Sunday, March 27, 2011

It’s time to equip yourself better in handling the relative pronouns

If you sometimes get mixed up when using the relative pronouns, you are definitely not alone in that predicament. I used to have the same problem myself, and over the past nine years or so, I would often hear from readers of my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times about their discomfort when having to use relative pronouns. And as I was to find out later as a magazine copyeditor, the misuse of relative pronouns was also endemic even among professional feature writers. From this experience, I found it difficult not to conclude that relative pronoun usage is an aspect of English grammar that wasn’t—and perhaps still isn’t—being taught and learned adequately in our school system.    

It was for this reason that I wrote a three-part essay, “Getting to know the relative clauses better,” for  my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2008. I’m sure that this extended discussion of the subject will make Forum members better equipped in handling relative pronouns and complex sentences, so I am running it here in my blogspot in three installments starting this week. (March 26, 2011)     

Getting to know the relative clauses better - I

One of the most common mistakes I encounter in my work as copyeditor and grammar consultant is the misuse of the relative pronouns. Not a few of the manuscripts I edit often embarrassingly fumble or stumble when using “who,” “which,” or “that” to relate a qualifying clause to an antecedent noun in the sentence. And I must admit that early in my writing career, I used to get pretty mixed up with the relative pronouns myself. Simply on gut feel, I would indiscriminately use “which” and “that” to announce my relative clauses, so I can imagine that my grammar then was probably correct no more than 50 percent of the time.

I can see now that I got into this predicament largely because in my youth, I read a lot of novels by British authors. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy them or profit from them in terms of getting a better grasp of the English language, but as I was to find out to my consternation many years later, British English uses “which” and “that” in practically the opposite way American English does.

So, I think it’s high time we did a full-dress review once more of the relative pronouns. We’ll do it specifically in the American English standard, which is the standard we are using in the Philippines.

The relative pronouns are, of course, “who,” “which,” “that,” “whom,” “whoever,” “whomever,” “whatever,” and “whichever.” Each of them serves to relate a dependent or subordinate clause to an antecedent noun in a sentence, which can either be the subject or object of that dependent clause. And taken together, the relative pronoun and the dependent clause it introduces constitute what is called a relative clause.

Let’s examine this sentence that has a relative clause attached to it: “People who complain loudest about a problem often don’t do anything to solve it.” Here, the relative clause is “who complain loudest about a problem” and “who” is the relative pronoun that relates it to the antecedent noun “people,” which is the subject of the sentence. What the relative clause does here is to specify the particular people being written about; functionally, it provides additional information about the antecedent noun so the reader can understand the context of the statement better.

Now, in English, the choice of relative pronoun depends on two things: (1) whether the additional information being given is essential or not essential to the understanding of the idea or context of the main clause; and (2) whether the antecedent noun is a person or an animal or inanimate object. Either way, however, the relative pronoun can function as a subject or an object or can take its possessive form.

At any rate, a relative clause that provides essential information to the main clause is what is known as a defining or restrictive relative clause, as in the example we looked at earlier: “People who complain loudest about a problem often don’t do anything to solve it.” Here, the relative clause “who complain loudest about a problem” can’t be taken out from the sentence, for to do so will seriously change the meaning of what’s being said. Indeed, if we drop that relative clause, we would end up with “People don’t do anything to solve [a problem]”—a sentence that unreasonably and illogically generalizes on human behavior.

On the other hand, when the information in the relative clause is not essential to the idea or context of the main clause, we have what is called a nondefining or nonrestrictive relative clause. In such cases, a comma is normally needed to separate the relative clause from the main clause, as in this sentence: “The company decided to fire its legal counsel, who bungled the court filings in a crucial corporate dispute.” Here, the main clause can stand even without the relative clause.

We’ll continue this discussion in next week’s edition of the Forum. (September 20, 2008)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, September 20, 2008 © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Today, there’s no reason anymore for us to aspire for English slang

In our youth, as nonnative English speakers still grappling with the language, not a few of us surely had envied friends and acquaintances who spoke English slang. Even if hardly understandable, their glib and seemingly worldly-wise English could not but wow us! Indeed, it was difficult not to think that deep English slang was the epitome of proficiency and mark of excellence in speaking English. This thought obviously heightened our feeling of inadequacy in speaking English, prompting some of us to cultivate and affect English slang ourselves, often with socially ludicrous results.

That, of course, was at a time when speaking English slang was still perceived by many as a mark of sophistication rather than an undesirable vestige of regional English that’s mighty hard to shed off.  Today, however, straight English without heavy accent has become the global norm; as proof, we need only look and listen to the choices of CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeira for their multinational English-speaking news anchors and reporters. Definitely, with English now unquestionably the global language, slang is no longer in vogue as the English pronunciation of choice for both native and nonnative English speakers. As I explain in “Don’t worry about English slang,” an essay I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2008, there’s absolutely no more reason in the world for us to aspire for English slang. (March 19, 2011)       
Don’t worry about English slang

A reader of my English-usage column in The Manila Times, Raul Galleros, has posed this very interesting question about English slang:

“What is the best way to understand deep English slang? I have difficulty understanding its pronunciation. When I am watching a movie or a talk show on television, I find it hard to understand the dialogue of people talking in very deep English slang. I make an effort to watch a lot of English movies and TV shows to develop my comprehension, but it seems I am not making any progress. In contrast, when I hear Filipinos speaking in English in a movie or on TV, I can easily understand and absorb their language.”

Here’s my open reply to Raul:

Unless you are a serious student of English linguistics, don’t worry too much about not understanding the deep English slang you hear around you. It doesn’t mean that your English or your listening comprehension is deficient. It simply means that the English you are hearing is not meant to be understood by you, and that you really don’t belong to the group or community that uses it. Slang is a special-purpose coded language that’s meant to exclude you and other people from the coterie of friends, contacts, or initiates that uses it.

And there’s absolutely no need for you to actively learn any form of deep English slang. You’ll acquire it simply by the company you keep or by sustained exposure to it. The more prevalent a particular slang—whether it’s gay-speak, drug-speak, gangsta rap, Ebonics or Black English, Cockney, Singlish, Chinglish, or our very own Taglish—the more it will insinuate itself into the language through the movies and the mass media, particularly TV and radio. But if you are befuddled by any of them, don’t ever feel that your English is inferior or inadequate. The problem is not with you; the problem is with the scriptwriters, the talk-show hosts or guests, or the video or radio jockeys. They are forgetting one cardinal rule of communication: to use language understandable to the great majority of their mass audiences. By using deep English slang, they are failing to get their ideas across to you and to others like you.

It’s possible, of course, that you are watching movies and TV shows or listening to radio shows that are not really meant for you. A good number of Hollywood movies that reach us, for instance, are made for predominantly American Black target audiences; this is why those movies often use rather heavy Ebonics in their dialogue. And some TV and radio shows cater to special audiences appreciative of heavy metal or gangsta rap English. So what do you do? Avoid them and choose only those that use the kind of English you are comfortable with.

Naturally, it will be much easier for you to understand and absorb the English of Filipinos appearing in the movies or speaking on TV or radio. This is because the best of them use Standard American English, which is the kind of English that the Philippine educational system is trying its best—but not entirely succeeding—to teach Filipinos to write and speak from grade school onwards. This English is easily understood because it deviates little from the vocabulary, grammar, structure, and semantics of the English that’s formally taught to us—and it’s spoken without the infuriating twang or drawl of some native English speakers or the jaw-dropping peculiarities or flourishes of some nonnative ones.

So, Raul, don’t worry too much about not understanding deep English slang. And don’t even bother learning it unless you are keen on joining an exclusive gang or fraternity that requires members to speak its particular English slang. You can find much better use of your time by continuously improving your Standard American English instead of engaging in linguistic jaywalking, which is what speaking in deep English slang of whatever kind actually amounts to. (March 5, 2008)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 5, 2008 © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Turning verbs into nouns isn’t always bad for English prose

A big turnoff of typical office memos and letters as well as academic papers is the overwhelmingly high incidence of “-ion” words. You know, a simple verb like “assume” is converted to the noun “assumption,” “simplify” into “simplification,” and “authorize” into “authorization.” When used judiciously, these nominalized words, or nominalizations, indeed can reinforce the persuasiveness or authoritativeness of such forms of communication, as in this statement: “Your assumption oversimplifies the problem and needs to be reexamined very well.” Here, note that the noun “assumption,” a nominalized verb, functions as the doer of the action of the verb “oversimplifies” and the verb phrase “need to be examined.” But as we all know, the typical office or government bureaucrat would nominalize practically every verb in that sentence to produce what is known as bureaucratese, like this: “Your assumption is an oversimplification of the problem and requires a very thorough reexamination.” Predictably, such “-ion” words multiply like rabbits in the rest of the exposition, resulting in English so formidably dense that it’s sheer torture to read.

But as I explain in an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2004, “Making nominalization work for our prose,” “-ion” words aren’t always bad for the health of English prose. There are at least five grammatical and semantic situations when using a nominalization—a verb turned into a noun—will be more advisable or prudent than using the verb itself. I have posted that essay here for those who would like to review or discover what those situations are. (March 12, 2011)   

Making nominalization work for our prose

Many of us are familiar with this conventional grammar wisdom: turning verbs into nouns—or what is termed “nominalization” in linguistics—is bad for the health of our prose. The evidence that this is so is, of course, painfully clear. Take this particularly turgid example of bureaucratic writing: “The conclusion of this interim faculty performance evaluation committee is that there has been an inadequate information dissemination effort with respect to the new instruction performance standards as mandated and enforced by the Department of Education effective January 1, 2004.”

The sentence above is obviously not only difficult to understand but also sounds obtusely and irritatingly authoritative. The unfortunate thing, however, is that many academics and bureaucrats think they are doing a great job by making such convoluted semantic constructions. Few of them ever realize that for every verb that they assiduously convert to a noun-form in their vaunted circulars and directives, they are erecting just one more formidable barrier to good communication with their constituencies.

Let’s check precisely what have been “nominalized” in the offending sentence above. The following verbs, we can readily see, were converted to nouns: “conclude” to “conclusion” and “disseminate” to “dissemination.” And this nominalization binge gave rise to two inevitable things: (1) a passive sentence in which nobody or nothing seems to be doing anything, and (2) long noun-strings whose constituent nouns already cross-modify themselves into near incomprehension even before the adjective can do its own modifying job, like “interim faculty performance evaluation committee,” “inadequate information dissemination effort,” and “new instruction performance standards.” The horrible “-ion” words simply multiplied like rabbits.

Is there a way out of this semantic rigmarole? A good way to begin is, of course, to restore the nominalizations into their active verb-forms and to clearly establish who or what the doers of the action are in the passive sentence. Try this one for size and clarity: “This interim committee has ascertained that the new standards for measuring the teaching performance of faculty members have not been properly disseminated. Faculty members have not clearly understood the new instruction standards put in force by the Department of Education last January 1, 2004.”

Having made this indictment this against nominalizations, however, we must not think that they have no value whatsoever in exposition. They can actually prove useful in at least five semantic situations. Here are those situations:

Nominalization to make abstract things more concrete and credible. As we have already seen above, this is actually what many academics and bureaucrats do to their prose—but to great excess. If done sparingly and with restraint, however, this form of nominalization can actually make abstract statements more convincing. Without nominalization: “The woman couldn’t believe that her son’s decision was a wise one.” More convincing with “wise” nominalized to “wisdom”: “The woman couldn’t believe the wisdom of her son’s decision.”

Nominalization as a transitional device. By serving as a subject referring to an idea in a previous sentence, a nominalization can provide smooth transition: “The election losers finally accepted defeat after a perfunctory protest filingThis acceptance paved the way for better governance in a country notorious for unceasing politics.” Here, the noun-form “this acceptance” in the second sentence nominalizes the verb-phrase “accepted defeat after...” of the first sentence, thus effortlessly leading the reader to the next idea.

Nominalization to attenuate extremely harsh or forceful statements. In making extremely sensitive statements, it is often prudent to use a nominalization instead of its more direct and vigorous verb form. Too pointed and insensitive: “The prison officials will electrocute the convict tomorrow at exactly 9:00 a.m.” A more prudent statement with “electrocute” nominalized: “The prison officials set the electrocution of the convict tomorrow at exactly 9:00 a.m.”

Nominalization to more clearly identify the object of its verb-form. For stronger emphasis, it is sometimes desirable to use a nominalization to clearly identify the object of the verb in a sentence. Without nominalization: “The job applicants are not aware of what are required by the newly created position.” Smoother and more concise by nominalizing the phrase “what are required by...”: “The job applicants are not aware of the requirements of the newly created position.”

Nominalization to replace awkward “the fact that....” phrases. When making a transition to the next sentence, the easy but lazy way is to use the phrase “the fact that...”: “The fact that she was able to convert a virtually certain defeat to a resounding victory is a miracle of sorts.” Nominalization of that phrase results in a better sounding sentence and a more elegant transition: “Her conversion of a virtually certain defeat to a resounding victory is a miracle of sorts.”

Knowing now that nominalizations aren’t all that bad for the health of our prose, let’s not hesitate to let them do their job when the semantic situation really calls for it.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, August 9, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This essay subsequently became part of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

In exposition, it isn’t advisable to always call a spade a spade

The first time around, of course, it’s wise to heed this age-old admonition: “Call a spade a spade!” That way, the reader or listener will know precisely what we are talking about to begin with—“a digging implement adapted for being pushed into the ground with the foot.” But maybe, what we really mean is a “shovel,” that “hand implement consisting of a broad scoop or a more or less hollowed out blade with a handle used to lift and throw material.” Or perhaps we mean that small spade-like gardening implement called a “trowel,” in which case we can say that the spade we are referring to is more precisely a small “trowel”—even if it’s a tool that’s pushed into the ground by hand and not by foot. At any rate, we’ve come up with two words that, strictly speaking, aren’t the same as “spade,” but they have nearly the same meaning as “spade” in a particular way. In other words, “shovel” and “trowel” are synonyms of “spade” for our own purposes, so we’ll be perfectly justified in not calling our particular spade a spade the next time around.

I came up with the introductory wordplay above to highlight the role of synonyms as a device not only for clarifying what we mean but also for livening up what we want to say. Indeed, the adroit use of synonyms in our expositions can be a powerful antidote against boring our readers or listeners with the the same key words used over and over again. This is the point that I explore at length in the essay below, “Using synonyms to enliven prose,” that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2004. You just might find its suggested use of synonyms helpful in improving and enlivening your own expositions. (March 5, 2011)

Using synonyms to enliven prose

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert believed that only one word could give justice to a particular thing—“le mot juste”—and he obsessively searched for it before committing himself on paper. He may well have been right. After all, short of deliberately destroying the thing itself, there really isn’t much we can do to change its fundamental nature. Thus, in the English language, “an apple” will remain “an apple” till it’s eaten and digested, and “Eve” will remain “Eve” even after she has eaten that apple and is cast away from Paradise. Fortunately for us, however, there’s really no semantic law forbidding us to call “an apple” or “Eve” by some other word the next time it figures in our thoughts or on our tongues.

How dreary language, communication, and literature would be, in fact, if Flaubert’s prescription for words—like what is generally believed as the preferred French prescription for kissing—were to be followed to the letter! Then we would have to contend every time with the tedium of going through passages like this: “The apple is the popular edible fruit of the apple tree. The apple has the scientific name Malus sylvestris and belongs to the family Rosaceae. The apple is widely cultivated in temperate climates. The apple has more than 7,000 varieties but only 40 are commercially important, and the most popular apple variety in the U.S. is called Delicious. Apples are of three main types: cooking apples, dessert apples, and apples for making cider.”

Using synonyms or similar words in place of a particular key word is actually one of the most powerful devices for giving zest and substance to language. They help ensure that our listeners or readers will not tune us out because of boredom. Synonyms, while not exactly le mot juste, allow us to clarify meaning by focusing on the word’s specific attributes, thus throwing new light on the same idea. They make laborious, complicated explanations unnecessary; as in painting, well-chosen single words or short phrases are quick brush strokes that illumine ideas or clarify meaning and intent. As Peter Mark Roget, author of Roget’s Thesaurus, remarked in his introduction to the revolutionary book in 1852: “Some felicitous expression thus introduced will frequently open the mind of the reader to a whole vista of collateral ideas.”

See what happens to the dreary apple passage above when we take Roget’s prescription to heart: “The apple, the mythical fruit often associated with the beginnings of the world and mankind, is the popular fruit of the tree of the same name. The fleshy, edible pome—usually of red, yellow, or green color—has the scientific name Malus sylvestris and belongs to the family Rosaceae. As a cousin of the garden rose, it has the same usually prickly shrub with feather-shaped leaves and five-petaled flowers. It is widely cultivated as a fruit crop in temperate climates. More than 7,000 varieties of the species are known but only 40 are commercially important, and its most popular variety in the U.S. is called Delicious. The fruit is of three main types: cooking, dessert, and the type for making cider.” This revised passage uses a total of eight apple synonyms and similar words: “popular fruit,” “tree of the same name,” “pome,” “a cousin of the garden rose,” “a fruit crop,” “species,” “variety,” and “the type”—each one capturing a new shade of meaning, aspect, connotation, or denotation of the apple and throwing the idea of the word “apple” in bolder relief.

We must beware, however, that synonyms can only establish contexts, not definitions; they help illuminate discourse but not offer an analysis of things. For instance, in the revised apple passage, the synonyms used will be useful only to the extent that each of them is already understood by the listeners or readers. All of the apple-related words used—except “pome”—work very well as synonyms in the passage because they are of common knowledge; depending on the target audience, however, “pome” may need some clarifying amplification. (A “pome,” for those confounded by the word, is “a fleshy fruit with an outer thickened fleshy layer and a central core with usually five seeds enclosed in a capsule.”) The speaker or writer must ultimately decide if such a definition is needed.

When using synonyms, we also must make sure that their antecedent words—whether nouns, pronouns, or verbs—are clear all throughout. There is always the danger of overdoing the word replacements, particularly when the conceptual link between the original sword and the synonym is not strong enough. In that case, repeating the original word or using the obvious pronoun for it—“he,” “she,” “it,” “they,” or “them”—may be more advisable. Go over the revised apple passage again and see how the pronoun “it” for apple was used twice to provide such a link and continuity. (January 12, 2004)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 12, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This essay subsequently became part of the author’s book, Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp.