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.

What to do when indicative sentences can’t drive home your point

What is the secret of writers who can make their point more forcefully without resorting to imposing words, inflammatory statements, or thunderous rhetoric? Their secret, as I discussed in an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2003, is the judicious use of the emphatic forms and of inverted sentence construction. These simple grammatical devices have the power to make bland assertions more forceful or to add an emotional tug to otherwise plainspoken indicative sentences.

That essay, “The emphatic forms and inverted sentences,” had been previously posted in the Forum (November 19, 2011) but I thought of posting it again this week for the benefit of Forum members and guests who have not yet read it. (August 11, 2013)

Click on the title below to read the essay.

The emphatic forms and inverted sentences

Every language develops modes not just to share information but to convey thoughts and ideas more forcefully. In English, verbs evolved two special forms—the emphatic tenses—to provide emphasis to the actions they describe. The present emphatic emphasizes actions or conditions happening in the present, and the past emphatic emphasizes those that occurred in the past. More commonly, however, the emphatic forms are used in two types of sentence constructions where emphasis is not intended: to work with the adverb “not” in negative sentences, and to form questions or the interrogative mode, in which the normal sentence construction is inverted. We must understand this distinction clearly to avoid mistakes in using the emphatic tenses. 

The present emphatic tense of verbs is formed by putting the present-tense verb “do” or “does” ahead of their basic present form. Here are examples of the present emphatic tense used for emphasis: “I do like apples.” “She does think fast.” “They do act slowly.” The intent is to express the action or state more forcefully. In contrast, here are examples when emphasis is not intended: “The group does not agree.” (forming a negative sentence) “Does the jury have a verdict?” (forming a question).

The past emphatic tense of verbs is formed by putting the past-tense “did” ahead of their basic present form. Examples of the past emphatic tense used for emphasis: “I did write that letter.” “She did come as expected.” “They did pay on schedule.” Examples when emphasis is not intended: “He did not deliver as promised.” “Didn’t you finish the work last night?” 

Sentences that use the emphatic tense for emphasis are either affirmative or negative responses to an apparently persistent question, whether stated or only implied. See what happens when this question is asked: “Did you really write that letter?” The emphatic answer would either be “I did write that letter” or “No, I didn’t write that letter.” This is the situational context for using the emphatic forms. It conveys the sense of the speaker either explicitly owning or denying an act, or claiming to be correct in his or her belief regarding the action of others.

Another device for emphasis in the English language, one that is often misunderstood and much maligned, is the inverted sentence. This grammatical form, in which the verb comes ahead the subject, does present agreement problems and possible confusion when used too often. Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Away from light steals home my heavy son /And private in his chamber pens himself...

Note that it is the verb “away” that starts the sentence, with the subject “son” far removed from it. The normal-order sentence would go as follows: “My heavy son steals home away from light...” A heightened emotional state can be felt in the first, a dry forthrightness in the second. That difference comes from the change in the form, order, and rhythm of the language itself.

It is, of course, not only in poetry where inverted sentences find excellent use. They can give prose much-welcome variety and punch when used judiciously in a sea of normal-order sentences. Feel the emotional difference between the following normal-order sentences and their corresponding inverted sentences: (1) “Her behavior could be explained in no other way.” “In no other way could her behavior be explained.” (2) “I saw only then the possibilities of the new business.” “Only then did I see the possibilities of the new business.” (3) “She didn’t realize that he had deceived her till she got the letter from a total stranger.” “Not until she got the letter from a total stranger did she realize that he had deceived her.”

When using inverted sentences, however, we must make an extra effort to double-check agreement of the verb with the subject. This subject always follows the number of the verb and not of the nouns or pronouns that come before it: “In the grassy plains lives the last antelope.” It would seem that the singular verb “lives” should be the plural “live” instead to agree with “grassy plains,” but this proves to be not the case; the true subject is not “the grassy plains” but the singular “the last antelope.” See also what happens if the sentence were written another way: “In the grassy plain live the last antelopes.” In this case, the subject “the last antelopes” is plural, so the verb must also take the plural form “live” to agree with it.

Take note, too, that sentences beginning with “there” or “here” are actually in the inverted form: “There is a can of corned beef in the cupboard.” “Here comes the parade.” “There” and “here” are, of course, not the subjects. It is “corned beef” in the first, and “parade” in the second. The two sentences are actually emphatic forms of the normal-order “A can of corned beef is in the cupboard” and “The parade comes.” 
From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn the Global Language by Jose A. Carillo © 2004 by the author © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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Previously Featured 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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