Jose Carillo's Forum


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

This Students’ Sounding Board is a new 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 could 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.

To post a question in the Students’ Sounding Board, the student must be a registered member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum. To register, simply click this link to the Forum’s registration page; membership is absolutely free. All you need to provide is your user name and a password; you can choose to remain incognito and your e-mail address won’t be indicated in your postings.

Go to the Students’ Sounding Board now!

Can you help explain the usage of “less” and “fewer” to me?

Question from forces20, new Forum member (May 25, 2010):

Oftentimes, I commit errors on these troublesome words, “less” and “fewer.” Can you help explain their usage to me and give several examples? Thank you.

My reply to forces20:

The usage of the comparatives “fewer” and “less” can be better understood in terms of whether the nouns they are modifying are countable or noncountable. In English, as we all know, something is countable if we can figure out without great difficulty how many of it there are; we then use “number” as an indefinite measure for it, as in “the number of candidates,” “a number of job openings,” “the number of parties involved,” and “the growing number of complaints.” In contrast, something is noncountable if it is in bulk form and counting its constituent units would be insufferably difficult or impossible; we then use “amount” as a measure for it, as in “the amount of potable water,” “a great amount of energy,” “a great amount of patience,” and “a largeamount of dissatisfaction.”

Now, the word “fewer” is used as a comparative for plural count nouns, or things that use “number” as measure; thus, we say, “There are fewer candidates for club president this year,” “We find fewer job openings in the classified ads these days,” “Fewer parties took interest in the public bidding for the irrigation project,” and “The city police reported fewer robberies in 2009 than those of the previous year.” It may not be immediately apparent to nonnative English speakers, but native English speakers would find it grammatically odd if someone used “less” instead of “fewer” in those four sentences. 

On the other hand, “less” is used as a comparative for singular mass nouns, or things that use “amount” as a measure; thus, we say, “We consumed less water this month than last month,” “Our factories should consumeless energy to remain competitive,” “The manager proved to have less patience with the student interns than we anticipated,” and “The latest consumer survey shows less dissatisfaction with our products than last quarter’s.” If one used “fewer” in place of “less” in those four sentences, native English speakers would notice something grammatically wrong with the statement. 

There are some notable exceptions to these prescriptions, though. When plural count nouns are thought of as an aggregate, “amount” instead of “number” can be used as a measure for them, as in these examples: “We will supply you with whatever amount of Hawaiian pineapples you will require.” “No amount of words will convince a rational-thinking person that Earth is only 5,000 years old.” Also, in certain cases, it is grammatically correct to use a singular mass noun in the plural-count sense, like “food” in the following sentence: “We need to reduce the number of kilos of food we buy weekly.”

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Can somebody post the usage of every tense of the English verbs?

Question from morrie (May 11, 2010):

Can somebody post the usage and example of every tense of the verb from simple to perfect tense? They are one of my weaknesses.

Reply by Joe Carillo:

The verb tenses in English are actually the most often and most extensively discussed topic in the Forum, but I’m afraid that there isn’t a single posting here that discusses all of the tenses thoroughly and comprehensibly. You’ll therefore need to go through the English grammar textbooks for an intensive review. Alternatively, though, you can read the following chapters in two of my English-usage books for a quick, comprehensive review of the tenses:

English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language:

Section 3 – Rediscovering the Verbs
Chapter 4 – Coming to Terms with Verbs
Chapter 5 – Transitives Overt and Covert
Chapter 6 – When a Verb Acts All By Itself
Chapter 7 – Verbs to Tie Up Loose Ends
Chapter 8 – The Hierarchy of Verbs
Chapter 9 – When Verbs Stray Too Far Off
Chapter 10 – When Verbs Take Different Guises

Section 10 – The Perfect Tenses

Chapter 41 – Dealing with the Perfect Tenses
Chapter 42 – Timeline for the Present Perfect
Chapter 43 – Timeline for the Past Perfect
Chapter 44 – Timeline for the Future Perfect
Chapter 45 – The Perfect Progressive Takes Its Time

Give Your English the Winning Edge:

Section 7 – Mastering the English Tenses
Chapter 45 – Clarifying Tense with the Adverbs of Time
Chapter 46 – Tense in Cases of Clause Dependency
Chapter 47 – The Arranged Futures
Chapter 48 – The Predicted Futures and Timetable Futures
Chapter 49 – The Described Futures
Chapter 50 – The Uncertain Futures
Chapter 51 – The Historical, Literary, and Eternal Present
Chapter 52 – How Verbs Behave in Exceptional Sequence
Chapter 53 – Dealing Better with the Past Imperfect

In the Philippines, both books are available in major outlets of National Book Store and Powerbooks. If you are based abroad, simply click this link to the Forum’s Bookshop section for the ordering details.

Let me know what you think when you’re done with your review, and afterwards, don’t hesitate to post in the Forum any questions you still might have about the tenses.

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African literature in English class?

Question from Musushi-Tamago (March 26, 2010):

Just something off the top of my head...

This may sound a bit strange. But, why is literature tackled in English class? For example, in our class, we studied Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which is African literature.

Is there such a thing called “literature class”? If there is, why are pieces of literature that are not distinctively English taken up in English class?

Any help would be appreciated.

Reply by Joe Carillo:

By definition, literature is the body of written works produced in a particular language, country, or age, and it so happens that over the centuries, English has attained widespread use in countries other than England, its country of origin. In the Philippines, for instance, English is the second official language next to Pilipino and, over the past 114 years (48 of which was under American colonial rule), the country has developed an English literature of its own—meaning literature originally written in English by Filipino nationals, with literary writers like Nick Joaquin, N.V.M. Gonzales, and Bienvenido Santos as prime examples. The same is true with certain countries in Africa, which, I’m sure you learned in school, became colonies of Great Britain for many decades and acquired English as their second or third language, in the process developing an English literature of their own.

One such African country is Nigeria, where the author of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, was born and was raised by Christian parents in the village of Igbo in southeastern Nigeria. Achebe excelled at school and won a scholarship for undergraduate studies, later becoming a novelist writing in English. In 1958, he published Things Fall Apart, which is considered the archetypal modern African novel in English. This well-written novel about traditional village culture in Africa received global critical acclaim, and is now required English-literature reading not only in schools all over Africa but also in many English-speaking countries worldwide. And this, of course, is also why it has also become required reading in your English literature class—yes, there’s such a thing as a literature class—in your school in the Philippines.

Today, Things Fall Apart now forms part of the world’s widely acclaimed literature in English, written originally in English by writers who are not subjects of the United Kingdom.

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In grammar, what exactly are antecedents?

Question from Musushi-tamago (February 18, 2010):

In grammar, what are antecedents exactly? When and where are they used?

In English class, we discussed about pronoun-antecedent agreement. I knew exactly what to do, but I couldn’t quite get my head around on what an antecedent is exactly.

Reply by Joe Carillo:

An antecedent is the noun, noun phrase, or a noun clause that a pronoun refers to in a sentence. It is normally found in a sentence before a pronoun—the “ante” in the word means “before”—so it may not be exactly appropriate to ask when and where it’s used. The antecedent is presumed to be already present somewhere in the sentence, and what’s needed in grammar is that any pronoun in the sentence that refers to this antecedent must agree with it in person (whether first, second, or third person), case (whether nominative or subjective, objective, or possessive) and number (whether singular or plural).

For example, the noun “Roberto” is the antecedent of the pronoun “he” in this basic sentence: “Roberto finally found the book he had been looking for.”

An antecedent need not be a noun; it can also be a noun phrase, as in this sentence: “The basic computer course that Ana wants to take is currently offered by the school, but it costs twice her budget for it.” Here, the antecedent is the entire noun phrase ““the basic computer course that Ana wants to take,” and “it”—used twice in the sentence—is a pronoun that refers to that antecedent.

And an antecedent can also be a noun clause, as in this sentence: “What transpired during his long meeting with his boss disturbed Armando, and it gave him bad dreams for several nights.” Here, the noun clause “what transpired during his long meeting with his boss” is the antecedent of the pronoun “it” in that sentence. In that noun clause, the noun “Armando” is the antecedent of the possessive pronoun “his,” which is used twice—first to modify “long meeting,” then to modify “boss.”

When the antecedent is in plural form or is a compound noun—meaning that it consists of two or more nouns—the pronoun that refers to that antecedent must also be in plural form, as in this sentence: “His manager and his wife are demanding quality time from Steve, and they both won’t accept compromises.” Here, “his manager and his wife” is a compound antecedent, so the pronoun referring to it is the plural-form “they.” Note that the noun “Steve” is the antecedent of the possessive pronoun “his”—used twice—in the noun phrase.

I hope that this discussion has clarified in your mind the grammar concept of “antecedent” and its relation to pronouns.

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Rizal published an English story, but we don’t know if it was edited

Follow-up question from paul_nato (February 2, 2010): much stuff to read! 

Speaking of stuff to read, after finding out that Jose Rizal did speak/write in English, I went to look for stuff he may have written. I came across this:

Quite interesting in that he got published by a British mag.

How’s his English in this piece?

Rejoinder by Joe Carillo:

Following the link that you provided, paul_nato, I have reproduced below “The Tale of the Tortoise and the Monkey,” Rizal’s English-language anecdote as published in a London publication, Trubner’s Oriental Record, in 1889.

You asked me how’s the English of Rizal in this piece. I would say that its English is competent. Being a professional editor, though, I would have made a few refinements in the prose. In particular, in the very first sentence, I would have put the adverb “once” before the verb “found”—not after—for more fluid, effortless reading. I would have also knocked off the phrase “amidst the waves of a river” as an overfastidious superfluity; simply saying “in the river” would have made that sentence read much better and more naturally. Also, the narrative’s use of the verb phrase “climb up” three times is grammatically incorrect; the verb “climb” already conveys the idea of going “up,” so “up” is redundant in each case. Otherwise, the English of the story is grammatically and semantically aboveboard.

Overall, though, I couldn’t make a judgment of how good Rizal’s English was based on this published story. You see, then as now, practically all of the published stories people get to read are edited beforehand before they are printed. Editors routinely correct them for grammar, syntax, and structure as well as for style; some publications even rewrite them so they will better suit its editorial policy or ideological orientation. So, we really have no way of knowing how good the English of Rizal’s original manuscript was, and how much editing it had to bear before getting published. All I can say for sure is that Rizal had a great talent for storytelling and story adaptation (the tale below is actually his retelling of a popular fable at that time). Can you imagine, if he weren't executed by the Spanish authorities in 1896 at the age of 35, how many more stories and novels he could have written—whether in Spanish, Tagalog, or English—had he lived to the ripe age of, say, 60 to 70?   

Here’s Rizal’s story as published in Trubner’s Oriental Record in 1889:

The Tale of the Tortoise and the Monkey
By Jose P. Rizal

The tortoise and the monkey found once a banana tree floating amidst the waves of a river. It was a very fine tree, with large green leaves, and with roots just as if it had been pulled off by a storm. They took it ashore. "Let us divide it," said the tortoise, "and plant each its portion." They cut it in the middle, and the monkey, as the stronger, took for himself the upper part of the tree, thinking that it would grow quicker for it had leaves. The tortoise, as the weaker, had the lower part, that looked ugly, although it had roots. After some days, they met.

"Hello, Mr. Monkey," said the tortoise, "how are you getting on with your banana tree?"

"Alas," said the monkey, "it has been dead a long time! And yours, Miss Tortoise?"

"Very nice indeed, with leaves and fruits. I cannot climb up to gather them."

"Never mind," said the malicious monkey, "I will climb up and pick them for you."

"Do, Mr. Monkey," replied the tortoise gratefully. And so they walked toward the tortoise's house.

As soon as the monkey saw the bright yellow fruits hanging between the large green leaves, he climbed up and began plundering, munching and gobbling, as quick as he could.

"But give me some, too," said the tortoise, seeing that the monkey did not take the slightest notice of her.

"Not even a bit of the skin, if it is eatable," rejoined the monkey, both his cheeks crammed with bananas.

The tortoise meditated revenge. She went to the river, picked up some pointed shells, planted them around the banana tree, and hid herself under a coconut shell. When the monkey came down, he hurt himself and began to bleed.

After a long search he found the tortoise.

"You must pay now for your wickedness; You must die. But as I am very generous, I will leave to you the choice of your death. Shall I pound you in a mortar, or shall I throw you into the water? Which do you prefer?"

"The mortar, the mortar," answered the tortoise; "I am so afraid of getting drowned."

"O ho!" laughed the monkey; "indeed! You are afraid of getting drowned! Now I will drown you!"

And going to the shore, he slung the tortoise and threw it in the water. But soon the tortoise reappeared swimming and laughing at the deceived, artful monkey.

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