Saturday, July 31, 2010

The need to avoid officious stock phrases when writing or speaking

Let’s face it: Bureaucrats, lawyers, and not a few academicians use a lot of officious stock phrases in both their written and spoken communication, among them “by virtue of,” “with reference to,” “in connection with,” “with regard to,” “in order to,” “with respect to,” “in line with,” and—perhaps the most irksome of them all—“this is to inform you that” for both bad and good news and everything in between. These phrases make their English sound so highhanded and even somewhat threatening, but we learn to tolerate them because they are actually part of their professional jargon.

The problem, however, is that through our repeated exposure to these stock phrases, they eventually creep into our own writing and speech without our even knowing it. Indeed, not a few of us in time begin to sound like bureaucrats, lawyers, and academicians ourselves even if we are not. We then routinely appropriate their jargon not only in our conversations with our friends and coworkers but also in our job applications as well as in our own memos, letters, and reports.   

But should we really allow tradition and peer-group pressure to tyrannize us into making these officious stock phrases part of our own language? In business and in our personal lives, is it really not advisable and not desirable to speak in more concise, more pleasant, and friendlier English?

My answer to both questions is, of course, a big “No!” We should shun those officious stock phrases and avoid them like the plague. As I explained in the essay below that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2004, we should always use the most concise and most forthright but friendly English phrases that can precisely convey our meaning. Indeed, our best bet for getting along with people and getting things done in the workplace is not bureaucratic, lawyerly, or academic language but plain and simple English. (July 31, 2010)

Phrases desirable and abstruse

We are going back to some grammar basics today because of an interesting e-mail that I received from a reader, Mr. Dante Quiba of Vallejo, California, who asked for my thoughts on certain words that were bugging him. He wondered which of them were advisable to use and which might have already fallen into disuse. They are “about,” “regarding,” “concerning,” “touching on,” “in terms of,” and “on account of.” I guess my answer to Dante will be of interest to all users and learners of English, so I am devoting this essay entirely to it.

As we know, the words Dante was asking about are very commonly used prepositions or prepositional phrases. They are those handy grammar devices in the English language that refer to things or relate them to one another. All of the six that Dante mentioned are, of course, still very much in use these days. The first four actually mean the same thing: “in connection with” or “on the subject of.” The shortest of them, “about,” is also the most natural and most forceful. It is arguably our best choice for informal statements that need to refer to something: “About our agreement last night, put it on hold until next week. I have second thoughts about some of the provisions.”

Regarding” and “concerning” have a mildly officious and legalistic undertone, but if that doesn’t bother us, we can use them freely in place of “about.” Feel how they sound: “Regarding your application for a loan, you may expect release in two weeks.” “We are writing concerning your daughter’s academic performance.” On the other hand, the phrase “touching on” is of very limited use, appropriate only in constructions like these two: “Touching on the subject of romance, he became a spellbinding speaker.” “It will help if you touch on the subject of overtime pay in your briefing.” By some quirk of the language, “touch on” seems to work only when it latches on to the phrase “the subject of.” We thus must avoid it if we can.

In terms of” (which means “considering”) and “on account of” (“because”) are also respectable—if a bit officious—prepositional phrases: “A time deposit is superior to a savings deposit in terms of interest income.” “We canceled the games on account of the inclement weather.” We must also note here that “in view of,” “owing to,” and “due to” can very well take the place of “on account of” in that second sentence; the choice really depends on what we do for a living and the company we keep. (Lawyers gravitate to “in view of” for their own reasons, but if you ask a non-lawyer like me, I’d much prefer to use “due to” most of the time.)   

More prepositional phrases abound that mean the same thing as “about,” but we are well advised to stay away from them. They are abstruse and can give our prose a false, awkward tone, particularly these five: “in accordance with,” “in connection with,” “in conformance to,” “by reason of,” and “as to.” Two really obsolete ones, “apropos of” and “anent,” are best avoided altogether.

Then there are scores more of prepositional phrases that are too long-winded and legalistic for comfort; we should make it a point of honor to always replace them with their more concise equivalents. Here are some of them with their no-nonsense counterparts: “at such time” (“when”), “at that point in time” (“then,” “now”), “by means of” (“by”), “by virtue of” (“by,” “under”), “despite the fact that” (“although”),“due to the fact that” (“because”), “during the course of,” “in the course of” (“during”), “for the amount of” (“for”), “for the purpose of” (“for,” “under”), “from the point of view of” (“from,” “for”), “in order to” (“to”), “in a manner similar to” (“like”), “in excess of” (“more than,” “over”), “in favor of” (“for”), “in relation to” (“about,” “concerning”), “in the nature of” (“like”), “in the immediate vicinity of” (“near”), “in close proximity to” (“near”), “in the present” (“now”), “on one occasion” (“once”), “on the basis of” (“by,” “from”), “subsequent to” (“after”), “until such time as” (“until”), “with a view to” (“to”), “with reference to” (“about,” “concerning”), “with regard to” (“about,” “concerning”), and “with respect to” (“about,” “concerning”).

And while we are at it, we should also mercilessly eliminate from our personal and official correspondence the following prepositional clich├ęs on sight: “acknowledge receipt of,” “it has come to my attention,” “at this writing,” “attached thereto,” “receipt is hereby acknowledged,” “please be advised that,” “enclosed herewith,” “thank you in advance,” and—as I suggested avoiding in an earlier column—“more power to you!”

If there’s one rule we should live by in the use of prepositional phrases, it is to choose the most concise and most forthright but friendly ones that can precisely convey our meaning. (March 15, 2004)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 15, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

How finite verbs differ from non-finite verbs

I’m sure all of us here are familiar with the verbals. They are, of course, the infinitives, the gerunds, and the participles—once-upon verbs transformed by grammatical alchemy into noun forms (in the case of infinitives and gerunds) and adjectives (in the case of participles). At one time or another, however, you must have also come across the terms “finite verbs” and “non-finite verbs” and couldn’t make heads and tails of them. Precisely what are they and how do they differ from the verbs we know? Do they have anything to do with a verb being transitive or intransitive?

Sometime in 2004, in fact, a reader of my English-usage column in The Manila Times posed this question to me: “What do you mean by a true finite verb?” I must admit that answering her question wasn’t an easy task, for it required going back into a discussion of the very nature of verbs and their role in language, and explaining how their becoming verbals transforms them from their finite into their non-finite forms. I ended up devoting an entire column to answer her question.

My answer took the form of the essay below, “When verbs assume non-finite forms,” which I am now posting in the Forum in the hope of making those transformations likewise clear to you. (July 24, 2010)

When verbs assume non-finite forms

A reader, Ms. Clara Tong, e-mailed me last week after coming across a long-ago column of mine extolling the virtues of the absolute phrase. She said: “My question may sound strange, but I certainly hope you can answer it. I discovered your article today through Google and I enjoyed it immensely. I can’t agree with you more when you said that ‘a major virtue of absolute phrases is that they can neatly and efficiently wrap telling details into sentences.’ But in that column, you made a reference to a ‘true finite verb.’ What did you mean by that?”

Going over that column again, I saw at once what had mystified Clara. But let me backtrack a little to put my answer in better perspective. In that column, I described the absolute phrase as a unique grammatical form that consists of a participle and a noun or pronoun that it modifies. I pointed out that unlike the other kinds of phrases, an absolute phrase does not directly connect to the rest of the sentence or modify a specific word in that sentence; instead, it functions as an independent parenthetical element modifying the whole sentence: “
Her heart brimming with joy, the winner extended a reconciliatory arm to her political enemies.” “Their egos stung by defeat, the losers vowed never to concede.” “The bitterly fought election [being] over, the nation braced itself for the tough times ahead.” The absolute phrase can neatly give a sentence context and texture, but it can be knocked off and the sentence can still stand by itself.

Another distinguishing feature of an absolute phrase, I observed in that column, is that it contains
a subject (“her heart,” “their egos,” and “the bitterly fought election” in the sentences above) but not a true finite verb. Instead of a finite verb, I said, it uses a participle (“brimming with joy,” “stung by defeat,” “being over”) to modify that subject. The problem is that I did not elaborate on what a “finite verb” and a “non-finite verb” were. Only after reading Clara’s e-mail, in fact, did I realize that I should have made a clear distinction between them.

So, better late than never, I am doing so now.

A “verb,” as we all know, is a word that serves as the grammatical center of a predicate and expresses an act, occurrence, or state of being. It is “finite” if it actually shows tense (past, present, or future), person (first person, second person, or third person), and number (singular or plural). Here are sentences that use finite verb forms expressing an act or occurrence: “I
run.” “He runs.” “We ran.” And here are sentences that use different forms of the linking verb “be” to express a state of being: “I am hungry.” “She was hungry.” “They were hungry.” All of these verbs have duration, meaning that they happen at some point in time, and they change in form (inflect) depending on tense, person, and number; in short, they are functioning as “true” verbs.

In contrast, a verb becomes “non-finite” when it assumes a form that has
no duration and cannot take tense, person, and number. We can liken “non-finite verbs” to actions that congealed as they were taking place, as in a freeze-framed scene from a movie. They become what are known in grammar as the verbals. The verb “take,” for instance, can assume the non-finite forms “to take” (infinitive), “taking” (gerund), and “taken” (participle)—forms that no longer function as verbs but serve as nouns or adjectives instead. 

Let’s look closer at how these non-finite verbs work. As an infinitive phrase (noun): “
To take her hand would not be advisable.” “I have never wanted to take her place.” Gerund phrase (noun): “Taking her hand would not be advisable.” “I have never considered taking her place.” Past or present participle (adjective): “The taken seat was the cause of their quarrel.” “Taking seats without permission is impolite.”

Now I am ready to answer Clara’s question about what I meant by “true finite verb.” In my column on absolute phrases, I used the qualifier “true” for “finite verbs” because it so happens that in English, one of the verb forms—the one that ends with the suffix –
ing—can either be a “true” finite verb or a non-finite one depending on how it is used. It is a true finite verb when used in the progressive tense, as in “She is bluffing about the whole thing.” It is not a true finite verb but a non-finite verb when used as a gerund, as in “Bluffing is her forte.” In fact, we can only be sure that a verb form ending in –ing is a finite verb—is “true”—and not a non-finite verb by checking if it really works as a verb in a sentence. (July 5, 2004)

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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, July 5, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why is the sentence “It can be overcame” grammatically wrong?

To the consternation of many nonnative English speakers, some English verbs like “hit,” “cut,” and “shot” don’t inflect or change at all when forming their past participles. They behave differently from regular verbs like “watch,” which adds an “-ed” to itself to take the passive infinitive form “to be watched”; they behave differently from verbs ending in a vowel, like “take,” which add an “n” to themselves to form the passive infinitive “to be taken”; and they behave differently from even more deviant verbs like “buy,” which inflects to “bought” to form the passive infinitive “to be bought.” Instead, verbs like “hit,” “cut,” and “shot” remain as they are to form the the passive infinitives “to be hit,” “to be cut,” and “to be shot.”

But what about the verb “overcome”? What form does it take in the passive infinitive form—“to be overcame,” following this usual formula for regular verbs: “to be” + the main verb’s past participle? And what form does it take in the modal form—“can be overcame,” following the usual form “can + be + past participle of the verb”? Over six years ago, two first-year journalism students got themselves into such a protracted tangle about the correct usage, prompting one of them to write me for a third-party grammar opinion.

My answer took the form of the essay below, “What the modal ‘can’ does to main verbs,” which should also prove instructive to Forum members who might still be baffled by how “overcome” behaves in the passive infinitive or passive modal form. (July 17, 2010) 

What the modal “can” does to main verbs

A reader of The Manila Times who identified herself as a first-year journalism student sent me the e-mail below that posed an intriguing question about the behavior of the verb “overcome.” Here’s her letter along with my answer:

Dear Mr. Carillo,

In my Speech Communication class, our teacher asked each one of us to deliver a speech for our final exam. A classmate of mine talked about “stage fright,” saying that “Nervousness is normal. It can be
overcome.” He delivered his speech well, but since last week, I have been arguing with another classmate, Jesse, about the second sentence of that line: “It can be overcome.” Jesse said that our classmate should have used “It can be overcame” instead. I said that our classmate did the right thing; I argued that “overcome” was correct because the one being addressed had not overcome the nervousness yet. Another correct way of saying it, I said, was “It could be overcome.” This didn’t convince Jesse, who said that he would do more research on it.

Irritated that he didn’t believe me, I told Jesse that there’s no such word as “overcame” in the first place. “Overcome,” I said, could have no past tense since it has no root word; one could tell if it’s in the past tense only if it is “helped” by the auxiliary verbs. I said that simply because we’d hear the word “overcame” every now and then didn’t mean that using it was proper. Well, yesterday, I finally learned that “overcame” is definitely the past tense of “overcome” (thanks to my pontifical intelligence!), but I still couldn’t believe that what I had read from the book is true!

Could you please enlighten me on this? I’d really appreciate it.

Lucky Mae Q.

Here’s my reply to the above e-mail:

Dear Lucky Mae:

I can very well appreciate your dilemma over such a sentence as “It can be overcome.” In “overcome,” you and Jesse had actually stumbled on one of those perplexing, few-of-a-kind irregular verbs that simply won’t follow the English grammar rules as we know them. Compounding the situation is that “overcome” here happens to be consorting with two other strange grammar bedfellows: the modal “can” and the linking verb “be.” The result, as you have seen, is bedlam.

First, let’s get something straight about “overcome.” This verb can be both transitive (needs a direct object) and intransitive (won’t take a direct object); in “It can be overcome,” it works intransitively in the sense of “gaining superiority over something”—in this particular instance, over the aspect of “nervousness.” We must also take note here that when used transitively, “overcome” can be inflected in two ways: into the past tense “overcame,” and into the gerund or progressive form “overcoming.” (This should validate your finding that “overcome” does have a legitimate past tense.) Intransitively, however, “overcome” keeps its uninflected form—meaning that the word doesn’t change at all in a passive construction.

Recall that verbs normally use the following formula in the infinitive of their passive form: “to be” + the main verb’s past participle. Thus, the verb “watch” takes the passive infinitive form “to be watched”; “frighten” inflects to “frightened” to form “to be frightened.” Verbs ending in a vowel, like “take,” add an “n” to themselves to form the past participle, so “take” becomes the passive infinitive “to be taken.” Some verbs, of course, do even more strange things; “buy,” for instance, inflects to “bought” to form the passive infinitive “to be bought.”

There are a few verbs, however, that don’t inflect or change at all when forming their past participles. “Hit,” “cut,” and “shot” are such verbs, forming the passive infinitives “to be hit,” “to be cut,” and “to be shot.” “Overcome” behaves in exactly the same way: it doesn’t inflect to form its past participle. This explains why “to be overcome” is correct and “to be overcame” is wrong. (One other “come” word, the verb “become,” takes the passive infinitive form “to become,” not “to be become”; it gets rid of the extra “be” in the interest of euphony. Such are the errant and confusing ways of some English verbs.)

Now, in the sentence “It can be overcome,” the modal “can” has simply taken the place of the infinitive in “to be overcome.” As we know, “can” indicates current ability in the same sense as “able to,” but being a modal, it also puts some element of uncertainty in the statement. It tells us that although there’s a strong possibility of overcoming one’s nervousness in public speaking, we can never be 100% sure that it will happen. In any case, “overcome” is definitely not being used in its present tense here. It is in every way in the past participle form, except that it had retained its uninflected form and simply didn’t follow the usual rules. (April 14, 2004)

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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 14, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

How to avoid semantic bedlam in the usage of the word “only”

How many times have you been misunderstood in your writing because you had wrongly positioned the word “only” in your sentence? For instance, you might have meant that it was only you who believed in the innocence of the accused, but you ended up conveying the wrong sense because you wrote “I only believed in the innocence of the accused” instead of the correct “Only I believed in the innocence of the accused.”

Like so many others, you must have committed this gaffe in using “only” not just a few times, but had you ever given it more thought and ultimately figured out why it happens so often? Well, it’s because “only” is the ultimate floating modifier in the English language, so movable and so easily misplaced in a sentence that it could trip both native and nonnative English speakers alike into writing—or saying—something they didn’t really mean.

I discussed this rather sticky problem in an essay, “When ‘only’ goes haywire,” that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in March 2004. I thought that some Forum members and our guests might benefit from that essay’s prescriptions for avoiding bedlam in the usage of “only,” so I decided to post it in this week’s edition of the Forum.

Here goes the essay… (July 10, 2010)

When “only” goes haywire

Among nonnative English speakers, easily the most movable and most easily misplaced modifier is the word “only.” In any of its three roles as adjective, adverb, or conjunction, “only” can effortlessly flit from place to place, creating as many meanings as the number of positions it perches upon in the sentence. It is, in a word, the ultimate floating quantifier, either intensifying or diminishing the semantic degree of the nouns or verbs it modifies, at times neatly linking one clause to another of its kind, but in the process baffling linguists and students of the language for the last 500 years.

Consider, for instance, the different meanings “only” creates by virtue of the five positions it takes in the following sentences:

·        Only I think Jennifer belongs to this league.” (“It’s only I that think Jennifer belongs to this league.”)

·        “I only think Jennifer belongs to this league.” (“That’s the only thought I have at the moment: that Jennifer belongs to this league.”)

·        “I think only Jennifer belongs to this league.” (“This is what I think: only Jennifer belongs to this league and no one else around here.”

·        “I think Jennifer belongs only to this league.” (“This is what I think: Jennifer belongs only to this league and to no other.”)

·        “I think Jennifer belongs to this league only.” (“This is what I think: it is only to this league that Jennifer rightfully belongs.”)

Then, after these five adjectival or adverbial roles, consider, too, how “only” works as a conjunction:

·        In the role of “but”: “You may vote anyone you like, only vote wisely.”

·        In the role of “and yet”: “Jennifer looks lovely, only she’s already very much married.”

·        In the role of “except” or “were it not that”: “I’d like to bring Jennifer to Baguio, only that she might enjoy the place so much and stay there the whole summer.”


Even without its role as a conjunctive, however, “only” is already capable of creating so much ambiguity and semantic mischief if we are not careful. For instance, when describing a situation where we wanted to talk to a manager but only got as far as talking to his secretary, we probably would say “I saw only his secretary” or “I only saw his secretary,” either of which would adequately convey what happened. Then take note that a rather stilted way to say it, “I saw his secretary only,” even more faithfully describes what happened. Even so, the ambiguity remains.

The situation isn’t that bad in spoken usage, where “only” can be floated more freely without creating ambiguity. This is because a stronger stress can always be given to the word that the speaker wants “only” to modify, thus clearly establishing a clear intent and semantic linkage. We can see how this speech mechanism operates in the following spoken constructions, where the stressed words are shown in all-capital letters:

“I only saw HIS SECRETARY.” (“I saw nobody else.”)

“I only SAW his secretary.” (“Yes, I did see her, but I didn’t speak to her.”)

Taking into account the pitfalls in using “only” as a floating modifier in written prose, language experts have come up with the following recommendation: to be safe, place onlyimmediately before the phrase we want it to modify. This means that in the office situation we described earlier, for instance, the safest—but not necessarily the best—written construction to describe what happened is the first version: “I saw only his secretary.” With “only” coming right before the noun phrase it modifies, “his secretary,” the construction poses the least danger of ambiguity. When spoken, however, the most natural and most felicitous version is obviously this other one: “I only saw his secretary.” It is much closer to the rhythm of speech, and it will be foolhardy for us to tinker with it simply to conform to the norms for edited or more formal prose.

For sure, there will be situations when written and spoken prose will clash head-on as to where to position “only” in a sentence. When this happens, we have to take recourse to what linguists call disambiguating qualifiers, or additional statements designed to clarify our meaning and eliminate ambiguity. This was the purpose of the parenthetical statements that accompanied the five “only”-usage examples that we took up earlier.

Those statements, of course, are not real disambiguating qualifiers because they are not part and parcel of the sentences themselves. A true disambiguating qualifier is integral to the statement, and already anticipates the ambiguity created when the main statement uses “only” as a floating quantifier. A good example is this: “I think only Jennifer belongs to this league; all the others simply fall short of the stringent requirements.”
In written prose, that’s actually the surest, most elegant way of preventing statements modified by “only” from going haywire. (March 4, 2004)

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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 4, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Getting a better handle on when to use or when to just knock off “that”

The word “that” is arguably the most functionally versatile workhorse of the English language, able to perform the roles of as many as four of the eight parts of speech—as conjunction, as pronoun in two major senses, as adjective, and as an adverb. For the same reason, though, “that” also ranks among the most misused words in English, often tripping native and nonnative speakers of English alike. Even more perplexing, “that” is one word that grammatically should be there where the sentence needs it, but quite often, the sentence could sound much better and read more effortlessly and elegantly without it.

Deciding precisely when to keep or knock off “that,” however, isn’t simply a touch-and-go affair. It needs a fine ear for language and lots of practice before being mastered, and this is what I sought to explain in a two-part essay I wrote in October 2004 for my English-usage column in The Manila Times. I am posting that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum as a refresher for those who still feel queasy about when and when not to drop from their sentences. (July 3, 2010)

When to keep or knock off ‘that’–I

By most contemporary counts, the word “that” ranks among the 10 most often used words in the English language. For instance, the Guinness Book of World Records ranks it seventh, only behind such common words as “the,” “of,” “and,” “to,” “a,” and “in,” in that order. The American Heritage Word Frequency Book puts “that” at ninth place with “is” and “you” ahead of it. A popular list in the Web ranks “that” tenth.

Still, none of the words in the magic 10 comes near to “that” in functional versatility. “The” and “a” practically serve only as articles, “of” and “to” only as prepositions, “in” practically always as a preposition, “is” only as a verb, and “you” only as a pronoun. Alone among them, “that” can perform the roles of no less than four of the eight parts of speech: as conjunction, as pronoun in two major senses, as adjective, and as an adverb. This makes “that” definitely one of the most hardworking multi-tasking workhorses of the English language.

Precisely because it is such a busybody, “that” is also among the most misused words in English. There is, to begin with, the evidently growing notion that when used as a subordinating conjunction, “that” can always be unilaterally dropped in the interest of brevity and euphony. Then there is the misconception—very common—that “that” is the semantic equivalent of “which” and “who,” and as such may be used interchangeably with them. Such misuses of “that” often result in grammatically truncated language, creasing the foreheads of even the most attentive listeners or forcing readers to reread sentences any number of times to ferret out their meaning.

Take this sentence from a recent business story in a leading newspaper: “The stock market surged to its highest in more than four-and-a-half years buoyed by foreign buying and hopes Congress will fast-track the passage of key tax measures before the end of the year, analysts said yesterday.” As you yourself must have experienced, one has to blink a few times to understand that sentence. It is bad enough that there is no punctuation after the main clause (the one that ends with “more than four-and-a-half years”). A comma would have made it clear that the segment that begins with “buoyed by foreign buying” is a participial phrase modifying “stock market” in the main clause. Even worse is that the compound phrase “buoyed by foreign buying and hopes . . .” is not constructed in parallel (to read “buoyed by foreign buying and by hopes . . .”).

But what really makes the sentence perplexing is the semantic black hole created by a missing “that,” which could have announced—and clearly tagged—the modifying noun clause “Congress will fast-track the passage of key tax measures . . .” for what it is.

Here’s how “that”—with some help from the comma and “by”—could have made that sentence as clear as a bell: “The stock market surged to its highest in more than four-and-a-half years, buoyed by foreign buying and by hopes that Congress will fast-track the passage of key tax measures before the end of the year, analysts said yesterday.”

Unfortunately, newspaper and magazine journalists seem to be under such pressure these days to routinely knock off “that” in such constructions, often with semantically disastrous results. 

The temptation to drop “that” from subordinate clauses and phrases appears to be endemic not only in journalism but also in advertising. Look at this sentence in a current courier services advertisement in an international news magazine: “With at least 100 people involved in the show, from actors and musicians to lighting and sound technicians, Pimlott has the seemingly impossible task of ensuring everybody works together in perfect harmony. . .” Somehow, what the statement is saying manages to squeak through, but not after confounding us and forcing us to guess whether the phrase “ensuring everybody” meant “buying insurance for them” or something else. That semantic bind would not have developed, of course, had the conjunction “that” been supplied to do its tagging work: “With at least 100 people involved in the show, from actors and musicians to lighting and sound technicians, Pimlott has the seemingly impossible task of ensuring that everybody works together in perfect harmony . . .”

We can thus see that dropping off the conjunction “that” to streamline sentences is fraught with pitfalls. Still, this should not be understood as advocating that it should not be done at all; there simply are too many instances when eliminating “that” in complex sentences can make our prose read and sound much better. We will take up the rules for that in the next essay, but until those rules are understood clearly and become second nature to us, it will be safe to always put “that” where it should be and leave it well enough alone. (October 11, 2004)

When to keep or knock off ‘that’–II

We saw in the previous essay some adverse consequences of arbitrarily preventing the subordinating conjunction “that” from doing its job. In mild cases, the “that”-less sentence makes us blink once or twice before we could understand it; in particularly bad cases, it makes us blink many times over in confusion.

To better gauge the semantic damage when we excise “that” from complex sentences, let’s arbitrarily assign the following rough measures: NB, “no blink,” for hardly any damage; 1B, “one blink,” for mildly confusing; 2B, “two blinks,” for moderately confusing; 3B, “three blinks,” for confusing; and 4B, “four blinks or more,” for dangerously confusing. To get a better feel of the nuances, of course, we must always think of the bracketed “that” as absent in the specimen sentences that will follow.

Here are what most of us can probably agree on as NB sentences: “I really thought [that] they were involved in looting the treasury.” “The team is confident [that] it can make progress because the spirit of Kaizen is so deeply entrenched in the company.” “Poultry producers and hog dealers have assured Malaca├▒ang [that] there will be enough chicken and pork in the market to last the Christmas season.” The missing “that” hardly affects the semantic integrity of the three sentences. Their meanings remain clear. Some of them even read better, both silently and aloud.

Now let’s take a look at some 1B sentences: “Their dilemma is [that] payment for their services has been delayed.” “Our problem is [that] heavy equipment keeps on rolling past our small street at night.” The absence of “that” in such sentences mildly assails the eyes and ears, but their meaning is rarely misunderstood or lost. In informal writing, by the way, we can reduce a 1B-sentence discomfort by substituting a comma for “that”: “Our problem is, heavy equipment keeps on passing our small street at night.” (When such sentences are spoken, a moderate pause right after the verb can make the meaning unmistakable.)

2B sentences, on the other hand, definitely distract; the absence of “that” momentarily makes us think that they mean something else: “They know [that] all the employees who see me want a raise.” “Stocks rose yesterday as the central bank signaled [that] it wanted to fuel economic growth by not matching a hike in US interest rates.” A second reading clarifies their meaning, of course, but our reading momentum has already been irrevocably slowed down.

In 3B sentences the distraction and confusion become profound: “The Bureau of Customs said [that] it has no evidence to prove [that] refined and raw oil products were shipped in by a syndicate, which later sold them cheaply to oil companies.” If only the first “that” is knocked off (as was prudently done in the news story where this sentence came from), the sentence would remain clear and qualify for NB level. But it certainly becomes a disconcerting 3B when the second “that” is also knocked off: “The Bureau of Customs said it has no evidence to prove refined and raw oil products were shipped in by a syndicate, which later sold them cheaply to oil companies.”

4B sentences, in turn, practically disintegrate semantically when “that” is knocked off. This time we have no choice but to restore it. There are, in fact, three specific grammatical conditions in which the conjunction “that” must be absolutely retained, and they apply neatly to our 4B sentences. These conditions, as identified in Theodore Bernstein’s Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage, are:

·        When a time element intervenes between the verb and the clause: “We found last week that three strategic points in our coastline were vulnerable to attack.” Take out “that” and the sentence practically becomes nonsensical.

·        When the verb of the clause is delayed so long as to make us think that the clause is not there at all: “A historian revealed that an ancient code of laws attributed to a chieftain named Kalantiaw was a hoax.” Without the “that,” we are misled into thinking that it was the historian who reported the existence of the code of laws, not the one who denounced it as a fake.

·        When a second “that” is needed to clarify who said or did what: “The judge said that the accused was not the aggressor in the case and that his alleged accomplices acted in self-defense.” Take out the second “that,” and we would forever be guessing if it was also the judge who said that the accomplices had acted in self-defense.

As we can see, eliminating “that” should never be a touch-and-go affair. It is an art form, one that needs a lot of practice before we can be confident of never again inadvertently ruining our prose with a missing “that.” (October 18, 2004)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 11 and 18, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.