Monday, May 30, 2011

The need to be more thorough in subject-verb agreement knowhow

As can be gleaned from my weekly grammar critiques in My Media English Watch, the significant incidence of subject-verb disagreement errors in the English of the major Philippine newspapers and news websites is something that should give us pause. Ensuring subject-verb agreement in sentences appears to be a growing weakness among the new crop of news reporters and feature writers, and I’m afraid among the new crop of editors and copyeditors as well. Indeed, whenever I encounter subject-verb disagreement errors in their written English, I get a feeling that although the new breed of journalists appears very well-trained in the mass communication craft, they are not as well-grounded in their English grammar and usage.

Of course, like most of us, the current breed of English-language journalists is capable of routinely making subject and verb agree when the subject is a single-word noun or pronoun in a form other than the third-person singular and when the verb isn’t in the present tense, but often takes a tumble when the subject is compounded or is in the form of a long noun phrase or verbal phrase, and sometimes appears altogether clueless on what to do when notion and grammar disagree in a sentence under construction. In short, the understanding of subject-verb agreement by many of today’s crop of English-language journalists isn’t thorough enough for them to routinely come up with grammar-perfect sentences of whatever form or structure.

Way back in 2005, I wrote for my English-language column in The Manila Times a two-part essay on how to ensure subject-verb agreement when notion and grammar disagree in sentences under construction.  I am posting that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum to make the grammar knowhow needed to ensure subject-verb agreement more widely and conveniently available. I hope that not only you but also our friends in the mass media will benefit from reading that essay. (May 29, 2011)

When notion and grammar disagree

Part I:

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will discuss more subject-verb agreement quandaries in Part II of this essay. (August 15, 2005)

Part II:

We saw in the previous essay that although English-language verbs generally don’t inflect or change in form to agree with the subject in number, they do so in the present tense, third-person singular. All of us learn very early in English grammar that in this unique instance, verbs simply add –s or –es to their tail end when the subject is singular: “He hunts.” “She dances gracefully.” “The baby cries.” “The car runs well, but it shakes badly at high speeds.” When the subject is plural, however, verbs drop the –s or –es to make themselves also plural and thus agree with the noun in number: “They hunt.” “Ronald and Alicia dance beautifully.” “Babies normally cry at birth.” “Those cars run well, but they shake badly at high speeds.” (Another way of saying this, of course, is that present-tense verbs become plural by taking their base form, or the verb’s infinitive form without the “to.”)

This subject-verb agreement rule is, as we know very well, very easy to apply when there is both grammatical agreement and notional agreement in the sentence. When grammar and notion are at odds, however, following this rule becomes problematic. We have already taken up three situations in which that conflict usually arises: (1) when the subject is singular in form but plural in meaning, (2) when the subject is plural in form but singular in meaning, and (3) when the sentence is constructed such that the number to be taken by the verb becomes ambiguous. This time, we will take up four other situations that can put us in a quandary when applying the subject-verb agreement rule.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The delicate art of making affirmative assertions around negative messages

Last week, I posted here an essay of mine that discussed how the English language deals with the often disagreeable business of negating things. I observed that to attenuate the pain and discomfort of being refused, rebutted, contradicted, denied, denigrated, or lied upon, the language has developed a wide repertory of grammatical and semantic devices for negating without overtly saying a blanket “no,” “not,” or “never.”

This time, in “Excessive Negation and Its Dangers,” a companion essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times and that now also forms part of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, I explore the psychological and practical reasons why the language has come up with so many ways of expressing negation positively. The bottom line is that blunt or excessive negation is a major stumbling block to communication, so those who are keen on getting their ideas across or getting things done need to cultivate the art of using the barest minimum of “no,” “not,”  and “never” in their written and spoken English. (May 22, 2011)

Excessive Negation and Its Dangers

We previously explored the various ways of negating a thought or idea. We saw that “no,” “not,” “never,” and the rest of their negative cohort efficiently demolish every declarative or affirmative statement in the English language. We also took a cursory look at affixal negation, or the use of the negative affixes “un-”, “im-”/ “in-”/ “il-”, “dis-”, “de-”, and “-less” to reverse the sense of certain words. Then we ended with the warning that too much negation, being subversive of the natural sense and order of things, could get in the way of good communication.

Before going deeply into the pitfalls of excessive negation, though, let us first recognize its obviously useful aspects. Nobody can argue, of course, against alarmist phrasing to emphasize clear and imminent danger: “Caution! Don’t touch! High voltage!” “Danger! Don’t enter! Highly radioactive area!” We can also forgive lawyers or word-weasels for crafting such bullying statements as these: “All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission of the author.” “No trespassing! Private property! Entry without authorization will subject intruders to criminal prosecution.”

Negative communication of this kind may have short-term shock appeal, but too much of it can be so irritating as to invite open resistance and hostility. In fact, psychological research has conclusively demonstrated that repeated negative messages foster doubt, mistrust, and discouragement in the receiver, making further communication with him or her increasingly difficult. This is why since the beginnings of language, people who needed other people’s cooperation would make every effort to find a more graceful—and fruitful— tact for expressing negation. Call it affirmative communication or diplomacy or public relations, but what it basically does is to use positive phrasing even for intrinsically negative messages.

The virtue of emphasizing the positive rather than the negative is easy to see. Compare the messages in these statement-pairs: “Don’t you dare do that!” (“Why not try doing this?”) “I don’t think you know what you’re doing.” (“Are you sure you are doing the right thing?”) “You cannot be relied upon to do anything properly!” (I wish I could rely more on you to do things properly.”) “If you fail our written test, you will not get hired by our company.” (“You must pass our written test to get hired by our company.”) Emphasizing the negative heightens the expectation of failing to get the desired result; emphasizing the positive heightens the expectation of succeeding in getting it. One need not be a behavioral expert to predict which approach is more likely to be the ticket for success.

We can see now that negation in language is no small thing; it is too major a thing to trifle with by inserting a “no” or “not” all too casually into a positive statement. In our writing as in our face-to-face interaction with people, excessive negation could create serious barriers to communication. Indeed, it’s no accident that the English language has evolved so many ways of expressing negation positively. The wealth of words in the language for affixal negation is, in fact, proof that over the centuries, users of the language had gone to great semantic lengths to avoid using an outright “no” or “not” when expressing negation. Thus were born thousands of new words with the negative aspect already built into them, making it so easy for us today to build positive, affirmative statements around negative messages.

Consider these statements that use “no” or “not,” and contrast them with their equivalents using affixal negation or, better yet, deliberately positive semantics: “Have I not told you that it’s not necessary for you to make that trip?” (“I said that trip might be unnecessary.”) “Even if your data are generally favorable, they are not yet sufficient, so you could not yet conclude that your theory is valid.” (“The data to support your theory is still inconclusive.”) “We cannot admit anybody to this club unless he is suitably recommended by a member.” (“We will be happy to admit to this club anyone suitably recommended by a member.”)

Lest we leave the subject of negation thinking that “no” and “not” are totally undesirable, we must now give due recognition to their supremely positive semantic virtue: their power to delicately flavor understatement, irony, euphemism, and other nonliteral forms of expression. Feel the pleasant undertow of this negative statement: “He’s not exactly a saint.” Much better than the positive, straightforward “He’s a sinner,” don’t you think? And take a look at this negative euphemism: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith do not access e-mail.” Isn’t it an exquisitely sociable way of saying that “Mr. and Mrs. Smith are incapable of using the Internet,” or, even more galling, that “Mr. and Mrs. Smith are Internet-illiterate”?

Be that as it may, by using the barest minimum of “no” and “not” in our prose, we definitely can make ourselves much more effective and pleasant communicators in the English language.
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.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Developing the fine art of negation in English

In language, affirming something to be true is much easier and more pleasant to do than to declare something to be untrue. This is because to declare something as untrue often involves negating what somebody else holds to be true—a situation that could lead to bad feelings, wounded pride, acrimonious exchange, or even vicious and protracted debate. It is therefore important to develop negation to a fine art, the better to diffuse the pain and unpleasantness of being refused, rebutted, contradicted, denied, lied upon, or denigrated by somebody.

The English language is wonderfully rich in grammatical and semantic devices for doing negation. Apart from “no,” “not,” “never,” and “without” as staple negation adverbs, English has a remarkably wide range of devices for lexical negation (words with negative connotations) and affixal negation (positive words negated by affixes). In “Forming Negative Sentences Correctly,” an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times and that now forms part of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, I discuss the use of these various devices in forming negative statements effectively. I am now posting that essay here to help English learners do negations with more finesse. (May 15, 2011)

Forming Negative Sentences Correctly

Without any doubt, the adverb “no”—abetted by its semantic cousins “not,” “never,” “without,” and several others with a negative bent—is the most subversive word in the English language. Look how “no” undermines and negates every single thought and idea to which it latches on: “No, I don’t like you.” “No, I have never loved you.” “No, go away; my life will be much better without you.” And if you look back at the adverbial phrase “without any doubt” that begins the first sentence above, you would see how the word “without” totally reverses the sense of “doubt” to “certainty.” Overwhelmingly powerful, “no” and its cohort can quickly and very efficiently demolish every declarative or affirmative statement that we can think up in the English language.

We can see that to negate entire statements, “no” takes a commanding position at the very beginning of sentences. It does so with brutal efficiency: “No swerving.” “No entry.” “No, sir, minors aren’t allowed here.” On the other hand, when “no” has to do the negating within a sentence, it often assigns “not” to take its place, commanders an auxiliary verb, and positions “not” right after it: “The woman drove.” “The woman did not drive.” “The woman will not drive.” Of course, we already know that when “not” does this, the main verb relinquishes the tense to the auxiliary verb. In the example given above, the auxiliary verb “do” takes either the past or future tense, and the main verb takes the verb stem “drive.”

The pattern of negation is slightly different in the perfect tenses. The adverb “not” simply inserts itself between the auxiliary verb and the main verb, with the main verb remaining in the past participle form even as the negation is consummated: “The woman has driven.” “The woman has not driven.” The important thing to remember is that “not” always positions itself between the helping verb and the main verb; for it to do otherwise would be grammatically fatal: “The woman not has driven.” “The visitors not have eaten.”

In contrast, “never” is a movable negator, certainly much more versatile than “not.” Watch: “The woman never drives.” “Never does the woman drive.” “The woman has never driven.” “Never has the woman driven.” “The woman never has driven.” “Never” is negation in its emphatic form—demolishing an idea to the extreme.

The adverb “no,” of course, can routinely negate any element by denoting absence, contradiction, denial, or refusal: “Under no circumstances will Claudia’s offer be accepted.” “I see no sign of reconciliation.” The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are no more.” “Have you no conscience?” The adverbs “not” and “never” work in much the same way: “Not a single drop of rain fell last summer.” “She will always be a bridesmaid, never a bride.”

But there’s one major caveat on “not”: it’s wrong to use it in sentences that have an “all…not” form (to mean “to the degree expected”). Take this sentence: “All of the women in the district did not vote for the lone female candidate.” This sentence is semantically problematic; it could mean that “some of the women did not vote for the lone female candidate”, or that “none of the women voted for the lone female candidate.” Better to remove the ambiguity by fine-tuning the negation to yield the desired meaning. The first option: “Not all of the women in the district voted for the lone female candidate.” The second option: “None of the women in the district voted for the lone female candidate.”

The same caveat should be observed in using “not” with the adjective “every,” as in this ambiguous sentence: “Every candidate did not meet the voters’ expectations.” Better: “None of the candidates met the voters’ expectations.” “All of the candidates failed to meet the voters’ expectations.”

Apart from using “no,” “not,” and “never,” we can also use the lexical semantics of negation and affixal negation to reverse the sense of things. Lexical negation is simply the negative structuring of sentences by using words with negative denotations, such as “neither,” “nor,” “rarely,” “hardly,” and “seldom.” Affixal negation, on the other hand, negates positive words through the use of the affixes “un-”, “im-”/“in-”/“il-”, “dis-”, “de-”, and “-less,” as in “unnecessary,” “imperfect,” “ineffective,” “illegal,” “disregard,” “decamp,” and “useless.”

When using these negative affixes, of course, we must always remember to drop the “no,” “not,” or “never” in the sentence if our true intention is to negate the statement. Failure to do so will result in a grammatically incorrect double negative. “It is not illegal to steal,” for instance, will mean exactly its opposite, “It is legal to steal”—with all its dire consequences to civilized society.
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. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Going back to the basic forms of reported speech

This week, in the “You Asked Me This Question” section of Jose Carillo's English Forum, I discuss how third conditional sentences in directly quoted statements behave when presented as reported speech. That rather advanced grammar discussion is the offshoot of a question raised by Forum member Pipes about his doubtful tense usage in a reported-speech sentence. It was a tough question that, in effect, asked: “Do conditional sentences backshift in reported speech?”

As the Forum hasn’t taken up the basics of these aspects of English grammar yet, I realize that the terms “reported speech,” “conditional sentences,” and “backshift” may not ring a bell to some Forum members and guests. By way of backgrounder, therefore, I have posted the essay below, “Dealing Properly with Reported Speech,” in this week’s edition of the Forum. Written for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in September 2008, this essay discusses the mechanisms involved in converting directly quoted utterances in the various simple tenses into reported speech. I trust that you will find it a welcome introduction to this admittedly challenging grammar subject. (May 8, 2011)

Dealing properly with reported speech

One of the trickiest aspects of English grammar is dealing with reported speech, which is also called indirect speech. Basically, we are taught that when the reporting verb is in the past tense, the operative verb of the reported utterance takes one step back from the present into the past. For instance, assume that an officemate by the name of Jennifer told us this yesterday: “I am unhappy with my job.” Today, when we report that remark to somebody else, we need to change the verb in the utterance from simple present to simple past and say: “Yesterday, Jennifer said she was unhappy with her job.”

We must keep in mind, though, that it’s not only the operative verb in the utterance that changes in reported speech. The first-person form of the pronoun in the utterance (“I” in this case) changes to its third-person form (to the pronoun “she” or to the proper name “Jennifer,” depending on the choice of the person reporting the utterance), and the adjective indicating possession in the original utterance (“my”) changes to the third-person form (“her”).

The change from present to past tense in reported speech is only for starters, of course. In the various other tenses, the operative verb of the utterance likewise generally moves one tense backwards in time when the reporting verb is in the past tense, as follows:

From present progressive (assuming that the speaker is male): “I am having a problem with one of my students.” To past progressive: “He said he was having a problem with one of his students.”

From simple present perfect: “I have been bypassed for promotion by my boss.” To simple past perfect: “He said he had been bypassed for promotion by his boss.”

From present perfect progressive: “I have been analyzing the problem but to no avail.” To past perfect progressive: “He said he had been analyzing the problem but to no avail.”

From simple past: “I saw the movie twice.” To past perfect: “He said he had seen the movie twice.” (If the act being reported happened very close or almost simultaneous to the utterance, however, the simple past may also be a logical tense for the operative verb of the reported utterance: “He said he saw the movie twice.”)

From past progressive: “I was taking medication then.” To past perfect progressive: “He said he had been taking medication at the time.”

However, when the operative verb of the reported utterance is in the past perfect or in the past perfect progressive, no change is possible for it in reported speech; it stays in that tense.

Utterance in the past perfect: “The bridge had collapsed by the time I reached the river.” Reported speech: “He said the bridge had collapsed by the time he reached the river.”

Utterance in the past perfect progressive: “I had been depending on that scholarship grant for four years.” Reported speech: “He said he had been depending on that scholarship grant for four years.”

We must also always remember that when the operative verb in the utterance is in the modal form, we need to change the modal auxiliary to its past tense form in reported speech. Thus, “will” changes to “would,” “can” to “could,” “must” to “had to,” and “may” to “might.”

As examples, “I will find her without any difficulty” becomes “He said he would find her without any difficulty” in reported speech; “I can beat her anytime in chess” becomes “He said he could beat her anytime in chess”; “All past due accounts must be settled at once” becomes “He said that all past due accounts had to be settled at once”; and “I may leave anytime” becomes “He said he might leave anytime.”
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, September 6, 2008 © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 2, 2011

When some TV journalists exercise their vaunted press freedom too far

I know only too well that freedom of speech is a hallmark of a robust and vibrant democracy, and we are most fortunate that our country’s mass media currently enjoy the trappings of this freedom to a remarkably high degree. I must say, however, that whether they are conscious of it or not, some of our national TV networks have lately been carrying this freedom of expression too far. A recent case in point is their unbridled use of the online social media facilities of Facebook and Twitter to stream in raw opinions onscreen during TV programs or interviews on controversial topics.

Of course there’s value and virtue in quickly getting the public pulse on matters of great public interest, but I think it’s clear that whether expressed in English or in the lingua franca, many of the opinions drawn in by those TV programs under these circumstances are grossly uninformed, misleading, irresponsible, systematically manipulative, or downright wacky—and oftentimes expressed in grammatically fractured and convoluted language as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that because of the scatterbrain character of many of these online postings or tweets, by no means could they ever be a reliable and accurate measure of public opinion. (I remember that in the early days of TV broadcasting, a sharp mind in the U.S. media—if I remember right, he was Walter Lippmann—sagely observed that one of the serious drawbacks of broadcast TV is its power to widely disseminate and validate uninformed opinion.)

So, in the same way that the print media are able to routinely edit the opinions they print on their pages, couldn’t the TV programs at least find some way of intermediating all that instant feedback to ensure that only the sensible and responsible ones—no matter how contrarian or strongly worded—are streamed onscreen? I think it would greatly raise the quality of public discourse if the broadcast media can do this.

The other matter that I’d like to take up here is the lack of basic courtesy and decorum among some TV investigative journalists when they do face-to-face or telephone interviews in the course of their TV programs. These investigative journalists, live and onscreen, have this tendency to needle and browbeat their respondents to admit culpability in a supposed crime or misdemeanor that they are working to establish within the time frame of the TV program itself. But really now, even if guilty or rotten to the core, who in his right mind would admit culpability on TV for all the world to see? And isn’t it axiomatic that in our democratic society, the accused is entitled to due process and is presumed innocent until proven guilty? I’m afraid that these niceties are sometimes lost to some of these investigative journalists. In one such TV program I watched recently, in fact, the investigative journalist acted and used language that made it unmistakable that he thought himself the arresting police officer, prosecutor, legal counsel, judge, and executioner all rolled into one.      

Five years ago, in my English-usage column in The Manila Times, I expressed similar misgivings about the apparent lack of courtesy and decorum among some TV news-and-talk-show hosts when dealing with their respondents or guests. Even with the growing use of the online social media by the national TV networks to buttress their programming, I believe that my thoughts in those pre-Facebook and Twitter days about improper language on TV remain very much relevant today. I am therefore posting that essay of mine, retitled here as “The perils of language misuse during live TV interviews,” in my blog this week. (May 1, 2011)

The perils of language misuse during live TV interviews

I think one of the most dreadful aspects of live electronic journalism is being asked to answer a badly phrased and impertinent question over the telephone for all the broadcast audience to hear.
Such a question was posed by news-and-talk-show host to a national treasury official during a network TV broadcast several days ago. The subject was the headline story in most of the day’s newspapers that the treasury official had certified the availability of funds for a plebiscite on the proposed Charter change. The question asked him was this: “How true is it that you had certified the availability of funds for a referendum on Charter change?”

That question struck me not only as semantically wrong but also insolent, accusing, and offensive from a journalistic standpoint. It’s a question that a self-respecting individual shouldn’t really answer, or perhaps correct and put in better perspective first before dignifying it with an answer. This rarely happens in practice, however. The respondent often ends up muddling through with a silly answer (‘That’s a half truth!”, “Absolutely true!”, “Perfectly true!”) rather than risk being looked upon as uncooperative, evasive, or tricky by the broadcast audience.

We know that a statement is either true or false in the sense of being a “fact” or having “the property of being in accord with fact or reality,” and that the “truth” can’t be measured by an answer to such a qualitative question as “How true is it?” Only in the most informal sense, as in gossip or trivial conversations (which a TV interview on matters of national importance is not), can this frivolous manner of “measuring” the truth be used. From both the usage and journalistic standpoints, therefore, that TV host’s question about the budget official’s reported pronouncement was terribly inappropriate.

The semantically correct way of phrasing that question is, of course, this: “Is it true that you had certified the availability of funds for a referendum on charter change?” This is a question that can be answered truthfully with either a “Yes” or a “No,” and people can answer it without being made to feel that their honesty and integrity are under question.

But what seems to me an even more serious matter is the sense of haughtiness and contempt conveyed by TV broadcast people when they ask questions of this sort. In this particular instance, the TV anchor already knew that the budget official had indeed made that pronouncement. Before asking him the question, in fact, she had just finished a live interview of people who were condemning that pronouncement. So, it can reasonably be asked, how could she all so suddenly backtrack and ask the treasury official how true it was that he had made that statement in the first place?

I submit that a better prepared and more English-savvy TV journalist would have avoided asking that kind of question at all. A much better and non-confrontational opening to that telephone interview would have been a simple statement that could put the subject in perspective for both the respondent and the broadcast audience: “Mr. So-and-So, you were reported as having certified the availability of funds for a plebiscite on the proposed charter change. Can you please tell us precisely where the funds will be coming from? Will be fund releases for that purpose be legal?” This is the sort of thing that clarifies rather than muddles up matters.

I think that since their jobs are deeply imbued with the public interest, TV news-and-talk-show hosts should closely watch their language on camera and avoid being carried away so often by their personal biases and political leanings. The least they can do is to be objective, fair, and civil in treating their respondents. This way, they will be protecting not only their own credibility and integrity as TV journalists but also that of the broadcast media as a whole. (April 10, 2006)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 10, 2006 © 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.