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.