Jose Carillo's Forum


Jose Carillo’s English Forum invites members to post their grammar and usage questions directly on the Forum itself, but every now and then, readers of my “English Plain and Simple” column in The Manila Times e-mail their questions directly to me. I make an effort to reply to every question individually. When the answer to a question is particularly instructive and of wide interest, however, I find it such a waste not to share it with users and learners of English in general. It’s for that purpose that I opened this special section. I hope Forum members will find reading it informative and enjoyable.

Should splitting infinitives still be taboo?

Question from new Forum member b0yw0nder, November 24, 2009:

I have three questions:

1. Which is correct: “Please take off your shoes” or “Please take your shoes off”? Do verb phrases have to stick together?

2. Is it grammatically correct to separate the infinitive marker to from the verb? This happens commonly when you insert an adverb between them as in “to clearly see,” “to confidently speak,” “to thoroughly wash.” etc.?

3. I know that “whom” is the objective case form of “who” but I rarely hear people use it correctly. I read that “modern usage” has got something to do with it. Is this true?

Dear b0yw0nder:

Here are my thoughts about those three questions of yours:

1. Which is correct: “Please take off your shoes” or “Please take your shoes off”? Do verb phrases have to stick together?

Both “Please take off your shoes” and “Please take your shoes off” are grammatically correct, but the first is more idiomatic than the other. And yes, verb phrases normally stick together, but they don’t really have to. As another instance, we can as comfortably say “Turn off the light” as “Turn the light off.” It’s just that it’'s much easier to say the preposition right after the verb rather than make the tongue fumble for it later, particularly when the object of the verb is a long noun phrase, as in “Turn off the light at the far end of the garage." See what happens when we defer the preposition to a little later: "Turn the light off at the far end of the garage." Or to much later: "Turn the light at the far end of the garage off." Verb phrases tend to stick together for the speaker’s convenience; that is, they are idiomatic or habitually spoken.

2. Can the infinitive marker “to” be separated from the verb stem?

The matter of whether the infinitive marker “to” can be separated from the verb stem, as in “to clearly see,” “to confidently speak,” and “to thoroughly wash,” is simply part of the bigger issue of whether split infinitives should be allowed at all. This continues to be a controversial issue in English grammar, but I personally think that unless splitting the infinitive—or not splitting it—results in bad semantics, there shouldn’t be a debate about the usage at all. I split infinitives at will for stylistic purposes, but I’m also aware that splitting infinitives indiscriminately can be bad for prose.

Let’s take your first example of split infinitive: “to clearly see.”

Its normal unsplit form is, of course, “to see clearly,” and it works very well in sentences like “She wiped her eyeglasses to see clearly.” But when the sentence becomes more elaborate, particularly when the infinitive phrase needs to be modified with more words, keeping the infinitive unsplit becomes untenable. See and feel how unnatural this sentence sounds: “She wiped her eyeglasses to see clearly the lovely countryside at sunrise.” The sentence sounds much better with the infinitive split this way: “She wiped her eyeglasses to clearly see the lovely countryside at sunrise.”

Of course, another way to construct that sentence without splitting the infinitive is this: “She wiped her eyeglasses to see the lovely countryside at sunrise clearly.” The adverb “clearly” is, of course, meant to modify the infinitive “to see,” but this time it is so far detached from the infinitive as to seem to modify “sunrise” instead. It’s clear from these examples that splitting the infinitive is very often a semantic and stylistic decision rather than a grammar decision.

P.S. Still another way to construct that sentence without splitting the infinitive is this: “She wiped her eyeglasses to see the lovely countryside clearly at sunrise.” This time, though, clearly has become a squinting modifier, making us unable to decide whether it is modifying “to see” or the prepositional phrase “at sunrise.”

3. The use of “whom” in modern usage

It’s not so much that the relative pronoun “whom” is often incorrectly used as that people tend to wrongly use “who” in place of it, and this misuse has got nothing to do with modern usage. The problem is that “whom” sentence constructions tend to sound too stiff and formal, as in “The salesman whom we hired for the new product is doing a terrific job.” The relative pronoun “whom” is, of course, the objective form of “who,” and is being used in that sentence to introduce a relative clause that’s functioning as the direct object of the operative verb “hired.” What happens is that because of their discomfort with using “whom,” many people prefer to wrongly use the subjective pronoun “who” instead for such sentence constructions: “The salesman who we hired for the new product is doing a terrific job.” This misuse may be colloquially acceptable but strict grammarians continue to frown on it, so it’s highly advisable to avoid it in formal and academic writing.

Other than total reconstruction, there are actually two ways of avoiding “whom” in such sentences. One is, whenever semantically possible, to drop the relative pronoun altogether, as in this elliptical construction: “The salesman we hired for the new product is doing a terrific job.” The other is to use the relative pronoun “that” instead: “The salesman that we hired for the new product is doing a terrific job.” But conventional grammarians would object to this usage as well and insist that “that” should be limited to nonhuman antecedent nouns.

Personally, I wouldn’t hesitate to use “that” in such cases. After all, it turns out that early English actually used words related to “that” to mark relative clauses, and used “who” and “whom” only as question words and as indefinite pronouns in such constructions as “I wonder who were at the hunt.” Indeed, it was only because of the strong influence of Latin on written English in the 1800s that the contemporary use of “who” and “whom” as relative pronouns became the mark of educated people. This time, however, many native English speakers are rediscovering the grammatical virtues and simplicity of “that” as an all-purpose relative pronoun. I do think that even nonnative English speakers now can follow suit with little danger of being marked as uneducated yokels.

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Should we say “to the contrary” or “on the contrary”?

Question from jonathanfvaldez in the United States, November 18, 2009:

I’ve seen the phrases “to the contrary” and “on the contrary” not a few times in legal briefs. If they have distinct uses, what’s the rule on usage?

My reply to Jonathan:     

The discourse markers “on the contrary” and “to the contrary” convey the same sense—that something is in opposition to what’s expected—but they are generally not interchangeable in usage.

When something has just been said, “on the contrary” is commonly used to emphasize that the opposite of that statement is true. Example: “The candidates for vice chairman aren’t an exciting choice at all; on the contrary, they just douse the enthusiasm of intelligent voters.”

On the other hand, “to the contrary” is usually used by a speaker or writer to alert the audience that what’s to be said next is the opposite of what has just been said. Example: “Despite several compelling testimonies to the contrary, the accused was convicted of homicide.”

From a sentence structure standpoint, note that in the case of “on the contrary,” a complete statement or an entire argument is typically made first (“the candidates for vice chairman aren’t an exciting choice at all”). The discourse marker “on the contrary” is then inserted, followed by another complete statement to the contrary (“it just douses the enthusiasm of intelligent voters”). In short, “on the contrary” is commonly used as a conjunctive adverb between two coordinate parallel clauses.

In the case of “to the contrary,” the discourse marker is typically used to mark a contrast between a particular noun or noun phrase just mentioned (“several compelling testimonies”) and a statement that follows it (“the accused was convicted of homicide”). In such sentence constructions, “to the contrary” forms part of a prepositional phrase modifying a sentence. (Note that the example sentence given in this case can be reconstructed as “The accused was convicted of homicide despite several compelling testimonies to the contrary,” showing that it’s actually only one clause with the preposition “despite” introducing the modifying phrase.)

In conversational English, however, this distinction between the usage of “on the contrary” and “to the contrary” is sometimes lost, as in the following conversation:

Woman A: You seem to be so agitated. Have you lost anything?
Woman B: On the contrary [to the contrary], I’m very happy! I just got the big job I applied for!

When something that big happens to people, we really can’t fault them that much for forgetting the niceties of English grammar; hence, the blurring of the difference between “on the contrary” and “to the contrary” in the conversational idiom is perhaps understandable.

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Should “denied” in “I was denied a US visa” be “refused” instead?

Question from Maria Balina, a Forum member, November 9, 2009:

Hi, Mr. Carillo!

Filipinos usually say, “I was denied a US visa.” I think the correct word is refused. Am I right?

Dear Maria Balina:          

No, I’m sorry to say you’re not. The Filipinos are idiomatically correct when they say “I was denied a US visa” instead of “I was refused a US visa.” Although “deny” and “refuse” are synonymous in a general sense, “denied” in the sentence in question has a strong definite sense of “got a negative answer to” (in other words, it is a receiver-of-the-action verb) while “refused” has a strong definite sense of “unwillingness to accept” (in other words, it is a decliner-of-the-requested-action verb).

Keep in mind that “I was denied a US visa” is a passive-voice sentence where the noun “I” is the receiver of the action and “was denied” a passive-voice verb. In the active voice, on the other hand, the subject of the sentence would be the “denier” or “refuser”—the doer of the action—as in “The US embassy refused to give me a visa.” It’s awkward and unidiomatic to use “denied” in the active voice in such sentences, as in “The US embassy denied me a visa,” but idiomatic and correct to say “The US embassy denied my application for a visa.”

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Why not “soil” or “land” for “area of responsibility”?

Question from Mr. Leoncio Contreras, someone of Filipino descent who presumably now lives overseas:

Let me ask you something.

I get so annoyed when I hear from TV anchors and read in the print media the statement “The typhoon has entered the Philippine area of responsibility.”

I believe it’s the obligation [of PAGASA] to paraphrase “area of responsibility.” I think the more appropriate way to word that sentence is, “The typhoon has entered Philippine soil.”

Please advise.

Dear Mr. Contreras:

After looking into the origins and semantics of the term “area of responsibility,” I think we are well-advised not to tinker with it. Offhand, I’ll already say that I could find neither a suitable paraphrase nor even a synonym that comes close to what it means.

In general terms, the Area Of Responsibility (AOR) defines an area with specific geographic boundaries for which a person or organization bears a certain responsibility. The term originated from the United States military but is now used in oceanography and weather forecasting as well.

For the Philippines, in particular, its area of responsibility isn’t meant to define its internationally recognized territory, and it isn’t a measure either of its land mass or what you refer to as “Philippine soil.” This is because as all of us know, the Philippines is an archipelago of 7,100 islands, each irregularly jutting out from sea, and the nation’s share of territory on the globe actually extends way beyond the shorelines of these islands. Indeed, although the Philippines has a total land area of 300,000 sq. km (115,830 sq. miles), the so-called “Philippine area of responsibility” covers something like 9-11 multiples of that area in terms of sea and land combined.

For those who know at least a smattering of spherical geometry, the Philippine Area of Responsibility or PAR is that part of the world map “bounded by rhumb lines on the Philippine Tropical Cyclone Tracking Chart/Map or imaginary lines on the surface of the earth that makes equal oblique angles with all meridians joining the following points: 25°N 120°E, 25°N 135°E, 5°N 135°E, 5°N 115°E, 15°N 115°E, 21°N 120°E and back to the beginning.” The initials N and E refer to the compass directions “north” and “east,” the superscript “o” after the numbers stands for “degrees of the Earth’s arc,” and the term “rhumb lines” means “any of the points of the mariner’s compass.” All this may sound like science mumbo-jumbo, of course, so it’s much better to just visually check out this area by logging on to PAGASA’s website.

Here's PAGASa's map of the Philippine area of responsibility:

Philippine Area of Responsibility
Philippine Area of Responsibility

Anyway, within the Philippine area of responsibility, the PAGASA is mandated to monitor tropical cyclone activity and to make the necessary warnings. It has to issue bulletins every six hours for all tropical cyclones within this area that have or are anticipated to make landfall within the Philippines, or every 12 hours when cyclones are not affecting land.

So don’t get annoyed anymore when PAGASA repeatedly uses the term “Philippine area of responsibility.” Those hardy weather forecasters of ours aren’t really having big airs when they use that term. They don’t really have much choice—or would you rather they pounce on you with “AOR, AOR” or “PAR, PAR” ad infinitum whenever a typhoon’s coming?

Postscript to Forum members:

The Philippine media have gotten used to referring to the Philippine weather bureau as PAGASA, which oxymoronically means “hope” in Tagalog—obviously an inappropriate name because of the dire news that the bureau usually brings to the public during the typhoon season in the Philippines. PAGASA is, of course, is an acronym for the kilometric official name Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, which, in turn, is rendered in Filipino as the equally kilometric, strange-sounding Pangasiwaan ng Palingkurang Atmosperiko, Heopisikal at Astronomiko ng Pilipinas (PPAHAP). The acronym of this Filipino name doesn’t spell any nice existing word and doesn’t resonate, of course, so it’s understandable why the English acronym is the one that has gained currency instead. As to the full Filipinized name of the weather bureau, I know that this name is a well-meaning translation of the English, and I have gotten comfortable with all of the Filipinized terms in that name except for one—Palingkuran. I don’t know if you know what I have in mind, but that new Filipino coinage does sound like something else—something fetid—to me. Can’t we think up a better word? What do you think?

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Doable advice to serious learners of English

Question from Giovanni Espiritu presumably in the Philippines, October 28, 2009:

Just wondering if you could give me some advice on how I can improve my writing and speaking in English.

Dear Gio:

To improve your English writing and speech, I would give you the same general advice I had given in my first English-usage book, English Plain and Simple. I am attaching below this note the chapter with that advice.

If you want to make yourself truly proficient in the language, get yourself a copy and study my third book, Give Your English the Winning Edge, and register as a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum. Membership in the Forum is absolutely free. By being a member, you can regularly ask questions about English usage and share ideas with other English lovers and learners. You can also get to read some of the best classic and contemporary published writings in English that are available on the web. 

Other than the study plan I have just suggested, I honestly can’t think of a better way for a learner to master the basics of the English language and get to know its nuances. 

Good luck in your quest for better English!


Below is Chapter 33 of English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language. It consists of my advice to a reader of my column in The Manila Times who wrote me six years ago to ask what books she had to read to help develop her communication skills.   


One Man’s Meat

Dear Jay:

You asked me last week to give you advice on what books to read to help you develop your communication skills. I will tell you at the very outset that you will need to read and talk a lot to become a good communicator. Of course, to become one doesn’t mean that you have to be a certified bookworm or a fiery interscholastic debater. You could, in fact, be worse off aiming to be either. Many of the certified bookworms I know became so detached from reality that they started to talk to themselves, to plants, and later to things you couldn’t touch or see. And not a few of the spellbinding college debaters in my time had metamorphosed into lawyers who would argue anything and everything to death, or into politicians who are horribly long on rhetoric and promises but woefully short on tangible results.
I take it that you are probably a high school or college student or a professional having some difficulty in your written or spoken English. I would therefore presume that you still don’t have The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. It is a very slim, spare, but eminently useful book on the basic rules of English usage. My old third edition is always near me on my desk and I always consult it when I am suddenly seized by doubt about my English. (And there is a great bonus in reading the two co-authors, both consummate stylists of the English language: Strunk, a veteran newspaper editor, taught English 8 as a Cornell University professor, and White was one of his students. White went on to become one of the finest essayists in the English language. Many years later he updated his mentor’s English stylebook and added a chapter on style to it; before then, he had become a popular author himself, writing fascinating animal stories for children like Trumpet of the Swan and—would you believe?—Stuart Little the mouse.)
But if you want your English prose to be more methodical, forceful, and stronger in logic, I would suggest you buy yourself a copy of The Lively Art of Writing* by Lucile Vaughan Payne. I discovered this highly instructive book only after college, and it is much to be regretted that, at a time that I needed it most, I did not have its nuts-and-bolts wisdom in doing the essay. I have yet to see another book on English writing that could match Payne’s very forceful and lucid discussion of “the hooks of language,” and how your increasing mastery of them can actually mark your progress as a writer.

Now, if you are already confident of your English but simply wish to develop a practical and saleable prose style in your business or career, get yourself On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction by William K. Zinsser. Many years ago this book knocked some sense into my head when I was rushing headlong on a purely literary route in my writing. Zinsser showed me that you need not be a Dylan Thomas or a William Faulkner to be understood, get published, and get income from English prose. The book, now on its 25th edition, will be a great companion volume to The Elements of Style and The Lively Art of Writing. They are all you’ll really ever need for basic equipment to confidently navigate the terrain of the English language and travel in comfort within it.

These three basic readings in English writing will obviously not be enough to make you an accomplished or great writer. They will only provide you with a wealth of devices to focus your thoughts and to help you edit and rewrite yourself. You can be sure that once you have read them and taken their prescriptions for good English prose to heart, you will already have won half the battle. To win the other half, of course, you will need further instruction on the writing craft. But you don’t have to go far to get that instruction. To me, the best English writing teachers have been—and still are—the masters of the writing craft. If you are serious about your English, I suggest that you seek them out every now and then, maybe just one at a time, for good measure.

Begin with Loren Eiseley. I have not found a better than this consummate stylist in showing the great lyric power that can be achieved with English prose. Try The Immense Journey, his maiden collection of essays about animal and human evolution, and make it a point to read his other works later. Then go back to E. B. White and read his very lucid and compelling essays on city life and its frustrations, such as One Man’s Meat and The Essays of E. B. White. After that, get a little bite (but not too much) of H. L. Mencken, that savage American iconoclast who, with incomparable wit and style, had mastered the art of taking the blinkers off people’s eyes. And then, to round off your readings on great English prose, read The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas. This microbiologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning master of the essay can explain the intricate workings of life clearly and magically by getting under our skins with pleasure instead of pain.

This, Jay, is essentially the road I have taken to arrive at where I am in English prose. It is admittedly just one man’s meat. It may be poison to some academics who may howl and rant against the poverty and eclecticism of my reading suggestions. Well, let them; I am too delighted to mind. You have asked me a question that I have wanted to answer for many years, except that nobody asked until you did. For this reason, I hope you will have as much pleasure in reading my answer as I am having now in writing it.

Joe Carillo

Read E.B. White's One Man's Meat complete at

Read excerpts from E.B. White's One Man's Meat at

Read H.L. Mencken's "In Defense of Women" complete at

Read an excerpt from Lewis Thomas's The Lives of a Cell at

*The Lively Art of Writing has not been available in Philippines bookstores for quite a long while now, but has continued to carry the Mentor mass market paperback edition.

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When is a verb not a “true finite verb” and what does that mean?

Question from Mushushi-tamago, October 18, 2009:

At my school a few days ago, my English teacher mentioned something about a"true finite verb"

She pointed out the parts of the sentence “To leave now is out of the question.”. She mentioned briefly that “to leave” is not a "true finite verb".

I know that “leave” is a verb, but why is it not a “true finite verb”? What does that mean?

Dear Mushushi-tamago:

If the negative for the term “true finite verb” doesn’t ring a bell to you and to many other people, it’s because the more commonly used term for it is “non-finite verb.” Of course, this abstract term itself is not self-explanatory and needs to be explained.

A true finite verb is one where the verb shows tense, person, and number (either singular or plural). It either describes an action or expresses a state of being, and can stand by itself as the main verb of a sentence. Examples of finite verb forms: “I sing.” “He sings.” “We sang.” (These are actions taken.) “I am happy.” “She was happy.” “They were happy.” (This is a state of being using different forms of the linking verb “be.”)

A non-finite verb, in contrast, is one where the verb assumes a form without tense or person. They are what we know as the verbals: the infinitives, gerunds, and the present or past participles. In these forms, the verbs no longer function as verbs; they function either as nouns or adjectives. As nouns they are always singular in number; as adjectives, of course, they have no number at all.

Consider the following examples of verbals:

Infinitive form:To eat is not advisable now.” In this sentence, “to eat” is a noun functioning as the subject of the sentence.

Gerund form:Eating is not advisable.” In this sentence, “eating” is a noun functioning as the subject of the sentence. Of course, a gerund can sometimes also be the doer of the action in a sentence, as in “Eating makes the patient sick.”

Participle form:
Past participle – “The eaten apple was not a fresh one.” In this sentence, the past participle “eaten” is functioning as an adjective modifying “apple.”

Present participle – “The eating competition drew a lot of participants.” In this sentence, the present participle “eating” is functioning as an adjective modifying “competition.”

Now we can answer this crucial question: What’s the point of using the qualifier “true” in describing certain “finite verbs”? It is this: One of the verb forms, the one that ends in “-ing,” can either be “true finite verb” or a “non-finite verb” depending on the usage. It’s a true finite verb when used in the progressive tense, as in “He is preaching environmentalism.” (Here, “preaching” works as a verb in the progressive tense supported by the auxiliary verb “is.”) On the other hand, it is non-finite when used as a gerund, as in “Preaching is what he does right now.” (Here, preaching is a noun working as the subject of the sentence.)

In other words, a verb is a true finite verb when it’s actually doing its usual work as a verb, and a non-finite verb when it’s working as something else—either as a noun or as an adjective.

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What’s the proper tense for “do” in a negative of a statement?

Question from renzphotography, September 22, 2009

Many people use the present tense after using the word “did” (the past tense of the verb "do").

Example: “Did you cook the pasta we ate for dinner?”

However, there are some who use the past tense.

Example: “Did you cooked the pasta we ate for dinner?”

This is a source of confusion. Would someone please shed light on this topic? Thanks.

Dear renzphotography:

The question “Did you cook the pasta we ate for dinner?” is correct while the question “Did you cooked the pasta we ate for dinner?” is grammatically wrong. When indicating the negative of a statement in the past tense, it’s not the main verb but the helping verb that takes the tense. In this particular case, the helping verb “do” takes the past tense “did” while the main verb “cook” stays as is (as “cook,” or the infinitive of the verb without the “to”).

This needs a more detailed explanation, of course.  

English has three primary helping verbs—“do,” “be,” and “have.” Also called auxiliary verbs, they help the main verb in a sentence form questions, negatives, and some verb tenses. The general rule is that when a helping verb is used in a sentence, it is the helping verb that takes the tense, while the main verb takes its base form (the infinitive of the verb without the “to,” as in “make” from the infinitive “to make”).

“Do” in particular is used to (a) indicate questions, (b) indicate the negative of a statement, and (c) emphasize a statement.

“Do” to indicate a question: “Did he take the bus?” “Does he take the bus?” In both the past and present tense, it is the helping verb “do” that takes the tense. The main verb “take” doesn’t take the tense and remains in its base form.

“Do” to indicate the negative of a statement: “I did not take the bus.” “I don’t take the bus.” In both these sentences, it is the helping verb “do” that takes the tense. The main verb “take” doesn’t take the tense and remains in its base form.

“Do” to emphasize a statement: “I did take the bus.” “I do take the bus.” Here, “do” works to strongly emphasize a response to a particular question like, say, “Did (or “Do” you really take the bus?” Again, in such cases, it is the helping verb “do” that takes the tense. The main verb “take” doesn’t take the tense and remains in its base form.

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Is it right for the British to turn so many English verbs into nouns?

Questions from Mrs. Hill Roberts in Spain (September 19, 2009):        

In Britain, the word "invite" is now commonly used as a noun, even by Sky News, BBC, and other media folks; hence, the viewers and listeners have begun to imitate them.

Another verb now turned into a noun is "reveal," instead of "revelation." Heard recently on the BBC radio: "...this is quite a reveal..." What about "...and this has dominance over..." or "...this has domination over the implementation of..."? Which is the correct one?

Another thing I dislike is: "He/She is the Chair of Animal Welfare Association..." We both know that the Americans are sooooo politically correct, but frankly, I have no wish to be called a "chair." Can we please bring back "Chairman/Chairwoman” or “Chairperson,” please?

Also, that gnawing, irritating spelling of "Miss." Can we also use the correct the form/spellling when addressing our women? "Ms." is too pretentious to my liking, something that doesn't make sense at all. Just because Americans started it, there's no need to follow one of the worst examples of pretentious "titles."

Dear Mrs. Roberts:

I’m afraid there’s no way we can stop the British from such efforts to simplify the English language; after all, they were the ones who had so painstakingly developed the English vocabulary, warts and all. My feeling is that some native English speakers probably find all those “-ion” words so inconvenient and tiresome—“invitation,” “revelation,” domination”—that they would rather knock off that suffix for brevity and ease of articulation. In a decade or two perhaps, they would have stripped all those “ion”-words to their root bare infinitives and make them all work as nouns—“invite,” “reveal,” “dominate.” That may not be such a bad idea. It could save the world a lot of word-processor keystrokes and—because of the fewer letters to print—a lot of forests as well.

As to the use of the politically correct and nonsexist words “chair” and “Ms.”, I was extremely uncomfortable with them at first, but not anymore. The unpleasantness of the idea of addressing someone with a word denoting a hard, inanimate object no longer grates on my nerves; in the case of “Ms.”, on the other hand, I think it’s a good way for a woman—particularly when married—not to feel owned or possessed by a man when she’s being addressed in writing. Overall, I think these usages are a fair trade-off for all the noise and recriminations against sexism that we used to hear from the feminists a decade or so ago.

P.S. As to “dominance” and “domination,” both words are correct usage for the sense of the statements you gave as examples. The second is much older, though, dating back to the 14th century; the first, coined in 1819, is of much recent vintage. Of course, if the current British predilection for turning nouns into verbs continues, both just might become the neo-noun “dominate” sometime soon.

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Is it grammatically acceptable to use “invite” as a noun?

Question from Mrs. Hill Roberts in Spain (September 12, 2009):

Greetings from Spain!

In recent months, I’ve been following your articles online and I’d like to thank you for clarifying many supposedly correctly written sentences.

Over the years, I’ve also noticed that when people talk or speak about being “invited” to a party, the verb “to invite” becomes a noun.

Example: “Hi, hmmmm… oh, yes, thanks for the invite.”

I grew up thinking that to say, “Thanks for the invitation” was proper and correct. Why is it that saying “invite” instead of the noun “invitation” has become acceptable, or is it because people nowadays don’t bother to say whether it’s correct or not?

The double negative, as in “I don’t know nothing...” Many Filipinos think that it’s correct grammar because the expression happens to be spoken by Americans in US-made TV sitcoms.

Another example: “I cannot cope up with...”, a common mistake among English-speaking Filipinos.

Also the split infinitive, as in “...I’d like to honestly kill that rat ...”

How can these examples be rectified?

Dear Mrs. Roberts:

You’re most welcome! I’m delighted to know that my weekly English-usage columns in The Manila Times are able to clarify grammar and usage matters for you even in faraway Spain.

Now let’s take up your grammar and usage concerns one by one:

The use of the word “invite” as a noun

I share your discomfort with the increasing usage of the word “invite” as a noun, as in the example you gave: “Hi, hmmmm… Oh, yes, thanks for the invite.” The same thing seems to be happening in the Philippines. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, I received e-mail from a former university English instructor with the following opening sentence: “Thanks! I just received your formal invite to your book launching.” And every now and then, a generic invitation to some function or event would reach me with the following opening sentence: “Attached is our formal invite to the…” Frankly, like you, I find this usage of “invite” awful!

(I know of one other questionable usage that’s parallel to this: the use of the word “listen” as a noun in the expression “let’s give a listen” that many radio disc jockeys have been using for God knows how long now, as in “Not let’s give a listen to Michael Jackson’s original runaway hit…” My Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate does list “listen” as a noun that means “an act of listening”—a usage that dates back to the year 1788. Perhaps some disc jockey had taken the cue from that dictionary entry and blithely started propagating the usage through the airwaves. Still, for the life of me, I wouldn’t be caught using “listen” as noun whether in speech or in writing. It’s just too colloquial for comfort!) 

But the big question is: Is it grammatically correct or acceptable to use “invite” as a noun instead of the verb that we know it to be? My gut feel tells me that even at a colloquial level, “invite” is a very awkward word choice for the purpose; at the very least, it seems to me a very lazy and indiscriminate person’s way of spelling “invitation.” If so, why then are more and more people using “invite” as a noun these days?

I would imagine that “invite” as a noun is just another manifestation of the texting syndrome in recent years. You know how that syndrome goes: mobile phone users get used to shortening words to as few keystrokes as possible to save on both time and effort. “Invite” is four letters or 40 percent shorter than “invitation”—a great inducement indeed to go short if you are too busy or in such a hurry!

Still, I think it’s entirely a different matter when it comes to letters and other forms of written communication, whether formal or informal. In such cases, I think using “invite” as a noun is nothing less than a grammatical outrage; in fact, whenever I get a formal invitation that uses “invite” as a noun instead of as a verb, my estimation of the quality of the English of the message source plunges several notches lower—and the temptation to decline the invitation becomes almost irresistible to me!

In fairness to the “invite”-as-noun converts, though, there’s an entry in my digital Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary that lists “invite” as a noun in the sense of “the act of inviting.” The usage dates back to 1659, and I gather from other sources this citation from the Oxford English Dictionary, which marks the noun “invite” as colloquial (italicizations mine):

1659 H. L’ESTRANGE Alliance Div. Off. 326 Bishop Cranmer…gives him an earnest invite to England.

1778 F. BURNEY Diary (1842) I. 105 Everybody bowed and accepted the invite but me…for I have no intention of snapping at invites from the eminent.

Thereafter, however, there seems to be hardly any reference to it being used again on a notable scale. It looks like it’s only now, with the texting language revolution underway, that there has been a resurgence of its usage.

All in all, however, if you ask me if the above justifications confer grammatical legitimacy to the formal usage of “invite” as a noun, my answer is a firm “No!” For me, it’s “invitation” anytime and every time.

The double negative in “I don’t know nothing...”

You’re right; I often hear not a few Filipinos say that misguided expression with such prideful flourish—as if mouthing it magically transforms them into full-blooded Americans themselves. But no matter if a thousand and one American TV sitcoms use “I don’t know nothing” as a staple expression, there’s no way for it to be accepted as good English. The correct, educated expression will always be “I don’t know anything”—and the earlier people get to know this, the better for their English.

The expression “I cannot cope up with”

As I always emphasize in the my English grammar seminar-workshops, verb phrases or phrasal verbs are idiomatic expressions with a fixed preposition working in tandem with them. We can’t always find an overt logic as to why this or that preposition came to be used in such expressions; the verb phrase just established itself as such through repeated use by native English speakers over decades or even centuries. In the particular verb phrase in question here, for instance, “cope up with” comes with one preposition too many; it should simply be “cope with,” as in “I cannot cope with the workload at the office.”

There really are no ifs and buts about this; it’s either you know the idiom or you don’t. So if someone persists in adding the “up” every time to “cope with,” it’s a sure sign that the speaker or writer is clueless or isn’t really conversant with the idiom.

Splitting the infinitive in “I’d like to honestly kill that rat ...”

I must admit that I sometimes split infinitives myself if I find that doing it clarifies the idea I want to say. For instance, I would do that in this sentence, “The school principal decided to actually enforce the speak-English-only rule inside the campus.” I think you’ll agree that it sounds more natural than these three other constructions that scrupulously avoid splitting the infinitive “to enforce”:

  1. “The school principal decided actually to enforce the speak-English-only rule inside the campus.”
  2. “The school principal decided to enforce the speak-English-only rule actually inside the campus.”
  3. “The school principal actually decided to enforce the speak-English-only rule inside the campus.”

In the expression “I’d like to honestly kill that rat ...”, however, it’s no so much the splitting of the infinitive “to kill” that I strongly object to but the misplacement of the adverb “honestly.” In that sentence, “honestly” is intended to modify the verb phrase “would like,” but it is positioned in such a way that it wrongly modifies the verb “kill” instead. Indeed, the grammatically correct construction of that sentence is as follows: “Honestly, I’d like to kill that rat ...” Another correct way: “I honestly would like to kill that rat…” Both constructions, as we can see, get rid neatly of the split infinitive.

So what’s the best way to deal with split infinitives? In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White wisely make this suggestion: “The split infinitive is another trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook.” I think we can very well be guided by that.

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What’s the proper way of naming a hometown association abroad?

Question by Homer Bunag (August 14, 2009):
There are a good number of people from our small town in Pitogo, Quezon Province, Philippines abroad or overseas. We formed an organization, Association of Pitogohins Abroad (APA). Some members claimed it should be Association of Pitogohin Abroad.
Which one is correct?

Dear Homer:

The name with the plural “Pitogohins” is the grammatically correct form: Association of Pitogohins Abroad. However, the mixing of the English word “Association” with the Anglicized plural of the native word “Pitogohin”—“Pitogohins”—could be grammatically objectionable to some people. I suppose then that a possible middle-ground choice of name for your group is one that uses “Pitogohin” as an adjective: Overseas Pitogohin Association.

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Should lawyers casually say “plea of guilty” and “plea of innocent”?

Question by Atty. Danny Valdez (August 29, 2009):

We lawyers casually say, “plea of guilty.” The law (at least Sec. 27 of the Rules on Evidence) even uses the phrase. If that were correct, then there must also be a “plea of innocent.” Shouldn’t it be a “plea of guilt” instead?

The frequently used adjective “most sought-after” is derived from the verb “seek,” which is transitive. What then is the reason behind the use of the word “after”?

Dear Danny:

What people say casually isn’t always grammatically correct, and the casual language of lawyers is no exception. The phrase “plea of guilty,” which is of the form “noun + of + adjective, is definitely bad grammar; it’s as grammatically wrong and ill-advised as “offer of lovely,” “statement of ugly,” or “demand of nasty.” The correct form for such phrases is, as you correctly surmise, “noun + of + noun,” as in “plea of guilt” and its polar opposite, “plea of innocence.” (To belabor the point, the correct construction of my three wrong-usage examples is “lovely offer,” “ugly statement,” and “nasty demand,” respectively.)

But as you say, the rules of grammar had not stopped lawyers from using “plea of guilty” casually and from even enshrining it in the Rules of Evidence. There ought to be a law against such grammar misuse, and it better be enacted fast before some trigger-happy compañeros of yours start casually using “plea of innocent” and—Lady Justice forbid!— think of enshrining it in the Rules of Evidence as well.

The adjectival phrase “most sought-after” is a phrasal verb or verb phrase, which is an expression that consists of a verb or adverb that ends in a preposition. The transitivity or intransitivity of the verb actually has got nothing to do with the form of such phrases and the preposition they end with. Indeed, a phrasal verb or verb phrase often doesn’t have an overt grammar logic; it just becomes entrenched in the language through repeated use, in much the same way as “plea of guilty” had become entrenched in lawyers’ circles. The problem with language, in fact, is that even wrong grammar or wrong usage gets legitimized by repeated use—very much like a lie becoming truth in the mind of the clueless or naive through sheer repetition.

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How do we use the phrases “was/were to be” and “was/were to have been”?

Question by Julius De La Cruz (August 29, 2009):

Could you please explain to me the proper usage of the phrases “was/were to be” and “was/were to have been” as used in sentences that convey actions or incidents that did not happen?

Dear Julius:

The form “was/were to be + past participle of the verb” is normally used in the main clause of a compound passive-voice sentence that conveys an action or event that didn’t happen. A coordinate clause then provides a reason, explanation, or justification as to why the expected action didn’t happen.

“The crop was to be harvested that day, but heavy rains prevented the farmers from harvesting it.” (Compound sentence with “but” as coordinating conjunction)

“The crop was to be harvested that day; however, heavy rains prevented the farmers from harvesting it.” (Compound sentence with “however” as conjunctive adverb)

Note than when such passive-voice compound sentences are rendered in the active voice, the form of the verb in the main coordinate clause changes to “was/were + infinitive form of the verb”:

“The farmers were to harvest the crop that day, but the heavy rains prevented them from doing so.”

“The farmers were to harvest the crop that day; however, the heavy rains prevented them from doing so.”

It’s rare for a clause using the form “was/were to be + past participle of the verb” to be a stand-alone clause. If at all, that clause can take a stand-alone form only in answer to a question as to what action or event was expected to happen but didn’t, as in the following exchange:

Question: “What was expected to happen last Monday?”
Answer:   “The prisoners were to be released that day.”

On the other hand, the form “was/were to have been + past participle of the verb” is normally used in the main clause of a compound passive-voice sentence that conveys an action or event that happened later than expected or scheduled. A coordinate clause then provides a reason, explanation, or justification for the delay in the action taken or in the holding of the event.

“The parcel was to have been delivered by noon, but the courier came late so it was delivered in the evening instead.”

“The parcel was to have been delivered by noon; however, the courier came late so it was delivered in the evening instead.”

When such passive-voice compound sentences are rendered in the active voice, the form of the verb in the main coordinate clause changes to “was/were supposed/expected/scheduled to have + past participle of the verb”:

“The courier was supposed to have delivered that parcel by noon, but he came late so it was delivered in the evening instead.”

“The courier was supposed to have delivered that parcel by noon; however, he came late so it was delivered in the evening instead.”

Clauses using the form “was/were to have been + past participle of the verb” are grammatically very cumbersome and unwieldy when used as stand-alone clauses, so it’s not advisable to use them as such. They should always form part of a compound sentence where the second coordinate clause explains the delay in the consummation of the action or event.

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