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Team up with me in My Media English Watch!

I am inviting Forum members to team up with me in doing My Media English Watch. This way, we can further widen this Forum’s dragnet for bad or questionable English usage in both the print media and broadcast media, thus giving more teeth to our campaign to encourage them to continuously improve their English. All you need to do is pinpoint every serious English misuse you encounter while reading your favorite newspaper or viewing your favorite network or cable TV programs. Just tell me about the English misuse and I will do a grammar critique of it.

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How the phrase “right of reply” differs from “right to reply”

Question e-mailed by Sphinx, Forum member (January 23, 2013):

The following observations on journalistic usage were made by Forum member Sphinx in an e-mail he sent to me yesterday, January 22, 2013:

“I have always wondered which is the correct way to put it: “the right to reply” or “the right of reply.” The latter sounds quite awkward to many of us, yet journalists have no problem with that expression.

“Also, in today’s issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (‘Young Blood’), the writer wrote: ‘I remember you telling me that you’ll say yes in a heartbeat if I were to ask you to marry me.’ My sense is, it should have read ‘... you’d say yes if I were to ask you...’ or just ‘... if I asked you...’ for short). This is because ‘would’ agrees with ‘were.’ It might have been ok if he wrote ‘... you’ll say yes if I ask you....’ The editor did not correct that. 

“Please comment.”

My reply to Sphinx:

Both “right to reply” and “right of reply” are grammatically and semantically correct phrasing, and I think the latter sounds awkward to you only because you've been conditioned to think so. In fact, other people—lawyers in particular—would likely contend that it’s actually the former, “right to reply,” that’s awkward if not downright wrong usage. And even if journalists appear to be comfortable in interchangeably using “right to reply” and “right of reply,” I think they are often contextually wrong when they do so. 

The phrase “right to reply” is, of course, the generic expression for the natural impulse or prerogative of anyone to respond to whatever question or claim is made that pertains to him or her. For instance, if someone frontally accuses a public official of being dishonest and corrupt, that official obviously has the right to indignantly reply that the accusation is false even if there’s a strong basis for it. The right to reply is simply a personal right—call it a human right if you will—with no legal niceties inherent in the phrase.

In contrast, “right of reply” is a right founded on law or custom. It’s a constitutional or legal guarantee—and, in some countries, an editorial policy of a news publication or academic journal—that allows anyone to defend himself or herself against public criticism in the same venue where that public criticism was published. The right of reply is the highly contentious area of media law that the Philippines is still grappling with in the stalled Congressional legislation for the Freedom of Information Act or FOI.

Given this big difference in sense between “right of reply” and “right to reply,” I think the real problem is that Philippine media appear to be totally oblivious of the serious usage problem of using those phrases interchangeably. Indeed, it’s disturbing that in one newspaper (Manila Bulletin), the headline was “Media Opposes Right To Reply” and the lead sentence was as follows (italicization here and afterwards mine): “Media and the academe opposed yesterday a bill on the right to reply which they feared might be used in exchange for the passage of a measure decriminalizing libel.” 

Another newspaper (The Manila Times) correctly used the phrase in its headline, “Authors nix right of reply in FOI bill,” and in the news story’s lead sentence, “Authors of the freedom of information (FOI) bill will not accept any proposal that would incorporate the right of reply (ROR) into their measure…” But then in an inexplicable about-face in usage, it later reported that “The proposed right to reply provision, meanwhile, would require a newspaper, or broadcast station to allot the same amount of space or air time for the reply of a person as that used in a news report that may have pictured him in a bad light.”

A third newspaper (Philippine Daily Inquirer) used the wrong phrase in its headline, “House minority bloc to support FOI bill with ‘right to reply’ provision.” The lead sentence of the report used the correct phrase, “The House minority bloc will only support a Freedom of Information Bill that has the right of reply provision,” and once again later in the story, but quoted verbatim a legislator who incorrectly used “right to reply” three times.

Given this messy state of usage, I think there ought to be a concord of sorts for consistently using the phrase “right of reply” in the context of the Freedom of Information Act.

A special case of the normal sequence-of-tenses rule for reported speech

Now, let’s analyze the grammar of this sentence you quoted from an essay featured in the “Young Blood” section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer: “I remember you telling me that you’ll say yes in a heartbeat if I were to ask you to marry me.”

Your feeling is that there’s something amiss about its grammar, and that the sentence should have been (1) “I remember you telling me that you’d say yes in a heartbeat if I were to ask you to marry me” or (2) “I remember you telling me that you’d say yes in a heartbeat if I asked you to marry me.”

So which construction is correct, the sentence you quoted from the Inquirer or as you have reconstructed it in the two versions above?

I think the sentence as published in the Inquirer is grammatically correct, whether or not it was corrected by the Inquirer section editor before publication: “I remember you telling me that you’ll say yes in a heartbeat if I were to ask you to marry me.” This sentence is a special case of the normal sequence-of-tenses rule for reported speech in the first conditional or real possibility that’s being used in tandem with a subjunctive clause.

Remember now that depending on the speaker’s predisposition or intent, the operative verb in utterances can take any tense. In that particular sentence, however, we have the special case of a first-person speaker “I” recalling (in the present tense) second-person “you” as telling him (that’s in the present progressive tense) that she “will say yes in a heartbeat” (that’s a categorical confirmation as opposed to simple futurity) if he (the first-person speaker “I”) were to ask her to marry him (this use of “were” isn’t in the past tense but in the subjunctive form). All of the past actions described in the sentence are therefore being told as if they are happening at the present time, so it makes grammatical and semantic sense for the verbs involved—except for the subjunctive “were”—to take the present tense. (For a comprehensive and very interesting discussion of this particular form of the subjunctive, click this link to “Using the Subjunctive Mood in English.”)

On the other hand, when an utterance is in the form of reported speech and the reporting verb is in the past tense, the normal sequence-of-tenses rule provides that the operative verb of the utterance should take one step back from the present into the past, such that the present becomes past, the past usually stays in the past, the present perfect becomes past perfect, and the future becomes future conditional. (Click this link for my posting in the Forum discussing the normal sequence-of-tenses rule in English grammar.) If the reporting verb is in the past tense “remembered,” for instance, that sentence would take this form using “you’d say”: “Iremembered that you told me that you’d say yes in a heartbeat if I were to ask you to marry me.”

Following the normal sequence-of-tenses rule, your first suggested reconstruction of the sentence in question, “I remember you telling me that you’d say yes in a heartbeat if I were to ask you to marry me,” would, strictly speaking, be incorrect in using “you’d say” (the contracted form of “you would say”) since the reporting verb is the present-tense verb “remember.” It would be grammatically correct to use “you’d say” if the reporting verb were the past-tense “told,” as in this sentence: “You told me that you’d say yes in a heartbeat if I were to ask you to marry me.”

As to your second suggested reconstruction of the sentence in question, “I remember you telling me that you’d say yes in a heartbeat if I asked you to marry me,” it is, strictly speaking, grammatically incorrect to use the simple past-tense “I asked you” for the conditional clause of the sentence. As in the case of your first suggested reconstruction, that sentence would be correct if the reporting verb were the past-tense “told” and if the verb in the conditional clause were in the form “if I’d ask you,” as in this sentence: “You told me thatyou’d say yes in a heartbeat if I’d ask you to marry me.”

I’m aware that this is a rather long and complicated as well as almost abstruse explanation for why that sentence construction from that essay in the Inquirer is correct, but I was constrained to come up with it to adequately answer your tough question regarding the matter. I hope you’ll find the explanation helpful in understanding the special usage involved in that sentence.

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