Sunday, April 26, 2015

Tough grammar question at the end of a litany of proofreading woes

The essay below is the last of a trilogy of essays that I wrote based on a well-meaning, constructive letter sent to me by a staffer of the Philippine Supreme Court who asked if he could consult me once in a while when he’s in doubt about his work. He said that part of his job is to proofread court decisions and resolutions drafted by a ponente or the designated writer from among the justices.

The letter-writer—I will keep him nameless for obvious reasons—told me he’s neither a lawyer nor an English major, so his proofreading is confined to just typos and grammar. “I used to be very strict,” he said. “I’d correct ‘back wages’ or ‘in so far’ into one word, and put a comma or period where I think it’s needed. This is because my idea of proofreading is that it’s for publication purposes; when the document gets printed, you can no longer correct it.” He then shared with me very instructive proofreading predicaments that constrained him from doing his correcting job thoroughly.

In my third essay below that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times, I answer this devilishly equivocal grammar question that the letter-writer posed at the end of his litany of woes over grammar “wormholes” in Supreme Court rulings: “What should the verb be in this sentence: ‘He insisted that she (stay, stays or stayed) in the house’?” (April 26, 2015)

A devilishly equivocal English grammar question

Last week, towards the end of my essay about wormholes in certain Supreme Court rulings and correspondence, I said that the unnamed letter-writer who brought them to my attention asked this devilishly equivocal grammar question: “What should the verb be in this sentence: ‘He insisted that she (stay, stays or stayed) in the house’?”

I replied that the answer could be the subjunctive “stay,” the indicative present-tense “stays,” or the indicative past-tense “stayed.”  Since the explanation would involve some grammatical complexities, however, I decided to devote a separate column to it.

Let me start by rearranging the answer choices for that sentence: “He insisted that she (stays or stayed, stay) in the house.” This will allow us to discuss the more familiar grammar concepts first and work our way to the more complicated ones.

Recall now that there are three moods of verbs in English, mood being that aspect of the verb that expresses the speaker’s state of mind or attitude toward what he or she is saying. These moods are the indicative, the imperative, and the subjunctive. The indicative and imperative both deal with actions or states in factual or real-world situations; in contrast, the subjunctive deals with actions or states as possible, contingent, or conditional outcomes of a want, wish, preference, or uncertainty expressed by the speaker.

The most common and familiar of the three moods is, as we know, the indicative. It conveys the idea that an act or condition is (1) an objective fact, (2) an opinion, or (3) the subject of a question. Indicative statements seek to give the impression that the speaker is talking about real-world situations in a straightforward, truthful manner; their operative verbs take their normal inflections in all the tenses and they follow the subject-verb agreement rule religiously.

Now let’s closely examine the sentence in question when it uses the first answer choice: “He insisted that she stays in the house.” This sentence is perfectly grammatical when it is said or understood as an indicative statement, where the speaker declares in a persistent but straightforward and truthful manner what he believes is an objective fact: that the female referred to currently stays—that’s the verb “stay” taking its normal present-tense inflection—in that particular house.

That sentence is also perfectly grammatical when said or understood as an indicative statement when the verb in the “that”-clause is in the past tense: “He insisted that she stayed in the house.” Here, the speaker declares in a persistent but straightforward and truthful manner what he believes is an objective fact: that the female being referred to stayed for sometime—that’s the verb “stay” taking its normal past-tense inflection—in that particular house.

Finally, let’s closely examine the sentence in question when it uses the third answer choice: “He insisted that she stay in the house.” There’s now an apparent subject-verb disagreement in the “that”-clause between the singular “she” and the plural-form “stay.” However, if that sentence is said or understood to be subjunctive, it would be grammatically and semantically correct. Indeed, one of the uses of the subjunctive is to denote a speaker’s insistence that a particular action be taken, not that it’s true or factual. 

So then, always keep in mind this rule for subjunctive sentences with a “demand,” “require,” or “insist” main clause followed by a “that”-clause indicating the action to be taken: the operative verb of that clause always takes the subjunctive plural present tense (without the suffix “-s”) whether the doer of the action is singular or plural: “I demand that all of you leave right now.” “The company requires that all job applicants take an IQ test.” And, in the same token, “He insisted that she stay in the house.”

I trust that I have adequately clarified this particular form of the subjunctive.

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 11, 2015 issue © 2015 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

So now as it was then, this is the world in 854 words

I wrote the essay below in the early 2000s but once again, at the risk of being deemed unduly assertive, I am posting it here to help make sense of the appalling resurgence of religious, political, and ideological genocide in our time in many parts of the world. It’s clear that we still need to answer the big question that has remained unanswered over the centuries: “When will humanity learn to be peaceably rational and rationally peaceable?” (April 5, 2015)

If I were asked to describe the world as I see it today, I would readily give this answer: it has hardly changed since 2,200 years ago when Archimedes, the Greek mathematician and physicist, was said to have bragged that he could move the world if only he had the lever to lift it. For all his ingenuity and imagination, however, Archimedes was dead wrong on this count. He knew the power of the lever like the back of his hand, assiduously applying this knowledge to design military catapults and grappling irons; he figured out with stunning accuracy the mathematical properties of circles and spheres, including the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, or what we now know as pi (3.14159265...); he began the science of hydrostatics, or the forces that govern stationary fluids, after discovering the now familiar Archimedes Principle; and he even invented the Archimedes screw, an ingenious water-raising machine still used today to irrigate fields in Egypt.

But on hindsight, we know now that Archimedes obviously exceeded his mind’s grasp when he thought of lifting the world with a plank. It wouldn’t have been possible to do so even if a suitable fulcrum could be found. The world was actually (and still is) an ovaloid sphere 12,760 km in diameter, one that rotates on its axis in 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.09 seconds and that revolves around a much bigger sphere—the sun—in 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes, and 9.6 seconds. The object Archimedes had bragged of lifting actually has a mass in tons of about 5.98 x 10 raised to the 21st power, and a volume in cubic meters of about 1.08 x 10 raised to the 21st power—figures too mind-boggling to even think about, much less to trifle with.

These elemental things obviously went beyond the ken of Archimedes’ overarching genius. It was only 1,750 years later, in fact, that the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was to make the startling, heretical thesis that Earth was not the center of the universe but simply one of the planets that orbited the bigger, stationary sun. But on this even Copernicus, who began the scientific reawakening that came to be known as the Copernican Revolution, was only partly right. The sun, it turned out centuries later, was not stationary in the heavens at all. It was rotating on its own axis in a perpetually moving spiral arm of the galaxy that we now call the Milky Way.

All of these facts about our world are now well-established certainties. Despite this accumulated knowledge, however, mankind still acts more primitively and more irrationally than its ancestors before the time of Archimedes. Humanity is still as mired as ever in superstition and religious fundamentalism. Organized religion, superstition, and nationhood have no doubt been great civilizing forces, instilling fear, awe, faith, and patriotism in man, and marshaling both the motive and creative energies for such architectural marvels as the Stonehenge in England, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the stately cathedrals in Europe, the great mosques in the Middle East and in Asia, the Borobodur temples in Cambodia, and the huge statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. Yet these very same forces— organized religion, superstition, and nationhood—are now methodically destroying not only human lives by the thousands but even the physical, social, and cultural legacies humanity had accumulated in the interim.

Intolerance on the religious, political, or ideological plane has always plagued mankind through the centuries, of course, both long before and long after the time of Archimedes. It brought about so many of the horrible depredations on either side of the major religious or geopolitical divides, from the time of the Crusades—those armed Christian expeditions to the Holy Lands and Constantinople in the 11th century—to the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. But more deeply disturbing is the fact that this intolerance and bloodshed have persisted even with the civilizing influence of the Age of Reason and Scientific Enlightenment. Today, people in many parts of the world are still murderously lunging at each other’s throats, intolerant of one another’s religious beliefs, disdainful of one another’s politics and ideology, and covetous of one another’s personal or national possessions. Humanity obviously has not learned its lessons well.

Thus, the great flowering of scientific knowledge and rational thinking that began with Archimedes and pursued with vigor by such great scientific minds as Copernicus, Galileo Galilee, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein—not to mention Charles Darwin—seems not to have really amounted to much. Our mindsets and dispositions as a species have remained largely primitive—there are disturbing signs, in fact, that we have deteriorated as social and reasoning animals, perhaps irreversibly. It is therefore not at all surprising that today, on a shocking improvement on Archimedes’ claim that he could lift the world with a lever, people by the thousands could think and claim that they could move the world simply on pure belief—no lever, no fulcrum, no hands or physical effort even—just belief and absolutely nothing else.

This essay first appeared in the weekly “English Plain and Simple” column of Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in the early 2000s and later formed part of his book Give Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

“The Starry Messenger,” January 19, 2013 editorial of The New York Times
“Pakistan horror: When the war comes to schools,” December 16, 2014 news dispatch in