Sunday, February 16, 2014

How to improve your written and spoken English by really trying

Here’s a question sent to my Personal Messages box by Ian T., new Forum member, last February 7, 2014:

Hi! Mr. Joe Carillo,
 I am a teacher and also a student of English. It has been more than five years since I started studying English; however, my grammar has not improved in both my spoken or written English. I have read every grammar book that I know from Cambridge to Oxford, but I have not really seen any big improvement in my English skills. I have been reading your Forum to find an answer to my problem, but for now, I just want to express my gratitude to you for this website, which is helping me a lot. Thanks!

My reply to Ian T.:

You’re most welcome, Ian!

I must say at the outset that you’re not alone in your predicament. Many nonnative speakers of English who want to become more proficient in English get into the same fix because they think they can achieve that objective by simply reading one English grammar textbook after another. That isn’t the right way to do it. Becoming good in English grammar may make you get good grades in school and score high in grammar proficiency tests, but it won’t dramatically improve your spoken and written English.

Grammar and usage—along with vocabulary—are very much like carpentry tools; they won’t make you a master carpenter if you keep them unused in the toolbox and make very little effort to use them in actual carpentry work. To realize a big improvement in English proficiency, you must assiduously make use, hone, and internalize your grammar and usage skills. You can do this by regularly reading and listening to good English—mind you, not just the kind you read in local English-language periodicals or hear on TV and radio broadcasts, but good English-language fiction and nonfiction as well as outstanding foreign English-language TV talk shows and news programs. Then you must make every effort to speak good English yourself—whether practicing in total privacy or in the company of friends and acquaintances.

You can consider yourself adequately skilled in English only when you are able to think or speak or write in good, straightforward English rather than mentally translating your native-language thoughts into English every time—and I must tell you that nothing less than a continuing, rigorous self-improvement effort can make that quantum improvement happen.

Over the years, a good number of readers of my English-usage column in The Manila Times and, later, members of Jose Carillo's English Forum as well have similarly asked me for advice for improving their English. I have distilled my thoughts about that question in “Advice to the English-challenged,” an essay that I wrote for my Times column in 2003. I later used that essay as the epilogue to my book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, and I am now posting it here as a suggested general action plan for you and for others seeking to improve both their written and spoken English.
Advice to the English-challenged

Scores of readers of my English-usage column in the Manila Times have asked me by e-mail how they can improve not only their written but also their spoken English. The two notes below are typical of their plight about their proficiency in the language:

Arkie Manny: “Can you please give me advice on how to converse in English more effectively? I am working here abroad and there are times when I stutter when talking with my colleagues.” 

Abby B., who studies in a prestigious Philippine university: “Way back in high school, we were not trained to speak English well. So now that I am in college, it is proving to be a very big disadvantage. I have a problem communicating with people. Sometimes I fail to answer my teacher’s questions during recitation not because I don’t know the answer, but because I don’t know how to deliver it. I get scared that I might not say what I really want to say and that my grammar might be wrong. I find it hard to deal with the problem. It affects my self-esteem. I want to become competitive. I want to become fluent. I hope you can give me advice.”

Arkie’s and Abby’s woes are actually very similar, so I gave them the same advice. Of course, I offered it neither as speech therapist nor speech improvement expert, but only as one who, many years ago, suffered from both problems mildly and had decently managed to cope with them.

I know of at least three reasons why some people find it difficult to express themselves in social, business, and classroom situations: a minor congenital vocal defect, an inferiority complex, or a deficient vocabulary, bad grammar, and bad pronunciation. To have any of these problems is, of course, excruciating enough. But worse is that many people just give up and blame their genetics, their upbringing, and their schools for it. Few bother to look deeply into their problem and find ways to surmount it.

In the case of a vocal defect, like the legendary stutter of Demosthenes of ancient Greece, personal initiative can make a lot of difference. Every day, the Athenian sword-maker’s son would do a solitary marathon and huff and puff through the city streets to the beach, stuff his mouth with pebbles, then start orating to the waves at the top of his voice. In time, the stutter disappeared and he went on to become the greatest orator Greece had ever known. Today, of course, you need not even do such an excruciating routine. You can simply get hold of a good English-language book or magazine and start reading aloud in the privacy of your bedroom. You can even do audiotapes of your readings to check your progress. If you do this for at least 20 minutes each night for a month, it just might do wonders to your recalcitrant tongue and diction as it did to mine.

If you have inferiority complex, there should be two or three personality development centers in your area that can help. I have not gone to one myself, but I had observed first-hand how their specialists make people see clearly the nature of their speech problems. The simple assisted routine of watching yourself speak in front of a mirror, or of being videotaped to capture your bad pronunciation as well as your tics and mannerisms, can be a painfully revealing but liberating process. A young secretary of mine many years ago suffered from an exasperating shyness; when spoken to, she would slur her replies and her right eye would blink rapidly without her even knowing it. I sent her to one such center and she became a self-confident, more refined woman in eight weeks, the slur and blinking gone.

Finally, as to deficient vocabulary and bad grammar, I actually know of only one appropriate course of action for that: a methodical self-review of English grammar, reading lots of good English-language books and magazines, and checking the dictionary for the meaning and pronunciation of any new word you encounter. It is sad that many schools and many teachers these days cannot be trusted to help you in this; their own problems with English vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation may be even worse than yours. You can easily see this in the incomprehensible, tortured English of leading Philippine educators who make the mistake of publishing their work in newspapers. Also, if you can help it, avoid tuning in to the Taglish morning programs of the local TV networks; listening to their fractured English and Filipino can set back your self-improvement efforts a few days each time.

As one who was similarly English-challenged in speech and who suffered from a mild stutter until third year in high school, I can tell you that there are few better therapies than the three I have described. Of course I must say one more thing: good English diction, as with practically all art forms, is simply the result of patiently cultivating the quality of one’s mind and of practice, practice, practice.
This essay first appeared in my “English Plain and Simple” column in The Manila Times in the early 2000s and now forms the epilogue to my book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language © 2004 by Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


Monday, February 3, 2014

So which do we use: a gerund, a full infinitive, or a bare infinitive?

For many nonnative speakers or learners of English, it’s difficult enough deciding whether to use a gerund or an infinitive for certain sentence constructions, but the problem becomes even more baffling when neither makes the sentence work properly or—at the very least—doesn’t make that sentence sound right. In such cases, in fact, lopping off the “to” from the full infinitive form to yield what’s called the bare infinitive becomes necessary to put the sentence on the right footing.

Such a grammatical dilemma was recently presented to me by an Iran-based English teacher, to analyze and resolve which I wrote a three-part essay for my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times. I am now posting all three parts here for the benefit of all who still get similarly stumped by the gerund-infinitive conundrum. (February 4, 2014)

1 – The choice between the gerund and the infinitive

An English teacher in Iran, Farhad H., e-mailed me recently about his perplexity over the following sentences involving infinitives and gerunds:

“Please take a look at Sentences 1 and 2 below:

“(1) ‘Rather than drive to New York in the snow, we decided to stay home and watch the game on television.’

“(2) ‘Rather than running away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.’

“As you can see, in Sentence 1, after ‘rather than,’ the bare infinitive ‘drive’ is used, while in Sentence 2, an ‘-ing’ form of the verb is used. Why? I’m really confused. What do we need after the ‘rather than’—a bare infinitive or an ‘-ing’ form? How do we decide which one to use?”

My reply to Farhad:

Your question involves two grammatical aspects: whether to use an infinitive or gerund, and whether to use a full infinitive or bare infinitive.

For a better understanding of these grammatical forms, recall that infinitives and gerunds are both verbals, or words that combine the characteristics of a verb and a noun. As a rule, an infinitive has the form “to + verb stem,” as in “to watch” functioning as a noun, while a gerund is a form of the verb that ends in “-ing,” as in “watching” likewise functioning as a noun. (A third kind of verbal, the participle, combines the characteristics of a verb and an adjective—as in the participle “watched” in the sentence “A watched pot never boils.”)

Being functionally nouns, both infinitives and gerunds can be used as subject, object, or complement, but whether an infinitive or gerund will properly work as such is primarily determined by the operative verb of the sentence.

Take Sentence 1 above: “Rather than drive to New York in the snow, we decided to stay home and watch the game on television.”

Let’s put that sentence in its normal, straightforward form so we can analyze it better: “We decided to stay home and watch the game on television rather than drive to New York in the snow.” Here, it’s clear that the operative verb is “decided,” and that “to stay home and watch the game on television” and “drive to New York in the snow” are both infinitive phrases serving as its direct objects—meaning that they are acting as nouns receiving the action of the verb “decided.”

The difference between these two infinitive phrases, however, is that the first,  “to stay home and watch the game on television,” is a full infinitive phrase, while the second, “drive to New York in the snow,” is a bare infinitive phrase, having dropped the function word “to.” The sentence is none the worse for it, though, showing that the infinitive “to drive” can take its bare infinitive form in that sentence without messing up its grammar and syntax.

Now let’s see if that sentence will still work correctly if it uses the full infinitive “to drive” instead: “We decided to stay home and watch the game on television rather than to drive to New York in the snow.” The grammar and syntax of that sentence remain airtight, but I must hasten to add that this doesn’t hold true in all cases. Indeed, several other factors come into play on whether a full infinitive or bare infinitive will work in a sentence.

Before taking up that aspect, however, let’s find out first if we can replace the infinitive phrases in Sentence 1 with their corresponding gerund forms: “We decided staying home and watching the game on television rather than driving to New York in the snow.” This time the sentence no longer reads and sounds right—clearly indicating that “decide” as operative verb won’t accept gerund phrases as direct objects.

We will discuss the ground rules for choosing between infinitives and gerunds in the second part of this essay below.

2 – Ground rules for choosing between gerunds and infinitives    

Let’s continue our discussion on the choice between infinitives and gerunds and between full infinitives and bare infinitives in constructing sentences.

In the first part of this essay, we left off with the finding that the following sentence that uses infinitive phrases as direct object of the operative verb “decided” is grammatically airtight: “We decided to stay home and watch the game on television rather than to drive to New York in the snow.” However, when the infinitive phrases are replaced by their gerund phrase equivalents, the sentence no longer reads and sounds right: “We decided staying home and watching the game on television rather than driving to New York in the snow.”

The problem is that the verb “decide” won’t accept the gerund phrases as direct objects in that sentence. In English, it is the operative verb that determines whether an infinitive or gerund can serve as subject, object, or complement, and it does so following these four ground rules: 

1. Use the infinitive as subject when denoting potential, the gerund when denoting actuality or fact. Potential: “To win will be great.” (“Winning will be great” works just as well, for “win” is one of those verbs that can take either the gerund or infinitive form to denote potential.) Actuality or fact: “Winning made him ecstatic.” (The infinitive doesn’t work: “To win made him ecstatic.”)

2. Use the infinitive as complement or object when denoting future ideas and plans, the gerund when denoting acts done or ended. Infinitive for future ideas and plans: “Her ambition is to teach.” (But not, “Her ambition is teaching.”) Gerund for acts done or ended: “She picked teaching.” (But not, “She picked to teach.”)

3. Use the infinitive as complement for single or repeated action, the gerund for ongoing action. Single action: “I came here to study.” (But not, “I came here studying.”). Repeated action: “She goes there to rest.” (But not, “She goes there resting.”). Ongoing action: “He does selling on the side.” (But not, “He does to sell on the side.”).

4. Use the infinitive as object for a request, instruction, or causation; the gerund for attitude and unplanned action. Request: “He asked me to rehearse.” (But not, “He asked me rehearsing.”). Instruction: “She told me to wait.” (But not, “She told me waiting.”). Causation: “They forced him to abdicate.” (But not, “They forced him abdicating.”). Attitude: “He thinks sailing is risky.” (But not, “He thinks to sail is risky.”) Unplanned action: “He found dancing to his liking.” (But not, “He found to dance to his liking.”).

These ground rules provide us with a clearer conceptual framework for using infinitives or gerunds, but we must firmly keep in mind that the primary basis for the choice is the operative verb of the sentence. We have to get used to the fact that some operative verbs can take infinitives, others can take gerunds, and the rest can take both. Making the correct choice won’t be easy, but ultimately, it’s the one that makes the sentence read logically and sound right.

Now let’s go back to Sentence 2 as presented by Farhad H.: “Rather than running away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.” He asked: Shouldn’t that sentence use the bare infinitive phrase “run away” instead?

That sentence obviously doesn’t read logically or sound right with the gerund phrase “running away,” but neither does it do so with the full infinitive phrase “to run away”: “Rather than to run away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.” However, it makes sense and reads perfectly well with the bare infinitive phrase “run away”: “Rather than run away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.” Why is that?

In the third and final part of this essay below, we’ll take up the rules for choosing between full infinitives and bare infinitives.

3 – Grammatical situations that require the bare infinitive

In the second part of this essay, we saw that the following sentence with the full infinitive phrase “to run away” doesn’t sound right: “Rather than to run away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.” However, it reads perfectly well when that full infinitive phrase is changed to its bare infinitive form: “Rather than run away from a difficult situation, they see it as challenging.”

So the question is: Are there hard-and-fast rules for using the full infinitive or the bare infinitive? There are actually none; all that can really be said is that in general, the primary determining factor is the operative verb of the sentence. Indeed, we’ll only find out which of them works—or works best—by first using the full infinitive by default. When it doesn’t work, the bare infinitive form usually will—unless, as we saw in our previous discussions, it’s only the infinitive’s gerund equivalent that can do the job.

At this point, we can now categorically answer the original question of Iran-based Forum member Farhad H. that launched this discussion: It’s in the nature of English that when an infinitive or infinitive phrase is preceded by the adverbs “rather,” “better,” and “had better” or by the prepositions “except,” “but,” “save” (in the sense of “except”), and “than,” it’s highly advisable to use the bare infinitive in the sentence.

Let’s try out those specific instances that require the bare infinitive: “We would rather commute than drive at this hour.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “We would rather to commute than to drive at this hour.”) “With the mess you’re in, you had better hire a lawyer.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “With the mess you’re in, you had better to hire a lawyer.”) “We tried everything except beg.” (Iffy with full infinitive: “We tried everything except to beg.”) “They did nothing but complain.” (Iffy with full infinitive: “They did nothing but to complain.”) 

As a rule, of course, the verb auxiliaries “shall,” “should,” “will,” “would,” “may,” “might,” “can,” “could,” and “must” should always be followed by a bare infinitive: “I shall scold them.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “I shall to scold them.”) “We may go there tonight.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “We may to go there tonight.”) “You must find her at once.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “You must to find her at once.”)

Now, when the operative verb is a perception verb like “see,” “feel,” “hear,” or “watch” and it’s followed by an object, the object complement should be in the bare infinitive form for the sentence to work properly: “We watched him perform the role and we saw him bungle it so badly.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “We watched him to perform the role and we saw him to bungle it so badly.”) “I heard her scream at a fellow justice during a full session.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “I heard her to scream at a fellow justice during a full session.”)

A bare infinitive is likewise needed as object complement when the operative verb is the helping verb “let” or “make” followed by an object: Let me call you sweetheart.” (Faulty with full infinitive: Let me to call you sweetheart.”) “She always makes me feel brand new.” (Faulty with full infinitive: “She always makes me to feel brand new.”)

The helping verb “help” itself, however, can take either a full infinitive or a bare infinitive as object complement. The sentence sounds formal with the full infinitive: “She helped them to mount the coup d’etat.” It’s relaxed, informal-sounding with the bare infinitive: “She helped them mount the coup d’etat.”

Always remember, though, that all of these uses of the bare infinitive should be treated as exceptions to the general rule. When in doubt, use the full infinitive first to see if the sentence will work properly.
This three-part essay originally appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 11, 18, and 25, 2014 © 2014 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.