Saturday, December 24, 2011

Chiasmus is arousing rhetoric that can weaken our judgment

Thanks to the moderating influence of the Christmas Season, we are enjoying a much-welcome respite from the vicious propaganda war over the forthcoming impeachment trial of the Philippine Supreme Court justice. After the holidays, however, we can be sure that the protagonists will be revving up their rhetoric to the hilt, so it’s very important for us to be able to sift truth, half-truth, and outright falsehood from their pronouncements. We need to be keenly aware how language is being manipulated to prove a point, and mustn’t allow vaulting or inflammatory rhetoric to put blinders over our eyes and stampede us into making wrong judgments.    

A figure of speech that we should particularly watch out for in our overheating political atmosphere is the chiasmus, which is language configured to strongly arouse our emotions and diminish our logical thinking. Whether the chiasmus is a great truth or an outrageous fallacy masquerading as one, it certainly won’t be in short supply in our midst after New Year’s Day of 2012; it will worm itself into public forums and debates, media editorials and opinion columns, and rallies and demonstrations on the impeachment issue. For this reason, I thought of posting here an essay on chiasmus that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2003. By having a clear understanding of what chiasmus is and how it works, we can better take delight and satisfaction in the truthful ones that come our way and dismiss the outright falsehoods lurking among them. (December 25, 2011)

A powerful figure of speech that we should watch out for

Ever wondered how some people have moved us or inspired us to do great things their way, or mesmerized us, put blinders on our eyes, then made us do irrational things that we would never have dreamed of doing had we not been under their spell?

If so, then the speakers—unless they had recited great poetry—must have been using chiasmus. This figure of speech towers above all the other rhetorical devices in its ability to lower our built-in defenses and arouse our emotions. We could very well call chiasmus the linguistic incarnation of charisma—that rare and elusive power of certain people to inspire fierce loyalty and devotion among their followers.

The use of chiasmus dates back to antiquity. In the 6th century B.C., the extremely wealthy Lydian king Croesus went on record using it: “In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.” Such wisdom in only 13 words! Is it possible that he became fabulously wealthy because he was so adept at chiasmus and—by implication—at compelling people’s obedience? Or did he become so good at coining chiasmus because his wealth had allowed him the leisure to craft it?

Now take a look at this familiar line from U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, on which so many English-language elocution students had labored investing their own vocal energies over the years: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Just 17 words, but they give us the feeling of an immensely satisfying four-hour lecture on good citizenship. Then see chiasmus at work in this charming line by the English physician and author Havelock Ellis: “Charm is a woman’s strength; strength is a man’s charm.” And, one more time, hark to this timeless sage advice from Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”

By now you must have already discovered for yourself the fundamental structure and mechanism of chiasmus:  it reverses the order of words in two parallel phrases. Take this chiasmus by the legendary Hollywood actress Mae West: “I’d rather be looked over than overlooked.” “Looked over” is “overlooked” in reverse, making the speaker wickedly but deliciously imply that she enjoys being ogled at. Or take this arresting, old advertising slogan of a Philippine insurance company: “If someone depends on you, you can depend on Insular Life.” By some linguistic alchemy, the parallel word reversals arouse our senses, disarming us so we readily accept their claim as true. Chiasmus has this power because it heightens the sense of drama in language by surprise. It is no wonder that it holds the distinction of being mankind’s all-time vehicle for expressing great truths and, conversely, also great untruths.

Most types of chiasmus reverse the words of familiar sayings in a felicitously parallel way, as in the French proverb, “Love makes time pass, time makes love pass.” For chiasmus to succeed, however, the two insights offered by the word reversals should both be true and survive subsequent scrutiny. (They could also be untrue, and therein lies the danger in chiasmus in the hands of demagogues and charlatans.) But chiasmus need not be an exact reversal of a familiar saying. Take what the English writer Richard Brinksley said on beholding for the first time the woman whom he was to later marry: “Why don’t you come into my garden? I would like my roses to see you.” This implied chiasmus cleverly reverses this usual invitation of proud homemakers: “I’d like you to see my roses.” And chiasmus also nicely takes the form of questions, as in this line from Antigone by the 5th century Greek dramatist Sophocles: “What greater ornament to a son than a father’s glory, or to a father than a son’s honorable conduct?”

If chiasmus is this pleasurable, does it mean that we should spend a lot of time composing it ourselves to impress people? Not at all! Chiasmus is meant to be used very sparingly, to be reserved only for those very special moments when saying them can truly spell a make-or-break difference in our lives, like preparing for battle, wooing the hearts and minds of people, ruing abject failure, or celebrating great success. In our everyday lives, it is enough for us to spot a good chiasmus so we can savor its wisdom, and to have the wisdom to know when we are simply being conned with fallacy or propaganda masquerading as great truth. (October 16, 2003)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 16, 2003 issue © 2003 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

The need for rational thinking in the battle for the public mind

There’s now a ferocious battle for the public mind among three major independent branches of the Philippine government, namely the Executive and the Lower House on one hand, and the Supreme Court, on the other, with the Senate as sole judge of which side is in the right or in the wrong. The issue to be resolved is the recent impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Renato C. Corona. The bones of contention here are without doubt highly political and complex, but I believe that as enunciated by a 20th century American jurist, “Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance.” But that dictum is perhaps too one-dimensional in this particular case, so it might be advisable to add to the equation the possible elements of patriotism, vainglory, hatred, anger, or ambition in whatever measure they might come—elements that inevitably breed partisanship and biased thinking.

So, in the heat of this ongoing political battle, how do we figure out which side is rational, correct, and just? Which side is propping up its position with a forked tongue or with the sword of truth? Which side, indeed, is worthy of public acceptance and support?

To help us discern truth and falsehood in the vicious war of words that’s now engulfing the public sphere, I thought of posting in this week’s edition of the Forum an essay on language and logic I wrote in 2003 for my English-usage column in The Manila Times. I have updated the original essay by replacing references to topical examples during that time with more current and more relevant ones. I trust that you’ll find the essay helpful in arriving at an intelligent and informed perspective about this raging political conflict. (December 18, 2011)

Using words and labels as tools for persuasion

Most of us will be in familiar territory when we talk about using vocabulary as a tool for persuasion. To begin with, hardly ever are we neutral in our choice of words. Parents slant their words in particular ways to reinforce their parenting. Children do the same things to get what they want or get away with things. Our enemies do it to denigrate us in the eyes of others. Religious fanatics do it to make the faithful suspend their disbelief despite overwhelming evidence that they shouldn’t. Advertisers do it to make us part with our money gladly or without guilt. Ideologues and seekers of public office do it to prime us up for their political agenda. With no exception, all of us subtly stamp our words with a personal bias to persuade others to believe what we believe and to do what we want them to do.

First on our language agenda is, of course, to label people, places, and things. Depending on our intent, biases, or predispositions, for instance, a medical doctor becomes a “health professional,” a “lifesaver,” a “cutup artist,” or a “quack,” and a public relations man becomes a “corporate communicator,” a “spin master,” a “hack writer,” or a “flack.” We do this not necessarily to denigrate people per se, but only to quickly indicate our attitude and feelings toward the subject. This is because if we don’t label our subjects, it often takes us an unduly long time to put them in context for our audiences. Rightly or wrongly then, the idea behind labeling in suasive diction (“Giving a touch of authority to our prose,” December 3, 2011) is primarily to achieve economy in language. We label things because time is short and we don’t have all the time in the world to explain ourselves. 

Using labels is only the beginning of how we slant our language. Even without meaning to or often without knowing it, we take recourse to idiomatic expressions, clichés, slogans and metaphors to drive home our point more efficiently. Most of us know, for instance, that “it’s water under the bridge,” “as sure as the sun sets in the west,” and “at the end of the day” are horribly timeworn clichés, but we still compulsively use them to emphasize our point. We have no qualms of running clichés to exhaustion, unless we happen to be professional speakers or writers who must come up with new ways of saying things as a matter of honor. In fact, the only time we are much more circumspect about using them is when we write something for the public record or for publication under our names. Like most everybody else, we don’t want to have any evidence of lack of originality or of shameless copycatting to be taken against us.

However, there are two major disciplines that methodically and ruthlessly use clichés, slogans, and metaphors for mind-bending purposes: advertising and politics. Here, we enter that region of language where hardly anything said is exactly what it means literally. We come face-to-face with “double-speak” or rhetoric exploited to the hilt, language that often teeters at the very outer edges of the truth and carried out by incessant repetition. It is suasive diction that, for good or ill, seeks to build niches in our minds for all sorts of marketing or political agenda. We can see, of course, that the mass media is chockfull of advertising that uses this kind of slanted language; as to particular specimens of political propaganda, we need go to specifics here since we are in the midst of a propaganda war that’s being viciously fought among three supposedly independent branches of a democratic government.1 It is enough that we are forewarned against taking their tirades against one another at their face value, and that we forearm ourselves by learning how to appreciate their messages critically and intelligently. As they say in Latin, caveat emptor, a warning that what we are dealing with here is language that’s barbed all over inside.

These thoughts about advertising and politics bring us to the use of grammatical ambiguity as a tool for suasive diction. Remember our lessons for using “it”-cleft sentences to achieve emphasis? (“When Even the Passive Voice Isn’t Enough,” June 26, 2009) By definition, we defined the cleft as one that “cleaves” or splits a single-clause sentence into two clauses for semantic emphasis, and the “it-cleft” is that variety that uses the function word “it” to highlight an object of special focus or theme, as in this statement: “It appears that our camp will triumph in this fight.”2 In advertising and political propaganda, this sentence construction is often designed to artfully hide the source of the statement of the “experiencer” to make it appear as a fact rather than a conjecture. That sleigh of language gives the semblance of certainty—a deliberate distortion of language to create what we all know as the “bandwagon” effect. 

In suasive diction, therefore, it behooves us not only to watch our own language, but also the language of those who would deliberately subvert it to promote their agenda at our expense. (March 18, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 18, 2004 issue © 2004 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.
1I have taken the liberty of revising this particular sentence to make the context of its reference to particular forms of political propaganda more current and relevant. In the original essay, the reference was to the fact that the country was “in the midst of a viciously fought national election season.”
2For the same reason stated in the first footnote above, this sample quote replaces this quote in the original essay: “It appears that our candidate will score a landslide victory.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The great strides made by English toward nondiscriminatory grammar

For centuries, English had been intrinsically a sexist and discrimatory language, its lexicon and grammar not only explicitly treating men as superior to women but also emphasizing the dependence of women to men. This, of course, is evident in the strong male bias in such age-old idioms as “the best man for the job” and “one-man show” and in such occupational nouns and jobs as “craftsman” and “postman,” along with the use of the masculine “his” as default pronoun for the indefinite pronouns “everybody” and “everyone.” Thanks to the impetus provided by the feminist and civil libertarian movements in the major English-speaking countries, however, the English language has been seeing a welcome shift toward nondiscriminatory grammar, structure, and form these past several decades.

In a two-part essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2004, “Using nondiscrimimatory language,” I took a look at these revolutionary changes in the English language and focused on the four major sexist tendencies and biases that it had most successfully curbed or at least attenuated. I have decided to post that essay here to clarify matters for those who, despite their best efforts, still find their written and spoken English hamstrung by its built-in sexist or discriminatory grammar and semantics. (December 11, 2011)   

Using nondiscriminatory language

Part I:

During the past several decades, a sometimes raucous but generally silent revolution has been taking place within the English language. This revolution—call it an induced evolution, if you may—is the much welcome shift of English toward nondiscriminatory grammar, structure, and form. Fanned by the civil libertarian and feminist movements in the major English-speaking countries, this movement has substantially freed the inherently sexist, chauvinist language of Chaucer and Shakespeare from some of its most vexing linguistic biases. For the first time in its 1,500-year history, and well in keeping with its role as today’s global language, English is now consciously nondiscriminatory in its more formal forms. Informally, of course, it still has to find ways of cleaning up some more intractable semantic vestiges that prevent it from expressing total equality and respect for all individuals.

The language has been most successful in handling four problematic tendencies: (1) discriminating against women in word formation, grammar, and sentence structure; (2) universalizing human attributes in favor of men; (3) treating people asymmetrically based on such aspects as gender, age, and ethnicity; and (4) unfairly focusing on irrelevant, discriminatory characteristics of people when describing them in negative situations. We will examine these areas of success more closely, then look at the hard-core semantic structures for which English still has to find enduring nondiscriminatory alternatives.

Nondiscriminatory word formation, grammar, and sentence structure. For centuries, English had been bedeviled by its linguistic propensity not only to treat men as superior to women but also to emphasize the dependence of women to men. We all know, for instance, how inherently sexist the most common English idioms are, like “the man in the street,” “the best man for the job,” “one-man show,” and “man to man.” Similarly, its generic occupational nouns and job titles have for ages been male-oriented: “laymen,” “policeman,” “businessman,” “craftsman,” “fireman,” “postman,” and “salesman.”

Due to pressure from the feminist movement, however, major inroads have been achieved against this blatant sexism in the English vocabulary, making those phrases politically incorrect in educated circles. As nondiscriminatory equivalents for  “the man in the street,” for instance, we now have “the average citizen,” “the average person,” or “an ordinary person.” For “the best man for the job,” we now have “the best candidate [applicant, person] for the job”; and for “one-man show,” we now have “solo show” or “one-person show.” In the occupational areas, of course, the following nondiscriminatory equivalents are now routine in formal circles: for “layman,” we have “laypeople,” “non-specialist,” or “non-professional”; for “policeman,” we have “police officer”; for “businessman,” we have “business executive”; and for “fireman,” we have “firefighter.”  

English is also successfully veering away from the traditionally sexist way of adding the suffixes –ess, –ette, and –trix to feminize male words, as in “seamstress” for “seamster” and “poetess” for “poet,” “usherette” for “usher” and “bachelorette” for “bachelor,” and “administratrix” for “administrator” and “mediatrix” for “mediator.” Self-respecting women rightly saw this word formation as trivializing and discriminatory, in much the same way as labeling a female professional as, say, a “woman doctor,” a “lady lawyer,” a “woman reporter,” or a “female accountant.” Such expressions are now scrupulously avoided, particularly in contexts where gender-specific reference is irrelevant. 

Avoiding the tendency to universalize human attributes in favor of men. Because of its inherent male chauvinism, the English language has historically treated men as the universal stereotype for humanity in general, glossing over women to the point of their total invisibility or exclusion. Thus, even the usually politically correct American president Abraham Lincoln could not help but be male chauvinistic in his “Gettysburg Address”: “Fourscore and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth to this continent a new nation…” What happened, the feminists correctly asked, to the mothers and grandmothers and sisters and aunts on board the Mayflower when it docked at Portsmouth? Today, of course, a politically astute editor or adviser would have easily convinced Lincoln to change “our forefathers” to “our forebears” or, even more semantically precise, to “our grandparents.” We are well advised to do the same in our spoken and written English in the interest of gender equality and political correctness.

Avoiding the asymmetrical treatment of people on such aspects as gender, age, and ethnicity. Another glaring discriminatory aspect of English usage that we must consciously avoid is focusing on the attributes or background of females in negative or unflattering contexts involving males, as in this statement: “Five suspected drug addicts, four of them teenage male students and the fifth a pretty coed, were arrested in a predawn raid on a drug joint in Taguig, Parañaque City.” Such discriminatory language is now becoming rare in the more enlightened English-speaking countries, but it is still endemic in Philippine journalism, particularly in the English-language tabloids. We still have miles to go before we can finally exorcise such patently discriminatory goblins from our macho culture. (March 19, 2004)

Part II:

We resume our discussion of the use of nondiscriminatory language in English, this time focusing on its success in avoiding asymmetrical treatment of people on account of their age, ethnicity and social standing. To begin with, it is no longer socially and politically correct to label people past middle age as “the old,” “the aged,” or “septuagenarians”; they are more properly referred to now as “older people,” “seniors,” or “senior citizens.” In the same token, to call people in the lower age bracket as “youths,” “juveniles,” “adolescents,” “greenhorns,” or “neophytes” would be insensitive; the socially acceptable generic terms today are “young persons” and “young people.” Then, when referring to ethnic group members in negative situations, it is now unthinkable for the mainstream mass media to run a discriminatory headline like this: “Lithuanian [Polynesian, Armenian, Dane, Filipino, etc.] nabbed in Miami multinational drug bust.” The era of gratuitously stereotyping ethnic people for shock effect is long over.

Here in the Philippines, however, we are still prone to using dangerously unfair English-language stereotypes, particularly when referring to the disadvantaged sectors of our society. Take this recent headline of a leading national newspaper: “Old building collapses; 10 looters feared dead.” The story reported: “Nasipit Mayor Enrico Corvera said most of the victims were scavengers looking for metals inside the dilapidated and concrete-walled building...when it collapsed at around 2 p.m. yesterday.” The headline categorically labels those who died in the accident as “looters,” while the mayor simply identifies them as “scavengers.” A “looter,” by definition, is someone who “plunders or sacks in war,” or who “robs especially on a large scale and usually by violence or corruption”; a “scavenger,” on the other hand, is plainly “a garbage collector” or “a junk collector.” “Looting” is a criminal offense while “scavenging” is not, however lowly the occupation may appear, and no amount of headline-letter-count constraints can justify glossing over that difference in meaning. Because of the writer’s semantic ignorance, the victims have not only been killed owing to their poverty but were slandered even in death.

Avoiding unfairly focusing on irrelevant or discriminatory characteristics of people when describing them in negative situations. It is obviously difficult for people to forego or curb the tendency to use derogatory language privately against their opponents or pet-peeves. Human nature seems to be permanently wired for that. But to use blatantly discriminatory language in polite society or in the mass media is an altogether different matter. We have to avoid it not only in the interest of good taste and political correctness but also to avoid committing slander or libel.

Take this discriminatory reporting still prevalent in Philippine journalism: “Singer X was adjudged the ‘Female Vocalist of the Year’ award despite her diminutive size, being only 54 cm. on bare feet.” (What does her height got to do with her singing voice?) Or this spiel by a TV sports commentator: “The two runners performed in the 20K marathon like geriatrics just out of the hospital.” (This discriminatory remark slanders the runners and ailing aged people in general in one fell swoop.) And then this recent diatribe by a magazine columnist: “And when [Politician X], ever so slowly (and perhaps painfully), raised his arthritic right arm to emphasize a point, as we were taught to do in Ateneo elocution class, it was obvious to me that his target audience was the Living Dead.” (Deliciously wicked, that dig at “the Living Dead,” but the terribly unkind reference to Politician X’s pain in raising his supposedly arthritic right arm borders on the libelous, I think.)

Having taken a quick look at the progress English has made so far in fighting discriminatory language, we will now examine its hard-core grammar limitation that we already know so well, but which we must take pains learning how to handle better: English has no gender-neutral pronoun for the third person singular, a quirk that forces it to use the generic masculine forms “he,” “him,” and “his” to refer to both men and women. We thus usually end up with discriminatory language that makes women invisible, like this: “The typical Filipino voter is a laborer who works in a factory, or a farmer who subsists in marginal farming. He has a wife who usually augments the family income with piecework or retail selling. Sometimes these roles are simply reversed.” For gender equality, and also considering the fact that Filipino women slightly outnumber the men, it would be prudent to refer to the Filipino in the generic plural: “Majority of Filipinos are laborers who work in a factory, or farmers who subsist in marginal farming. They have spouses who usually augment the family income through piecework or retail selling.”

By being more discerning in our choice of words, we can make ourselves confidently and pleasantly nondiscriminatory in our larger uses of the English language. (March 22, 2004)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 19 and 22, 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The serious lack of civility that afflicts public discourse

At this time in our country when civility appears to be vanishing from the public sphere, when many traditional seats of power in our society seem to be going out of control or under assault or both, and when every threatened vested interest or emboldened rabble-rouser is now viciously aiming for the enemy’s jugular, it should be of great public interest to closely examine the kind of language being used by the protagonists and antagonists. Are they speaking and acting in keeping with who they think, presume, or pretend they are? Are they using language that conveys their thoughts and desires in ways that validate and support their own self-concept or projection of ourselves? Or is their language going out of bounds, eroding instead of giving a touch of authority to their public pronouncements?

I recall that towards the end of 2005, the country was being buffeted by the same lack of civility, a situation that prompted me to write an essay about suasive diction—the deft use of language to persuasively convey facts and the speaker’s feelings toward those facts—for my English-usage column in The Manila Times. I think that essay, “Giving a touch of authority to our prose,” has become even more relevant today so I thought of posting here today. (December 4, 2011)

Giving a touch of authority to our prose

“Oh what a pair we make,” whispered the Prince of Wales to the pilloried presumptive royal knight William in the riotously charming film A Knight’s Tale, “both trying hard to hide who we really are, and both miserably failing to do so.” For those who have not seen the movie, the prince was constrained to shed off his disguise as a monk among the lynching mob to save the disgraced knight, who a few days earlier had spared him from the ignominy of certain defeat by refusing to joust with him in a tournament. The knight, through the machinations of a villainous duke, was thereafter unmasked as a lowly thatcher’s son masquerading as a member of royalty, thus leading to his arrest and humiliation on the pillory.

This medieval morality tale gives a powerful insight into the crucial need to speak and act in keeping with who we think, presume, or pretend we are. When we write, in particular, we must use language that conveys our thoughts in ways that validate and support our own self-concept or projection of ourselves. The wife of the Caesar must not only be chaste but must look and sound chaste. The professor must really look and sound professorial. The presidentiable must really look and sound presidentiable. To fail to do this in both civilized and uncivilized society—or not to have the wisdom or guile to at least sustain the charade—is to invite catastrophe, which is precisely what brought the presumptive knight to the pillory for public lynching.

Be that as it may, our most potent tool for becoming credible is what the linguists call suasive diction. This is using language to persuasively convey facts and the speaker’s feelings toward those facts. No instrument is more potent for doing that, of course, than the writer’s or speaker’s vocabulary. Our words define us. Whether armed with excellent research or dubious information, whether motivated by good or bad intentions, we can turn off the audience with awkward or leaden words, or hold it in thrall with engaging words and well-turned phrases. It is largely through word choice, in fact, that we establish our credibility and rapport with our audience. Short of coercion or the force of arms, rarely can persuasive communication take place without this credibility and rapport.

The most basic technique for suasive diction is the proper use of the pronouns of power, namely “we,” “us,” “our,” “they,” and “them.” These innocent-looking pronouns can confer a sense of authority—the illusion of authority, if you may—to our written or spoken statements far beyond what the first-person singular can give. The first-person “I” and “me” speak only for the solitary communicator; the collective “we” and “us” speak for an entire group or institution, which people normally take for granted as less fallible and less prone to vainglory than the individual—hence more credible, more authoritative.

This is why, for instance, newspaper editorials routinely use the institutional “we” although they are usually crafted by a solitary writer not so high on the paper’s editorial totem pole; it’s also why tyrants and despots of every stripe and persuasion always invoke “the right vested in me by God/ law/ the sovereign people” to seize power or hold on to it, and why candidates of paltry qualification and virtue invariably invoke “the people’s great desire for change” or “divine signs in the sky” as their passport to public office.

Of course, “we,” “us,” “our,” “they,” and “them” work just as well as pronouns of solidarity. They foster a stronger sense of closeness and intimacy with the audience, and can more easily put audiences at ease with what the speaker has to say. In contrast, the first person “I” often comes across as too one-sided and self-serving, particularly in writing, while the second person “you” can sound too pedantic and intimidating. We stand a much greater chance of getting a fair hearing from those antagonistic to our position by making them think that we are actually on their side.

Even if we are good at using the pronouns of power and solidarity, however, we must not for a minute believe that they are all we need to achieve suasive diction. The facts supporting our contention must be substantial and accurate. Our opinions must be truly informed, not half-baked. Our logic must be sound and beyond reproach. Our delivery must me convincing. If not, we might just end up like that otherwise seemingly enlightened prince in A Knight’s Tale, lying to the lynching mob that William the thatcher’s son was actually descended from an ancient line of kings, then justifying that claim by nonchalantly invoking royal infallibility: “I say so by the authority of my father the King, and that’s beyond any contestation.”

Royally said indeed, but utterly illogical and absurd. (November 14, 2005)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, November 14, 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

The problem with words without sound semantic underpinnings

Recently, in My Media English Watch in Jose Carillo’s English Forum, I made a passing comment about “coopetation,” a strange-sounding new word proudly coined by Mr. Andre Kahn, chair of the Advertising Board of the Philippines, during the recent Philippine Advertising Congress held in the recently renamed province of CamSur (it used to be “Camarines Sur”) in the Bicol Region. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer news story that even used “coopetation” in its headline, Mr. Kahn was inspired to coin that word to describe the spirit that should prevail among rival advertising agencies. “Coopetition means that even though we compete within the industry we can cooperate for the common good of our members like what we have done here,” Mr. Kahn said. In short, he meant “coopetation” to be a happy fusion of the words “cooperation” and “competition.”

Today, I finally found the time to check “coopetation” with Google and found that it’s not new coinage at all. From what I can gather, that neologism and it variants “coopertition” or “co-opertition” have actually been recoined several times since 1913 to yield the sense of “cooperative competition.” But it looks like it didn’t get much traction outside business circles, even if it finally made it to the Oxford Dictionary after the 1980s as a mass noun denoting “collaboration between business competitors, in the hope of mutually beneficial results.” Surprisingly, though, my Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary hasn’t officially recognized “coopetation” yet as a legitimate English word. Indeed, despite being recoined in earnest several times, “coopetition” definitely had not captured the public imagination over the years in the same way as, say, Sarah Palin’s misshapen “refudiate.” That shoddy neologism of hers has already been cited 284,000 times in Google since she inadvertently coined it on Twitter sometime in July 2010; in fact, “refudiate” even made it to the New Oxford American Dictionary less than four months later.

So, the question now is: Will Mr. Kahn’s purposively coined “coopetation” do better than its predecessor neologisms and fare as well in usage as “refudiate”? We really can’t tell. But way back in 2006, in an essay about the noun “racket” that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times, I had tossed around some thoughts about word creation and the unilateral changing of word meanings. It floored me then that the noun “racket” was suddenly being used in the positive sense as an “an easy and lucrative—but legitimate—means of livelihood,” in contrast to its widely accepted negative sense as “a fraudulent scheme, enterprise, or activity” or “a usually illegitimate enterprise made workable by bribery or intimidation.” I’m now posting that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum as a cautionary tale against word misuse in general and, well, against coinage of English words without sound semantic underpinnings. (November 27, 2011)

When wordplay goes overboard

Going by its dictionary definition, the noun “racket” means “a fraudulent scheme, enterprise, or activity” or “a usually illegitimate enterprise made workable by bribery or intimidation.” More loosely, it means “an easy and lucrative means of livelihood” and is slang for “occupation or business” (Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary). In whatever sense, though, I have always thought of the word as denoting something socially abhorrent—perhaps even illegal or criminal.

Sometime in September, however, a fellow English-language editor sent me e-mail that disquietingly turned the word “racket” on its head, so to speak. “May bago po akong raket (I have a new racket),” he said, then proceeded to describe the new enterprise he was engaged in. What he really meant was a new “sideline” that was not even remotely illegal or illegitimate, so I found it disturbing that he should use a normally distasteful word for it. Perhaps such loose usage would be acceptable in informal, face-to-face conversations, but it was very unbecoming to be put in writing by someone who should have more respect for language and its nuances.

I had already forgotten that incident but recently, during lunch with a former associate in the English-language editing business, the peculiar usage popped out again when she asked me this question: “Ano ho ba ang raket ninyo ngayon? (What is your racket at present?).” I almost choked on my drink hearing that nasty word again! How could such a serious distortion of meaning gain wide currency in our language? What is it that makes even intelligent, discerning people view illicit, aberrant things as perfectly acceptable?

It didn’t take long for me to find possible answers to these questions. Driving through a main thoroughfare to meet a client sometime later, I came across scores of product streamers that posed the following question (or words to this effect) in big, bold letters: “Ano ba ang raket ninyo ngayong summer? (What’s your racket this summer?).” It appears that the use of “raket” with a positive spin had been legitimized by mass advertising. For shock value and recall, the word had been appropriated to mean “any business” or “gimik” (gimmick)—one that’s easy and pleasurable to do. In the process, of course, the fraudulent and illegitimate aspects of the word had been glossed over (or shall we say even glamorized?)

In this sense, “racket” joins the word “salvage” in having been corrupted in Philippine usage to mean its opposite. The first is from a grim, derogatory word into a respectable, fun word; and the other from a respectable, positive word into an unpleasant, derogatory word. Some of us will probably recall that the verb “salvage” means “to rescue or save [something] especially from wreckage or ruin,” but in the Philippine context, it has become a euphemism for “to kill or assassinate” or “to execute or dispose of a person summarily and secretly.” This usage grew out from a government task force report that inadvertently used the word to describe the extra-legal executions of thousands of Filipinos between 1975 and 1983 during martial law.

(The Filipino writer Jose F. Lacaba, in a note to the Double-Tongued Word Wrester, a website that records old and new words from the fringes of English, makes this observation about this inversion of “salvage”: “It began as an anglicization or Englishing of the Tagalog word ‘salbahe,’ whose meaning ranges from mischievous or abusive (adj.) and a notoriously abusive person (noun). ‘Salbahe,’ in turn, is derived from the Spanish word ‘salvaje,’ wild, undomesticated, savage.”)

It is normal for a society to do all sorts of wordplay, of course, but I think the Philippine use of “racket” and “salvage” to denote their opposite sense has gone dangerously overboard. We must draw the line somewhere to safeguard language and our value systems. As the slogan of my favorite English-language website,, sagely warns, “A society is generally as lax as its language.” (April 24, 2006)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 24, 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Two options when plain indicative sentences are not forceful enough

Most of the day-to-day writing that we do consists of simple, plainspoken indicative sentences that make use of the normal subject-verb-predicate construction pattern, as in “We wrote the refrigerator manufacturer about its poor customer service.” Sometimes, out of impatience or anger, we make such indicative sentences more forceful by ending them with an exclamation mark: “We wrote the refrigerator manufacturer about its poor customer service!” Then, in the event that the veracity of that declaration of ours is challenged or denied, we realize the need for an even more forceful way of presenting our case or making our point. This is when we take recourse to the emphatic tenses, as in “We did write that refrigerator manufacturer about its poor customer service!” or, to give even more emotional force to our statement, perhaps express it in the form of an inverted sentence, as in “The poor customer service of that refrigerator manufacturer is what we complained about!”

In an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2003, I discussed the grammatical structure and workings of the emphatic tenses and inverted sentences. That essay later formed part of the “Usage and Style” prescriptions of my book English Plain and Simple. I am now posting that essay here to show how we can convey our thoughts and ideas more forcefully without taking recourse to more complicated—and more semantically demanding—rhetorical devices. (November 20, 2011)

The emphatic forms and inverted sentences

Every language develops modes not just to share information but to convey thoughts and ideas more forcefully. In English, verbs evolved two special forms—the emphatic tenses—to provide emphasis to the actions they describe. The present emphatic emphasizes actions or conditions happening in the present, and the past emphatic emphasizes those that occurred in the past. More commonly, however, the emphatic forms are used in two types of sentence constructions where emphasis is not intended: to work with the adverb “not” in negative sentences, and to form questions or the interrogative mode, in which the normal sentence construction is inverted. We must understand this distinction clearly to avoid mistakes in using the emphatic tenses.

The present emphatic tense of verbs is formed by putting the present-tense verb “do” or “does” ahead of their basic present form. Here are examples of the present emphatic tense used for emphasis: “I do like apples.” “She does think fast.” “They do act slowly.” The intent is to express the action or state more forcefully. In contrast, here are examples when emphasis is not intended: “The group does not agree.” (forming a negative sentence) “Does the jury have a verdict?” (forming a question).

The past emphatic tense of verbs is formed by putting the past-tense “did” ahead of their basic present form. Examples of the past emphatic tense used for emphasis: “I did write that letter.” “She did come as expected.” “They did pay on schedule.” Examples when emphasis is not intended: “He did not deliver as promised.” “Didn’t you finish the work last night?”

Sentences that use the emphatic tense for emphasis are either affirmative or negative responses to an apparently persistent question, whether stated or only implied. See what happens when this question is asked: “Did you really write that letter?” The emphatic answer would either be “I did write that letter” or “No, I didn’t write that letter.” This is the situational context for using the emphatic forms. It conveys the sense of the speaker either explicitly owning or denying an act, or claiming to be correct in his or her belief regarding the action of others.

Another device for emphasis in the English language, one that is often misunderstood and much maligned, is the inverted sentence. This grammatical form, in which the verb comes ahead the subject, does present agreement problems and possible confusion when used too often. Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Away from light steals home my heavy son /And private in his chamber pens himself...

Note that it is the verb “away” that starts the sentence, with the subject “son” far removed from it. The normal-order sentence would go as follows: “My heavy son steals home away from light...” A heightened emotional state can be felt in the first, a dry forthrightness in the second. That difference comes from the change in the form, order, and rhythm of the language itself.

It is, of course, not only in poetry where inverted sentences find excellent use. They can give prose much-welcome variety and punch when used judiciously in a sea of normal-order sentences. Feel the emotional difference between the following normal-order sentences and their corresponding inverted sentences: (1) “Her behavior could be explained in no other way.” “In no other way could her behavior be explained.” (2) “I saw only then the possibilities of the new business.” “Only then did I see the possibilities of the new business.” (3) “She didn’t realize that he had deceived her till she got the letter from a total stranger.” “Not until she got the letter from a total stranger did she realize that he had deceived her.”

When using inverted sentences, however, we must make an extra effort to double-check agreement of the verb with the subject. This subject always follows the number of the verb and not of the nouns or pronouns that come before it: “In the grassy plains lives the last antelope.” It would seem that the singular verb “lives” should be the plural “live” instead to agree with “grassy plains,” but this proves to be not the case; the true subject is not “the grassy plains” but the singular “the last antelope.” See also what happens if the sentence were written another way: “In the grassy plain live the last antelopes.” In this case, the subject “the last antelopes” is plural, so the verb must also take the plural form “live” to agree with it.

Take note, too, that sentences beginning with “there” or “here” are actually in the inverted form: “There is a can of corned beef in the cupboard.” “Here comes the parade.” “There” and “here” are, of course, not the subjects. It is “corned beef” in the first, and “parade” in the second. The two sentences are actually emphatic forms of the normal-order “A can of corned beef is in the cupboard” and “The parade comes.”
From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn the Global Language by Jose A. Carillo © 2004 by the author © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 14, 2011

How the appositive can give life and texture to writing

In a recent posting, a member of Jose Carillo's English Forum asked if there should be a limit to the length of appositives. She posed the question regarding the sentence below, the lead of a recent sports news story, that has an extremely long and structurally convoluted appositive phrase (italics hers):

“Joe Frazier, the son of a South Carolina sharecropper who punched meat in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse before Rocky, won Olympic gold, and beat an undefeated Muhammad Ali to become one of the all-time heavyweight greats, died on Monday, his family said in a statement.

In my reply, I explained that that for clarity’s sake, there should indeed be a limit to the length and grammatical complexity of appositives. Going over that explanation of mine afterwards, however, I realized that I dwelt on appositives without first defining what they are and what their grammatical function is to begin with. I also checked my previous Forum postings over the past two years and discovered that I had hardly touched on appositives in a substantial way; also, in my recollection, hardly anybody had asked a question about them in the Forum during all that time.

Considering the importance of appositives to good writing, this is a major oversight that I now would like to correct. I am therefore posting in this week’s edition of the Forum an essay that I wrote about the subject for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2003. That essay, “Using appositives for texture and depth,” later formed part of Part II – “English Grammar Revisited” of my book English Plain and Simple. I’m sure that the discussions in that essay will adequately explain and clarify the role of appositives for everyone. (November 13, 2011)  

Using appositives for texture and depth

The problem with most bad writing is that it is often so general and lacking in texture and depth. The people, places, or things used as subjects seem to exist only in two-dimensional space, as in a crude cartoon movie, and the actions described all seem to crowd themselves in just a single timeframe. Hardly are there any telling details to give meat and substance to the bare-boned prose, making the writing invariably dry, bland, uninviting—and unreadable.

An efficient way of giving life and vitality to writing is to use appositives and appositive phrases. An appositive is simply a noun or pronoun that often comes directly after another word in a sentence, putting that word in better context by explaining it or by giving more information about it. An appositive phrase, on the other hand, consists of an appositive and all its modifiers, which maybe single words, phrases, or clauses. Both are powerful tools that allow the writer to identify or explain the nouns or pronouns he uses without having to come up with a new sentence or string of sentences to give the added information. This makes the buildup of ideas smoother, and frees the writing from digressions or asides that can impede its natural flow.

Here are some examples of sentences using appositives, which are indicated in italics: “My office assistant Joanna took the day off yesterday.” “Her husband, the jealous type, took her on an extended out-of-town trip.” “They rode on my friend’s car, a battered 1995 sedan, to a hillside farm in Batangas.” “The popular duo Batman and Robin were my favorite cartoon characters during my teens.” “The two provincial girls, adventurers with only a few hundred pesos between them, took the bus to Manila last night.” “Eduardo, the computer enthusiast and high school junior, helped fix the laptop of his teacher, Mrs. Alicia Santos.” “A positively enchanting singer, Elvira had many admirers at the club where she works.” Note that appositives may also come before the noun or pronoun they refer to; what is important is not to detach and set them apart from the noun or pronoun they modify.

An appositive phrase, of course, is simply an appositive joined by whatever modifiers come with it, as in this example: “Mayon Volcano, a major Philippine tourist attraction because of its majestic near-perfect cone, is found in Albay, a southeastern province in Luzon about 500 kilometers from Manila by land transport.” The first appositive in the sentence is the noun “attraction,” which is modified by the phrases “a major Philippine tourist” and “because of its majestic near-perfect cone.” The second appositive is the word “province,” modified by the phrases “southeastern,” “in Luzon,” and “about 500 kilometers from Manila by land transport.” Appositive phrases, by supplying much more information about the nouns or pronouns they modify, are even more effective than simple appositives in giving texture and depth to writing.

From the examples given above, it should be clear by now that an appositive or appositive phrase may either be essential or nonessential to a sentence. An essential or restrictive appositive narrows the meaning of the word it modifies and is necessary to maintain the meaning of the sentence. It is usually a single word or a set of words closely related to the preceding word, and does not require commas to set it off from the rest of the sentence. See the following examples: “The American actress Meryl Streep has been hailed for her consistently fine acting in a string of memorable films.” (Without “Meryl Streep” as appositive, we will never know the identity of the actress being talked about.) “The extremely popular Philippine president Ramon Magsaysay died in a tragic plane crash in the early 50s.” (Without “Ramon Magsaysay” as appositive, we may never know—unless we do some hard research—who that president was.)

A nonessential or nonrestrictive appositive, on the other hand, is not absolutely necessary to the meaning of a sentence; it may be omitted without altering the basic meaning. (It must be set off from the rest of the sentence by one or two commas, depending on its position in the sentence). Examples: “Alicia’s sister, a Philippine-born doctor, works as a senior anesthesiologist in a large hospital in the U.S. Midwest.” “The ‘Santacruzan,’ a colorful religious festival, is regularly held in many Philippine towns during the month of May.” (We still would know who the doctor is and what the event is even without the appositives “a Philippine doctor” and “a colorful religious festival.”)

Non-essential appositive phrases have the same optional role in sentences, as in this example: “December, usually the coldest month in tropical Philippines, is becoming more popular than June as the wedding month of choice.” We can take out the appositive “usually the coldest month in tropical Philippines” and still get a clear idea of what month it is that more and more Filipinos now prefer to get married.
From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn the Global Language by Jose A. Carillo © 2004 by the author © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The six ways that English reckons with the future

Many of us might find it strange that despite the overwhelming richness and diversity of English as a language, its verbs can’t inflect or change in form for the future tense. By some quirk in the development of the English grammar structures, its verbs can inflect only for the past, present, and perfect tenses. To compensate for this grammatical handicap, however, English came up with no less than six ways of reckoning with the future. These six forms evoke the future by appending to the main verb particular combinations of auxiliary verbs in different tenses, and the choice among these future-tense forms primarily depends on which part of the future is important to us or to those telling us about it. This obviously makes it manyfold more complicated for learners to master the English future tense.

To clarify the differences between these six future-tense forms, I wrote an essay on the subject for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2004. That essay subsequently became the introduction to Section 7 – “Mastering the English Tenses” of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, which devotes nine chapters to an intensive discussion of the various future-tense forms and the adverbs of time. I am now posting that essay here for the benefit of Forum members and guests who’d like to make themselves much more precise and expressive in evoking the future in their written and spoken English. (November 5, 2011)

Though very rich and diverse, English can’t inflect for the future tense

Despite the overwhelming richness of the English language, its verbs have the handicap of not being able to morph by themselves into the future tense. As we all know, they inflect only for the past, present, and perfect tenses. For instance, “give” turns to “gave” in the past tense, “gives” in the present tense, and “given” in the perfect tense; in most cases, in fact, English verbs inflect themselves for the perfect tense in the same way as they do for the past tense, as in “wanted” for both the past and perfect tenses of “want.” Yet when they turn to the future, all of the English verbs can’t do anything to themselves; they simply don’t have the ability to inflect for it.

English verbs never got to internally work out an inflection for the future tense, unlike, say, Tagalog with its future-tense “pupunta” (“will go”) for the infinitive “pagpunta” (“to go”). It’s as if the Angles (the ancient forebears of the English people), too preoccupied perhaps with settling in what is now England after crossing the channel from the European mainland, never found the need or the time to work out the future tense into their verbs.

To compensate for this structural oversight in its verb-building efforts, however, the English language came up with no less than six ways of reckoning with the future. The first two, of course, we already know by heart. They are the simple future tense, which puts the auxiliary verb “will” ahead of the verb stem, as in “will give,” and the future perfect tense, which uses the so-called temporal indicators to situate actions and events in various times in the future, as in the use of the future perfect “will have given” in the following sentence: “By this time tomorrow, she will have given me her answer to my marriage proposal.” In both cases, instead of inflecting itself, the verb “give” took the expedient of harnessing one and two auxiliary verbs, respectively, to make its two visions of the future work.

English then dealt with the future tense even more purposively by coming up with four more grammatical stratagems to express it, in the process making its future tense more complicated than that of some other languages with elaborate future-tense inflections built into their verbs. These future-tense forms and the grammatical structures English developed for them are as follows: the arranged future, also known as the present continuous; the predicted future; the timetable future, also known as the present simple; and the described futures, also known as the future continuous.

All of these forms evoke the future by appending to the main verb particular combinations of auxiliary verbs in different tenses. The choice among these forms depends on which part of the future is important to us or to those telling us about it, and their semantic value lies in the fact that they enable us to make fine distinctions as to whether what will happen is a regular event; as to whether something is unavoidable or prearranged or something we or other people want or wish to happen; as to how long the wait will be until something happens; and as to the degree of certainty that something will happen.

We all know that the future is extremely flexible; in contrast, there’s really nothing we can do to change the past and there’s not really much we can do to alter the evolving present. Unless we are a dyed-in-the-wool believers in determinism and predetermination—both aver that all acts of will or natural occurrences are causally predetermined by preceding events, natural laws, or the divine—we will find many occasions to use the arranged future in our spoken or written prose. The uniquely human ability to plan and shape future events comes into play here.

The arranged future or present continuous means that we have decided what to do but have not yet executed that decision: “We are doing overtime work this coming weekend; client wants the marketing plan first thing on Monday.” “The charming rogue begged on bended knees so I’m pardoning him next month for that act of humility.” “She is leaving with me for my scheduled sabbatical in Rome; all the bookings have already been arranged.”

Note that the arranged future uses the present-tense form of the auxiliary “to be” in tandem with the present participle (“-ing” form) of the verb: “are doing,” “am pardoning,” and “is leaving.” This is the so-called continuous future, which indicates that the future action started when the decision was made and will continue until the moment that the action is finished. To make sure that it doesn’t wrongly convey the idea that the future is happening right now, the arranged future must often use clear temporal indicators, like “this coming weekend,” “next month,” and “my scheduled sabbatical in Rome” in the sentences given as examples in the preceding paragraph.
From the book Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by the author, © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Common pitfalls when a pronoun and noun form a compound subject

We will recall that a basic rule in English grammar is that for a combination of a noun or pronoun to properly perform the action of a verb, or for them to jointly act as the compound subject of a sentence, they should both be in the same case, whether subjective or nominative, objective, or possessive. In short, we shouldn’t mix nouns and pronouns in different cases when we want them do a particular grammar function. In practice, however, this is easier said than done. A lot of inadvertent case mixing happens in both spoken and written English due to a lack of familiarity with both pronoun usage and case usage.*

In the essay below that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in October 2007, I explain the proper way to form compound subjects with nouns and pronouns, with particular emphasis on tricky situations—a few of them actually debatable—that often trip even professional writers. Keeping the prescriptions of this essay in mind should give you much greater confidence in handling those tricky situations. (October 30, 2011)

The proper way to form compound subjects with nouns and pronouns

A very common pronoun misuse problem occurs when a personal pronoun is joined with a noun or another pronoun by the conjunction “and” or “or” to form a compound subject. Many people, particularly in colloquial speech, tend to use the objective form of the personal pronoun in such constructions: “The president and him are now politically estranged.” “Both the competition and us will suffer because of this trade mess.” “Alicia and me have been close friends since kindergarten.” “You or me need to stay behind.”

No matter how correct-sounding they may seem, such constructions are grammatically incorrect and are likely to incur disapproval from English teachers and discerning employers. The grammar rule to remember here is to always use the subjective or nominative form of the personal pronoun: “The president and he are now politically estranged.” “Both the competition and we will suffer because of this trade mess.” “Alicia and I have been close friends since kindergarten.” “You or I need to stay behind.”

When the personal pronoun is the last element in the compound subject, people will have a stronger tendency to wrongly use its objective form. This is because the construction obscures the grammatical error and makes it sound aboveboard, as in this example given earlier: “The president and him are now politically estranged.” A good preemptive stylistic habit is to make the personal pronoun the first element instead: “He and the president are now politically estranged.” “Both we and the competition will suffer because of this trade mess.” This way, it becomes unmistakably clear that the personal pronoun should be in the subjective form.

In the spirit of modesty, however, we should always make the personal pronoun “I” an exception to this prescription. As we learned early in English grammar, it is good form to make “I” always the last element of the compound subject: “Alicia and I have been close friends since kindergarten.” “You or I need to stay behind.” (It sounds self-serving to use “I” ahead: “I and Alicia have been close friends since kindergarten.” “I or you need to stay behind.”

We’ll look into just three more contentious case usage problems before we close:

(1) Many people will catch themselves saying “This is just between you and I,” “According to you and they, the money was lost in transit,” and “Hardworking people like you and I need a break sometimes.” Some will invoke that even Shakespeare also had done so during his time, but the fact is that a grammar rule outlawing such usage became the English standard in the 1860s onwards. In your formal writing, therefore, you’ll always be grammatically in the right by using the objective form of the personal pronoun instead: “This is just between you and me.” “According to you and them, the money was lost in transit,” and “Hardworking people like you and me need a break sometimes.”

(2) You still can get into a heated grammar debate on whether to say “No one but I saw that controversial movie” or “No one but me saw that controversial movie,” or to say “No one except I came for the meeting” or “No one except me came for the meeting.” But in such constructions, good grammar will be on your side when you use the objective form of the personal pronoun: “No one but me saw that controversial movie.” “No one except me came for the meeting.”

(3) When using personal pronouns after forms of the verb “be,” do we say “That must be her on the escalator” (objective “her”) or “That must be she on the escalator” (nominative “she”)? Using the objective case may sound more natural than the nominative case, but you’re well advised to limit it to conversational use. Although the nominative case may sound pedantic, it is the grammatically acceptable choice in formal writing: “That must be she on the escalator.” (October 20, 2007)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 20, 2007 © 2007 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
*When combining pronouns with nouns, it’s very important to remember that it’s not only pronouns that have case. As we learn early in English grammar, pronouns in general inflect or change form in the nominative or subjective case, objective case, and possessive. Nouns also have case like pronouns, but the big difference between them is that nouns remain in the same form—they don’t  inflect at all—in the subjective, nominative, and objective cases. Only in the possessive case do nouns inflect by adding the apostrophe-s at their tail ends; for example, “That laptop is Alicia’s.”

So, when forming a compound subject with a noun and pronoun, keep in mind that they should both be in the same case, except that the noun doesn’t inflect at all and remains as is except in the possessive form. When compounding a pronoun and another pronoun, of course, we must make sure that both are in the same case, based on their correct inflected forms for that case.

For a comprehensive review of case usage and the English Pronoun Chart, click this link to “Lesson #3 – The Matter of Case in English” in the Forum.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A good measure of spoken English is saying one’s tag questions correctly

Some people become very proficient in their written English, even to the point of winning major literary or journalistic awards for their well-crafted competition pieces. But such proficiency in writing unfortunately doesn’t always translate into a corresponding proficiency in spoken English. Not infrequently, in fact, we see and hear highly accomplished writers fumbling with their English or even totally at a loss for words when they socialize with strangers or when they need to formally address an audience of more than just a few people. Clearly, so many factors other than just excellent grammar and wide vocabulary are at work to cause such disparity in the quality of one’s written and spoken English,  but from a practical standpoint, I think one very crucial ingredient of excellent spoken English is mastery of saying the tag questions right.

In the two-part essay below that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2004, I show how the purposive use of grammatically correct tag questions can make people better and more effective conversationalists, able to confidently and gracefully connect with other people and seamlessly elicit desired responses from them. Internalizing the various kinds of tag questions will take some doing, of course, but by memorizing the rules for making them and by assiduously practicing their use, it shouldn’t take very long for one to become a much better if not a sparkling English speaker. (October 24, 2011) 

Saying our tag questions right

Part 1:

A good indicator of one’s English proficiency is the ability to use tag questions properly. But wait—we all know what “tag questions” are, don’t we all? Well, if some of us don’t or have already forgotten, the mini-question “don’t we all?” in the preceding sentence is what’s called a “tag question.” Some grammarians prefer to call it a “question tag,” and the whole statement inclusive of that mini-question the “tag question.”

For our purposes, however, we will refer to the mini-question as the tag question itself, or “tag” for short; we will not quibble over the terminology. The important thing is for us to fully appreciate and understand how native English speakers purposively use tag questions to get a quick confirmation or reaction from their listeners. With that, we should be able to form English tag questions ourselves with greater confidence, using them flawlessly to emphasize our thoughts and ideas and to elicit the desired response from our listeners.

Most of us will probably recall that tag questions generally follow a definite pattern: a positive statement is followed by a negative tag question, and a negative statement is followed by a positive tag question. Since tags are meant to be spoken, of course, it’s normal to use contractions of the negative forms of verbs either in the tag question or in the main statement itself.

Here’s a quick drill to jog our rusty memories about the grammar of tags. From the positive standpoint: “She is, isn’t she?” “They do, don’t they?” “We can, can’t we?” “You are Filipino, aren’t you?” And from the negative standpoint: “She doesn’t, does she?” “They don’t, do they?” “We can’t, can we?” “You aren’t Filipino, are you?

We can see that the tag questions above are all of opposite polarity to that of the main statement. Also, we must keep in mind that without exception, the verb in a tag question always has the same tense as the verb in the main statement. (In speech, we must note here, there should always be a brief pause between the main statement and the tag question; in writing, this brief pause must always be indicated by a comma between the main statement and the tag question.)

Some of us will probably also recall that there are actually three ways of forming tag questions depending on the kind of verb used in the main statement.

First, if that verb is a form of the auxiliary verb “be,” the same form of that verb must be used in the tag question: “He is from Manila, isn’t he?” “We aren’t that bad, are we?” “They were of foreign origin, weren’t they?

Second, if a main statement uses a modal such as “can,” “could,” or “should,” the same modal must be used in tag question: “She can dance, can’t she?” “They couldn’t do that, could they?” “We shouldn’t interfere in their affairs, should we?

And third, if the main statement uses an active verb (instead of only an auxiliary verb), the appropriate form of the auxiliary verb “do” takes the place of that active verb in the tag question: “She loves you, doesn’t she?” “You take me for granted, don’t you?” “They played the part, didn’t they?” 

We will recall, too, that when a main statement has a proper name as subject, the tag question must use its pronoun instead: “Jennifer is doing well in Singapore, isn’t she?” “Manila isn’t the tourist capital in Asia these days, is it?” “Some Australians eat kangaroo meat, don’t they?” “Nestle is the biggest food company in the world, isn’t it?”

We must be aware, however, that some special cases of English-language tag questions don’t strictly follow the norms that we have just discussed. Here are two such tags that seemingly look and sound askew: “Let’s go out, shall we?” “Let’s not go out, shall we?

Are those tags proper or not? Yes, they are. Even if those tags often raise the hackles of grammar purists, native English speakers accept and use both of them. The strictly grammatical to say “Let’s go out, shall we?” is, of course, “We’ll go out, shan’t we?”, but it sounds stiff and unnatural. Here are two natural-sounding alternatives that should sit in well among Filipinos: “Let’s go out, all right?” “Let’s go out, okay?

Another notable special case involving tags is the whole range of statements that use “nothing,” “nobody,” and “no one” as their subject. In such cases, the statements should be considered of negative polarity, and their tag questions should be given a positive polarity: “Nothing came in the mail, was there?” “Nobody bothered you last night, was there?” “No one wants this, is there?

We will take up other special cases and other fine aspects of tag questions in the next essay. (May 24, 2004)

Part 2:

We will continue our discussion of some notable departures from the usual positive-negative and negative-positive rule for forming tags, or those mini-questions purposively added by speakers at the end of their statements to get a quick confirmation or denial from their listeners. That general rule, we recalled, is that a positive statement should be followed by a negative tag, and a negative statement should be followed by a positive tag: “She’s winning, isn’t she?” “They’re not conceding, are they?” “We’ll not get into trouble for this, would we?”

Now, here are a few more tags that don’t scrupulously follow that polarity rule: “I’m correct, aren’t I?” (Not “I’m correct, amn’t I?” The awkward tag “amn’t I” is “am I not?” in contracted form, which is unacceptable grammar). “She’d better take it, hadn’t she?” (Not “She’d better take it, wouldn’t she?” The tag “hadn’t she?” is actually “had she better not?” in contracted form. That tag is the logical polar negative of the full statement “She had better take it,” where the operative verb form is “had better,” not “take.”). “This will do, won’t it?” (Not “This will do, willen’t it?”—which uses a tag that doesn’t exist in English. Conversely, the reverse-polarity statement will be “This won’t do, will it?”) 

Another exception about tags that bewilders many nonnative English speakers is this: the opposite polarity rule can actually be pointedly ignored when people want to strongly express sarcasm, disbelief, surprise, concern, shock, or anger. Take the following examples: “You think you’re indispensable, do you?” “Oh, you will really do that, will you?” “Oh, she really left him, did she?” “So you’re finally getting married, are you? That’s great!” (Or the contrary sentiment: “So she’s finally getting married, is she? The nerve!”) “And you think that’s amusing, do you?

And then, as a mark of politeness, positive tags can also be routinely attached to positive requests: “Come here, will you?” “Do that, will you?” “Please hand me that screw driver, will you?

When people use negative statements with negative tag questions, on the other hand, it is not necessarily bad grammar but a sure sign of the breakdown of civility or of downright hostility and combativeness: “So you don’t love me at all, don’t you?” “You really didn’t like the idea, didn’t you?” “So you don’t think my school is good enough, don’t you?” “So you didn’t want peace after all, didn’t you?” The negative tags emphasize the negativeness of the main statement to deliberately rile people or to make them feel guilty. They give vent to feelings of meanness.

Now, from experience, we all know that using negative statements with positive tag questions in the standard manner is the polite, socially acceptable way of asking for information or help. Such statements are particularly useful if we don’t know the people being addressed.

It is rude, for instance, to simply approach or accost on the mall someone we don’t know and ask, pointblank, “Where’s the women’s room?” The civilized way, of course, is to restate that question to the needed degree of politeness, depending on who is being addressed.

Here’s that same question said a little bit more politely, addressed to people of about the same age or social station as the speaker: “Do you know where the women’s room is?” (A tag question is not used in such cases.)

Now here it is in a polite, nonaggressive form, this time addressed to people older or of a higher social station than us: “You wouldn’t know where the women’s room is, would you?” (This time, the question form “Do you know...?” and the tag question that follows make the statement sufficiently deferential.)

Here are a few more patterns of negative statements with positive tag questions, the use of which should make us more pleasant, convivial people to deal with: “You don’t know of any job openings in your company at this time, do you?” “You don’t happen to know where the stock exchange building is, do you?” “You wouldn’t be willing to lose all that money in gambling, would you?” “You haven’t got anything to do with what happened, do you?” “You can’t spare me a thousand for my son’s tuition, can you?” “You can’t believe it that the woman’s leading the race, can you?

The beauty of negative statements with positive tag questions is that they subtly prime up the listener’s mind either to accept the given idea or to decline it quickly and gracefully; in fact, refusing to answer the positive tag questions at all actually will make the person being addressed look rude and impolite. In this classic communication gambit of appealing to the other’s goodness of heart and of cushioning a possible blow to one’s self-esteem before that blow is even inflicted, nobody should lose face whatever the answer might be. (May 31, 2004)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 24 and 31, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Choosing between “like” and “such as” when comparing or giving examples

Some grammar elements with similar or overlapping functions just seem to remain slippery no matter how hard we try to get a good grip of them. This is obviously the case with “like” and “such as.” Although we learn early enough that “like” is for saying that something resembles something else, and that “such as” is for giving a specific example of something, the distinction between them often gets so thin and fuzzy in actual usage that we tend to mistake one for the other.

To clarify the usage of “such as” and “like,” I wrote the essay below for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in September of 2005. I am now posting it here to give English learners a much better handle in dealing with this nasty pair of grammar trippers. (October 16, 2011)

Two slippery grammar trippers in English

Surely one of the most slippery grammar trippers we’ll encounter in English is choosing between “like” and “such as” to form comparative statements or give examples. Which of them, for instance, is correctly used in the following two sentences?

(1) “Exemption from flight pre-boarding procedures like a thorough body search is usually granted to diplomats.”

(2) “Exemption from flight pre-boarding procedures such as a thorough body search is usually granted to diplomats.”

If you still haven’t figured out the correct usage, you may take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone in the predicament. The use of “like” and “such as” is actually considered correct in both sentences, but the choice between them has remained debatable all these years. We therefore need to carefully study both sides of the debate so we can put ourselves on more solid semantic footing regarding the usage.

Some grammarians insist that “such as,” which means “for example,” is the only correct usage in such constructions: “Exemption from flight pre-boarding procedures such as a thorough body search is usually granted to diplomats.” They maintain that “like” should never be used as a substitute for “such as,” arguing that “like” doesn’t convey the idea of giving an example at all. Instead, they say, “like” in this usage can only imply similarity, resemblance, or comparison, as in “Her pillow lips look like Angelina Jolie’s.”

Other grammarians are not as restrictive in their prescription for using “like” and “such as,” but they do recommend the following more precise usage for them:

(1) Use “such as” to introduce one or more examples that represent a larger subject, as in “Eduardo has a collection of vintage cars such as the 1955 BMW 507 and the 1915 Vauxhall”; and

(2) Use “like” to convey the idea that two subjects are comparable, as in “Alberto wants to be a vintage car collector like Ramon.”

Take note, though, that those same grammarians consider “like” to be a close semantic equivalent of “such as.” They are therefore not averse to substituting “like” for “such as” in the sentence given in Item 1: “Eduardo has a collection of vintage cars like the 1955 BMW 507 and the 1915 Vauxhall.”

On the other hand, they would find it unthinkable for anyone to substitute “such as” for “like” in the sentence given in Item 2 above. To them, the resulting sentence is unacceptable because it isn’t natural sounding or idiomatic: “Eduardo wants to be a vintage car collector such as Ramon.”

At any rate, “like” in modern spoken English has practically taken over the role of “such as” in comparative statements. The forms “such as” and “” are now largely confined to formal writing. “Like,” in contrast, is now the preferred form for informal usage in which the example being given is offered not simply as an example but as the topic of the sentence itself, as in this case: "We are delighted to have a generous benefactor like Bill Gates." Using “such as” instead of “like” in such sentences must be firmly avoided, for it gives the sentence a false ring: “We are delighted to have a generous benefactor such as Bill Gates.”

In formal writing, we are well advised to distinguish carefully between “like” comparisons and “such as” comparisons. In a “like” comparison, only one person or object from the class is usually named, and that person or object is understood to be excluded from the group being discussed.

Take this example: “If you are a student taught by a brilliant mathematics teacher like Prof. Alberto Reyes, you would learn differential calculus in no time at all.” This comparison is about the possibility of students being taught by mathematics teachers whose brilliance is comparable to Prof. Alberto Reyes’s, with Prof. Reyes himself specifically excluded from the comparison.

On the other hand, in a “such as” or “” comparison, one or several persons or objects can be named in the comparison, and all of those persons or objects are understood to be included in the group being discussed.

Take these two sentences:

“With highly capable mathematics professors such as Prof. Alberto Reyes and Prof. Eduardo Cariño handling the differential calculus classes, we can expect a much higher percentage of passing among the students.”

“With such highly capable mathematics professors as Prof. Alberto Reyes and Prof. Eduardo Cariño handling the differential calculus classes, we can expect a much high percentage of passing among the students.”

In both sentences, the comparison this time is about brilliant mathematics teachers as a class whose members include both Prof. Reyes and Prof. Cariño.

Now that we know how to clearly distinguish the semantic difference between “like” and “such as,” we should be able to use them from now on without fear of tripping in our grammar. (September 26, 2005)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, September 26, 2005 © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.