Monday, June 27, 2011

How to prevent monumental grammar errors from ruining our English

Some professional writers get so good at their craft that they become complacent with their English grammar and usage. Having navigated the grammar terrain so well and for so long, they begin to overrely on their writerly instinct instead of becoming coldly critical of their written work. Soon they become blind to the individual trees in the forest of their prose, so to speak. As a result, they sometimes come up with monumental grammar bloopers that, when missed out by less-than-eagle-eyed editors before publication, would mark them as far from the English-savvy writers they thought they were.

In the essay below that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2008, retitled here as “Dissecting two grammar curiosities and crudities,” I zero in on two such monumental grammar bloopers, then give a prescription for preventing them from ruining our written English and our hard-earned reputation as professional writers. (June 26, 2011)

Dissecting two grammar curiosities and crudities

To heighten our English-grammar awareness, let’s dissect two grammar curiosities and crudities that I came across in my newspaper readings:

From a foreign news service story: “News photos showed the derailed train laying at the bottom of a ditch, with rescuers removing passengers from a carriage that had fallen onto its side.”

From a newspaper columnist’s essay: “As a young short story fellow at the UP National Writers Workshop in Baguio a decade ago, the workshop banner carried our batch’s official theme: Who do you write for?”

Found what’s wrong with the grammar of the sentences above?

The more grammar-savvy among you must have easily figured out what’s wrong with the first sentence. It misuses the progressive form of the transitive verb “lay,” which means “to put or set something down.” The correct verb to use here is the progressive form of the intransitive “lie,” which means “to stay at rest horizontally,” as shown in the corrected sentence below:

“News photos showed the derailed train lying at the bottom of a ditch, with rescuers removing passengers from a carriage that had fallen onto its side.”

But before moving on to the next sentence, let’s ponder this very interesting question: Why are people so prone to mixing up “lay” and “lie”?

Well, to begin with, they are look-alikes, sound-alikes, and mean-alikes. Even worse, they sometimes inflect into a bewildering form in certain tenses; oddly, for instance, the past-tense form of the intransitive “lie” takes exactly the same form as that of the present-tense plural of the transitive “lay”—“lay” in both cases. It’s really no wonder why even seasoned writers and editors often bungle their use.

If you think I’m overstating the case about how notoriously misused this verb-pair is, look at this recent reportage by a foreign news service on the earthquake devastation in China: “An hour after the quake, a half-dozen patients in blue-striped pajamas stood outside the hospital. One was laying on a hospital bed in the parking lot” (italicization mine). The correct verb form here is, of course, “lying,” the progressive form of the intransitive verb “lie.”

In the case of the second problematic sentence, here’s the big problem: Its message has been inadvertently mangled by a terribly misplaced modifier. Because of improper positioning, the prepositional phrase “as a young short story fellow at the UP National Writers Workshop in Baguio a decade ago” absurdly modifies the wrong subject, “the workshop banner.” Its proper and logical subject is, of course, the “young short-story fellow” or the author herself.

This is a very serious grammatical problem and I’m quite sure that you didn’t find it so easy to fix. Indeed, it took me quite an effort to break that bad interlock between the modifying phrase and its wrong subject. Finally, however, I came up with these three major overhauls that nicely gets rid of that misplaced modifying phrase:

 (1) “I recall that when I attended the UP National Writers Workshop in Baguio City as a short-story fellow a decade ago, the workshop banner for our batch carried this official theme: ‘Who do you write for?’”

(2) “A decade ago, when I attended the UP National Writers Workshop in Baguio City as a short-story fellow, the workshop banner for our batch carried this official theme: ‘Who do you write for?’”

(3) “A decade ago, I attended the UP National Writers Workshop in Baguio City as a short-story fellow and I recall that the workshop banner carried this official theme for our batch: “Who do you write for?”

Our best defense against misplaced modifiers is nothing less than eternal vigilance over our language, not just over form or grammar. We must always check for logic. If what we’re saying looks grammatically correct but somehow doesn’t make sense, it’s a telltale sign of a misplaced modifier somewhere. We need to hunt it down to prevent it from doing mischief on our prose. (May 24, 2008)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 24, 2008 © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ineffectual phrases, repeater phrases, and other enemies of good writing

They may look so irresistibly apt and handy at first blush, but beware, many stock phrases in English can do more harm than good to your writing! I am referring to those common expressions that, rather than give finesse to your English, can make it sound fluffy, pretentious, or irritatingly redundant. They are (1) the so-called ineffectual phrases, (2) the many wordy phrases formed by habitual nominalization, (3) the repeater phrases, and (4) those mind-numbing verbose expressions that often infest journalistic reporting.

In “A sorry trail of wasted words,” a four-part series of essays that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2005, I discussed how these undesirable stock phrases can make English expositions an unpleasant reading or listening experience. I am posting the fourth essay here to give you a better idea why we need to banish these stock phrases from our written and spoken English. (June 18, 2011)     

A sorry trail of wasted words

Some stock phrases in English are inherently undesirable because they are too wordy and only tend to give a false depth and emphasis to what is being said. These expressions, which are called ineffectual phrases, don’t really add value to speech or writing; worse, they make their users sound fluffy or pretentious without meaning to. The best policy is therefore to avoid these phrases altogether and to routinely use their more concise equivalents.

Here are some of the most common of these ineffectual phrases, along with the more concise words for them: “as a matter of fact” (“actually”), “for the purpose of” (“for”), “in the near future” (“soon”), “in the event that” (“if”), “in the eventuality that” (“if”), “with the exception of” (“except”), “in conjunction with” (“and”), “due to the fact that” (“because”), “by virtue of the fact that” (“because”), “on account of the fact that” (“because”), “owing to the fact that” (“because”), “in view of the fact that” (“since,” “because”), “in the absence of” (“without”), “is (was) of the opinion that” (“thinks that,” “thought that”), “as regards” (“about”), “with regard to” (“about”), “with respect to” (“about”), “it is interesting to note that” (just drop it), “needless to say” (just drop it), and “when all is said and done” (just drop it).

Another pitfall we must guard against is getting into the habit of converting verbs into wordy phrases built around a nominalization, in the mistaken belief that this makes a statement look or sound more important and impressive. On the contrary, many phrases built around nominalizations not only make sentences longer and annoyingly obtuse but also obscure the idea being presented.

Here are some common wordy phrases that result from habitual nominalization, along with their simple verb equivalents: “take action on” (“act”), “give consideration to” (“consider”), “engage in the preparation of” (“prepare”), “conduct a discussion” (“discuss”), “make an assumption that” (“assume that”), “make a discovery of” (“discover”), “do (perform) an analysis of” (“analyze”), “result in a reduction” (“reduce”), and “reach a conclusion about” (“conclude”). When “–ion” words like these begin to mushroom in our writing or speech, it’s time to identify all of the needless nominalizations among them and make them revert to their active verb forms. In well-written prose, only a few truly useful nominalizations normally survive this denominalization process.

Wordiness also often results from habitual use of what are called repeater phrases. These are words commonly used together yet actually mean the same thing, forming tautologies. Of course, the problem can be remedied by simply dropping the extraneous words in the repeater phrase, but we need to cultivate a strong sensitivity to the repetition that often hides so well in such phrases.

Here are some common repeater phrases and their concise equivalents: “close proximity” (“close”), “new innovation” (“innovation”), “added bonus” (“bonus”), “exactly the same” (“the same”), “prior experience” (“experience”), “revert back” (“revert”), “minute detail” (“detail”), “close scrutiny” (“scrutiny”), “combine together” (“combine”), “surrounded on all sides” (“surrounded”), “free gift” (“gift”), “temporary reprieve” (“reprieve”), “exact replica” (“replica”), and “future plans” (“plans”).

Finally, we would all be spared from so much aggravation as readers and listeners if newspapers and the broadcast media only took a much more serious effort to rid their news and feature reportage of such numbing journalese as these: “placed under arrest” (“arrested”), “made good their escape” (“escaped”), “escaped injury” (“was not injured”), “kicked off the campaign” (“began the campaign”), “hammered out—or, worse, “forged”—an agreement” (“agreed”), “put in an appearance” (“appeared”), “razed to the ground” (“razed”), “last-ditch attempt” (“final attempt”), and “left in its wake a wide swath of destruction” (“caused so much destruction”). (November 7, 2005)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, November 7, 2005 © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 13, 2011

When words get boxed in for highly specialized usage

Some English words get stigmatized through consensual misuse. They fall into disfavor because an altogether different denotation sticks to them, and rarely can they return to respectable usage after that. In the Philippines, in particular, one such word is the transitive verb “salvage.” It formally means “to rescue or save especially from wreckage or ruin,” of course, but in recent years, it has come to colloquial use in the exact opposite sense of “to kill or exterminate with impunity.” Considering how local media had seized on that meaning to dramatize their stories of organized murder and mayhem, I strongly doubt if “salvage” could still shed this unsavory denotation.

Then there are also English words that somehow get boxed in for specialized use. Among them is the noun “celebrant,” which has been appropriated in predominantly Christian or Roman Catholic countries to exclusively mean “a priest officiating the Holy Mass.” Woe to those who would dare to use “celebrant” to mean just anyone celebrating a birthday or some other personal  milestone! They would often be heckled as deficient in their English, then pointedly told that the correct word for that mere earthly observance is “celebrator.”

In “No need to hold ‘celebrant’ in a straightjacket,” an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in the middle of last year, I argued that there’s really no legitimate and compelling reason why the word “celebrant” should be used solely as a religious term. This week, I am posting that essay in the Forum to see if there are enough people who will agree with me that “celebrant” ought to be democratized to allow for its use in secular contexts. (June 12, 2011)

No need to hold “celebrant” in a straightjacket

The Philippines being predominantly Roman Catholic, there’s a tendency for the supposedly English-savvy among us to scoff at people who describe as a “celebrant” someone celebrating a birthday or some other auspicious occasion. “Oh, no, that isn’t right!” they would often cut off and gleefully heckle the speaker. “The right word is ‘celebrator’; ‘celebrant’ means a priest officiating the Holy Mass!”

But are people who use “celebrator” in that context really wrong? Do they really deserve all that heckling?

Although I don’t usually join the wicked ribbing that often follows, I myself used to think that people who call birthday celebrators “birthday celebrants” are—if not actually unsavvy in their English—at least ill-advised in doing so. Indeed, my Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines “celebrant” as “one who celebrates; specifically the priest officiating the Eucharist.” Likewise, the Collins English Dictionary—Complete and Unabridged defines “celebrant” as “a person participating in a religious ceremony” and, in Christianity’s ecclesiastical terms, as “an officiating priest, esp at the Eucharist.”

On the authority of these two dictionaries, I had never really bothered to check the validity of the conventional wisdom that anybody who’s not a priest or cleric should never be called a “celebrant” but only a “celebrator.” By “celebrator,” of course, practically everybody uses it in the context of someone observing or taking part in a notable occasion with festivities.

Recently, though, after witnessing yet another savage if good-natured ribbing of someone who used “celebrant” to describe a birthday celebrator, I decided that perhaps the issue was serious enough to look deeper into. I therefore resolved to check the usage with at least two other lexicographic authorities, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD).

The OED gives two definitions of “celebrant,” first as “a person who performs a rite, especially a priest at the Eucharist,” and, second, citing North American usage, as “a person who celebrates something.” For its part, the AHD primarily defines “celebrant” in essentially the same vein as the first OED definition, as (a) “A person who participates in a religious ceremony or rite”; (b) “A person who officiates at a religious or civil ceremony or rite, especially a wedding”; and (c) “In some Christian churches, the cleric officiating at the celebration of the Eucharist.” Like the OED, the AHD also makes a second definition of “celebrant” as “A participant in a celebration.”

Then the AHD goes one step further and makes the following usage note for “celebrant”: “Although ‘celebrant’ is most often used to describe an official participant in a religious ceremony or rite, a majority of the [AHD] Usage Panel accepted the use of ‘celebrant’ to mean ‘a participant in a celebration’ in an earlier survey. Still, while ‘New Year’s Eve celebrants’ may be an acceptable usage, ‘celebrator’ is an uncontroversial alternative in this more general sense.”

This being the case, I think people who use “celebrants” to describe people celebrating birthdays and other special occasions aren’t really wrong, and they certainly don’t deserve to be cut down and needled when using that word. And there’s no need for anyone to get upset either when called a “celebrant”—whether as principal or guest—during such occasions. I dare say that “celebrant” is as good a word as “celebrator” in such contexts, and except perhaps in the company of hidebound Christian fanatics, we need not hold the word “celebrant” in a straitjacket to describe only the Christian clergy doing their rituals.

In short, we can freely use “celebrators” to describe people celebrating or attending a birthday party or any other happy occasion, and I think the English-savvy among us need to get used to the idea that the usage of “celebrants” is actually par for the course and doesn’t deserve all that bashing as if it were bad English. (July 3, 2010)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, July 3, 2010 © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 6, 2011

How the causatives enable intransitive verbs to overcome their intransitivity

As we all know, English has three types of verbs: transitive verbs, intransitive verbs, and linking verbs. A verb is transitive when it has the ability to pass on its action to an object or something that can receive that action; intransitive when it can’t pass on its action to anything in the sentence and simply dissipates that action in itself; and linking when it just connects a subject to a complement and makes the sentence flow properly.

We are all familiar with how transitive verbs and linking verbs work, so there should be no need to discuss them any further here. But I think we need to look more closely into how intransitive verbs work considering that they can’t pass on their action to an object. This is precisely what happens in sentences like “The witness disappeared” and “The boat arrived.” The intransitive verbs “disappeared” and “arrived” simply convey the idea that something has taken place; their respective subjects (“witness” and “boat”) don’t do the action, and these verbs can’t have any object either to receive that action. It therefore looks as if their intransitivity is such a big handicap as to make their usage in language marginal compared to transitive verbs.     

This isn’t the case, through. As I explain in the essay below that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2004, English has a grammatical device for making intransitive verbs surmount their handicap of intransitivity: the causatives. The causatives are a special class of verbs that, in effect, enable the subject to perform the action of an intransitive verb on an object. Causative verbs thus make intransitive verbs of much wider use in language despite the limitation imposed by their intransitivity. (June 4, 2011)

Helping intransitive verbs surmount their handicap

As we learn early about English grammar, intransitive verbs are handicapped by their inability to take a direct object. Another way of saying this is that a subject cannot perform the action of intransitive verbs on a direct object. This is why a sentence construction like the following doesn’t work: “The magician disappeared the rabbit.” Because of its intransitivity, the verb “disappear” simply won’t take “rabbit” or any other object. Only transitive verbs can take objects and act on them, as “feed” in “The magician feeds the rabbit” and “eat” in “The rabbit eats the carrot.”

But this doesn’t mean that when the operative verb is intransitive, the subject cannot ever make an action happen to an object, or make that object perform the action of the verb. We know, for instance, that the verbs “make,” “get,” “have,” and “let” enables the intransitive verb “disappear” to cause its action to happen to an object, as in these sentences: “The magician made the rabbit disappear.” “The magician got the rabbit to disappear.” “The magician had the rabbit disappear.” “The magician let the rabbit disappear.” The subject in these sentences is not seen as performing the action itself, but uses some other unstated agency (“magic” or “sleight of hand”?) to perform that action.

We know, too, that “make,” “get,” “have,” and “let” can also make objects do the action of intransitive verbs: “She made the dog jump.” “She got the dog to jump.” “She had the dog jump.” “She let the dog jump.” In these three sentences, it’s clear that the “dog” is the object of the verbs “made,” “got,” and “had,” “she” is the agent causing the action, and the action of the intransitive “jump” is what this agent causes the object to perform.

The verbs “make,” “get,” “have,” and “let” belong to a class of verbs called causatives. In sentences that use a causative verb, the subject doesn’t perform the action of the operative verb but causes someone or something else to do it. And as we have seen above, causative verbs do very well in enabling intransitive verbs to surmount their handicap of being unable to act on an object.

We mustn’t think, though, that causative verbs are meant only for intransitive verbs. They work as well with transitive ones: “The mother made her child take the medicine.” “The movie director had the leading lady wear a wig.” The big difference is that transitive verbs—working with causative verbs or not—always need an object somewhere in the sentence for the latter to make sense. Drop the objects “medicine” and “wig” from the two sentences given earlier, for instance, and both sentences will collapse.

The English language actually has many more causative verbs of the enabling kind, and to our small inventory so far we will now add these other common ones: “ask,” “allow,” “command,” “compel,” “convince,” “encourage,” “employ,” “entice,” “force,” “hire,” “induce,” “insist,” “motivate,” “permit,” “persuade,” “require,” “suggest,” and “urge.” Each needs to work on an operative verb for the latter’s action to take place at all.

Let’s now examine the ways we can construct sentences using causative verbs.

The most common, of course, is the construction where the causative verb is immediately followed by an object (noun or pronoun), which is followed in turn by an infinitive (“to” + verb stem): “Some countries require foreign visitors to present a visa.” “We hired temporary workers to handle the seasonal demand.” “Our school encouraged us to learn English.”

The causative construction above has a variant specifically for the causatives “let,” “had,” and “made,” which can only take the so-called “bare infinitive” (the infinitive without “to”): “Amanda let her boyfriend kiss her.” “The mayor had the illegal loggers face the irate townsfolk.” “The manager made her pay for the missing goods.” Force-fitting “to” into such constructions results in disconcerting—and unacceptable—sentences like “Amanda let her boyfriend to kiss her.”

The third type of causative construction is for the causative verbs “insist,” “suggest,” “ask,” “demand,” or “recommend,” which can neither take the infinitive nor the bare infinitive form of the operative verb. These causative verbs can work only in “that”-clause constructions like these: “The tour guide suggested that we leave.” “The judge demanded that the accused appear in court.” “The consultant recommended that we divest.”

The second verbs in these sentences are always in the base form, without tense, which differs from non-causative “that”-clause constructions like, say, “The tour guide proved that we took a longer route,” in which the verb in the “that”-clause takes a tense. (December 6, 2004)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, December 6, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.