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.

Dealing with sentence constructions that resist grammar rules

I just thought it’s timely to again post in the Forum an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in late 2010. The essay, “Three perplexing questions about English grammar,” addressed the fact that although most of the rules of English grammar and usage are clear and unequivocal, some sentences or phrasal constructions just seem to defy the hard-and-fast application of those rules. By some quirk of word positioning or unintended correlation, those constructions puzzle or unknowingly trip even the English-savvy. In that essay that I’m now reposting below, I discuss three very instructive dilemmas in subject-verb agreement, pronoun usage, and subjunctive usage that were brought to my attention by Forum members. (July 14, 2013)

Click on the title below to read the essay.

Three perplexing questions about English grammar

Sometime ago, three Forum members asked me one grammar question apiece that they had found perplexing. Many of you must have puzzled over similar questions yourself sometime, so I thought of sharing with you my answers to them. 

This one’s from Forum member lv:

Is the statement “A sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought” correct?

Isn’t it that the antecedent of the relative pronoun “that” is “words”? The antecedent is plural, so the verb in the subordinate clause should be “express.” Am I right?

Here’s my reply to lv:

I’m afraid you didn’t get it right, lv. From the grammatical standpoint, the correct antecedent of the subordinate clause “that expresses a complete thought” is the singular noun phrase “group of words”; this is the reason why “expresses,” the operative verb in that subordinate clause, is in the singular form. Also, from a notional standpoint, what “expresses a complete thought” isn’t just “a word” or just “any group of words,” but “a sentence” specifically, so the subject being modified by the subordinate clause “that expresses a complete thought” could only be the group of words that’s known as “a sentence.” Both grammatically and notionally, therefore, the operative verb in that sentence should be the singular form “expresses.”

Determining the correct antecedent noun in sentence constructions of this kind is admittedly tricky. It’s very tempting to assume that the noun nearest to the operative verb is the antecedent noun, but this isn’t the only criterion in establishing subject-verb agreement; we need to verify if that assumption is borne out by the semantics and logic of the sentence. In this particular case, it is semantically and logically clear that the antecedent noun—the subject that’s being modified by the subordinate clause—could only be the singular noun “sentence.”

This second question is from Forum member royljc: 

I’m having problem explaining “be it” or “be that” in precise English phrases. I’m listing three sentences for your reference. Please help. 

1. “Be it an alien icon, a football icon, a dog icon, we’ve got hundreds of smiley options for you to use.” 

2. “Two, a lot of information, be it technical or otherwise, is not available in digital form and may never be available, only in hard copy.”

3. “Macroeconomics is a branch of economics that deals with the performance, structure, behavior and decision-making of the entire economy, be that a national, regional, or the global economy.”

Here’s my reply to royljc:

In the sentences you presented, the verb phrase “be it” is actually the subjunctive form of “whether it is,” and the verb phrase “be that” the subjunctive form of “whether that is.” (Here, the subjunctive mood expresses contingent outcomes as opposed to expressing certainties, which is what the indicative mood does.) The difference between “be it” and “be that” is simply that in the former, the speaker is referring to things or objects generally, while in the latter, the speaker is pointing to specific things or objects in a more familiar way (using “that” as a pointing adjective).

And here, from Forum member KMXer, is the third question: 

Help please! Which is correct? “I am a fan of hers” or “I am a fan of her’s”?

My reply to KMXer:

The correct female possessive pronoun in such sentence constructions is “hers,” which means “that which belongs to her,” so the grammatically correct sentence is “I am a fan of hers.” “Her” when used without a following noun is equivalent in meaning to the adjective “her.” The form “her’s” is not a valid possessive pronoun form in English. Forming the possessive by affixing apostrophe-s is done only on nouns, as in “Alfred’s,” “man’s fate,” and “the cat’s paw.” (November 26, 2010)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, November 26, 2010 issue © 2010 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.

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Previously Featured Essay:

Systematic, wide-ranging ways for avoiding dysfunctional word overuse

The repeated use of a particular word in writing is not bad per se; it’s the dysfunctional overuse of that word that has to be studiously avoided. And I wouldn’t use the word “tactic” to describe such studious avoidance, for a tactic seems too fleeting and too short-term an approach for dealing with unpleasant over-repetition. Instead, I would go for the word “strategy” to describe the more methodical and wide-ranging way for achieving that objective.

To come up with such a viable strategy in English, we need to distinguish between its two general types of words and to understand the matter of language register and tonality.

The two general types of words in English, you will recall, are the content words and the function words. The content words are the carriers of meaning of the language, and they consist of the nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and interjections. The function words are the logical operators of the language, and they consist of the prepositions, conjunctions (the coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions), and conjunctive adverbs. (“Lesson #6 - The Six Basic Logical Relationships in Language”) In a class of their own are the articles “a,” “an,” and “the,” which many grammarians consider as neither content words not function words (we won’t take up the articles here to keep this discussion manageable).

Among the content words, nouns are the most amenable to substitution with other words as a strategy for avoiding tedious repetition. For this purpose, of course, we routinely use pronouns for subsequent mentions of subjects identified by name—“he” or “she” for singular proper names and “they” for one or more of them, and “it” for singular things and concepts and also “they” for one or more of them. In feature writing and in the more creative forms of expression, we can use synonyms or similar words for subsequent mentions of particular nouns. (“Using synonyms to enliven prose”) Those synonyms can focus on particular or specific attributes of the subject or key word, thus giving the reader or listener more information about them without going into digressions that might just unnecessarily impede the flow of the exposition. For example, the subject or key word “John Updike” might be later referred to in an exposition generically as “the writer” or more specifically as “a writer of sex-suffused fiction,” “a notable literary realist,” “the prolific American novelist and short-story writer,” “the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist,” and “America’s last true man of letters.” Indeed, by using a synonym or brief descriptive detail, each subsequent mention of the subject becomes an opportunity for throwing new light on it for the reader’s or listener’s benefit.

As parts of speech in English, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs each have a unique and distinctive meaning or sense. In the case of verbs, there’s a specific verb for every kind of action; for instance, while there are close similarities between “walk,” “stroll,” “saunter,” “amble,” and “jog,” they are not by any means perfectly synonymous. Thus, once you have used the verb “walk” the first time around for the action you are describing, it won’t be appropriate or advisable—just for the sake of avoiding repetition—to refer to that action as “stroll” the second time around, “saunter” the third time around, “amble” the fourth time around, and so on and so forth. For accuracy and authenticity’s sake, you’ve got to stick to “walk” in all subsequent mentions of that action you described as “walk” at the start. 

This strategy should also be applicable to adjectives and adverbs. For instance, you’d be out of line describing a woman as “beautiful” the first time around, then describing her as “pretty,” “comely,” and “fair” in subsequent mentions; you’ve got to stick to “beautiful” or else not use that adjective again in the exposition. The same strategy would also apply to adverbs; once you have described the manner an action is done as “cruelly,” you can’t refer to that same manner as “fiercely” in a subsequent mention. In fact, it would be good language policy to avoid repeat usage of adverbs (particularly those than end in “-ly”) or use their synonyms later in an exposition. (“Antidote to the widespread myth that adverbs are bad for writing”

Now let’s take up what you describe as your reluctance to use one word more than two times in the same writing and, in particular, your being tempted to sometimes alternate the preposition “about” with such unpleasant bureaucratic phrases as “with regard to,” “with reference to,” and “as regards.” Of course it’s a good general approach to avoid using the same word or phrase more than two times in the same exposition, but strategically, I think you’d be ill-advised to alternate “about” with such phrases as “with regard to,” “with reference to,” “as regards” in subsequent parts of the same exposition. As you yourself have pointed out, although these phrases can eradicate repetition in your prose, they will definitely make your prose sound standoffish and thus just get in the way of clear communication. It will be like jumping from the frying pan to the fire, so to speak.

Along with the preposition “about,” its synonymous phrases “with regard to,” “with reference to,” and “as regards” belong to the class of words known as the function words. As I mentioned at the outset, function words are the logical operators of the language, and as such they have very specific purposes and roles to play in the creation of meaning in language. In the particular case of prepositions, there’s a unique word for combining a word or phrase with another noun phrase to express a particular modification or predication; as a rule, for instance, “on,” “in,” “at,” “to,” “toward,” and “after” can’t be substituted with or interchanged with one another (“Lesson #8 – Specific Rules for Preposition Usage”). Most preposition usage is essentially conventional rather than logical, but it’s a fact that specific prepositions have become so well-established for evoking particular relationships in space, time, and logic that it would be foolhardy to misuse them, to trifle with them, or to tinker with them. The good writer knows that a healthy respect for the conventional usage of prepositions greatly paves the way for good communication.

Now, the preposition “about” belongs to what I would call the normal, day-to-day language register of English. A language register is, of course, simply a variety of a language that’s used in a particular social, occupational, or professional context. In general, in terms of degree of formality, we can classify the language of register of English in six categories: very formal, which is characterized by very rigid, bureaucratic language; formal, characterized by ceremonious, carefully precise language; neutral, characterized by objective, indifferent, uncaring language; informal, characterized by casual or familiar language; very informal, characterized by very casual and familiar language; and intimate, characterized by personal and private language. (Note here that I didn’t hesitate to used the verb “characterized” five times, for to have alternately used the verb phrase “distinguished by” would have been a needless distraction.)

It so happens though that over the centuries, the legal profession developed a variety of English that’s pejoratively called legalese, an officious, legal-sounding language that can be roughly classified between very formal and formal language. This is the language used by lawyers in making contracts, affidavits, depositions, and pleadings before a court of law. A common feature of legalese is the substitution of the day-to-day, vanilla-type preposition “about” with the longish and ponderous phrases “with regard to,” “with reference to,” and “as regards” along with the substitution of such day-to-day, vanilla-type conjunctions “because,” “so,” and “later” with their longish equivalents “whereas,” “therefore,” and “hereinafter,” respectively. When legalese stays within the confines of the legal profession or community, however, all’s well with English as we know it.

The unfortunate fact, however, is that legalese has continually leached into both written and spoken business English over the years, such that a typical memo or business report these days sounds very much like a legal brief meant for lawyers and court magistrates. When peppered with such legalese as “attached herewith,” “aforesaid,” “heretofore,” and “for your perusal,” the English of such memos and business reports becomes very rigid and bureaucratic and extremely formal or harsh in tone. This is the language register and tonality that your English would acquire if, for the purpose of avoiding repetition of the preposition “about,” you fall into the habit of routinely alternating it with such legalese as “with regard to,” “with reference to,” and “as regards.” What’s even worse, your use of these forms of legalese will force you to make unwieldy, complicated sentence constructions to match their ponderousness and severity.

My advice to you then is to fiercely resist the temptation to alternate common prepositions and the function words in general with their legalistic counterparts. You’ll be much better off as a writer and as a communicator by using the plain-and-simple English prepositions and conjunctions instead—even repeatedly. You can be sure that your readers or listeners will like it much better that way.

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