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We’ll be glad to help clarify matters about English usage for you

This Students’ Sounding Board is a section created especially for college and high school students. On request, it will provide informal advice and entertain discussions on specific questions, concerns, doubts, and problems about English grammar and usage as taught or taken up in class. If a particular rule or aspect of English confuses you or remains fuzzy to you, the Students’ Sounding Board can help clarify it. Please keep in mind, though, that this section isn’t meant to be an editing facility, research resource, or clearing house for student essays, class reports, term papers, or dissertations. Submissions shouldn’t be longer than 100-150 words.

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Retrospective: Did Rizal ever speak and write in English?

On the occasion of Dr. Jose P. Rizal’s 151st birth anniversary last June 19, 2013, the Forum decided to repost this very interesting discussion on whether the Philippine national hero ever spoke or wrote in the English language.


Forum members with more insights about this aspect of Rizal’s life are invited to share them  and continue this discussion.

Question by paul_nato, Forum member (January 28, 2010):

I don’t know if this is the right place to ask this question, but…

I know our national hero Jose Rizal wrote and spoke many different languages, such as Spanish, German, and French, but I was wondering if he also spoke and wrote in English.

I don’t remember reading or hearing anything about it in class. Admittedly, I might have been absent, or I was asleep when it was discussed.

My reply to paul_nato (January 29, 2010):

You’ve come to the right place, paul_nato! The Students’ Sounding Board is the place to discuss anything about English that baffles you—and that includes not just English grammar and usage but also vignettes in the history of the English language, its literature, and its acquisition and use by nonnative English speakers.

Now to your question on whether Jose Rizal also spoke and wrote in English…

Most of his writings were in Spanish, of course, and several others were in Tagalog. He used Spanish to write his landmark novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, the poem A La Juventud Filipina (To the Filipino Youth) that he wrote when he was 18 and the poem Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell) that he wrote on the eve of his execution, and many of his essays and articles for periodicals. And he used Tagalog to write the poem Sa Aking Mga Kababata” (To My Fellow Youth) when he was only eight years old, some essays, and many of his letters to family members, friends, and associates in the Philippines. I think we can confidently say that Rizal was not only very fluent but very prolific as well in both Spanish and Tagalog.

As to English, I’m not aware of any major work that Rizal originally wrote in English. My understanding, though, is that he spoke a smattering of English and French, particularly during his studies in Spain and his sojourns in various places in Europe. I came across a passing mention in an account of his life--probably apocryphal--that Rizal had told some foreign acquaintances in Europe that he had begun to study English seriously. According to the account, he wanted to polish his English at the time because “he was seriously trying to win the love of an Englishwoman.” This was most likely during his stay in London from 1888-1889.

Although I gather that he didn’t write professionally in English, I came across convincing evidence that he was adequately proficient in using it at least for personal correspondence with friends who were conversant in English. Below is a portion of a facsimile of a letter he wrote in beautiful longhand in three languages—German, English, and French—to express his condolences to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt, a German teacher and secondary school principal, on the death of Ferdinand's father. The letter was written on July 31, 1894 in Dapitan, where Rizal was then on exile for alleged subversive activities against the Spanish government.

In the letter, Rizal first writes in German to express his condolences, then shifts to English at some point:

Here’s a transcription of the English portion of that letter:

“You would certainly oblige me, my dear, if you send me a copy of that interesting account of the Chinese about my country. Do you remember that Mr. Hirsch’s translation?

“My grammar about the Tagal is long ago finished. I intend to publish it as soon as I shall be set at liberty. It will bring to light so many things that I believe nobody thought of. I make references to bisaya, Malay, and Madecassis* according to Dr. Brandstetter.** Greet him, if you ever write to him

“My life now is quiet, peaceful, retired and without glory, but I think it is useful too. I teach here the poor but intelligent boys reading, Spanish, English! Mathematics and Geometry, moreover I teach them how to behave like men. I taught the men here how to get a better way of earning their living and they think that I am right. We have begun and the success crowned our trials.

“This Gewaltthat*** exerted upon me gave me a new language, the bisaya; taught me how to steer a vessel and to manage a canoe; made me better acquainted with my country and presented me with some thousands of dollars! God can send you your fortune amidst the persecutions of your fiends! How do you find my English!”
[From here he begins to write in French]

Based solely on this letter to his friend Blumentritt, my opinion is that Rizal was quite proficient in English, comfortable using some of its idioms, and competent in constructing even oblique expressions in English. He was evidently still self-conscious with his English; we can see this in his use of the exclamation mark after the word “English” when he told his friend that he was teaching the language, and when, apropos about nothing, he abruptly writes “How do you find my English?” He also committed a spelling error in one instance (“fiend” for “friend”).

As to his English grammar, here’s how I would have advised Rizal had he consulted me about the English of his draft letter:

1.   “Do you remember that Mr. Hirsch’s translation?” This is an awkward use of the adjective “that” for emphasis. Better: “Do you remember that translation of Mr. Hirsch?” Alternatively: “Do you remember the translation of that Mr. Hirsch?”
2.   “My grammar about the Tagal is long ago finished.” The use of the present tense “is” in this sentence is in error. Corrected: “My grammar about the Tagal was long ago finished.”  Much better in the active voice: “I long ago finished my grammar about the Tagal.”
3.   “I teach here the poor but intelligent boys reading, Spanish, English! Mathematics and Geometry, moreover I teach them how to behave like men.” Rizal doesn’t seem to know how to deal with the conjunctive adverb, particularly “morever.” Structurally, “moreover” needs a semicolon before it and a comma after it. That sentence as corrected: “I teach here the poor but intelligent boys reading, Spanish, English, Mathematics and Geometry; moreover, I teach them how to behave like men.” (Stylistically, so that the flow of the exposition won’t be disrupted, it would be much better to set off the exclamation mark after “English” with parenthesis: “English (!)”.
4.   “We have begun and the success crowned our trials.” This sentence suffers from the rather awkward phrasing of “the success crowned our trials.” It will read much better if the definite article “the” is dropped and the present perfect is sustained for the second clause: “We have begun and success has crowned our trials.”
5.   “This Gewaltthat exerted upon me gave me a new language…” Here, Rizal’s use of the word “exerted” wasn’t very well-chosen; “imposed” would have been more appropriate semantically: “This Gewaltthat imposed upon me gave me a new language…” 

Overall, though, Rizal was definitely above-average in his written English. His facility with written English could put many of us to shame considering that he was essentially self-taught in English while we are formally taught English grammar and usage from grade school onwards.

*According to some historians, Rizal probably meant the Malagasy language here.
** Dr. Renward Brandstetter (1860-1942) was a Swiss linguist who studied the insular Malayo-Polynesian languages
***Gewaltthat – German for “act of violence, atrocity”; an oblique reference to Rizal’s exile in Dapitan by the Spanish authorities.

Primary source: Lineage, Life and Labors of Jose Rizal: Philippine Patriot by Austin Craig 

A La Juventud Filipina (To My Fellow Youth)
Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell)
Sa Aking Mga Kababata (To My Fellow Youth)

COUNTERVIEW. Dr. Jose Rizal didn’t write the poem “Sa Aking Mga Kababata,” Forum member justine aragones wrote in the Forum’s Lounge section last June 20, 2013. Read justine aragones's posting now!

Join and continue the discussions!

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Why is a masterwork a “magnum opus,” not a “magnus opus”?

Question by justine aragones, Forum member (May 24, 2013):

Sir, Is there any difference in meaning between the Latin expression “magnum opus” or “magnus opus”?

My reply to justine aragones:

I know very little about Latin grammar but from what I am able to gather, magnum is the Latin neuter singular nominative adjective form that means “great” in English, magnus is the Latin masculine singular nominative form for that adjective, and magna is the Latin feminine singular nominative form for that adjective. The Latin noun opus, on the other hand, means “work” in English.

Since opus is neuter in Latin, the correct phrase for a “great work” or “masterwork” in the form of, say, someone’s musical composition, artistic creation, or novel is therefore magnum opus; in the strict literal sense, it should neither be the masculine magnus opus nor the feminine magna opus.

In actual usage of the Latinate phrase by some English writers, however, magnum opus and magnus magnus opus would sometimes be used interchangeably. This seems to me an indication that for English writers not knowledgeable of the declensions of Latin forms, the default usage for the adjective in that Latin phrase is the masculine magnus.

Rejoinder from justine aragones:

From your response, you mean it is more appropriate to use the expression “magnum opus” as in “The New World Symphony is the magnum opus of Antonin Dvorak”?

My reply to justine aragones:

Yes, absolutely. It’s because “symphony” is neuter in English.

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How gerund phrases and infinitive phrases work with verbs

Question by forces20, Forum member (February 18, 2013):

Why can’t we write the sentence “I’m committed to providing whatever it takes to meet a students’ need” as “I’m committed to provide whatever it takes to meet a students’ need” instead?

I ask the same question for these two other alternative sentence constructions: “I look forward to (seeing, see) you for public school next year” and “‘The CHED appears to have conducted the GTS last year, and I look forward to (examining, examine) the results,’ he said.”

Also, do the words “providing,” “seeing,” and “finishing” in those sentences act as a verb or as a verbal?

My reply to forces20:

The first two sentences you presented are both grammatically and semantically correct, so you can write them any which way you prefer.

The first sentence, “I’m committed to providing whatever it takes to meet a students’ need,” uses the gerund phrase “providing whatever it takes to meet a students’ need”—which, of course, is a noun form—as the object of the preposition “to.” This means that through the preposition, the gerund phrase receives the action of the verb “committed.”

On the other hand, the second sentence, “I’m committed to provide whatever it takes to meet a students’ need,” uses the infinitive phrase “to provide whatever it takes to meet a students’ need”—also a noun form—as a verb complement of “committed.” This complement functions both as a modifier of the verb “committed” as well as its direct object, meaning that it directly receives the action of that verb. This alternative sentence construction is, like the first, grammatically beyond reproach.

However, by some quirk of the English language (an aspect so abstruse that I won’t attempt to explain it here), not all verbs will accept an infinitive phrase as their verb complement. This is the case with the verb “see” in this awkward form of the second sentence you provided: “I look forward to see you for public school next year.” The construction may appear to be grammatically correct but it just doesn’t sound right. It would be grammatically correct and idiomatic, though, if we use the gerund phrase “seeing you for public school next year” as the object of the preposition “to”: “I look forward to seeing you for public school next year.”

Using the same grammatical mechanism, this sentence you presented, “‘The CHED appears to have conducted the GTS last year, and I look forward to examining the results,’ he said,” is grammatically perfect and sounds right as well. Here, the gerund phrase “examining the results” is the object of the preposition “to.” In contrast, the construction “‘The CHED appears to have conducted the GTS last year, and I look forward to examine the results,’ he said” is grammatically flawed and sounds awkward. Here, the infinitive phrase “to examine the results” is a dysfunctional verb complement of the verb “look”—a construction that on the face of it just doesn’t work right.

In the sentence constructions above, the words “providing,” “seeing,” and “examining” function not as verbs but as gerunds—verbals ending in “-ing” that, as we know, function as a noun form; the “to” that precedes them doesn’t make them infinitives but instead works as a preposition linking them to the object in the sentence. In the alternative sentence constructions, on the other hand, the words “to provide,” “to see,” and “to examine” function as infinitives—verbals that consist of the base verb preceded by “to” and that likewise function as a noun form. The difference is that the gerund phrase that follows each of these infinitives works not as an object of the verb but as a verb complement modifying it.

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“Advanced” or “advance” Merry Christmas?

Question by forces20, Forum member (December 24, 2012):

I would like to ask, sir, which of these two is more appropriate to use: “Advanced Merry Christmas!” or “Advance Merry Christmas!”?

My reply to forces20 (December 24, 2012):

As greetings, I think both “Advanced Merry Christmas” and “Advance Merry Christmas” are grammatically incorrect as well as semantically incorrect. Christmas is reckoned not as a single day but as a holiday season that lasts so many days, so when we say “Merry Christmas!”, it’s understood that our greeting applies to the whole season and not just to a single day nor just to Christmas Day on December 25 alone. To append either “advanced” or “advance” to “Merry Christmas!” is therefore unnecessary if not entirely nonsensical.

We must keep in mind that a Christmas greeting isn't the same as, say, a birthday greeting. Someone’s birthday falls on just a single day, so if the greeting is being made a few days ahead of that particular birthday, it makes sense to greet that someone “Happy Birthday in advance!” If the greeting is being made after that birthday, it also makes sense to say “My belated warm wishes on your birthday last (date).” But it would be terribly unidiomatic if not totally out of line to greet someone “Advance Merry Christmas!” or “Advanced Merry Christmas!” before the Christmas season and “Belated Merry Christmas!” after the end of the Christmas season.

So today in particular, December 24, don’t make the mistake of greeting someone “Advanced Merry Christmas” and “Advance Merry Christmas” simply because Christmas Day is still a good 4-1/2 hours away. Whether you say it in advance or on the day itself, just say “Merry Christmas!” and you couldn’t go wrong with it.

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When to precede or not to precede nouns with the article “an”

Question from youssef, Forum member (September 17, 2012):

I need advice if I need to remove “an” in the sentence below.

“An affordable transient rooms in Baguio that can accommodate almost 8 people.”


My reply to youssef:

I would like to apologize for this very belated reply. Due to an oversight, I missed out your question altogether and it was only a while ago that I was able to read it.

Yes, you need to remove the indefinite article “an” altogether from that statement you presented. It’s because “an” is an indefinite article that’s used to precede a singular noun whose spelling begins with the vowel “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” or “u,” as in “an apparent mistake,” “an elegant gown,” “an iconic personality,” “an overland trip,” and “an umbrella.” When the singular noun begins with a consonant like “b,” “c,” “d,” and “z,” the indefinite article is used instead to precede that noun, as in “a ball,” “a caravan,” “a doll,” and “a zebra.” (In the case of definite nouns but not proper nouns, of course, the definite article is used to precede them, as in “the wall,” “the ocean,” and “the apartment.”)

By the way, I used the word “statement” for what you presented above because it really doesn’t qualify as a sentence in the absence of an operative verb. An even more accurate description of that nonsentence is a “fragment”; this is because unlike a sentence, it doesn’t convey a complete thought. Now, when we drop the grammatically faulty article “an” from that fragment, it becomes what’s called an extended noun phrase: “affordable transient rooms in Baguio that can accommodate almost 8 people.” We can then use it as a subject in sentences like “Affordable transient rooms in Baguio that can accommodate almost 8 people are hard to find in the height of summer” or as a direct object in sentences like “We found affordable transient rooms in Baguio that can accommodate almost 8 people” (the whole noun phrase “affordable transient rooms in Baguio that can accommodate almost 8 people” is the direct object, or receiver of the action, of the verb “found”). 

Of course, the noun phrase “affordable transient rooms in Baguio that can accommodate almost 8 people”—without the “an” preceding it—can also be used as a stand-alone tag in, say, a classified ad like the following:

Affordable transient rooms in
Baguio that can accommodate 
almost 8 people. Along Kennon
Road. See to appreciate. Call
Tel. 444-9XXXX.

When only one transient room is involved, meaning that the noun is singular, that's the time “an” will be needed to precede the noun, as in “an affordable transient room in Baguio that can accommodate almost 8 people.”

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