Sunday, December 28, 2014

No earthly reason why the Philippine clergy should be bad in English grammar

On the eve of the visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines from January 15-19, 2015, I thought of reposting here an essay that I wrote way back in 2003 regarding the need to improve the English proficiency of the country’s Roman Catholic priests. I actually had that essay posted in Jose Carillo's English Forum in 2010 or over four years ago together with the preface below, but not being aware of any determined efforts taken by the church hierarchy regarding the matter, I believe that the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis to our predominantly Roman Catholic nation makes that essay even more relevant reading today. (December 28, 2014)

In their efforts at evangelization, should the major organized religions just rely on the momentum and stickiness of their respective belief systems? Or should they make a purposive and continuing effort to be better communicators and defenders of the faith, whether using English or any other language for that matter?

I have often pondered these questions over the years and even wrote an essay about the subject, “The Grammar of Clerics and Preachers,” sometime in 2003 after listening to a priest give his homily during a mass in Metro Manila. That priest had bungled his English grammar and had stumbled on his English phrases and idioms far too often for comfort, and I felt that this was an untenable state of affairs that needed the immediate action of the church leadership.

Within a few hours after my essay came out in the Internet edition of The Manila Times, however, I received the following e-mail from one of the faithful overseas: 

“Regarding your column on the grammar of preachers, let me say that none of us is perfect. I must admit that I’m not that great either when it comes to English grammar. We even have a Filipino priest who has been here in America for over 10 years, but who still finds it next to impossible to correctly pronounce just a simple English word; he also doesn’t know the difference between ‘she’ and ‘he,’ but of course I know what he means. However, if you listen closely to the message of God that he is trying to tell you through the homily, you will be surprised that all those grammar errors fade away. Let God’s message reach your heart and mind instead. And for their big and little imperfections, our priests need our prayers, too.”

I really wonder if the church hierarchy should follow the line of least resistance being advocated above and leave everything to God, or start being really proactive and make sure that its seminarians and even its full-fledged priests will get much more intensive, rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage from now on. (March 20, 2010)

The grammar of clerics and preachers

A few Sundays ago, my two sons and I attended Holy Mass in one of those improvised worship halls put up inside Metro Manila malls. The priest, in his late thirties or early forties, read the opening lines of the Eucharist in pleasantly modulated English, his voice rippling the familiar words and phrases like the chords of a well-tuned piano. His cadence and pronunciation reminded me of the late Fr. James Donelan, S.J., then chaplain of the Asian Institute of Management, who used to say morning mass at the institute in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He would regale the middle-aged management students with English-language homilies of simple beauty and depth, and then, in his formal humanities class, he would lecture them with delicious erudition about the cultural wealth of Western civilization. Now, listening to the young priest at the mall, I thought that here at last was one more man of the cloth of possibly the same weave. I thus settled down on my chair confident of hearing a well-delivered homily to strengthen my resolve as a believer for the week ahead.

That expectation was soon dashed to pieces, however, for as soon as the priest no longer read from the book and started speaking extemporaneously, it became clear that his command of English left a lot to be desired. He could not even make the form of his verbs agree with the number of his nouns and pronouns, and his grammar was so gender-blind as to be irritating (“The woman walked in the storm and go under the tree to deliver his baby.”). His command of the prepositions was likewise disturbingly inadequate, and he stumbled on his English phrases and idioms far too often for comfort.

I therefore listened to the rest of his homily with increasing distress. Of course, I couldn’t presume that the rest of the congregation shared my discomfort; perhaps I was just too exacting in my English grammar that I tended to magnify what could really be minor mistakes. But two weeks later, I asked one of my sons—then a high school senior—to validate my impressions of that homily. Having attended grade school in a Jesuit-run university, he would normally be squeamish about criticizing priests about anything, but he told me without batting an eyelash that he thought the priest’s English grammar was bad because he kept on messing up his noun-verb agreement and gender usage. I really needed no better confirmation of my impressions than that.

Looking back to that incident, I think that the country’s priests and preachers—more than anybody else in our highly Anglicized society—need better than just average English-language skills to effectively practice their vocation. We expect TV and radio broadcasters to have good English so they can properly report or interpret the news for us; we expect classroom teachers to have good English so they can effectively instruct our children on well-established, often doctrinaire areas of learning; and we expect lawyers to have good English to ably defend us in our mundane civil entanglements or prosecute those who have criminally acted against us and against society. But priests and preachers have a much more difficult job than all of them, for their goal is to teach us modes of belief and behavior that are matters not of fact but of faith. They ask us to believe with hardly any proof. And whatever doctrine they espouse, their mission is to help us experience the sublime, to make us shape our lives according to the hallowed precepts of prophets or sages of a bygone age. This is a definitely a tall order even for one with the gift of tongue, for it demands not only the fire of belief but also good or excellent command of whatever language he or she uses to preach.

Since I was a child, my impression has always been that priests and preachers stay in school the longest—ten to eleven years if my memory serves me well—because they have to master the craft of language, suasion, and persuasion better than most everybody else. My understanding is that this is why seminarians study for the priesthood far longer than students pursuing a degree in medicine or law. I would think that those years of long study could give them a truly strong foundation in English grammar and usage, in listening skills, and in reading skills, then imbue them with a facility with the language that couldn’t be matched by lesser mortals. However, as shown by the fractured English of that priest delivering that homily at the mall and of so many other priests I have listened to over the years, that foundation has been resting on shaky ground indeed.

I therefore think it’s high time that the church hierarchy took steps to remedy this problem. This might be a tall order, but if nothing is done about this, I’m afraid that the established religious faiths would lose more and more of their flock to less virtuous but more English-savvy preachers—preachers who may have rickety or dubious religious platforms but who have honed their gift of tongue and powers of elocution to a much higher degree. I therefore suggest, for their own sake and for the long-term survival of the faith, that all seminarians and even full-fledged priests be given a much more rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage. They need to effectively smoothen out the grammatical and semantic kinks in their English to become more able promoters and defenders of the faith.

As the old saying goes, God helps only those who help themselves. (May 23, 2003)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 23, 2003, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


The Dangers of Overstatement

As a largely self-taught student of rhetoric, I watched and listened attentively to the homily that Sunday afternoon. The priest officiating the Mass exuded the verve and confidence of an experienced schoolmaster, speaking in fluent Tagalog interspersed with impeccable English. He obviously knew how to speak rhetorically, and I must say that at the start, his eloquence held me and the rest of the audience spellbound.

His elocution was classically Aristotelian. First, although a lector had already given him a suitable introduction, he restated his bonafides to more firmly establish his ethos, or the appeal of a speaker’s character (“Yes, I am a teacher, make no mistake about that.”). Then, for pathos, or the appeal to emotion, he used some academic-style humor that often drew laughter and half-smiles from the audience. I thus imagined that he was conversant with the Grecian flowers of rhetoric, so I naturally expected his homily to have a persuasive logos or appeal to reason as well.

To my bewilderment, however, he used a strange rhetorical device for the homily. What he did was to pick a native-language phrase—let’s just say “pinakamatalik kong kaibigan” (“my closest friend”)—then playfully ask everybody what each letter of the first word represented. Of course, there really was no way even the most intelligent person could have fathomed what those were. It was like telling a quiz show contestant this: “Give me the names of all the persons who perished in the Titanic.” A mind with total recall and steeped in trivia probably could have hazarded a guess if the priest had used a concrete noun instead, like “Doe, a deer, a female deer/Ray, a drop of golden sun…” in that delightful song of the Von Trapps in The Sound of Music. But the priest did it in the manner that people with nothing else to do will ask: “Ano ang kahulugan ng bawat letra sa katagang ‘San Miguel’? Sirit na? Ang hina mo naman! E, di ‘(S)a (a)ming (n)ayon (m)ay (is)ang (g)inoo (u)minom (e)h (l)asing.” (“In our village a gentleman got drunk.”)

The rhetorical device he used certainly was not a hyperbole, or an extravagant exaggeration used for emphasis or effect, as in “I ate so much that I must now be heavier than an elephant.” It could not have been a simile or metaphor, either, because no word was really compared or substituted with another. I had a fleeting feeling—soon gone—that it was some form of synecdoche, a variant of the metaphor that mentions the part to signify a whole, as in “I need six hands” to mean “I need six people.” In hindsight, I can see now that it was a weak fusion of metonymy and prosopopoeia, the first being a figure of speech that substitutes some suggestive word for what is actually meant, and the latter—also called “personification”—one that invests human qualities to abstractions or inanimate objects. In any case, his question was so nebulous that the priest, as might be expected, ended up providing all the answers himself.

The words he assigned to the letters of the word “pinakamatalik” are no longer relevant, so I will not dwell on them here. They formed the core of his logos, however, and from sheer repetition, they ultimately brought home the message of the beneficence, love, and invitation to the communion that God extends to us all. There was no question about that. The problem was that the priest didn’t know when to stop. Ever the taskmaster giving pupils a grammar drill to the very end, he dunned his listeners many times to repeat each word; when they balked, he would browbeat them until they relented and blurted out the words. Then he asked everyone to do what I thought bordered on the absurd: to say “Ikaw ang pinakamatalik kong kaibigan” (“You are my closest friend.”) to his seatmate. He sternly badgered the listeners until he was satisfied that their collective voice was loud enough.

That was where, I think, the logic of his logos snapped; the liberties he took with the language simply became too embarrassing. Perhaps “Ikaw ay aking kaibigan” would have been acceptable rhetorically, but to ask someone to tell a total stranger that he is “your closest friend”? This gave you the feeling that the priest was more interested in testing his power to elicit the blind obedience of his flock than in planting a divine message in their minds.

In his classic book Rhetoric, Aristotle argues that persuasion by argument is best achieved when the speaker’s chain of argumentation is not too hard to follow and not too long: “The links in the chain must be few.” I have this feeling that the priest, in coercing his listeners to be party to his convoluted rhetoric, had seriously violated that role on both counts. This is the danger in overstatement that all public speakers must always guard against to keep their persuasiveness intact.

From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, Copyright © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo, Copyright © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Open secrets to writing prose that leaps out from the page

If you are simply writing a memo to your manager, a job application letter to a prospective employer, or an accomplishment report to a socio-civic or professional organization, your best bet will always be plain and simple English—simple words, concise and uncomplicated phrasing, short and straightforward sentences, expositions with not a trace of embellishment. But if you are a professional writer doing nonfiction feature stories or opinion pieces; a literary writer doing short fiction, novels, or stage plays; or a public speaker who ply the lecture circuit for a living or do a lot of social advocacy or political speeches, it definitely won’t do to depend on plain and simple English alone. You need to discover, learn, and practice the open secrets of writing English that leaps out from the page, English that engages and keeps your readers or listeners enthralled until you’re done with what you have to tell them. In short, you need to acquire ample skills in rhetorical writing and speaking in English.

In “Playing Boldly with Sentences,” an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column of The Manila Times in the early 2000s, I related my thrill of discovery in coming across Lucille Vaughan Payne’s The Lively Art of Writing, a reference book that methodically but delightfully describes the nuts-and-bolts of writing sentences and expositions with the power to hold readers and listeners by their lapels. I am sure that Forum members and guests can greatly benefit from that book’s writing prescriptions, so I have posted that essay about them here. (December 16, 2014)

Playing Boldly with Sentences

One of the most lucid and delightful books I’ve read about writing is Lucille Vaughan Payne’s The Lively Art of Writing. The slim volume, which I discovered many years ago when I was still very self-consciously grappling with writing technique, taught me one unforgettable truth about doing a sentence: it’s all a matter of developing a basic idea. No matter how complex our thoughts are, we can actually boil down each of them to a few words that capture its essential meaning. The emotional turmoil that seizes a love struck person, for instance, can normally be whittled down to this deadpan statement: “I’m in love and I don’t know what to do.” The righteous anger that a manager feels when a subordinate violates a time-honored corporate rule usually culminates in two words: “You’re fired!” And the feeling of certainty of a religious convert usually gets affirmed in these words: “I believe.” They are all that simple.

It is only when we ask ourselves—or when other people ask us—to support and justify those simple ideas that we have to elaborate on them with more words. Who are involved? Why? Where? When? How? And so what? To answer these questions, we begin to build our sentences. We make them long and complex to the extent that will make our thoughts clear, not only to ourselves but also to anyone who would care to read or listen to us.
Building those sentences can actually become much easier once we understand clearly that any sentence falls under either of three patterns: loose sentenceperiodic sentence, or combination sentence. As delightfully discussed by Ms. Vaughan Payne in her book, every sentence begins with a basic idea or statement: “The doves flew.” “Ana lost her temper.” “The manager burst into laughter.” It is how we build structures upon these basic ideas that determines how good a writer or speaker we are.

We come up with a loose sentence every time we add a string of details to the tail end of a basic statement: “The doves flew, flapping their wings in the still air, breaking the morning stillness with their shrill cries, warning their kindred of the approach of the deadly hawks.” On the other hand, we produce a periodic sentence when we place additional details before or inside the basic statement: “The imperturbable Ana, ever the patient one, the girl who never got angry even with the worst provocation, lost her temper.” In a combination sentence, of course, we add details before, inside, and after the basic statement, freely combining the elements of both the loose and periodic sentence: “The morose and demanding manager, with an ax to grind against anything and everything, was so pleased with the quarterly sales that he burst into laughter, the first time in so many years in his beleaguered company.”

You must have already noticed that periodic sentence structures usually expand the subject or verb, while loose structures expand the verb or object. The usual methods of expanding the subject in a periodic sentence are, of course, description and the use of appositives, adjectives, prepositional phrase, and participles. In her book, Ms. Vaughan Payne suggests that the easiest way to make details flow in a periodic sentence is to think of the subject as being followed by a pause.

It is, she says, the same kind of pause that occurs in conversations every day, as in these sentences: “My friend [pause] a Political Science graduate [pause] wants to run for town mayor.” “That volcano [pause] sheer and high as it is [pause] is not really that hard to climb.” “The school [pause] in keeping with tradition [pause] required graduates to wear togas and gowns.” “Annabelle [pause] grown tired of her boyfriend [pause] broke off with him last night.”

In the case of verbs, whether in periodic or loose sentences, we can expand them by showing how their action progresses. We can use adverbs and adverbial phrases to do the expanding: “The interviewer listened, attentively at first, but distractedly and impatiently towards the end.” “The soldiers paused at the road junction, wearily scanning the horizon for jet bombers, fearfully spying the buildings for snipers.”

As in the case of subjects, we can likewise expand objects to form loose sentence structures by using appositives, adjectives, prepositional phrase, and participles: “Today I am seeing Miss Jennifer Cruz, the human resources manager.” “The newlyweds took the bus, a rickety affair that perilously transported the mountainfolk and their produce to the nearest lowland town.”

There’s actually no limit to how much we can expand subjects, verbs, and objects in our sentences—except, of course, good sense and a keen awareness of how much our readers and audiences can take. In the end, the good writer is one who exercises restraint: not saying too little as to be irritatingly cryptic, nor saying too much as to be a big, tiresome bore.

This essay is Chapter 80 of Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Supply of English-capable Filipinos falls short of call-center demand

Way back in 2003, in an essay that I wrote for my English-usage in The Manila Times, I wrote about the special circumstance of the Philippines as a major exporter of English-capable manpower. I observed that the English acquired by Filipinos after being colonized by the United States for half a century was making a great life-saving difference for some 8 million Filipinos who had to work overseas for lack of gainful employment in their homeland. I argued then that barring any major reverses in the global labor market, the Philippines would be running out of its English-proficient labor exports in a few years. I then suggested that to stave off depletion of this supply, the country must undertake an intensive, no-nonsense training program to build the English proficiency of its labor pool and to assiduously improve it over the long term.

I wrote that essay at a time when the Philippines was just starting to nurture its fledgling call-center industry—a special employment variation in which modern communications technology makes it it possible for the country to export its English skills while physically keeping the manpower in the homeland. Last year or a decade later, fueled by the abundance of low-cost but highly-skilled English-speaking Filipinos, the Philippines became the top call-center country in the world—even overtaking India in the process.

But now a serious systemic problem has cropped up—the supply of qualified English-speaking Filipinos can no longer keep up with the growing call-center demand. Today, it looks like only one out of every 100 English-capable applicants interviewed by the leading call-center companies are actually hired, and that only 3 to 5 out of every 20 trainees survive the typical intensive one-month training. Clearly, as I suggested in that 2003 essay of mine, the Philippine government more than ever needs to put up an efficient, stable mechanism for replenishing its much-in-demand but depleted marketable English-speaking stock.

So here again is that 2003 essay of mine to put things in clearer perspective. (November 30, 2014)

Priming up our English exports

The special circumstance of the Philippines as a major exporter of English-capable manpower is a strategic advantage and strength for which we should be truly grateful. In truth, only God knows where our country’s economy would be right now if not for the English we have acquired after almost a half-century of colonization by the United States. We can rant and rave forever against this colonization from an ideological or geopolitical standpoint, but one fortunate fact will be indisputable: our passable English has made the great life-saving difference for some 8 million Filipinos who work overseas for lack of gainful employment in their homeland, as well as for their 40 million or more dependents back home who subsist on their $8 billion to $10 billion (400 to 500 billion Philippine pesos) in annual foreign exchange remittances. This happy accident of history as well as saving grace is something we share with only one other major English-capable country in the Asian region, India, and whether we like it or not, how we will deal with it in the next several years will largely shape our national destiny.

As with any other national resource, however, our English-proficient pool of professionals, health care and social workers, teachers, entertainers, househelps, and laborers is fast being depleted by the relentless waves of our labor diaspora. Barring any major reverses in the global labor market, we will run out of our English-proficient labor exports in a few years if we make no serious effort now to replenish them. The day will come when we will begin scrounging around for our English-speaking runts, or those who have achieved only a pitiful smattering of spoken English and cannot even write a decent English sentence. This will happen because although the Philippine economy has become so terribly dependent on overseas labor exports for economic survival, the government has not bothered to set up an efficient, stable mechanism for replenishing its depleted English-speaking stock. On the contrary, it has actually de-emphasized the teaching of English in favor of Pilipino in the primary and secondary schools. It has blithely ignored the fact that it is the English of its labor exports that has been saving its skin all this time, propping up the battered and faltering economy. This is like cutting the only rope that prevents us from falling headlong into the precipice of economic ruin.

It is high time the government finally recognized both the danger and opportunity in our current overseas labor situation. To put it even more bluntly, we must make sure that our English-capable labor exports are not only deployable but also the preferred choice of the overseas labor markets. The demand side is growing but our supply side is now on “low bat” after so many years running, so to speak. The only way to stave off depletion of this supply is to conduct an intensive, no-nonsense training program to build our English proficiency as a people and to assiduously improve it over the long term. We have already lost out by default to many of our Asian neighbors in the areas of technology, manufacturing, and agriculture, but the fact is that we are still miles and decades ahead of them in English proficiency, no matter how low its levels may have sunk in recent years. English is our only highly viable and competitive export product remaining today. Let us not lose out on this one; let us nurture and not neglect it.

One immediate course of action the government can take is to train a highly professional, high-performing corps of teachers with a strong English-language orientation. It can create a highly selective scholarship program for this purpose, similar to the National Science Development Board (NSDB) program in the 1960s. The program can aim for an annual quota of, say, 10,000 to 20,000 high school seniors with excellent English, science, and mathematics skills as well as outstanding aptitude for teaching; prequalify them through a rigorous state-conducted exam; and put them in a special, highly intensive teaching degree course as state-sponsored scholars. The best and brightest of our young people can be attracted to this program by guaranteeing them highly competitive salaries and privileges upon graduation. After all, their work will be truly radical and missionary: to teach English and the basic academic disciplines not simply for domestic needs but for international competitiveness in the foreign labor markets. The long-term goal, of course, is to spearhead the liberation of our educational system from mediocrity and to spark a Renaissance in the teaching and learning of English, science, and mathematics in both the public and private schools.

In perhaps five to six years’ time, this elite group of teachers can be deployed to strategic points of the country to do two very crucial tasks: to take leadership positions in the regional or provincial educational hierarchies, and to set up and run local retraining programs in English, science, and mathematics for primary and secondary teachers. They will also set the mechanism for replacing or retiring teachers who do not meet the much higher teaching standards that will be pursued in all levels. Only through a well-focused, purposive, and long-term initiative like this can we ensure the continuity of our overseas labor exports as a source of badly needed foreign exchange, and ensure that the products of our school system are superior to those supplied by other labor exporting countries.

The formation of this elite group of English-oriented educators and teachers will not only be a pragmatic move but a symbolic one as well. It will announce in no uncertain terms the government’s strong and earnest desire to build a much stronger educational system that is fully in tune with the needs of the modern-day world economy. It can in fact become the launching pad for the long-dreamed overhaul of the educational system that government officials and educators had only been paying lip service to all these years. On top of this, it will serve notice to the world that the Philippines is finally taking its primacy in the English language very seriously, and that it intends to dearly keep and improve its 100-year lead in English as a matter of national pride and survival. (2003)
From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language by Jose A. Carillo © 2004 by the author, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mastering the fine art of negation in English

We know that to affirm something to be true is much easier and more pleasant to do than to declare it to be untrue. This is because doing the latter often involves negating what somebody else holds to be true—a situation that could cause bad feelings, wounded pride, acrimonious exchange, or even vicious and protracted debate. It is therefore important for us to develop negation to a fine art, the better to diffuse the pain and unpleasantness to the one being refused, rebutted, contradicted, denied, lied upon, or denigrated.

The staple negation adverbs in English are, of course, “no,” “not,” “never,” and “without.” In addition to them, however, the language uses a remarkably wide range of devices for lexical negation (words with negative connotations) and affixal negation (positive words negated by affixes). I surveyed these types of negation in an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in the mid-2000s, and I am now reposting it here for those who may need a refresher on how to say no without causing offense. (November 16, 2014)

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 cohorts 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, in particular, 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 and awfully 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 also be observed when 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” or “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 as well as 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,however, 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, October 27, 2014

We’ve really learned English once we get conversant with its idioms

There’s a very important aspect of English that many of its learners as a second language often overlook. It is that English—like most other languages—is on its face not necessarily always logical. On one hand, our English may be grammatically and structurally perfect but the ideas we are invoking may be contextually or logically wrong due to failed reasoning or deliberate mischief. On the other hand, the English we read or hear may sound bizarre or strangely illogical yet somehow makes perfect sense to us and to most people, like the expression “Please keep an eye on your valuables” that we often see posted in restaurants. It’s really such a polite, unprepossessing request, but have you ever imagined how horrible and gory the outcome would be if we followed that request literally? Plucking someone’s eyeball—perhaps even one of ours—and stuffing it in a genuine Gucci handbag containing an expensive smartphone and jewelry is actually the kind of crazy behavior that will make even the most indomitable interplanetary alien think twice about ever colonizing Earth. Indeed, such is the scary stuff that some deep English idioms are made of.

In “Logic and Language,” a two-part essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2006, I first took up malapropisms or the usually unintentional misuse or distortion of a word or phrase that results in a humorous illogical statement, then followed it with a discussion of the highly idiomatic character of English and an overview of the five general categories of English idioms. I am now posting that essay here for the benefit of those who need a refresher on idioms as powerful forms of expression of the English language. (October 26, 2014)

Logic and language

Part I

Sometime ago, while watching an otherwise engaging talk show on a local TV network about the decline in the English proficiency of Filipinos, I was taken aback when the following transcripts of supposedly bad spoken English were flashed onscreen for discussion:

“Half of this game is ninety percent mental.” (Baseball manager Danny Ozark of the Philadelphia Phillies)

“We are ready for an unforeseen event that may not occur.” (Former US vice president Al Gore)

“If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure.” (Former US president Bill Clinton)

“Smoking kills. If you die, you’ve lost an important part of your life.” (Former Hollywood actress Brooke Shields)

Having been uttered not by Filipinos but by Americans, I thought that these examples were irrelevant to the discussions at hand—a terribly wrong-headed backgrounder on the subject of English usage by Filipinos. With better research, the talk-show producers surely could have found much more illustrative examples of bad English uttered by Filipino speakers themselves. Also, I think we should be more forgiving towards the inexactitude of such remarks. They are usually made on the spur of the moment under the crushing glare of TV cameras and the press of so many proffered microphones, so their peculiar English are rarely representative of the normal English of the speakers who blurt them out.

But what I found even more jarring about the quoted statements is that they were not illustrative of bad English at all. The first quotation, in particular, is perfectly good English—“Half of this game is ninety percent mental.” Its grammar and semantics are unimpeachable, and as to its logic and arithmetic, what’s wrong with saying that baseball games are 0.5 x .0.9 = 0.45 mental? We surely can’t fault the logic of such a precise conclusion made by a highly experienced baseball coach.

The other three examples are contextually faulty, of course, yet they are definitely aboveboard in their English grammar and structure. The problem is not in their English but in their logic. Each of them is a “malapropism,” which the Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines as “the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase.” Often cited as a malapropism is the following supposed remark of Henry Ford about the Model T, the American car that he had mass-produced: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Another is this one by the 1940s movie mogul Sam Goldwyn: “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” On the home front, some of us may still remember the following malaprop remark of a Filipina many years back after winning a major beauty title: “I would like to thank my father and my mother, and most especially my parents.” As these examples clearly show, malapropisms may be contextually or logically flawed but are not necessarily grammatically and structurally wrong.

This brings me to the point that I would like to make about English, one that I am afraid the TV talk show missed altogether and that many learners of English as a second language often overlook. It is that logic and language are not necessarily always congruent. Our English may be grammatically, semantically, and structurally perfect but our ideas may be contextually or logically wrong. Such was the case with all but the first of the malapropisms presented by the TV talk show, which therefore doesn’t qualify them as instructive examples of supposedly bad English. On the other hand, our English may sound bizarre or strangely illogical on close scrutiny—like, say, the expression “Please keep an eye on your valuables” that we often see in restaurants—yet make complete sense to our readers or readers.

We will explore this matter more deeply in the next essay when we take up the highly idiomatic character of English as spoken by its native speakers. (May 8, 2006)

Part II

Many people lament the fact that English is so difficult to learn as a second or third language. They complain that although English forces learners to learn so many rules for its grammar, semantics, and structure, these rules are in practice more often violated than followed. How come, they ask, that the verb “turn” (to move around an axis or center) can mean so many things when paired off with different prepositions, such as “turn on” (excite), “turn in” (submit), “turn over” (return or flip over), “turn out” (happen), and “turn off” (lose interest or switch off)? And why do native English speakers say peculiar things that seem to have no logic or sense at all, like “We are all ears about what happened to you and Veronica last night” or “The top city official made no bones about being a former number-games operator”?

English is, of course, hardly unique in being idiomatic. Like most of the world’s major languages, it unpredictably ignores its own grammar and semantics in actual usage. But the sheer richness and complexity of English idioms—or the way native English speakers actually communicate with one another—makes it much more difficult for nonnative speakers to learn English than most languages. With scant knowledge of the English idioms, nonnative speakers may be able to master the relatively simpler grammar, semantics, and structure of English yet sound like robots when speaking or writing in English.

There are five general categories of English idioms: the prepositional phrasesthe prepositional idioms, common idiomatic expressionsfigurative or metaphoric language, and euphemisms.

A prepositional phrase consists of a verb or adverb form that ends in a preposition. The preposition used often doesn’t have a particular semantic significance or logic but had simply become entrenched through prolonged use, and the literal meaning of the verb or adverb isn’t changed by it. Some examples: “approve of” (not, say, “approve for” or “approve with”), “concerned with” (not “concerned of” or “concerned by”); “except for” (not “except of” or “except with”), and “charge with a crime” (not “charge of a crime” or “charge for a crime”).

A prepositional idiom, on the other hand, is an expression consisting of a verb whose meaning changes depending on the preposition that comes after it. As shown earlier, the verb “turn” can form so many prepositional idioms. Another verb that yields various idioms when paired off with different prepositions is “hand”: “hand in” (submit), “hand out” (to give for free), “hand over” (yield control of), and “hand down” (transmit in succession).

The common idiomatic expressions are concise, nonliteral language that native English speakers have grown accustomed to using for convenience. Some examples that also play on the verb “hand”: “to wash one’s hands” (to absolve oneself), “hand to mouth” (having nothing to spare beyond basic necessities), and “out of hand” (beyond control).

Figurative or metaphoric language is a form of idiom that compares two things in an evocative, nonliteral sense to suggest the likeness or similarity between them. It uses the so-called figures of speech, such as the simile and metaphor. A much-used example is the expression “the face that launched a thousand ships”—a literary allusion to Helen of Troy—to mean a provocatively beautiful woman.

Finally, a euphemism is a polite expression that people customarily use for things that they find unpleasant, upsetting, or embarrassing, such as sex, death, bodily functions, and war. Some examples: “to pass away” (die), “to rightsize” (to lay off excess personnel), and “collateral damage” (civilian deaths).

Obviously, the thousands upon thousands of English idioms can only be learned through long and intensive exposure to English as spoken and written by its native speakers. Formal grammar, semantics, and structure can only lay the bare foundations for English proficiency. Only when we have become adequately conversant with its idioms can we really say that we know our English. (May 15, 2006)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 8 and 15, 2006 © 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The pun and chiasmus as rhetorical devices for arousing emotions

Way back in 2003, I wrote a series of essays in The Manila Times on the figures of speech, or the surprisingly felicitous ways of arranging words and presenting ideas to arouse the emotion of the listener or reader. This week, I am posting here my two-part essay on wordplay, particularly on punning and on chiasmus. Punning is, of course, the usually humorous way of using a word to suggest two or more of its meanings or the meaning of another word that’s similar in sound, while chiasmus is the unexpected reversal of the order of words in two parallel phrases to heighten the drama of the statement or utterance.

Let’s now allow the two essays to speak once again for and about themselves. (October 7, 2014)

The power of wordplay

Part I – Punning 

We can invest feeling and emotion in what we say by using such figures of speech as the simile, metaphor, and hyperbole. These are not new forms of expression at all. As early as 2,000 years ago, in fact, the Greeks had already made such a fine art of their language by cultivating as many as 80 rhetorical devices—“the flowers of rhetoric,” they called them. The figures of speech, of course, derive their power by unexpectedly comparing a subject to things already familiar to us, while rhetorical devices can stir our emotions with the surprisingly felicitous ways they arrange words in a sentence or passage.

Let’s now take a closer look at wordplay, or the witty, clever, malicious, insidious, or cruel manipulation of words themselves as phonemes or carriers of meaning.

The most common form of wordplay, of course, is punning. This is the often humorous play on a word’s different meanings or on the similar meanings and sounds of different words—with the requisite mild touch of mischief or malice, of course. The more razor-sharp and wounding the pun is to the target, the better and more satisfying it is to the third-party listener. For instance, if a club chair, unable to stop a talkative but incoherent member from dominating a meeting, tells all and sundry, “Blessed are they who have nothing to say and who cannot be persuaded to say it,” how do we react? We feel good not only at the wounding of the target’s ego but at the insult—at the power of the words to inflict the wound.

But puns fall flat if the speaker and listener don’t have a common referent and depth of understanding of the language. Many of Shakespeare’s puns, for instance, mean little now except to the most studious ears. In Hamlet, for example, Hamlet accuses Ophelia of unfaithfulness and verbally savages her: “Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go.” Hamlet built his pun around the word “nunnery” to wound Ophelia’s self-esteem and give vent to his rage. Yet up to now, over 400 years later, scholars, dramatists, and English professors still argue over what Shakespeare had really meant when he used “nunnery.” Some take it at face value: a place where disgraced women can take refuge from the jeers of society. Some take it on the figurative level to mean “Get out of here!” Others interpret it on the relational level as “You disgust me!” Researchers of Shakespearean English, however, have found that “nunnery” was a contemptuous allusion to “brothel” or “whorehouse.” This verbal cruelty, of course, is all but lost to the modern reader of Hamlet.

Now see how contemporary puns can elicit mirth or laughter (or our anger, if we ourselves are their targets) without us having to go through the same analysis that we have done above: “Cole’s Law: Thinly sliced cabbage.” “Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?” “My accountant always writes religious phrases down the left side of the page. That’s his prophet margin.” “Shin: A very sensitive device for finding furniture in the dark.” “I used to think I was indecisive ... but now I am not sure.” Don’t they all have a delicious ring?

People also use wordplay simply for the sound of it, as in these juxtapositions of similar-sounding phonemes: “Is a sea of sequoias aqueous?” (William Waite). “Reverse errors to persevere” rearranged to “Errors prosper over beer” (Mike Rios). Then there is recreational linguistics, or “letterplays,” where words are manipulated by transposing their letters or syllables; the wordplay literature is full of them.

But an even more hilarious form of wordplay is taking any word from the dictionary and altering it by adding, subtracting, or changing only one letter, then supplying a definition for the newborn word. The Washington Post, which runs a “Style Invitational” on this type of wordplay, drew out from readers the following gems in the 2003 edition of the contest: “Intaxication. Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.” “Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.” “Glibido: All talk and no action.” “Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.” “Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high. “Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.” “Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a grub in the fruit you’re eating.” Marvelous, marvelous!

To fully appreciate and enjoy these verbal pyrotechniques, of course, we must continually widen not only our grammar but our semantic grasp of English. Few can enjoy English-language wordplay at all unless they have already graduated from using English simply as a rickety pushcart for conveying information. (October 13, 2003)

Part II - Chiasmus

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

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

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

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

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

Most types of chiasmus reverse the words of familiar sayings in a felicitously parallel way, as in the French proverb, “Love makes time pass, time makes love pass.” For chiasmus to succeed, however, the two insights offered by the word reversals should both be true and survive subsequent scrutiny. (They could also be untrue, and therein lies the danger in chiasmus in the hands of demagogues and charlatans.)

But chiasmus need not be an exact reversal of a familiar saying. Take what the English writer Richard Brinksley said on beholding for the first time the woman whom he was to later marry: “Why don’t you come into my garden? I would like my roses to see you.” This implied chiasmus cleverly reverses this usual invitation of proud homemakers: “I’d like you to see my roses.” And chiasmus also nicely takes the form of questions, as in this line from Antigone by the 5th century Greek dramatist Sophocles: “What greater ornament to a son than a father’s glory, or to a father than a son’s honorable conduct?"

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

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 13 and 16, 2003 © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A case of mass noncompliance or miscommunication in English

Here’s a simple, no-brainer compliance test that I think should apply universally to all motorists: “How do you park when the mall parking signage says ‘PLEASE PARK FACING THE WALL’?”

You park with the front end of your vehicle facing the wall, right?

Strangely, though, an overwhelming majority of Filipino motorists—I’d say almost 95 per cent—fail this test when they park their vehicles in the basement parking area of a spanking new, seven-level extension of a huge shopping mall in Mandaluyong City in the Philippines. With just a sprinkling of compliant mavericks, practically all of the motorists deliberately or inadvertently park with the front end of their vehicles facing out—meaning away from the wall.

I must admit that I found this lack of civility unsettling, so after several weeks of hesitation, I finally decided to put my thoughts about it in writing. Hoping to bring the matter to wider public notice and to a proper resolution, I came up with an essay about it for my English-usage column in the August 23, 2014 issue of The Manila Times.

I am now posting that essay below to share with my misgivings about this situation. (August 31, 2014)

Wrong or willfully violated mall parking signs in English

Sometime last April, right after I parked my car facing the wall in the basement of the then still unfinished extension of a shopping mall in Mandaluyong City, a guard tapped my side window and asked me to park the other way around. I remonstrated against that demand because the signage on the wall couldn’t have been clearer—“PLEASE PARK FACING THE WALL”—but the guard politely insisted.

He explained in Tagalog that he was just enforcing management’s order, pointing to the rows of cars that were all parked facing away from the wall. The contradiction grated on my nerves but my wife Eleanor, who was seated beside me, told me not to argue. I then restarted the car, backed out and turned it around, then parked it with the rear facing the wall.

On our way out of that parking area, I asked another motorist—an Asian foreign national—if he didn’t find it unusual to be directed to park his car contrary to the signage instruction. He said it likewise didn’t make sense to him but decided it wasn’t worth arguing about.

Four days ago, I drove to that same basement parking area. The mall extension had formally opened several weeks before, and the finishing touches to the parking area were now in place—the directional signages, the assignment markings for parking slots, and the green-and-red pilot lights for slot availability. Mounted on the walls of several parking sections were big signage plates with this instruction: “PLEASE PARK FACING THE WALL.” In parking slots away from the walls, however, no signages were provided for how vehicles should be parked.

Everything was neatly in place in that basement parking area—except that almost all of the vehicles parked along the walls were parked facing away from the wall, and that in slots away from the walls, easily three-fourths of the vehicles were parked with the front end facing out. It was clear that (a) in the parking slots along the walls, practically every motorist had willfully ignored the instruction to park facing the wall, and that (b) in the absence of a specific instruction for vehicles occupying the slots away from the walls, the great majority of motorists had decided to park with the front of their vehicles facing out.

Witnessing this blatant disregard for the parking signages gave me the unsettling feeling of having entered an orderly yet upside-down universe. It also made me wonder what could have brought about this puzzling inverse compliance with a clear-cut rule.

After some research and lots of thought, I came up with these three possible reasons:
First, most Filipino motorists or hired drivers must be so mischievously disobedient—“mga pasaway” in street lingo—that they would rather flaunt rules if they can get away with it.

Second, that the mall management might have come up with parking rules that aren’t firmly anchored on the realities on the ground—rules that are probably inconsistent with the thinking and experience of Filipino motorists or hired drivers on what position is safe or unsafe when parking in enclosed spaces.

And third, which is really a long shot but even more elemental, what we have here may just be an unfortunate case of miscommunication in English. To convey both its intended and expected sense, the parking signage for slots along walls might be better worded as “PLEASE PARK YOUR VEHICLE FACING OUT,” and for slots away from the walls, perhaps the same signage should also be provided to ensure uniform compliance.

I really think the signages in the basement parking area of that mall extension need to be thoroughly reviewed with the above considerations in mind and, whatever rules may finally be adopted, they must be firmly enforced for the safety and peace of mind of all concerned.
This essay originally appeared in Jose A. Carillo’s weekly column “English Plain and Simple” in The Manila Times, August 23, 2014 issue, © 2014 by Manila Times Publishing.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The danger when most everybody must speak with a forked tongue

Once in every little while in our national life, but much more frequently in the past four years I must say, the public sphere gets subjected to a torrent of suasive language—whether in English or Tagalog or in both—that mercilessly and methodically subverts the truth. One such time is now. After the Philippine Supreme Court declared the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and then parts of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) as unconstitutional, we get the sense that most everybody still passionately defending the latter is speaking with a forked tongue, and that those steadfastly opposed to it are going for the overkill by demanding nothing less than the severed head of its proponents and implementors. Surely the opposing forces here could find a more honorable and less gruesome approach to this impasse, so perhaps they should tone down their rhetoric and be at least a little more truth-seeking, get together as honorable men and women, and work out a mutually acceptable resolution to the festering political crisis.

To help clear the air for such a meeting of the minds, I thought of posting in the Forum an old essay of mine, “Using Grammar as a Tool for Persuasion,” that discusses the mechanisms of suasive diction in subverting the truth to promote one’s personal agenda. It’s a long shot for sure, perhaps a quixotic effort even, but reading that essay just might help moderate the mindset of headstrong or highly partisan individuals who have begun to believe their own propaganda at the expense of the truth and the national well-being. (July 27, 2014)

Using Grammar as a Tool for Persuasion

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

First on our language agenda is, of course, to label people, places and things. Depending on our intent, biases, or predispositions, for instance, a medical doctor becomes a “health professional,” a “physician,” a “cutup artist,” or a “quack,” and a public relations man becomes a “corporate communicator,” a “spin master,” a “hack writer,” or a “flack.” We do this not to denigrate people per se, but only to quickly indicate our attitude and feelings toward the subject. Without labeling our subjects, it would take us an unduly long time to put them in context for our audiences. Rightly or wrongly then, the idea behind labeling in suasive diction is simply to achieve economy in language. We label things simply because time is short and we don’t have all the time in the world to explain ourselves.

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

There are, however, two major disciplines that methodically and ruthlessly use clichés, slogans, and metaphors for mind-bending purposes: advertising and politics. Here, we enter that region of language where hardly anything said is exactly what it means literally. We come face-to-face with “double-speak” or rhetoric exploited to the hilt, language that often teeters at the very outer edges of the truth and carried out by incessant repetition. It is suasive diction that, for good or ill, seeks to build niches in our minds for all sorts of marketing or political agenda. We can see, of course, that the mass media is chockfull of advertising that uses this kind of slanted language; as to particular specimens of the political propaganda, we need not dwell on them here since we are in the midst of a viciously fought national election season. It is enough that we are forewarned against taking them at their face value, and that we forearm ourselves by learning how to appreciate their messages critically and intelligently. As they say in Latin, caveat emptor, a warning that what we are dealing with here is language that’s barbed all over inside.

These thoughts about advertising and politics bring us to the use of grammatical ambiguity as a tool for suasive diction. Remember our lessons for using “it”-cleft sentences to achieve emphasis? By definition, we defined the cleft as one that “cleaves” or splits a single-clause sentence into two clauses for semantic emphasis, and the “it-cleft” is that variety that uses the function word “it” to highlight an object of special focus or theme, as in this statement: “It appears that our candidate will score a landslide victory.” In advertising and political propaganda, this sentence construction is often designed to artfully hide the source of the statement of the “experiencer” to make it appear as a fact rather than a conjecture. That sleight of language gives the semblance of certainty—a deliberate distortion of language to create what we all know as the “bandwagon” effect.

In suasive diction, therefore, it behooves us not only to watch our own language, but also the language of those who would deliberately subvert it to promote their agenda at our expense. (March 18, 2004)
This essay originally appeared in the author’s weekly column “English Plain and Simple” in The Manila Times, March 18, 2004 issue, © 2004 by Manila Times Publishing.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Modality is an entirely different attribute from conditionality

Question from justine aragones, Forum member (May 15, 2014):

Could the grammar of doubt and uncertainty explain sentences that begin in “Had” as in “Had it not been...” and the sentence below that starts with “Had” and not with the conditional word “If”?

“Had Jon joined in an hour after Jess started working, the job would have been finished in 7 hours.”

My reply to justine aragones:

When we talk about the grammar of doubt and uncertainty, we are talking about the use of the so-called modals, or the auxiliary verbs that indicate conjecture, supposition, or belief rather than established facts or absolute certainty. These auxiliary verbs are, of course, “can,” “could,” “must,” “might,” “may,” “should,” “shall,” “ought to,” “will,” and “would.” When we say “Gina might dance,” for instance, we are conveying the idea that Gina knows how to dance but we are not sure that she will do so under the circumstance that we have in mind. However, we see no need to state a condition for what she might decide to do.

On the other hand, when we talk about the grammar of conditionality, we are talking about how to convey the idea that a particular action can take place only if a certain condition or set of conditions is fulfilled. For instance, when we say “If Gina likes the music, she would likely dance,” we are indicating that it’s likely for Gina to dance if the music suits her fancy. There’s a condition for what she would likely do, unlike in the case of the modal sentence “Gina might dance,” which is simply a supposition or belief.

Based on this distinction between modal statements and conditional statements, we definitely can conclude that modality isn’t the same as conditionality. They are different modes of expression altogether. It would therefore be a stretch if not altogether ill-advised to attempt to make the grammar of modals explain why the conditional sentence below starts with “had” and not with “if” as expected of a conditional sentence:

Had Jon joined in an hour after Jess started working, the job would have been finished in 7 hours.”

The sentence above that you presented is actually just an alternative construction—a more elegant one, I must say—of the so-called third conditional or no possibility sentence, which denotes a past condition that didn’t happen, thus making it impossible for a wished-for result to have happened. This type of sentence has the following structure: the “if” clause states the impossible past condition using the past perfect tense “had + past participle of the verb,” is followed by a comma, then is followed by the impossible past result in the form “would have + past participle of the verb.”

Thus, the more common construction of the sentence that you presented is as follows:

If Jon had joined in an hour after Jess started working, the job would have been finished in 7 hours.”*

Note that in third-conditional constructions where “had” introduces the condition, the conditional clause drops the “if” altogether. But whether the condition is introduced by “if” or “had” in a third-conditional sentence, the sense remains the same. In both constructions of the sentence that you presented, in particular, the speaker is talking of an impossible outcome because Jon didn’t join in an hour after Jess started working and the job wasn’t finished in 7 hours.

Such use of “had” instead of “if” for the conditional clause is also an option for the so-called second conditional or unreal possibility sentence, which denotes a possible but very unlikely result that the stated future condition will be fulfilled; in short, the stated outcome is an unreal possibility. This type of conditional has the following sentence structure: the “if” clause states the future condition in the simple past tense, is followed by a comma, then followed by the future result clause in the form “would + base form of the verb,” as in this example:

If I finished my medical studies, I would be a surgeon now.”

That second conditional sentence will mean exactly the same—and sound more elegant at that—if we use “had” instead of “if” to introduce the condition:

Had I finished my medical studies, I would be a surgeon now.”

Modals are not meant for absolute certainties
“Should,” “would,” and the other modals
Do better than a calculated guess in handling conditional sentences
*Take note that in the result clause “the job would have been finished in 7 hours,” the verb is in the passive voice, so it's in the form “would have + been + past participle of the verb” instead of the active-voice form “would have + past participle of the verb.”

Monday, May 5, 2014

Dealing with the age-old controversy over the usage of “fewer” and “less”

Question by jhinx22, Forum member (May 2, 2014):

People often don’t know when to use “fewer” and when to use “less” in a sentence. “Fewer” is used when referring to people or things in plural as in this sentence: “Fewer students are opting to study science-related subjects. “Less,” on the other hand, is used when referring to something that can’t be counted, as in this example: “People want to spend less time in traffic jams.”

I was confused when I came across this example in your forum: “‘Why are there less women CEOs?’ asks the professor.”

Shouldn’t it be “fewer” instead?

My reply to jhinx22:

You hit the nail right on the head, so to speak, when you say that people often don’t know when to use “fewer” and when to use “less.” The fact is that the choice between these two comparatives has been steeped in controversy for over two centuries now, and it’s a controversy that shows no sign of abating. The general rule is, of course, to use “less” if we are talking comparatively about an amount of something that can’t be counted, as the noun “time” in the example you gave, “People want to spend less time in traffic jams”; and to use “fewer” if we are talking comparatively about a number of people or things that are countable, as the noun “students” in your other example, “Fewer students are opting to study science-related subjects.”

In actual usage, though, we soon discover that this general rule doesn’t always work—or at least not work very nicely—for quite a few things. While “money” is obviously countable, for instance, we don’t say “I have fewer than five-hundred pesos in my savings account” but say “I have less than than five-hundred pesos in my savings account” instead. And while the noun “minute” is evidently countable as a unit of time, I’d say “Less than half of the 180 minutes of that atrocious stage play was worth watching” and definitely not “Fewer than half of the 180 minutes of that atrocious stage play was worth watching.”

There are obviously other grammatical or semantic forces at work when we make the choice between “fewer” and “less” in our written or spoken English. It is therefore perfectly understandable that you got confused when you came across this construction in the Forum: “‘Why are there less women CEOs?’ asks the professor.” Shouldn’t it be “fewer” instead?

That questionable “less”-using sentence was actually a news headline on the web that was brought to my attention by a Forum member, journalism student Jhumur Dasgupta, way back in December 2011. He found that headline odd from a structural standpoint, not because it used “less” instead of “fewer,” and he asked me if there was a better way to construct that headline (“The proper way to construct a question in a news headline”). I suggested some structural variations, but that headline’s usage of “less” not having been questioned, I took its wording at face value when I analyzed it for Jhumur.

Now that you’ve brought up that sentence for discussion, though, I think it’s time to seize the bull by its horns and answer your question: Shouldn’t it use “fewer” instead of “less”? Shouldn’t it be corrected to read as follows?

“‘Why are there fewer women CEOs?’ asks the professor.”

For sure the sentence above is more grammatically airtight than “‘Why are there less women CEOs?’ asks the professor,” but I think only in the context of a comparison against a well-known, numerically established number of women CEOs in, say, a specific industry within a certain geographic location. For instance, assuming that it has been definitely established that there are 8,000 male CEOs in Metro Manila’s telecommunications industry against only 500 women CEOs in that local universe of CEOs, then given that level of certainty, the use of the comparative “fewer” would be unquestionable and that statement should definitely read as follows: “‘Why are there fewer women CEOs?’ asks the professor.”

I would think though that when comparing unknown, not well-established, or merely assumed or conjectural quantities, “less” might just be preferable to “fewer” and better-sounding at that. Take this hypothetical example: “In that progressive island-nation in which you imagine that female executives outnumber male executives by a ratio of 100:15, why would there be less women CEOs?” (I know that grammar prescriptivists would accept that construction only if the phrase “than male CEOs” is added to the tail end of that sentence, but no matter.) I’m not saying, though, that “fewer” is wrong in that sentence, only that “less” becomes an irresistible if not an unquestionably viable usage as well. Indeed, the shade of difference between “fewer” and “less” becomes marginal in such situations, and I personally don’t think I’d be so embarrassed as to lose sleep if somebody caught me instinctively using “less” for that comparative.

Trouble in using “less” or “fewer”
“Ten items or less”

OxfordWords Blog on “Less” and “Fewer”
New York Times ”After Deadline” Blog on “Less” and “Fewer”

Saturday, April 12, 2014

How conditional indicative sentences differ from subjunctive sentences

Question e-mailed by Edsel Ocson, who describes himself as an interested reader (April 12, 2014):

In your recent article about media people and the subjunctive mode (“Some recurrent misuses of the English subjunctive”), I found the following sentence: “It would really be a shame if an otherwise well-written reportage or well-argued commentary is needlessly undermined by faulty subjunctive construction.”

Don’t you think the word “is” in the above sentence should be changed to “were”?

My reply to Edsel Ocson:

No, the “is” in that sentence of mine shouldn’t be changed to “were” because it’s not a subjunctive sentence but a conditional sentence in the indicative mood. A conditional sentence is the type of sentence that conveys the idea that the action in the main clause can take place only if the condition in the subordinate clause—the “if”-clause—is fulfilled; its mood is indicative because it denotes acts and states in real-world situations, as in that sentence of mine that you are asking about. On the other hand, a subjunctive sentence is one that denotes acts or states that are contingent on possible outcomes of the speaker’s wish, desire, or doubt; it is in subjunctive sentences using an “if”-clause that the verb “be” exhibits maverick behavior, sticking to the past-tense subjunctive form “were” all throughout, regardless of the person and number of its subject.

This sentence of mine is in the indicative mood because, as I indicated earlier, it denotes an act and a state in a real-world situation: “It would really be a shame if an otherwise well-written reportage or well-argued commentary is needlessly undermined by faulty subjunctive construction.” It belongs to the type of conditional sentence called the zero conditional (certainty), which denotes a condition whose result is always true and always the same. In such conditional sentences, the “if” clause states the condition in the simple present tense, is followed by a comma, then is followed by the result clause also in the simple present tense, as in this basic example: “People get dehydrated if they don’t drink water” or, in the inverted form, “If people don’t drink water, they get dehydrated.” The sentence of mine that’s in question here has precisely the same conditional form: “It would really be a shame if an otherwise well-written reportage or well-argued commentary is needlessly undermined by faulty subjunctive construction” or, in the inverted form, “If an otherwise well-written reportage or well-argued commentary is needlessly undermined by faulty subjunctive construction, it would really be a shame.” (Here, as a nuance, I used “would” as a weaker form of the present-tense indicative “will.”)

Now I will explain why the word “is” in that sentence of mine can’t be changed to “were,” a change that conceivably would make it a subjunctive sentence. It’s because that sentence describes the outcome of an act or state in a real-world situation, making it indicative in the conditional sense. If we revise that sentence to describe the outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact, then it would become a subjunctive sentence that uses the subjunctive “were” instead of the indicative “is.” A usual way to do that is to express the condition as a wish: “Deeply embarrassed, the reporter wished that his otherwise well-written reportage or well-argued commentary were not needlessly undermined by faulty subjunctive construction.”

That sentence describing an outcome of an unreal situation or idea contrary to fact is just one of the many kinds of subjunctive sentences in which the verb “is” exhibits deviant behavior, consistently taking either the form of “were” or “be” regardless of the person and number of its subject. It will take so long to discuss all those types of sentences now but I’ll be taking them up in detail in the subsequent installments of my column in today’s issue of The Manila Times, “Some recurrent misuses of the English subjunctive.” Of course, you have the option of going to Jose Carillo’s English Forum now to check out my previous postings on conditional sentences (start with “Do better than a calculated guess in handling conditional sentences”) and subjunctive sentences (start with “When are subjunctive sentences called for and how are they constructed?”). Doing that now will definitely give you a head start and an edge in attaining mastery of these rather confusing and tricky aspects of English grammar.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Using euphemism to cushion the blow of request rejections

It’s tempting to say that plain, simple, and forthright English is the best way to phrase a response, but there are highly sensitive situations when it could be such a terrible aggravation. For such situations, we need to take recourse instead to euphemism—an indirect, gentler phrasing of our message so it won’t cause offense or arouse hostility. This is the kind of English that I would advise when, say, rejecting applications for a requested service like a credit card, a postpaid smart phone facility, or perhaps a car or housing loan.

Let’s hear from DMP, a customer service representative who asked me for advice recently on how to deal with such tough on-the-job communication situations:

I recently started working as a customer service representative, and part of my job is to inform customers about the results of their service applications.
 Most of the time, I do not need to provide specific information on why their applications are being approved or rejected. However, there are instances when a customer demands an explanation, and we are then required to elaborate. This often makes me very uncomfortable, especially when the reasons are sensitive in nature.
 For example, when the rejection is due to their bankruptcy status, or because their company is winding up, or that a family member has called in and told the company that the applicant is mentally unsound.
 Would you have any suggestions on how to gently phrase those three situations to customers? I would really appreciate your help.

My reply to DMP:

When turning down somebody’s service application for reasons that are sensitive in nature, you will need to say it in something other than plain, simple, and forthright English. You have to take recourse to euphemistic language, or an agreeable or inoffensive statement that won’t suggest something unpleasant. This, of course, is nothing less than applied diplomacy—the skill of handling affairs without arousing hostility. It’s an art form that needs to be learned and practiced purposively and rigorously both in words and in action.

Let’s see how you might euphemistically phrase your responses to the three situations you presented:

1. Rejection due to bankruptcy status: “We regret that we will be unable to approve your service application at this time due an unfavorable report we have obtained about (your, your company’s) current credit status.”

2. Rejection due to impending company closure: “We regret that we will be unable to approve your service application at this time due to advice we received that your company will be ceasing operations in the immediate future.”

3. Rejection due to negative feedback from the applicant’s family: “We regret that we will be unable to approve your service application at this time due to unfavorable advice we received from your family regarding the need for the service.”

General statements like these are usually designed to redirect the onus of the rejection from the entity making the rejection to an agency other than the applicant himself or herself. The statement need to be phrased in a way that doesn’t pointedly pass judgment on the applicant but encourages a quiet, nondefensive self-reappraisal of why he or she can’t be given what is being requested or asked for.

I trust that these thoughts will be of help to you in fashioning your service rejection letters. (March 30, 2014)