is missing.” “The corner lot along with the four-door apartment is being auctioned off.”

We similarly expect—and rightly so—that an “and” between two subjects is a sure sign of a compound subject needing a plural verb, as in the following sentences: “The car and the motorcycle are brand new.” “Celine and Stella work in the same office.” However, there are instances when the notional sense of unity between two subjects can actually prevail over grammatical agreement, such that the compound subject—although plural in form—takes the singular form of the verb: “Her name and telephone number is [instead of “are”] scribbled on the address book.” “My better half and only love is with me today.” “The long and the short of it is that we got married.”

One other grammar situation where the subject-verb agreement rule often proves difficult to apply is when the subject involves expressions that use the word “number,” as in this sentence: “A small number of stockholders is/are unhappy with how we run the company.” Should the verb be singular or plural? The general rule is that when the expression is “a number of…” and its intended sense is “some,” “few,” or “many,” the verb should take the plural form: “A small number of stockholders are unhappy with how we run the company.” On the other hand, when the expression is “the number of…”, the verb always takes the singular form because here, “number” is being used to express a literal sum, which is singular in sense: “The number of seminar participants is bigger today than last time.” “The number of absentees in your class is very disturbing.” (August 15 and 22, 2005)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, August 15 and 22, 2005 issues, © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. This material later appeared in modified form as Chapters 92 and 93 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp.