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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.

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Questions and answers on using complex sentences to texture ideas

Forum member curious cat, who is currently reading my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, sent me last June 17 some questions about the discussions in Chapter 8, “Using Complex Sentences to Texture Ideas.”

Below is the set of curious cat’s questions and my answers to them. Curious cat’s statements are set in blue text; my answers in black text.

The following questions are based on the examples you used in your book: 

(1) A dependent clause can take on the following parts of speech section:

Object: "The dazed woman went whichever way the crowd ahead of her went."

The dependent clause here, functioning as the direct object, is supposed to be "whichever way the crowd ahead of her went" right? 

That’s right, the entire clause “whichever way the crowd ahead of her went” is the direct object of the verb “went.” To make this idea easier to grasp, think of that entire clause as the equivalent of “there” or “that way” as direct objects in this sentence: "The dazed woman went there.” "The dazed woman went that way.” (A simple test for determining whether “there” and “that way” are indeed direct objects is to answer this question: “Where did the dazed woman go?” The answer, of course, will be: “There” or “That way.” Both of them directly receive the action of the verb “go.”)

(a) Could you help me see the subject and predicate that makes "whichever way the crowd ahead of her went" a complete sentence? It seems like an adverbial phrase for some reason.

No, a dependent clause can never be a complete sentence, for it is always preceded by a dependency marker—in this case “whichever”—that makes it functionally a phrase and not a clause in the sentence. Indeed, a dependent clause can never stand by itself as a sentence and is forever consigned to the role of latching on to a main clause to serve its purpose. 

(b) If that's the dependent clause, then "The dazed woman went", the remaining part of the sentence should be independent, but is not a complete thought without the rest of the sentence. So do we have two dependent clauses that make up one independent clause?

No. In a complex sentence, there should always be a main clause and a dependent or subordinate clause. In your particular example, the main clause “the dazed woman went” can actually be taken as a complete sentence in itself. It has a subject, “the dazed woman,” and a verb, “went,” that’s a complete predicate by itself. Together they form a complete sentence: “The dazed woman went.” In contrast, the dependent clause "whichever way the crowd ahead of her went" can’t stand by itself, for it has no functional or operative verb to carry out the action. That dependent clause needs the verb “went” of the main clause to make it functional: “The dazed woman went whichever way the crowd ahead of her went"

(2) Object of Preposition: "You have to remind me every time where we must take a turn if you don't want us to get lost."

(a) "remind me every time where we must take a turn" is the object of the preposition "to". At first glance this looks like an infinitive. But I'm not sure if there's such a thing as an infinitive clause to begin with.

To avoid being confused, think of a dependent clause as always preceded by a relative pronoun (“who,” “which,” “where”) to be a dependent clause to begin with. As such, it will always be functioning as a noun form, in which case it can be the subject, doer of the action, or direct or indirect object in the sentence. Thus, in the sentence in question, the direct object of the preposition is actually the dependent clause “where we must take a turn if you don't want us to get lost,” the indirect object is “me,” and “every time” an adverbial time phrase.

There’s such a thing as an infinitive phrase but not an infinitive clause. The italicized words in the following sentence is an example of an infinitive phrase: “To love so deeply without being reciprocated is often a traumatic experience.” Here, it’s acting as the subject of the sentence.

(b) if an object is the receiver of an action, "remind me every time where we must take a turn" receives "have to", which is more likely an auxiliary than an action verb. How do auxiliaries figure in?

Let’s examine this sentence: “You have to remind me every time where we must take a turn." The action verb is “have” in the sense of causing or commanding to do something. It is followed by the infinitive phrase “to remind me every time,” which completes the main clause. The dependent or subordinate clause “where we must take a turn” serves as the direct object of the verb “have.” (The auxiliary “has”/”have”/”had” figure in the perfect tenses, of course, where they are used to indicate continuing action in the past, present, or future.)

(a) “After she appeared in the award-winning movie, the young actress started receiving many offers for plum roles.” (The dependent clause acts as an adverbial clause)

That’s right; the dependent clause acts as an adverbial clause modifying the entire main clause.

(b) “Because the volume of his business had dropped so low, the entrepreneur decided to invest more in radio advertising.” (The dependent clause starts with a conjunction, Because, but the rest of the clause acts as a noun?)

No. Here we have a complex sentence: “Because the volume of his business had dropped so low, the entrepreneur decided to invest more in radio advertising.” Of course, it can also be written with the main clause ahead of the subordinate clause: “The entrepreneur decided to invest more in radio advertising because the volume of his business had dropped so low.” In both cases, the subordinate clause “because the volume of his business had dropped so low” denotes the cause of the action in the main clause. The clause after “because” doesn’t act as a noun but as a complete statement describing the nature of the cause of the result described in the main clause.

(c) “I will have to let her go as my executive secretary, unless she changes her careless ways.”
(The dependent clause starts with a conjunction, unless, and the rest of the clause "she changes her careless ways" seems to be dangling though. I'm not sure about this.)

Yes, a dependent clause always starts with the subordinating conjunction that introduces it. No, the clause “she changes her careless ways” isn’t dangling; by itself, in fact, it’s a complete sentence: “She changes her careless ways.” (It only seems to dangle because it’s in the present tense and doesn’t say what changes are made.)

(d) “When the general manager returns from his foreign trip this Sunday, meet him at the airport unless you get a call from me by seven that morning not to do so.” (The first dependent clause starts with When, which makes this an adverbial clause, the second starts with unless, and again, I am at a loss with what this clause is supposed to be)

A better way to deconstruct that sentence is this: The main clause is “meet him at the airport.” Subordinate to this main clause is “unless you get a call from me by seven that morning not to do so.” Another subordinate clause—you correctly describe it as an adverbial clause—is “when the general manager returns from his foreign trip this Sunday.” What we have here is a complex sentence with two subordinate clauses. 

(4) I noticed that you switched the dependency clauses from the head, to the tail end of the examples (mentioned above) in your book. Was that just to show the acceptable placements for dependent clauses?

Yes, of course. 

(5) What did you mean by "motivation and limitation" in this passage:

In example D, we have 2 subordinate clauses flanking the independent clause "meet him at the airport" giving the statement both its motivation and its limitation.

By “motivation,” I meant that the adverbial clause “when the general manager returns from his foreign trip this Sunday” is the reason for the command to meet him; and by “limitation,” I meant that the execution of the command depends on a particular condition, in this case ““unless you get a call from me by seven that morning not to do so.”

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The correct usage of “due to” and “because of”

Question from forces20, Forum member (May 28, 2010):

Sir, what is the correct usage of “due to” and “because of”? This question has baffled me several times.

My reply to forces20:

You are not alone in being baffled by the usage of “due to” and “because of.” A lot of people use these two prepositional forms interchangeably, thinking that they mean exactly the same. Well, sometimes they do, but you’ll know it when they don’t because of the awkward sound of the sentence. Now let me restate that sentence, this time using “due to,” to illustrate my point: “Well, sometimes they do, but you’ll know it when they don’t due to the awkward sound of the sentence.” See and feel the difference between the two sentences? The first, which uses “because of,” looks and sounds OK; the second, which uses “due to,” reads and sounds badly. Indeed, in the second sentence, the syntax of the phrase “when they don’t due to” is simply awful; I would even say that, if not totally wrong, such phrasing is grammatically and semantically suspicious. But the big question, of course, is “Why?” 

Let’s begin with the definitions of these two prepositional forms. 

“Due to” means “as a result of,” as in this sentence: “Due to inclement weather, the concert at the park was cancelled.” In this sentence, “due to” means exactly the same—well, almost—as “because of.” This can clearly be seen in the following versions of that sentence where “due to” has been replaced with “because of”: “Because of inclement weather, the concert at the park was cancelled.” “The concert at the park was cancelled because of inclement weather.”

On the other hand, “because of” means “by reason of” or “on account of.” The “on account of” sense of “because of” is clearly the same as that of “due to” in the sentence we took up as an example above: “Because of inclement weather, the concert at the park was cancelled.” However, the “by reason of” sense of “because of” doesn’t seem to work in that sentence; we don’t normally say “By reason of inclement weather, the concert at the park was cancelled” or “The concert at the park was cancelled by reason of inclement weather.” This is because these two statements, aside from being awkward to say, give the distinctly wrong impression that the cancellation of the concert at the park was a direct result of the inclement weather. This isn’t the case, of course; the cancellation was only an indirect consequence of the inclement weather. The cancellation was a human decision prompted by the inclement weather; indeed, the concert could very well have been held despite the inclement weather.

We can probably draw this general rule from the above discussions: The prepositions “due to” and “because of” mean the same and can be used interchangeably only if a consequent action is not the direct result of another action or event but only an indirect consequence of it, as we have already shown above. On the other hand, if the outcome is the direct result of a certain action or process, “because of” is the semantically appropriate prepositional form to use, as in “The offshore drilling rig was destroyed because of an explosion in the oil well.” (The explosion directly caused the destruction of the drilling rig.) In cases like this, using “due to” doesn’t work as well from a semantic standpoint: “The offshore drilling rig was destroyed due to an explosion in the oil well.” (This construction gives the impression that instead of the explosion directly destroying the drilling rig, there might have been other consequent actions or events after the explosion that led to the destruction of the drilling rig.) In this sense, “due to” and “because of” are clearly no longer interchangeable.

Having said that, I would like to cite another interesting prescription for using “due to” and “because of,” this time from the standpoint of syntax. I am quoting verbatim below the explanation by Kelli Trungale in “Grammatically Correct,” a weekly grammar tip created by Academic Center Peer Writing Tutors of the University of Houston-Victoria in Texas:

When to use: “Due to” versus “because of”

Due to and because of are often used interchangeably in both written and spoken language. However, these two phrases have different meanings; thus, they are not interchangeable.

Due to is an adjectival prepositional phrase, meaning it modifies a noun. It is commonly preceded by a form of the verb “to be” (“be,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” etc.). Because it follows a “be” verb, it is considered a subject complement: It modifies the subject of the sentence.

Ex: Jeff Gordon’s loss was due to a broken tie rod.

In the above example, the adjectival prepositional phrase “due to a broken tie rod” follows “was” (a form of the verb “to be”) and modifies the subject of the sentence: “Jeff Gordon’s loss.”

Because of is an adverbial prepositional phrase, meaning it modifies a verb. It usually answers the question, “Why?”

Ex: Jeff Gordon lost because of a broken tie rod.

The adverbial prepositional phrase “because of a broken tie rod,” as seen in this example, answers the question, “Why did Jeff Gordon lose?”

Kelli Trungale then gives the following exercises to test our understanding of the proper choice between “due to” and “because of”:

Test Your Knowledge
1. George said that Lennie’s problems were (due to/because of) a childhood injury.
2. Julia became ill (due to/because of) the high pollen count.
3. The debate team won (due to/because of) their dedication and hard work.

1. George said that Lennie’s problems were due to a childhood injury.
2. Julia became ill because of the high pollen count.
3. The debate team won because of their dedication and hard work.

As an additional test, you may want to check out Kelli Trungale’s answers against the general rule I proposed earlier for the interchangeability or non-interchangeability of “due to” and “because of.” Doing so may take some mildly strenuous mental exercise, but I’m sure you’ll get a deeper insight about the usage of these two slippery prepositional forms.

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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 large amount 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 consume less 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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