Jose Carillo's Forum


This page seeks to promote good English usage in everyday life—whether at home, at school, in the workplace, in public platforms, in the mass media, in books, and anywhere else where the printed or spoken word is used. In short, this page will serve as some sort of grammar police against blatant or grievous public misuses of English.

So, whenever you encounter such misuse, share it through this page in the spirit of constructive criticism. Our ultimate goal, of course, is to bring the misuse to the attention of those responsible so they can make the necessary correction.

Shouldn’t there be a limit to the length of appositives?

Question by Miss Mae, Forum member (November 10, 2011):

Shouldn’t there be a limit to the length of appositives, as the one in the following sentence?

Joe Frazier, the son of a South Carolina sharecropper who punched meat in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse before Rocky, won Olympic gold, and beat an undefeated Muhammad Ali to become one of the all-time heavyweight greats, died on Monday, his family said in a statement.

My reply to Miss Mae:

For clarity’s sake, there should be a limit to the length and grammatical complexity of appositives. An appositive or appositive phrase, after all, is supposed to be only a simple and quick qualifier of a subject before the verb, as in “The woman, a radiant transformation of the skinny teenager that she used to be, charmed everyone during her debut.” Extremely long and structurally convoluted appositive phrases—endemic in sports news writing, as in the case of that sentence you presented—only serve to obstruct narrative flow and confuse the reader. This also often happens when gung-ho press agents forcibly pack into their lead sentences so many disparate details about the subject of their press release for fear that news editors might cut off those details if they are presented later in the press release. Of course, news editors are supposed to routinely temper such longwinded bursts of appositive enthusiasm, but they (news editors) are sometimes too accommodating or too busy or too lazy to boil them down into simpler, more readable grammatical forms for the reader.

So what should be the limit to the length of appositives? Nothing that we can cast in stone, of course, but appositives shouldn’t be too long and too structurally complicated as to unduly tax the patience and powers of comprehension of the reader. I would think that the lead sentence you presented has breached that limit.

Here’s how a more circumspect news editor with an eye for clarity might have pared down that extremely convoluted sentence:

“Joe Frazier, the all-time heavyweight boxing great who beat the then undefeated Muhammad Ali, died on Monday, his family said in a statement.

“Frazier, the son of a South Carolina sharecropper, punched meat in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse before Rocky and later won the boxing gold medal in the Olympics…”

In sports news writing, though, I must acknowledge that extremely long and complicated appositive phrases tend to be the rule rather than the exception. The rapid-fire, staccato language of sports reporting just seems to reflect the breathless excitement that’s elicited by a well-fought sports event.

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A seemingly wrong use of “be” instead of “is” as auxiliary verb

Question by Miss Mae, Forum member (November 10, 2011):

Why was “be” used instead of “it” in the following sentence?

President Aquino directed the Department of Agriculture to ensure that 2 per cent of its annual budget be allocated for the implementation of its programs and policies on organic agriculture.

My reply to Miss Mae:

Let’s take a close look at the sentence you presented:

“President Aquino directed the Department of Agriculture to ensure that 2 per cent of its annual budget be allocated for the implementation of its programs and policies on organic agriculture.”

It is a complex sentence, with “President Aquino directed the Department of Agriculture to ensure [something]” as the main clause and with “that 2 per cent of its annual budget be allocated for the implementation of its programs and policies on organic agriculture” as a relative “that”-clause that serves as the direct object of the verb “ensure.” (Functionally, this relative clause represents the “something” I enclosed in brackets above.)

Now, the verb “be” instead of “is” is used in that relative clause because the sentence is in the subjunctive mood. That particular form of the subjunctive (this mood takes six forms in all) expresses a directive that a particular action be taken. In such subjunctive sentences, the verb used to express present or past desires in the “that”-clause always takes the bare form of the infinitive (in this case, “be” not preceded by “to”), regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural. 

The verb “be” consistently exhibits this deviant behavior in present-tense subjunctive “that”-clauses no matter what person or number is taken by the subject, as we can see in the following sentences: 

“The trial court ruled that I be allowed to post bail.”
“The trial court ruled that he be allowed to post bail.”
“The trial court ruled that she be allowed to post bail.”
“The trial court ruled that we be allowed to post bail.”
“The trial court ruled that Miss X be allowed to post bail.”
“The trial court ruled that you be allowed to post bail.”
“The trial court ruled that they be allowed to post bail.”

These sentences may sound too stiff or too formal for comfort, but that’s the way it is for sentences in the subjective mood.

To better understand this odd behavior of verb “be” in the subjunctive, we need to recall that in English, there are three general moods of verbs, mood being that aspect of the verb that expresses the state of mind or attitude of the speaker toward what he or she is saying. These three moods are the indicative mood, the imperative mood, and the subjunctive mood. Both the indicative mood and the imperative mood deal with actions or states in factual or real-world situations. In contrast, the subjunctive mood deals with actions or states only as possible, contingent, or conditional outcomes of a want, wish, preference, or uncertainty expressed by the speaker.

The subjunctive mood only has present-tense and past-tense forms, but it has a more varied and complex grammatical repertoire than the indicative and imperative. Indeed, it can take several forms to perform these tasks: (1) indicate a possibility (2) express a desire or wishful attitude, (3) express insistence on a particular action, (4) express doubt about a certain outcome, (5) describe an unreal situation or an idea contrary to fact, or (6) express a request or suggestion.

You may want to read a related posting I made in the Forum in December 2009 in response to a misuse of the subjunctive by a newspaper columnist (“The proper use of the English subjunctive”). For a more comprehensive discussion of subjunctive usage, however, I suggest you check out my book Give Your English the Winning Edge. It devotes three chapters to the mood and attitude of verbs, the subjective and its functions, and simpler alternatives for the subjunctive.

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Previous Feature:

How much grammatical leeway can advertisements enjoy?

Questions by Miss Mae, Forum member (August 1, 2011):

My family has been using a particular canned food product ever since I could remember. I followed the “tradition” because I like its commercials.

Recently, though, it claimed to be the “tomatoest” in the country. Would you patronize that product again if you were in my case or believe in its endorser any longer?

* * * * 

Before the 2011 school year started, a school posted a banner right outside a church enumerating the reasons why kids should study in their institution. It has “one-on-one” computer, among others. But how could that be when that adjective refers to exchanges between two persons only? Was I right for not letting my cousin study there?

* * * *

Which is correct: “The winner will receive major prizes” or “The winner will receive a major prize?” A voice-over in a commercial announced “The winner will receive a major prizes” in their promo.

My reply to Miss Mae:

You ask, “How much grammatical leeway can advertisements enjoy?” The answer is as much grammatical leeway they can get away with in this democratic, laissez-faire society of ours, and as serious a language travesty the buying public can take before they make their collective outrage heard loud and clear by the advertisers. Sadly, there’s no law or legislation against bad grammar and usage in advertising, so advertising messages are totally at the mercy of the exigencies of strong recall, as in “tomatoest” for “the most tomato-tasting” product. 

Now, you also ask, would I continue patronizing that product or believe its endorser for making that “tomatoest” claim? If the product is good for its price, I certainly would. The “tomatoest” claim isn’t enough cause for me to boycott the product. We must keep in mind that a product is distinct from its advertising. A manufacturer makes a product to satisfy a need or desire, but advertising seeks to catch attention and establish strong recall for that product. So, in a highly competitive market saturated with thousands of advertising messages, product advertisers spend fortunes and often flaunt grammar rules just to get their product messages heard above the din. There ought to be a law against that, but there isn’t.

As to that school banner’s “one-on-one” computer claim, it’s a slippery and grammatically flawed way of saying “We provide one computer for every kid who enrolls in our school,” but I think it gets its message across very concisely and rather effectively. Advertising headlines and advertising copy often tend to take liberties with language that way—sometimes deliberately mangling grammar just to get attention. But were you right for not letting your cousin study in that school for that grammar travesty? I must say I don’t think so. That decision of yours was rather rash and certainly not warranted by the gravity of the offense. It’s a non sequitur—a response that does not follow logically from its premise.

Now to your last question as to which of these statements is correct: “The winner will receive major prizes” or “The winner will receive a major prize?” I would say both are grammatically correct for their different contexts. The first statement promises several major prizes while the second promises only one major prize. However, the voice-over in that commercial, “The winner will receive a major prizes,” obviously flubbed basic English grammar. As we all know, the article “a” isn’t needed when the noun is in its plural form. It’s probably simply a misreading of the script that the voice-over producer had overlooked—forgivable in such a frenzied, breakneck medium as broadcast television.

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Proposed rewrite of inscrutable English of magazine’s foreword

New Forum member Menie made the following posting that offers a suggested rewrite of the seriously flawed English of a college magazine’s foreword that was sent to me last August 8, 2010 by Prof. R. Muthukumar of the Department of Business Administration of NMSSVN College in Nagamalai, Madurai, India:

I see that no one has taken up the challenge of translating this to something which can be understood at first reading, so I will give it a try. Step one is a literal translation: substituting the weird words and phrases with understandable words or phrases, but retaining the general style of the sentences.

Dear Readers,

We are proud to say that this College Annual Magazine is a product of the hard work of qualified people.

It is an announcement that our college has a collection of versatile people who have clear ideas about prevalent issues in society. We believe that our readers will be invigorated after reading these articles, which deal closely with sensitive and unique ideas.

The Editorial Board thanks the members for their meritorious and sincere effort in bringing this Magazine out. We also thank Management for their encouragement and cooperation toward the successful completion of this annual book.  

Once again we bow our heads in recognition of Management’s untiring effort to uplift the condition of the college staff and to continue the progress of our college.

We also thank M/s Edison Printers for their good and prompt service.

Having understood what they are trying to say, we can then attempt to rewrite it in a better style, but still retaining all of the ideas expressed above.

Dear Readers,

We are proud to present to you this College Annual Magazine.  

This is a collection of views on prevalent issues in our society, which are examined with sensitive and unique perspectives. We hope that you will find these articles interesting and that these will move you to take further action.

We wish to thank the contributors and magazine staff for their hard work and dedication.

We also thank the school administration for their encouragement and support toward the successful completion of this magazine. We take this opportunity to acknowledge their untiring effort toward the betterment of the college staff and the continuing progress of our school.

Lastly, we thank M/s Edison Printers for their excellent work.

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“Sick books” issue goes off the deep end, then bubbles up again

There was this story in two of the broadsheets last November 9 that Education Secretary Armin Luistro visited “sick books” crusader Antonio Calipjo Go recently and encouraged him to resume his terminated crusade. This was after Mr. Go announced a few days back that he was shelving his one-man advocacy for good, having been intensely pilloried instead of being thanked for it by the publishers, authors, and editors of the targeted textbooks.

Well, what a coincidence! Just two days before that, a new member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum—his username is pedestrian—asked me to explain what those textbook errors were all about in the first place. He was belatedly responding to a June 6, 2009 editorial of The Manila Times that commented on the several dozens of questionable English passages that Mr. Go had found in six locally produced English-language textbooks. Pedestrian was saying that since there was no explanation for those errors, it’s difficult for him to learn from them.

I told pedestrian that then and now, I just didn’t have the time to critique all those problematic textbook passages, but I consented to doing the following four samplers just to give him some idea of what the problem is all about:

(1) “The rain and storm are needed to snuff out the heat in the air.” There’s nothing wrong with the grammar of that sentence, but its sophomoric use of the phrasal verb “snuff out” makes it sound infantile. To “snuff out” is much too strong and emotional a verb phrase in that statement, for it means “to extinguish (as in smothering the flame of a candle), make extinct, kill, or execute.” And to say that the rain and storm are “needed” to do that snuffing out action on heat is unwarranted personification, or inappropriately representing rain and storm as humans. Here’s a more objective, level-headed way of wording that sentence: “The rain and storm remove heat from the air.”

(2) “Just remember this acronym—DOCSiShQACNMN to make it easy for you to remember the order of adjectives in a series.” It should be obvious even to a preschooler that this is ridiculous advice—to use a tangled, tongue-twisting, terribly-hard-to-recall acronym as a mnemonic for remembering the order of adjectives in a series. We normally expect to get such advice from simpletons, not educators or textbook writers.

(3) “Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the novels ‘The Treasure Island’ and ‘The Kidnapper.’” This factually erroneous sentence is the result not only of the ignorance and laziness of the textbook writer but also the carelessness and cluelessness of the textbook editors. The correct titles of those very popular novels are Treasure Island—without the article “The”—and Kidnapped—not “The Kidnapper.” It’s really unthinkable for the author of that book not to know this, and this kind of factual error makes that textbook statement sound almost like a sick joke.

(4) “My sister is old. She can accompany me to the outing.” This statement is semantically faulty and almost laughable. It gives the idea that old age is a prerequisite for someone to qualify as a companion to an outing. This time, the problem is both semantic and grammatical. What the writer obviously wanted to say is, “My sister is old enough. She can accompany me to the outing.” The adjective “enough” would have been enough to make that statement logical, but the textbook writer evidently didn’t have enough semantic sensitivity to make that distinction.

I told pedestrian in closing that I wish someone would pick up after me and find time to dissect the remaining problematic textbook passages, which I daresay won’t be remedied by simply providing supplemental notes to the flawed textbooks, as had been done by the DepEd. Those textbooks should be withdrawn from circulation as soon as practicable, then replaced with textbooks written by semantically competent authors.

Read The Manila Times editorial on the textbooks with erroneous English!

Read “Luistro backs Go crusade” in the Philippine Daily Inquirer now!

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And we thought we’d find typos only in newspapers and books!

Mispelled Road Sign

I don’t think we can blame this one on the influence of too much short-cut texting on the mobile phone.

What do you think?

Here’s the story from Yahoo!

Cringe-inducing typo outside N.C. school
By Brett Michael Dykes

Well, here's something to make your old English teacher gasp in horror: A road contractor hired to paint the word “school” on a freshly paved stretch of road near Southern Guilford High School in North Carolina rendered the traffic area in question a “school” zone.

But fear not for the (surely confused) youth of Greensboro! The contractor, a company called Traffic Markings, has already corrected the error.  Here's visual evidence, courtesy of local TV station WXII.

WXII had some fun with the typo on the air too:

This isn’t the first such mishap on record. Last year, for instance, a Miami-area road crew offered the variant spelling of “scohol,” while in 2007, a team in Kalamazoo, Mich., managed the same “h” and “c” reversal.

Chalk it all up to a bad day’s wrok.

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Reporting English misuse:

You can report the English misuse by e-mailing a verbatim transcription or an image in GIF or JPEG format to When doing so, please be mindful of the laws against libel and oral defamation. Our interest is not to humiliate English-language offenders but to help them rectify the error, so there’s no need to identify them in your messages. Just indicate the city, district, street, and general location where you saw or found the particular English misuse to make it easier for those concerned to be alerted about it.

We will also need your full name, residence, e-mail address, and telephone number so we can confirm with you before the posting is made on this page. Just let us know if you don’t want to be identified in the posting so we can withhold your identity. Please keep in mind that this page will be moderated and will not entertain scurrilous reports nor those sent in by anonymous sources.

That said, you can now get started in doing volunteer police work for the sake of good English! It should be a truly gratifying educational experience and you and other English lovers can have lots of fun besides!

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Page last modified: 14 November, 2011, 7:15 p.m.