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.

The serious lack of civility that afflicts public discourse

At this time in our country when civility appears to be vanishing from the public sphere, when many traditional seats of power in our society seem to be going out of control or under assault or both, and when every threatened vested interest or emboldened rabble-rouser is now viciously aiming for the enemy’s jugular, it should be of great public interest to closely examine the kind of language being used by the protagonists and antagonists. Are they speaking and acting in keeping with who they think, presume, or pretend they are? Are they using language that conveys their thoughts and desires in ways that validate and support their own self-concept or projection of ourselves? Or is their language going out of bounds, eroding instead of giving a touch of authority to their public pronouncements?

I recall that towards the end of 2005, the country was being buffeted by the same lack of civility, a situation that prompted me to write an essay about suasive diction—the deft use of language to persuasively convey facts and the speaker’s feelings toward those facts—for my English-usage column in The Manila Times. I think that essay, “Giving a touch of authority to our prose,” has become even more relevant today so I thought of posting it in this week’s edition of the Forum. (December 4, 2011)

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Giving a touch of authority to our prose

“Oh what a pair we make,” whispered the Prince of Wales to the pilloried presumptive royal knight William in the riotously charming film A Knight’s Tale, “both trying hard to hide who we really are, and both miserably failing to do so.” For those who have not seen the movie, the prince was constrained to shed off his disguise as a monk among the lynching mob to save the disgraced knight, who a few days earlier had spared him from the ignominy of certain defeat by refusing to joust with him in a tournament. The knight, through the machinations of a villainous duke, was thereafter unmasked as a lowly thatcher’s son masquerading as a member of royalty, thus leading to his arrest and humiliation on the pillory.

This medieval morality tale gives a powerful insight into the crucial need to speak and act in keeping with who we think, presume, or pretend we are. When we write, in particular, we must use language that conveys our thoughts in ways that validate and support our own self-concept or projection of ourselves. The wife of the Caesar must not only be chaste but must look and sound chaste. The professor must really look and sound professorial. The presidentiable must really look and sound presidentiable. To fail to do this in both civilized and uncivilized society—or not to have the wisdom or guile to at least sustain the charade—is to invite catastrophe, which is precisely what brought the presumptive knight to the pillory for public lynching.

Be that as it may, our most potent tool for becoming credible is what the linguists call suasive diction. This is using language to persuasively convey facts and the speaker’s feelings toward those facts. No instrument is more potent for doing that, of course, than the writer’s or speaker’s vocabulary. Our words define us. Whether armed with excellent research or dubious information, whether motivated by good or bad intentions, we can turn off the audience with awkward or leaden words, or hold it in thrall with engaging words and well-turned phrases. It is largely through word choice, in fact, that we establish our credibility and rapport with our audience. Short of coercion or the force of arms, rarely can persuasive communication take place without this credibility and rapport.

The most basic technique for suasive diction is the proper use of the pronouns of power, namely “we,” “us,” “our,” “they,” and “them.” These innocent-looking pronouns can confer a sense of authority—the illusion of authority, if you may—to our written or spoken statements far beyond what the first-person singular can give. The first-person “I” and “me” speak only for the solitary communicator; the collective “we” and “us” speak for an entire group or institution, which people normally take for granted as less fallible and less prone to vainglory than the individual—hence more credible, more authoritative.

This is why, for instance, newspaper editorials routinely use the institutional “we” although they are usually crafted by a solitary writer not so high on the paper’s editorial totem pole; it’s also why tyrants and despots of every stripe and persuasion always invoke “the right vested in me by God/ law/ the sovereign people” to seize power or hold on to it, and why candidates of paltry qualification and virtue invariably invoke “the people’s great desire for change” or “divine signs in the sky” as their passport to public office.

Of course, “we,” “us,” “our,” “they,” and “them” work just as well as pronouns of solidarity. They foster a stronger sense of closeness and intimacy with the audience, and can more easily put audiences at ease with what the speaker has to say. In contrast, the first person “I” often comes across as too one-sided and self-serving, particularly in writing, while the second person “you” can sound too pedantic and intimidating. We stand a much greater chance of getting a fair hearing from those antagonistic to our position by making them think that we are actually on their side.

Even if we are good at using the pronouns of power and solidarity, however, we must not for a minute believe that they are all we need to achieve suasive diction. The facts supporting our contention must be substantial and accurate. Our opinions must be truly informed, not half-baked. Our logic must be sound and beyond reproach. Our delivery must me convincing. If not, we might just end up like that otherwise seemingly enlightened prince in A Knight’s Tale, lying to the lynching mob that William the thatcher’s son was actually descended from an ancient line of kings, then justifying that claim by nonchalantly invoking royal infallibility: “I say so by the authority of my father the King, and that’s beyond any contestation.”

Royally said indeed, but utterly illogical and absurd. (November 14, 2005)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, November 14, 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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Previously Featured Essay:

When wordplay goes overboard

Going by its dictionary definition, the noun “racket” means “a fraudulent scheme, enterprise, or activity” or “a usually illegitimate enterprise made workable by bribery or intimidation.” More loosely, it means “an easy and lucrative means of livelihood” and is slang for “occupation or business” (Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary). In whatever sense, though, I have always thought of the word as denoting something socially abhorrent—perhaps even illegal or criminal.

Sometime in September, however, a fellow English-language editor sent me e-mail that disquietingly turned the word “racket” on its head, so to speak. “May bago po akong raket (I have a new racket),” he said, then proceeded to describe the new enterprise he was engaged in. What he really meant was a new “sideline” that was not even remotely illegal or illegitimate, so I found it disturbing that he should use a normally distasteful word for it. Perhaps such loose usage would be acceptable in informal, face-to-face conversations, but it was very unbecoming to be put in writing by someone who should have more respect for language and its nuances.

I had already forgotten that incident but recently, during lunch with a former associate in the English-language editing business, the peculiar usage popped out again when she asked me this question: “Ano ho ba ang raket ninyo ngayon? (What is your racket at present?).” I almost choked on my drink hearing that nasty word again! How could such a serious distortion of meaning gain wide currency in our language? What is it that makes even intelligent, discerning people view illicit, aberrant things as perfectly acceptable?

It didn’t take long for me to find possible answers to these questions. Driving through a main thoroughfare to meet a client sometime later, I came across scores of product streamers that posed the following question (or words to this effect) in big, bold letters: “Ano ba ang raket ninyo ngayong summer? (What’s your racket this summer?).” It appears that the use of “raket” with a positive spin had been legitimized by mass advertising. For shock value and recall, the word had been appropriated to mean “any business” or “gimik” (gimmick)—one that’s easy and pleasurable to do. In the process, of course, the fraudulent and illegitimate aspects of the word had been glossed over (or shall we say even glamorized?)

In this sense, “racket” joins the word “salvage” in having been corrupted in Philippine usage to mean its opposite. The first is from a grim, derogatory word into a respectable, fun word; and the other from a respectable, positive word into an unpleasant, derogatory word. Some of us will probably recall that the verb “salvage” means “to rescue or save [something] especially from wreckage or ruin,” but in the Philippine context, it has become a euphemism for “to kill or assassinate” or “to execute or dispose of a person summarily and secretly.” This usage grew out from a government task force report that inadvertently used the word to describe the extra-legal executions of thousands of Filipinos between 1975 and 1983 during martial law.

(The Filipino writer Jose F. Lacaba, in a note to the Double-Tongued Word Wrester, a website that records old and new words from the fringes of English, makes this observation about this inversion of “salvage”: “It began as an anglicization or Englishing of the Tagalog word ‘salbahe,’ whose meaning ranges from mischievous or abusive (adj.) and a notoriously abusive person (noun). ‘Salbahe,’ in turn, is derived from the Spanish word ‘salvaje,’ wild, undomesticated, savage.”)

It is normal for a society to do all sorts of wordplay, of course, but I think the Philippine use of “racket” and “salvage” to denote their opposite sense has gone dangerously overboard. We must draw the line somewhere to safeguard language and our value systems. As the slogan of my favorite English-language website,, sagely warns, “A society is generally as lax as its language.” (April 24, 2006)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 24, 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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