Sunday, June 28, 2015

3 US nonfiction bestsellers flawed and faulty like that PHL textbook

June 29, 2015

Dear Fellow Communicator,

I’m sharing in this week’s edition of Jose Carillo’s English Forum a report that will hardly be any consolation to Filipinos who are finding to their disgust that some of the locally produced textbooks for primary and secondary students are not only incompetently written and chockfull of errors but are horribly edited or not even edited.  It’s about the finding that three current nonfiction bestsellers in the United States—Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin, The Road to Character by David Brooks, and On the Run by Alice Goffman—contain factual inaccuracies, false statistics, or shaky details serious enough to warrant disclaimers or frantic assurances of revision by their respective publishers. The culprit? By tradition and by default, nonfiction books in the U.S. are not fact-checked to anything near the standard of a magazine piece. But because of these scandals over bestselling nonfiction running afoul with accuracy, Kachka says, the U.S. publishing status quo might shift a notch this year by finally making pre-publication fact-checking of nonfiction mandatory. Let’s not just hope but prod the Philippine publishing status quo, particularly those engaged in textbook production for public schools, to shift several notches in the same direction.

THIS WEEK IN THE FORUM (June 28 – July 4, 2015):
·       Essays by Jose Carillo: “All” is a Many-Splendored Word Prone To Subject-Verb Disagreement (It’s because it can either be singular or plural depending on the context)
·       Readings on Language: The Lively Craft of Creating Words As Razor-Sharp Social Commentary (Though seemingly overly self-indulgent, they are a delight to read and to hear for the first time)
·       Use and Misuse: How To Use “Only” Without Risk of Being Misunderstood (When everything fails, we need a disambiguating qualifier to clarify things)
·       Advice & Dissent: 3 US Nonfiction Bestsellers Found Riddled With Errors Like That PHL Textbook (The culprit? By tradition and by default, nonfiction books in the US are not rigorously fact-checked)
·       Badly Written, Badly Spoken: A Noun Modified By “Respective” Should Always Be Plural in Form (The adjective “respective” means particular or separate so it needs to modify a plural noun)
·       News and Commentary: French Teenagers “Unable to Cope” With Baccalaureate English Question (They found the question about Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement incomprehensible and impossible to answer)
·       You Asked Me This Question: Is “In Line With This” An Ineffectual Phrase? (No, it effectively says what it means; it’s just that it’s too formal and officious for comfort)
·       The Finest in Language Humor: 50 of Arguably the 100 Funniest English Words (Sampler: Formication - The sense of ants crawling on your skin)
·       Advocacies: William Zinsser on Writing: “Short is Better Than Long. Simple is Good.” (Beloved advocate of clarity and brevity in English prose writes 30)
·       Students’ Sounding Board: Aspiring for Much Better English Than That of Today’s Teachers (A self-imposed, self-monitored improvement program can make the big difference!)
·       Time Out from English Grammar: U.S. Students Not Interested in Their Professors as Thinkers and Mentors (Most look at their teachers simply as grade-givers, not as authority figures or role models)
·       Education and Training: Alternatives to LEAP: Hot Potatoes To Learn Spoken English Quickly (You can use this online program to create your own interactive grammar and vocabulary exercises)
·       My Media English Watch: Shell-Shocked by English Grammar Bombs in Entertainment Reporting (All I can say is that they’re “Awful, awful, eww English!”)
·       How Good is Your English?: Debatable Answer Choices in English Practice Test (They can confuse when too arithmetical, too arbitrary, and too culture-bound!)

See you at the Forum!

Sincerely yours,
Joe Carillo

Click this link to go the website now:

Saturday, June 6, 2015

When an English teacher prescribes an awful subject-agreement blunder

Arguably one of the prickliest aspects of the English language is that it doesn’t have a singular third-person possessive adjective of indeterminate gender. All that English has are the masculine “his” and the feminine “her," so what happens is that when a sentence has the indefinite pronoun “each,” “everyone,” or “everybody” for its subject, a grammatical dysfunction invariably arises when that pronoun is the antecedent of a possessive-case construction later in the sentence. Consider this example: “Each student should value _____ education.” Should the possessive modifier be “his,” “her,” or “their”? Choosing from among the three usually stumps even the most English-savvy people, for virtually none of them can do the modifying job logically and indisputably. But one English teacher chose the plural “their” without even qualifying it and even had the effrontery to post the usage on Facebook: “Each student should value their education.” Predictably, one doubting student brought it to my attention, and in a recent essay in The Manila Times that I wrote in reply and is now posted below, I described that prescription as “at best contentiously correct and at worst indefensibly wrong” because of the glaring subject-verb disagreement that it engenders. (June 6, 2015)

The possessive disconnect of ‘each’ and ‘everyone’

Let’s talk about the prickly disconnect that develops when indefinite pronouns are used as antecedents of nouns in the possessive case.

A student, Mary Anne Fernandez, recently asked me this provocative question in the Facebook page of Jose Carillo’s English Forum: “My English teacher posted this sentence on his Facebook wall: ‘Each student should value their education.’ Is this grammatically correct?”

My first instinct was to say that her English teacher was prescribing a monumental subject-verb agreement blunder, but I changed my mind and told her that he probably just got carried away by a wrongheaded grammar guidance from somewhere. Indeed, it’s at best contentiously correct and at worst indefensibly wrong to use the plural possessive “their” when the antecedent is any of these indefinite pronouns: “each,” “everyone,” and “everybody.” 

Recall that “each,” “everyone,” and “everybody” are notionally plural but grammatically singular pronouns that refer to every unspecified person in a group. Despite their inherent duality in sense, however, hardly any unforeseeable subject-verb disagreement arises when these indefinite pronouns are used in the nominative or subjective case, as in “Each has a role to perform in this major undertaking” and “Everyone is expected to be here by 12:00 midnight.” This is true in the objective case as well, as in “I gave each a token of appreciation” and “The teacher treated everybody with respect in the class.”

But these indefinite pronouns have the built-in drawback of giving rise to grammatical dysfunction when used as antecedents in possessive-case constructions—the unhappy result of English not having a singular third-person possessive adjective of indeterminate gender. All that English has are the masculine “his” and the feminine “her.” So, when the antecedent subject is any of those three indefinite pronouns, the equivocal possessive “his or her” is typically used to modify the object noun to ensure grammatical correctness: “Each student should value his or her education.”

The problem with using “his or her,” however, is that it irritatingly suggests that the writer or speaker is clueless—or vacillating—on whether the antecedent subject are males or females. Worse, the more that usage is repeated, the more it frays the nerves of readers and listeners.

The traditional recourse for avoiding this semantic and stylistic problem is to use the masculine “his” as default possessive adjective. With gender equality now the order of the day in most democratic societies, however, “his” as default usage is now widely frowned upon as unacceptably sexist.

This is why the plural “their” has gained some currency as default usage in such grammatical situations:  “Each student should value their education.” I do think, however, that it is misguided—perhaps even insolent—for an English teacher to endorse using “them” to skirt the gender disconnect in possessive usage; to my mind, the subject-verb disagreement is so glaring as to make the cure worse than the disease, so to speak. The better part of valor for grammar teachers would be to qualify that sentence not as prescribed usage but only as an undesirable fallback when every other alternative fails.

But are there, in fact, other options for avoiding that grammatical impasse? There are actually two: one is surefire, and the other advisable only when the syntax of the particular sentence allows it.

The first is to replace those three indefinite pronouns with the plural “all,” then use the possessive adjective “their” to modify the object noun, as in “All students should value their education.” Even without “students” to modify, “all” works very well as a stand-alone subject in that sentence: “All should value their education.”

The second, but only if the sentence will still read and sound right, is to drop the possessive adjective “their” altogether, as in “All students should value education.” This, I must say, is neater and much more elegant than that teacher’s patently objectionable grammar prescription.

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 6, 2015 issue © 2015 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.