Saturday, June 29, 2013

Strategies for avoiding tedious repetition of words in English

For everyone who’d like to get rid of the unpleasantly bureaucratic tone of their English, I recently reposted in Jose Carillo's English Forum an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2004. In that essay, “Phrases desirable and phrases abstruse,” I observed that bureaucrats, lawyers, and not a few academicians use a lot of officious stock phrases, among them “by virtue of,” “with reference to,” “in connection with,” “with regard to,” “in order to,” “with respect to,” “in line with,” and—perhaps the most irksome of all—“this is to inform you that” for both bad and good news and everything in-between.

I said that these phrases make their English sound so highhanded and even threatening, but we learn to tolerate them because they are part of their professional jargon. The problem though is that through repeated exposure to these stock phrases, we eventually appropriate them in our own writing and speech without even realizing it. Indeed, many of us in time begin to sound like bureaucrats, lawyers, and academicians ourselves. Their jargon permeates not only our conversations with our friends and coworkers but also our own memos, letters, and reports.  

I then argued that we should avoid those officious stock phrases like the plague, that we shouldn’t allow tradition and peer-group pressure to tyrannize us into using them against our will, and that in business and in our personal lives, we should instead aim to write and speak in more concise, more pleasant, and more friendly English.

That essay drew the following response last June 20, 2013 from Mwita Chacha, a Forum member based in Tanzania, East Africa:

“I agree that the best way to effectively get our ideas across is by making our sentences as precise as possible. But as a beginning writer, I sometimes feel reluctant to use a word more than two times in the same writing. That’s why I’m sometimes tempted to alternate, say, “about” with unpleasant bureaucratic phrases like “with regard to,” “with reference to,” and “as regards.” Admittedly, they sound standoffish and tend to get in the way of clear communication, but I think they help in many ways to eradicate repetition in the prose. Is there any better tactic of getting rid of repetition?”

This question gives me a wonderful opportunity to break new ground in my advocacy for plain and simple English, so I am sharing my reply to Mwita Chacha below with Forum members and with everyone desirous of having a better and more pleasant command of it. (June 30, 2013)

Systematic, wide-ranging ways for avoiding dysfunctional word overuse

The repeated use of a particular word in writing is not bad per se; it’s the dysfunctional overuse of that word that has to be studiously avoided. And I wouldn’t use the word “tactic” to describe such studious avoidance, for a tactic seems too fleeting and too short-term an approach for dealing with unpleasant over-repetition. Instead, I would go for the word “strategy” to describe the more methodical and wide-ranging way for achieving that objective.

To come up with such a viable strategy in English, we need to distinguish between its two general types of words and to understand the matter of language register and tonality.

The two general types of words in English, you will recall, are the content words and the function words. The content words are the carriers of meaning of the language, and they consist of the nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and interjections. The function words are the logical operators of the language, and they consist of the prepositions, conjunctions (the coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions), and conjunctive adverbs. (“Lesson #6 - The Six Basic Logical Relationships in Language”) In a class of their own are the articles “a,” “an,” and “the,” which many grammarians consider as neither content words not function words (we won’t take up the articles here to keep this discussion manageable).

Among the content words, nouns are the most amenable to substitution with other words as a strategy for avoiding tedious repetition. For this purpose, of course, we routinely use pronouns for subsequent mentions of subjects identified by name—“he” or “she” for singular proper names and “they” for one or more of them, and “it” for singular things and concepts and also “they” for one of more of them. In feature writing and in the more creative forms of expression, we can use synonyms or similar words for subsequent mentions of particular nouns. (“Using synonyms to enliven prose”) Those synonyms can focus on particular or specific attributes of the subject or key word, thus giving the reader or listener more information about them without going into digressions that might just unnecessarily impede the flow of the exposition. For example, the subject or key word “John Updike” might be later referred to in an exposition generically as “the writer” or more specifically as “a writer of sex-suffused fiction,” “a notable literary realist,” “the prolific American novelist and short-story writer,” “the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist,” and “America’s last true man of letters.” Indeed, by using a synonym or brief descriptive detail, each subsequent mention of the subject becomes an opportunity for throwing new light on it for the reader’s or listener’s benefit.

As parts of speech in English, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs each have a unique and distinctive meaning or sense. In the case of verbs, there’s a specific verb for every kind of action; for instance, while there are close similarities between “walk,” “stroll,” “saunter,” “amble,” and “jog,” they are not by any means perfectly synonymous. Thus, once you have used the verb “walk” the first time around for the action you are describing, it won’t be appropriate or advisable—just for the sake of avoiding repetition—to refer to that action as “stroll” the second time around, “saunter” the third time around, “amble” the fourth time around, and so on and so forth. For accuracy and authenticity’s sake, you’ve got to stick to “walk” in all subsequent mentions of that action you described as “walk” at the start.

This strategy should also be applicable to adjectives and adverbs. For instance, you’d be out of line describing a woman as “beautiful” the first time around, then describing her as “pretty,” “comely,” or “fair” in subsequent mentions; you’ve got to stick to “beautiful” or else not use that adjective again in the exposition. The same strategy would also apply to adverbs; once you have described the manner an action is done as “cruelly,” you can’t refer to that same manner as “fiercely” in a subsequent mention. In fact, it would be good language policy to avoid repeat usage of adverbs (particularly those than end in “-ly”) or use their synonyms later in an exposition. (“Antidote to the widespread myth that adverbs are bad for writing”)

Now let’s take up what you describe as your reluctance to use one word more than two times in the same writing and, in particular, your being tempted to sometimes alternate the preposition “about” with such unpleasant bureaucratic phrases as “with regard to,” “with reference to,” and “as regards.” Of course it’s a good general approach to avoid using the same word or phrase more than two times in the same exposition, but strategically, I think you’d be ill-advised to alternate “about” with such phrases as “with regard to,” “with reference to,” “as regards” in subsequent parts of the same exposition. As you yourself have pointed out, although these phrases can eradicate repetition in your prose, they will definitely make your prose sound standoffish and thus just get in the way of clear communication. It will be like jumping from the frying pan to the fire, so to speak.

Along with the preposition “about,” its synonymous phrases “with regard to,” “with reference to,” and “as regards” belong to the class of words known as the function words. As I mentioned at the outset, function words are the logical operators of the language, and as such they have very specific purposes and roles to play in the creation of meaning in language. In the particular case of prepositions, there’s a unique word for combining a word or phrase with another noun phrase to express a particular modification or predication; as a rule, for instance, “on,” “in,” “at,” “to,” “toward,” and “after” can’t be substituted with or interchanged with one another (“Lesson #8 – Specific Rules for Preposition Usage”). Most preposition usage is essentially conventional rather than logical, but it’s a fact that specific prepositions have become so well-established for evoking particular relationships in space, time, and logic that it would be foolhardy to misuse them, to trifle with them, or to tinker with them. The good writer knows that a healthy respect for the conventional usage of prepositions greatly paves the way for good communication.

Now, the preposition “about” belongs to what I would call the normal, day-to-language register of English. A language register is, of course, simply a variety of a language that’s used in a particular social, occupational, or professional context. In general, in terms of degree of formality, we can classify the language of register of English in six categories: very formal, which is characterized by very rigid, bureaucratic language; formal, characterized by ceremonious, carefully precise language; neutral, characterized by objective, indifferent, uncaring language; informal, characterized by casual or familiar language; very informal, characterized by very casual and familiar language; and intimate, characterized by personal and private language. (Note here that I didn’t hesitate to used the verb “characterized” five times, for to have alternately used the verb phrase “distinguished by” for it would have been a needless distraction.)

It so happens though that over the centuries, the legal profession developed a variety of English that’s pejoratively called legalese, an officious, legal-sounding language that can be roughly classified between very formal and formal language. This is the language used by lawyers in making contracts, affidavits, depositions, and pleadings before a court of law. A common feature of legalese is the substitution of the day-to-day, vanilla-type preposition “about” with the longish and ponderous phrases “with regard to,” “with reference to,” and “as regards” along with the substitution of such day-to-day, vanilla-type conjunctions “because,” “so,” and “later” with their longish equivalents “whereas,” “therefore,” and “hereinafter,” respectively. When legalese stays within the confines of the legal profession or community, however, all’s well with English as we know it.

The unfortunate fact, however, is that legalese has continually leached into both written and spoken business English over the years, such that a typical memo or business report these days sounds very much like a legal brief meant for lawyers and court magistrates. When peppered with such legalese as “attached herewith,” “aforesaid,” “heretofore,” and “for your perusal,” the English of such memos and business reports becomes very rigid and bureaucratic and extremely formal or harsh in tone. This is the language register and tonality that your English would acquire if, for the purpose of avoiding repetition of the preposition “about,” you fall into the habit of routinely alternating it with such legalese as “with regard to,” “with reference to,” and “as regards.” What’s even worse, your use of these forms of legalese will force you to make unwieldy, complicated sentence constructions to match their ponderousness and severity.   

My advice to you then is to fiercely resist the temptation to alternate common prepositions and the function words in general with their legalistic counterparts. You’ll be much better off as a writer and as a communicator by using the plain-and-simple English prepositions and conjunctions instead—even repeatedly. You can be sure that your readers or listeners will like it much better that way.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The need to avoid officious stock phrases when writing or speaking

I seem to recall posting this essay here two-and-a-half years ago but I thought it was high time posting it once again for the benefit of those who haven’t read it yet and for everybody else who’d like to get rid of the unpleasantly bureaucratic tone of their written and spoken English. (June 17, 2013)

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

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

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

My answer to the first question is, of course, a big “No!”; to the second, a big "Yes, we absolutely need to do so!" We should shun those officious stock phrases and avoid them like the plague. As I explained in the essay below that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2004, we should always use the most concise and most forthright but friendly English phrases that can precisely convey our meaning. Indeed, our best bet for getting along with people and getting things done in the workplace and most everywhere else is not bureaucratic, lawyerly, or academic language but plain and simple English. (July 30, 2010)

Phrases desirable and phrases abstruse

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

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

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

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

More prepositional phrases abound that mean the same thing as “about,” but we are well advised to stay away from them. They are abstruse and can give our prose a false, awkward tone, particularly these five:

“in accordance with”
“in connection with”
“in conformance to”
“by reason of”
“as to.”

Two really obsolete ones, “apropos of” and “anent,” are best avoided altogether.

Then there are scores more of prepositional phrases that are too long-winded and legalistic for comfort; we should make it a point of honor to always replace them with their more concise equivalents. Here are some of them with their no-nonsense counterparts:

“at such time” (“when”)
“at that point in time” (“then,” “now”)
“by means of” (“by”)
“by virtue of” (“by,” “under”)
“despite the fact that” (“although”)
“due to the fact that” (“because”)
“during the course of,” “in the course of” (“during”) \
“for the amount of” (“for”)
“for the purpose of” (“for,” “under”)
“from the point of view of” (“from,” “for”)
“in order to” (“to”)
“in a manner similar to” (“like”)
“in excess of” (“more than,” “over”)
“in favor of” (“for”)
“in relation to” (“about,” “concerning”)
“in the nature of” (“like”)
“in the immediate vicinity of” (“near”)
“in close proximity to” (“near”)
“in the present” (“now”)
“on one occasion” (“once”)
“on the basis of” (“by,” “from”)
“subsequent to” (“after”)
 “until such time as” (“until”)
“with a view to” (“to”)
“with reference to” (“about,” “concerning”)
“with regard to” (“about,” “concerning”)
“with respect to” (“about,” “concerning”)

And while we are at it, we should also mercilessly eliminate from our personal and official correspondence the following prepositional clich├ęs on sight:

“acknowledge receipt of”
“it has come to my attention”
“at this writing”
“attached thereto”
“receipt is hereby acknowledged”
“please be advised that”
“enclosed herewith”
“thank you in advance”

and—as I suggested avoiding in an earlier column—“more power to you!”

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

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What to do when notion and grammar disagree in our sentence

As we all know, it is simplicity itself to make the subject and verb agree in a sentence when (1) the subject is a single-word noun or pronoun in a form other than the third-person singular and (2) when the verb isn’t in the present tense, as in the sentences “Cynthia smiled” and “They rode the bus.” But some of us take a tumble when the subject is in the form of a long noun phrase, as in “The professor who flunked all of his students in calculus (is, are) being summoned by the college dean.” And many of us get stumped altogether when notion and grammar disagree in a sentence we are constructing, as in “Everyone (is, are) encouraged to bring (his, her, their) spouse to the company get-together.” Indeed, when our sentences take on more complicated forms or structures, it’s difficult to make them grammar-perfect if we don’t have a thorough understanding of the fine points of subject-verb agreement. 

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 posted that two-part essay in Jose Carillos English Forum two years ago but I am now posting here for the benefit of English-language learners who had no access to it and, tomorrow (Monday) being the start of the schoolyear in the Philippines, also for the benefit of teachers and students going back to school after the long summer break. (June 2, 2013)

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 in form 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.