Monday, February 16, 2015

When disaster strikes, the grammar for avoiding blame comes in handy

It takes great courage and a strong sense of honor to admit culpability for a wrenchingly disastrous outcome, like the brutal annihilation of 44 Special Action Force commandos by Muslim terrorists in Maguindanao on January 25, 2015. Finger-pointing becomes the order of the day for those responsible in the line of command, and very often, the language used to wriggle out of blame and accountability becomes disingenuously familiar and—if truth be told—nothing short of scandalous.

In English, in particular, a special verb form lends itself very nicely to that pass-the-blame routine: the causative verb. I wrote at length about this verb in an essay for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in early 2006, then posted that essay here in the Forum in December of 2011 in the aftermath of the horrendous disaster wrought by Typhoon Sendong in southern Philippines (fatalities: 1,268). This week I am again posting the essay to help us see through the smokescreen of words coming from the usual finger-pointers, the better to figure out who among them is ultimately to blame and need to be punished in full measure for the horrific death of the 44 SAF troopers. (February 15, 2015)

Using causative and factitive verbs

When an awful act or serious mistake is made, particularly one that leads to a disastrous or tragic outcome, rare indeed is the soul that comes out in the open to take the blame for it. The usual response of the culpable is to ascribe the deed to somebody else or something else:

“They had me scoop the money from the vault at gunpoint.” (The perpetrator of an inside job is trying to extricate himself from the crime.)

“An earthquake made the mountain unleash the deadly mudslide.” (Actually, loggers had ruthlessly stripped the mountain of every inch of its forest cover.)

“The steel gate’s collapse caused the people to stampede.” (The crowd-control measures simply were too puny for so large a mass of humanity aiming to get rich quick.)

The English language has, in fact, evolved a special verb form to make people avoid acknowledging responsibility—if only for the moment—when caught in such situations. That verb form is the causative verb, which carries out an action that causes another action to happen. In the three sentences given as examples above, in particular, “have” is the causative verb in the first, causing the action “scoop” to happen; “make” is the causative verb in the second, causing the action “unleash” to happen; and “cause” is the causative verb in the third, causing the action “stampede” to happen. In each case, the crime or calamitous outcome is acknowledged but no one is accepting responsibility for it.

Causative verbs are, of course, not only meant to make people avoid taking responsibility for things that have gone sour or disastrous. In general, they are used to indicate the sort of actions that people don’t do themselves but allow, ask, or force other people to do: “Emily’s supervisor permitted her to leave early today.” “Our landlady reminded us to pay our overdue rent.” “The thieves forced the tourists to hand over their jewelry.” Note that in a causative construction, the subject doesn’t actually do the action of the operative verb but only causes the object to do that action. In the last example above, for instance, the subject is “the thieves” and the object is “the tourists,” and the causative verb “force” makes this object do the action of handing over the jewelry.

The other most commonly used causative verbs are “allow,” “assist,” “convince,” “employ,” “help,” “hire,” “let,” “motivate,” “remind,” “require,” and “urge.” When used in a sentence, practically all of these causative verbs are followed by an object (a noun or pronoun) followed by an infinitive: “We allowed foreigners to invest in the local mining industry.” “The recruiter convinced me to leave for Jeddah at once.” “The desperate applicant employed deceit to get the plum job.”

The only notable exceptions to this pattern are the causative verbs “have,” “make,” and “let.” They are followed by a noun or pronoun serving as an object, but this time what follows the object is not an infinitive but the base form of the verb (meaning its infinitive form without the “to”):

“I had my fellow investors sign the incorporation papers yesterday.”

“They made him finish writing the book in only five weeks.”

“We let the students pick the class schedules they want.”

Like the causative verb, another type of verb that exhibits peculiar behavior is the so-called factitive verb. While the usual transitive verb can take only one direct object, a factitive verb actually needs two of them. There are only a few of its kind, however, among them “choose,” “elect,” “judge,” “adjudge,” “make,” “name,” and “select.”

Here’s how a factitive verb works: “The prestigious finance magazine last night chose our company “Best at Consumer Goods” in its annual poll.” Here, “choose” is the factitive verb, “our company” is the direct object, and “‘Best at Consumer Goods’” is the objective complement—all three in tight, uninterrupted interlock. (February 20, 2006)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 20, 2006 issue © 2006 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

U.S. President favors eloquence over grammar-perfect English

Should the chief executive of a powerful English-speaking nation knowingly commit a subject-verb disagreement error just to make a single line in a major speech more eloquent and compelling? Indeed, as an English-savvy speaker and with all the powers at his command, why had President Barack Obama not chosen to be a role model for good English by being grammar-perfect in his recent State of the Union address? In the essay below that I wrote for my weekly English-usage column in the January 31, 2015 issue of The Manila Times, I offer some answers in response to what I initially thought was a Filipino lawyer’s red herring* of a question about faulty English in the U.S. president’s speech. (February 1, 2015)
*Just for those encountering this old idiom for the first time, a “red herring” is something used to divert attention from the real matter, issue or object. It is often deliberately used in fiction and nonfiction to plant a false clue that can lead readers or characters towards a false conclusion.

Grammatical pitfalls when ‘everyone’ is the antecedent

I thought I was being presented with a red herring when I received e-mail a few days ago from a Quezon City-based lawyer who made this observation: “In his recent State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama said: ‘Everyone must do their share...’ That is now very common. We hear a lot about ‘everyone’ being asked to do ‘their’ part in nation-building, etc. And what’s the deal with ‘between you and I’?”

Atty. Stephen Monsanto evidently meant to say that President Obama could have said “Everyone must do his or her share” instead but didn’t because even if that usage is grammatically airtight, the preferred option now is the plural adjective “their” for such constructions even if it’s grammatically faulty.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly checked the quote with the text of President Obama’s speech and found that it wasn’t a red herring after all. It wasn’t exactly what the president said but close to it, with the debatable usage even repeated in this scrupulously parallel construction (italicizations mine): “That’s what middle-class economics is—the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don’t just want everyone to share in America’s success—we want everyone to contribute to our success.”

Now the big question is: Did President Obama unknowingly commit a subject-verb agreement blunder in that speech?

My opinion is a qualified “No, he didn’t,” and I’ll now proceed to explain why.

Recall that “everyone” is a singular pronoun that refers to every unspecified person in a group; there’s a presumed zone of ignorance on whether the group is all-male, all-female, or mixed-gender. In President Obama’s speech, however, “everyone” clearly refers to the American people as a whole, which is unquestionably a mix of males and females. I therefore think that it would have sounded odd—and distractingly repetitious—for him to use “him or her” with that certain knowledge about his constituency: “That’s what middle-class economics is—the idea that this country does best when everyone gets his or her fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules…”

But hardline grammar prescriptivists would insist that to be an exemplar for correct English, President Obama should have avoided the obvious subject-verb disagreement altogether by replacing “everyone” with the  pronoun “all”: “That’s what middle-class economics is—the idea that this country does best when all get their fair shot, all do their fair share, and all play by the same set of rules…” That’s grammatically faultless all the way, but we can see and feel that the eloquence, fluidity, and sense of urgency of the original statement are gone.

The problem with using “everyone” is, of course, that English doesn’t have a singular third-person possessive adjective of indeterminate gender. All it has are the masculine adjective “his” and the feminine adjective “her,” and in contemporary usage, the classic recourse to “his” as default possessive adjective when the antecedent pronoun’s gender isn’t specified is now widely frowned upon as sexist. Also, as I’ve shown above, we can replace “everyone” with “all” to sidestep the gender problem but this tends to depersonalize the statement and make it less compelling.

This is actually why even at the risk of being looked upon as less than perfect in their grammar, many English-savvy people like President Obama now use “their” as possessive adjective for “everyone” as antecedent even in their formal English—and I do think that it’s not an unwise and illogical decision.

P.S. “Between you and I” is indefensibly wrong usage, though; it should be “between you and me.” A pronoun that follows “between” should always be in the objective case, like “me” instead of the subjective-case “I.”

This essay first appeared in the  weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 31, 2015,  © 2015 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.