Jose Carillo's Forum


On this webpage, Jose A. Carillo shares with English users, learners, and teachers a representative selection of his essays on the English language, particularly on its uses and misuses. One essay will be featured every week, and previously featured essays will be archived in the forum.

The versatility of free relative clauses in modifying our ideas

In “Crafting more elegant prose with free modifiers,” an essay of mine that I posted here last December 2, 2012, I showed how we can write more compelling English compositions by making good use of the so-called free modifiers instead of bound modifiers. To highlight the difference between these two, I likened a bound modifier to an animal species that has already perfected itself genetically, thus arriving at its evolutionary dead-end; in contrast, I said that free relative clauses form part of the wide gene pool of language that makes infinite permutations of thought possible.

This time, in “Making good use of free relative clauses,” an essay that I wrote for my daily English-usage column in The Manila Times on February 26, 2004, we will take an even closer look at the great versatility of this grammar device in modifying ideas. This is the last of the seven essays on grammar stategies for crafting more readable and compelling sentences that I have posted here in the Forum from June 2012 onwards.

Click on the title below to read the essay.

Making good use of free relative clauses

In the essay that I posted here last December 2, 2012, we compared a bound modifier to an animal species that has already arrived at its evolutionary dead-end, and a free relative modifier to a species that partakes of a wide gene pool for its further evolution. This was in the context of the power of free relative clauses to expand ideas beyond the limits of the usual subject-verb-predicate format. We saw that while bound relative clauses simply affirm the identity of a subject noun, free relative clauses expand ideas in any way the writer or speaker deems suitable to his exposition.

There’s a handy guide for spotting the two: most bound relative clauses that refer to non-persons are introduced by “that,” while most free relative clauses that refer to non-persons are introduced by “which”: “The sedan that you delivered to me last week is a lousy clunker!” “That sedan, which you told me would be the best my money can buy, is a lousy clunker!” Notice how self-contained and peremptory the first sentence is, and how awkward it would be to add any more ideas to it (better to start all over again with a new sentence!).

In contrast, marvel at how the second sentence readily lends itself to further elaboration: “That sedan, which you told me would be the best my money can buy, which you bragged would give me the smoothest ride, and which you claimed would make me the most sophisticated-looking motorist in town, is a lousy clunker!” We can add even more “which” clauses to that sentence in direct proportion to the speaker’s anger and indignation, and still be sure that the speaker won’t be gasping for air when he gives vent to them.

We must be aware, though, that bound relative clauses are sometimes not that easy to spot in a sentence. Recall that we learned to routinely knock off “that” from relative clauses as part of our prose-streamlining regimen. Thus, the bound-clause-using sentence above would most likely present itself in this guise: “The sedan [that] you delivered to me last week is a lousy clunker!” This, as we know, is a neat disappearing act that “which” can oftentimes also do to link free relative clauses smoothly with main clauses.

But what really makes free relative clauses most valuable to prose is their ability to position themselves most anywhere in a sentence—at the beginning, in the middle, or at the tail end—with hardly any change in meaning; bound relative clauses simply can’t do that. We can better understand that semantic attribute by using three ways to combine sentences using the free-relative-clause construction technique. Take these two sentences: “The new junior executive has been very astute in his moves. He has been quietly working to form alliances with the various division managers.”

Our first construction puts the relative clause right at the beginning of the sentence: “Working quietly to form alliances with the various division managers, the new junior executive has been very astute in his moves.” The second puts it smack in the middle: “The new junior executive, working quietly to form alliances with the various division managers, has been very astute in his moves.” And the third puts it at the very tail end: “The new junior executive has been very astute in his moves, quietly working to form alliances with the various division managers.”

The wonder is that all three constructions yield elegant sentences that mean precisely the same thing—sentences that look, sound, and feel much better than when they are forced into bound-modifier straightjackets like this: “The new junior executive who is working quietly to form alliances with the various division managers has been very astute in his moves.”

We can see clearly now that free relative clauses work in much the same way as resumptive and summative modifiers: they allow us to effortlessly extend the line of thought of a sentence without losing coherence and cohesion and without creating unsightly sprawl. However, free relative clauses differ from them in one major functional attribute: they specifically modify a subject of a particular verb.

In contrast, resumptive modifiers pick up any noun, verb, or adjective from a main clause and elaborate on them with relative clauses, while summative modifiers make a recap of what has been said in the previous clause and develop it with another line of thought altogether. Free relative clauses specifically need verbs to start off thoughts that elaborate on the subject of the main clause: “She loves me deeply, showing it in the way she moves, hinting it in the way she looks at me.”

We can attach more and more free relative clauses to that sentence, but the point has been made: using free relative clauses is—short of poetry—one of the closest ways we can ever get to achieving elegance in our prose.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 26, 2004 issue © 2004 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved. This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 64 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.

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The World in 854 Words – Redux

I wrote this essay in the early 2000s for my column in The Manila Times and posted it here in the Forum on January 1, 2009 in time for the New Year. Now it's the eve of another New Year, 2013, and I thought I should share the essay once again with Forum members and guests:

The World in 854 Words – Redux

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 it 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 marshalling 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.

From the book Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

“The Starry Messenger,” January 19, 2013 editorial of The New York Times
“Weeping for Stephanie,” essay in January 20, 2013 issue of The Manila Times

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