Jose Carillo's Forum


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

This Students’ Sounding Board is a 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 can 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 along with 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!

A student’s gnawing doubt about what constitutes act of plagiarism

Question sent in by e-mail by forces20 (November 12, 2010):

Dear Mr. Carillo,

As I know that as a journalist and former editor-in-chief, you can explain my doubts on this matter.

I have finished writing my oratorical piece that’s entitled “The Change I See Begins With Me,” but something deeply bothers me about the originality of my idea. My speech largely revolves around a system that I have coined as the “VIP system,” where the acronym stands for “Visualize, Internalize, and Prioritize.” Actually, these are the three steps for putting into reality one’s desire to become a UP student, as discussed with us by Prof. Violy Quintana in her webinar (seminar on the web). Since then, these three words have become my inspiration, and I believe that they constitute the best way to make change start with me.

Through my own words and ideas, I explained the meaning of the “VIP system” in my oratorical piece. I didn’t directly quote or use the examples Prof. Quintana gave us during the webinar. I have my doubts, though, as to whether using those three words is an act of plagiarizing somebody else’s work. I have such a shallow understanding of plagiarism so I am hoping that you can enlighten me about it.

My reply to forces20:

Plagiarism is stealing and passing off the published words or ideas of another as one’s own without crediting the source. It’s a crime and unethical act that may involve changing some words, paraphrasing, or copying an entire piece of someone else’s work, then claiming authorship for the material. In legal terms, it’s a violation of someone’s intellectual property rights to written material, particularly those covered by copyright.

Now, your question is whether the “VIP system” you have developed plagiarizes the intellectual property of Prof. Violy Quintana who, as you say, discussed the action steps “Visualize, Internalize, and Prioritize” for putting into reality one’s desire to become a UP student. Offhand, I don’t think you’ve done any plagiarizing. Unless she had specifically copyrighted the acronym “VIP,” the action steps “Visualize, Internalize, and Prioritize,” and whatever unique system she has developed around the concept, she can’t lay claim to the idea as her intellectual property, much less begrudge a student she has inspired to seriously pursue it and elaborate on it. On the contrary, I think she’ll be delighted to know that you have taken it upon yourself to spread her ideas further like a good disciple.

But as a matter of courtesy and to avoid any misunderstanding, it would be advisable for you to duly acknowledge Prof. Quintana’s webinar and her ideas as having provided the inspiration for your oratorical piece. Just give credit where credit is due. This way you’ll not only avoid being understood as attempting to plagiarize someone else’s work but also have the opportunity to express your appreciation to her and spread goodwill while sharing a great idea with others who could similarly benefit from it.

Click to post a comment or view the comments to this posting

What “nose for news” means and other grammar questions

Questions from Forum member forces20 (October 25, 2010):

Although I am not a campus journalist in our institution, I am curious about the meaning of the following journalistic terms:

1. Nose for the news
2. Conflict of Ideas
3. Conflict of interest

What is the difference between “conflict of ideas” and “conflict of interest”?

And just a quick grammar question: What are the subject-verb agreement rules for collective nouns (e.g., “public audience,” “army,” etc.)?

My reply to forces20:

1. A “nose for news” means the instinctive skill or facility for discovering things. In journalism, specifically, it means the ability to ferret out newsworthy things from routine or trivial day-to-day activities or occurrences. A person who has a nose for news is naturally inquisitive and with a strong interest in affairs or events other than those that involve himself or herself. When you have a strong nose for news, that means you have the potential to become a news reporter, whether for your campus paper or for the mass media someday.

2. A “conflict of ideas” simply means a state of opposition between the ideas of a person or group and those of another person or group; there is an unresolved disagreement  between them in how they view certain issues or things. On the other hand, a “conflict of interest” means a conflict between the private interest of an individual or organization and its public obligations; for instance, there’s a conflict of interest when a judge or justice assigned to try a court case is a close relative of one of the litigants, so the moral and decent thing to do is to inhibit himself or herself from trying the case.

3. In American English, the rule is that a collective noun, such as “company,” “organization,” “committee,” “family,” and “team,” is singular when it acts collectively or represent one group, but is plural when the members of the collective body act individually. Examples of singular usage: “The company wants all its personnel to wear a uniform.” “The family takes a four-day picnic every summer.” Examples of plural usage: “The family are fighting over their inheritance.” “The team are divided on whether they should participate in the next Olympics.”

In British English, however, collective nouns like “company,” “organization,” and “committee” are normally treated as plural. Examples: “The company make a substantial donation to public charities every year.” “The company are at odds over the issue of Facebook usage during office hours.” “The committee are of the opinion that the increase in club fees is not warranted at this time.” “The committee are quarreling among themselves over the issue of meal allowances.”

Click to post a comment or view the comments to this posting

Differentiating the use of “than” and “than that of”

Question from Forces20, Forum member (September 30, 2010):

Hello, Sir Joe!

Kindly help me understand the difference between “than” and “than that of” in achieving a logical and clear comparison.

Let’s consider this sentence as an example:

“As a teacher, his salary is even less than that of a driver.”

Why shouldn’t the sentence above be written instead as “As a teacher, his salary is even less than a driver.”

Also the sentence below:

“The new library is undoubtedly well-stocked and functional but no one can say that its atmosphere is like the old one.”

This should be revised as follows:

“The new library is undoubtedly well-stocked and functional but no one can say that its atmosphere is like that of the old one.”

My reply to Forces20:

The fundamental difference between the comparatives “than” and “than that of” is in the nature of the elements being compared. We use “than of” when we compare two objects or things directly with each other, as in “Your laptop is more powerful than my laptop” or, more succinctly, “Your laptop is more powerful than mine.” On the other hand, we use “than that of” when we compare not the two objects or things directly but an attribute, possession, or part of theirs, as in “The processor of your laptop is more powerful than that of mine.” This particular comparative construction is, of course, an elliptical, more succinct version of this sentence: “The processor of your laptop is more powerful than the processor of your laptop.” The pointing pronoun “that” takes the place of the name of the thing whose attribute, possession, or part is being compared with that of another’s, and the pronoun “mine” takes the place of the name of the other thing involved in the comparison.

Take note that if we simply use “than” instead of “than that of” when comparing the attribute, possession, or part of two objects or things, a semantic problem or ambiguity in meaning might result, as in this grammatically flawed construction: “The processor of your laptop is more powerful than mine.” Here, it’s not clear if the pronoun “mine” refers to the processor of the other person’s laptop or to his or her laptop itself. The use of the form “than that of” clarifies that ambiguity: “The processor of your laptop is more powerful than that of mine.”

Applying these considerations to the sentences you presented, we find that the sentence “As a teacher, his salary is even less than a driver” is grammatically flawed because it is illogically comparing the teacher’s salary to the driver, not to the driver’s salary. The comparative form “less than that of” fixes the problem: “As a teacher, his salary is even less than that of a driver.”

The same is true, of course, with the other sentence construction you presented that uses the comparative “like the old one”: “The new library is undoubtedly well-stocked and functional but no one can say that its atmosphere is like the old one.” It wrongly compares the atmosphere of the new library with the old library itself, when the real comparison should be between the atmospheres of both. The use of the comparative form “like that of” corrects and clarifies that comparison: “The new library is undoubtedly well-stocked and functional but no one can say that its atmosphere is like that of the old one.”

We must keep in mind, though, that the use of the form “than that of” may not be necessary in some comparative constructions involving possessives. Take a look at these two examples: “Albert’s grade in science is higher than Bert’s.” (The version that uses “than that of” for the comparison is cumbersome and awkward-sounding: “Albert’s grade in science is higher than that of Bert.”) “Our basketball team’s record is more impressive than our competitor’s.” (This is more concise and much better-sounding than “Our basketball team’s record is more impressive than that of our competitor.”)

Click to post a comment or view the comments to this posting

Multiple use of the first-person “I” isn’t necessarily a redundancy

Questions sent in by e-mail by forces20, Forum member (September 9, 2010):

I approached my teacher in English and a journalism teacher to check my essay. The subject of that essay is “How I can make peace come alive in my world.” The journalism teacher put this note on the second draft of my essay: “If ever possible, avoid using the (redundancy) “I” same word in a sentence or paragraph.”

I met her this morning and she told me to avoid the overuse of “I” and to use so-called “imagery” instead so that although I am not using the word “I,” it will be clear that I am the one speaking in the essay. The idea of using “imagery” is something perplexing and difficult to me. Are there ways by which you can avoid the use of many “I’s” when writing an essay?

My second question is this: Which of these two constructions is correct: “the dignity of my fellowmen” or “the dignities of my fellowmen”?

My reply to forces20:

I must say at the outset that your journalism teacher gave you a very tall order by advising you to avoid overusing the first-person pronoun “I” in your essay. It’s actually a very sensible, well-meaning suggestion for professional writers and journalists, for the use of too many “I’s” in an essay or feature story can indeed be an eyesore when read silently and an assault to the ears when read aloud. But asking beginning writers to follow the minimal-“I” or no-“I” prescription often results in English that seems to be walking on tenterhooks—strained, contrived, and unnatural-sounding. In job application letters, for instance, people brainwashed by their teachers to practice total “I” avoidance usually come up with stilted constructions like “The undersigned has the honor to apply for the position of so and so.” Constructions like that efficiently suppress the “I’s,” but they also make sentences so staid and legal-sounding. I would rather encourage students or beginning writers to use “I” freely in their writing so they can naturally develop their facility for self-expression; as they mature and get exposed to more examples of professional writing, they will just naturally develop the facility for avoiding the use of too many “I’s” in their compositions.  

I am perplexed by your teacher’s suggestion to use “imagery” as a means for avoiding the repetitive use of “I” in your essay. Frankly, I don’t know what she means by that; I suggest you ask her to explain it in some detail. Perhaps this is some new writing technique that you and I and the members of this Forum can learn from her and profit from. As far as I know, however, the only practical and sensible way to grammatically reduce the usage of “I” is to combine sentences or clauses that individually use it. Take this statement, for example: “I love to read. I love to write. And I love to listen to music.” We can use “I” only once by combining the three sentences as follows: “I love to read, to write, and to listen to music.” We can render this combined sentence even more concisely as follows: “I love to read, write, and listen to music.”

There are some rhetorical forms, however, where clause combining to reduce “I” usage can be counterproductive or even destructive. Take this famous tricolon* of Julius Caesar: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” The combined version, “I came, saw, and conquered” is dull and tepid, having lost practically all of the drama and power of the original.

The point of all this is that the frequent use of “I” in essays and other forms of exposition isn’t always undesirable, and it certainly isn’t necessarily a bad thing to use it more than once or twice in a sentence or paragraph. It really all depends on the writer’s style and intent.  

As to your second question, the correct phrasing is “the dignity of my fellowmen.” The word “dignity” in the sense of “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed” is a mass noun, so it need not take the plural form “dignities” when used in reference to two or more people. However, when used in the sense of “high rank, office, or position” or of “a legal title of nobility or honor,” it can take the plural form “dignities”—but this is obviously not the sense of the phrase “the dignity of my fellowmen” that you presented.

*Tricolon – a sentence with three clearly defined parts of equal length usually independent clauses and of increasing power.

Click to post a comment or view the comments to this posting

Tough questions about sentence structure and pronoun usage

Question e-mailed by forces20, Forum member (August 27, 2010):

Good evening, Sir Joe, I again have questions in English grammar that I (we) find confusing.

First, according to its structure, what kind of sentence is the one below?  

“By taking the test, the students should make sure that everything is well prepared.”

We are confused whether that sentence is complex or compound-complex. Either way, why is it so?

Secondly, what are the correct pronouns for the following sentences?

1. “She is not clever as_____(he,him).”
2  “No one could regret it more than __( I ,me).”

My reply to the questions raised by forces20:

“By taking the test, the students should make sure that everything is well prepared.”

Before I analyze this sentence structurally, let me say first that it is grammatically and semantically defective. To begin with, the preposition “by” is ill-chosen; it should more properly be the preposition “before” to make the modification logical. And then the use of the phrase “that everything is well prepared” gives the sentence a slippery, hard-to-grasp sense; indeed, it gives the wrong impression that the students are not the test-takers but are the ones administering the test. To make the sentence grammatically and semantically airtight, I would suggest rewriting it as follows:

“Before taking the test, the students should make sure that they are well prepared.”

Now, to make the analysis of the rewritten sentence easier, let’s render it in this equivalent form:

The students should make sure that they are well-prepared before taking the test.”

It’s clear now that the sentence is a complex sentence that consists of the following:

1. The main clause “the students should make sure”
2. The subordinate clause “that they are well-prepared”
3. The prepositional phrase “before making the test modifying the subordinate clause.

By definition, of course, a complex sentence is one that consists of a main or independent clause and one or more subordinate clauses. In the particular sentence in question here, the prepositional phrase “before taking the test” isn’t another subordinate clause but simply a phrase modifying the subordinate clause; as such, it’s actually an integral part of the subordinate clause.

In contrast, a compound-complex sentence is one that consists of two or more main or independent clauses and one or more subordinate clauses, as in the following example:

“As the semester draws to a close and the students get ready to graduate from college, they should make themselves well-prepared for the final examinations and they should get ready for the graduation ceremonies.”

The sentence above is compound-complex because it consists of two main clauses and two subordinate clauses, as follows:

1. The first main clause “(the students) should make themselves well-prepared for the final examinations”
2. The second main clause “(the students) should get ready for the graduation ceremonies”
3. The first subordinate clause “as the semester draws to a close”
4. The second subordinate clause “(as) the students get ready to graduate from college”

The first and second clauses, which are joined by the additive function word “and,” form the compound main clause; on the other hand, the first and second subordinate clauses, likewise joined by the function word “and,” form the compound subordinate clause. Together all of these grammatically elements form the compound-complex sentence.

Now let’s take up your two questions about which pronoun is correct in the following two sentences:

1. “She is not clever as_____ (he, him).”
2. “No one could regret it more than __ (I, me).”

In informal usage, people do tend to use the objective pronoun “him” in constructions like Sentence 1 above; they find it easier to articulate the sentence that way. But the strictly formal usage—and the one I would recommend when you take English grammar tests or write essays as part of your schoolwork—is the nominative pronoun “he”: “She is not as clever as he.” This construction is actually the elliptical form of the sentence “She is not as clever as he is clever,” with the verb “is” and the adjective “clever” dropped for conciseness and ease of articulation. (Note further that the correct construction of the comparative is “as + adjective + as,” not “adjective + as.”)

Now, in sentence constructions involving the form “more than + pronoun,” the choice between the nominative pronoun and objective pronoun remains contentious to this day. There are grammarians who think that “than” in that construction is a conjunction, so they insist that the pronoun after the word “than” should be in the nominative case “I”: “No one could regret it more than I.” However, other grammarians insist that “than” in that construction is a preposition, so the pronoun after the word “than” should be in the objective case “me”: “No one could regret it more than me.” In their view—and I must admit that I’m partial to that view—“me” is logically the object of the preposition “than,” so it’s but correct and proper for it to be in the objective form.

You could get burned if you take sides either way, though, particularly if the side you take isn’t the grammar camp of your English professor or of the HRD specialist in charge of English-proficiency testing. I would say that the better part of valor if you absolutely need to use the still-hotly-debated form is to eliminate the ambiguity of your usage of “than” by recasting the sentence this way: “No one could regret it more than I do.” This is the simplest, surest way to prevent this contentious grammar issue from adversely affecting your grade or test score or your chances of employment.

Click to post a comment or view the comments to this posting

“I’m doing a media course but I can’t speak English”

Question from debicavett, Forum member (August 24, 2010):

As I have done my schooling in English medium school, please help me and tell me how I can improve my spoken English.

My reply to debicavett:

Dear debicavett,

Not knowing your precise personal circumstances, the country where you live and where you are studying, and your actual level of English proficiency, I couldn’t possibly give you specific advice on how you might be able to improve your spoken English. All I can offer is the general advice I gave to similarly situated English learners in an essay I wrote for my English-usage column in
 The Manila Times way back in 2003. The essay is actually country-specific to the Philippines in some respects, but I am sharing it with you to at least give you some actionable ideas on how to solve your problem.

Joe Carillo

Advice to the English-Challenged

Scores of readers of my daily column in The Manila Times have asked me by e-mail how they can improve not only their written but also their spoken English. The two notes below are typical of their plight about their proficiency in the language:

Arkie Manny: “Can you please give me advice on how to converse in English more effectively? I am working here abroad and there are times when I stutter when talking with my colleagues.”  

Abby B., who studies in a prestigious Philippine university: “Way back in high school, we were not trained to speak English well. So now that I am in college, it is proving to be a very big disadvantage. I have a problem communicating with people. Sometimes I fail to answer my teacher’s questions during recitation not because I don’t know the answer, but because I don’t know how to deliver it. I get scared that I might not say what I really want to say and that my grammar might be wrong. I find it hard to deal with the problem. It affects my self-esteem. I want to become competitive. I want to become fluent. I hope you can give me advice.”

Arkie’s and Abby’s woes are actually very similar, so I gave them the same advice. Of course, I offered it not as speech therapist nor speech improvement expert, of which I’m neither, but only as one who, many years ago, suffered from both problems mildly and had decently managed to cope with them. 

I know of at least three reasons why some people find it difficult to express themselves in social, business, and classroom situations: a minor congenital vocal defect, an inferiority complex, or a deficient vocabulary, bad grammar, and bad pronunciation. To have any of these problems is, of course, excruciating enough. But worse is that many people just give up and blame their genetics, their upbringing, and their schools for it. Few bother to look deeply into their problem and find ways to surmount it. 

In the case of a vocal defect, like the legendary stutter of Demosthenes of ancient Greece, personal initiative can make a lot of difference. Every day, the Athenian sword-maker’s son would do a solitary marathon and huff and puff through the city streets to the beach, stuff his mouth with pebbles, then start orating to the waves at the top of his voice. In time, the stutter disappeared and he went on to become the greatest orator Greece had ever known. Today, of course, you need not even do such an excruciating routine. You can simply get hold of a good English-language book or magazine and start reading aloud in the privacy of your bedroom. You can even do audiotapes of your readings to check your progress. If you do this for at least 20 minutes each night for a month, it just might do wonders to your recalcitrant tongue and diction as it did to mine. 

If you have inferiority complex, there should be two or three personality development centers in your area that can help. I have not gone to one myself, but I had observed first-hand how their specialists make people see clearly the nature of their speech problems. The simple assisted routine of watching yourself speak in front of a mirror, or of being videotaped to capture your bad pronunciation as well as your tics and mannerisms, can be a painfully revealing but liberating process. A young secretary of mine many years ago suffered from an exasperating shyness; when spoken to, she would slur her replies and her right eye would blink rapidly without her even knowing it. I sent her to one such center and she became a self-confident, more refined woman in eight weeks, the slur and blinking gone.

Finally, as to deficient vocabulary and bad grammar, I actually know of only one appropriate course of action for that: a methodical self-review of English grammar, reading more good English-language books and magazines, and checking the dictionary for the meaning and pronunciation of any new word you encounter. It is sad that many schools and many teachers these days cannot be trusted to help you in this; their own problems with English vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation maybe even worse than yours. You can easily see this in the incomprehensible, tortured English of leading Philippine educators who make the mistake of publishing their work in newspapers. Also, if you can help it, avoid tuning in to the Taglish morning programs of the local TV networks; listening to their fractured English and Filipino can set back your self-improvement efforts a few days each time. 

As one who was similarly English-challenged in speech and who suffered from a mild stutter until third year in high school, I can tell you that there are few better therapies than the three I have described. Of course I must say one more thing: good English diction, as with practically all art forms, is simply the result of patiently cultivating the quality of one’s mind and of practice, practice, practice.

This essay forms the epilogue of English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, © Copyright 2004 by Jose A. Carillo. Copyright 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Click to post a comment or view the comments to this posting

Which phrasal verb is correct: “comply to” or “comply with”?

Questions from forces20 (August 20, 2010):

Hello Mr. Joe!

My teacher said, “We had to comply to this policy,” but I think it should be “comply with.” Am I correct or not? I also would like to know the difference between “comply to” and “comply with.”

Another teacher of mine gave us several examples of complex sentences. Was she correct when she said, “Because of the heavy flood, the meeting was postponed.” Isn’t “due to” the appropriate conjunction or preposition for that sentence? I am really curious if my teacher’s usage is right or not. Thank you.

My reply to forces20:

I’m afraid that your teacher is incorrect in using the phrasal verb “comply to” in the sentence “We had to comply to this policy.” It’s a big no-no. The standard form for that phrasal verb is “comply with,” which means “to act or be in accordance with a wish, request, demand, requirement, or condition.” Perhaps your teacher simply mistook the verb “comply” with “agree”; the phrasal verb “agree with” is standard usage, as in “We agree with this policy.”

Strictly speaking, though, there’s no logical, hard-and-fast reason why a certain preposition and not another is deemed correct in many phrasal verbs; native English speakers simply settled on particular prepositions for those phrasal verbs conventionally after years and years of usage. But then, as users of English as a second or third language, we just have to follow those conventions for preposition usage so we won’t be seen as clueless about English grammar.

As to “because of” in “Because of the heavy flood, the meeting was postponed,” your other teacher is correct in using that preposition. The sense of “because of” is practically equivalent to that of “due to,” so we can use them interchangeably in a great many cases. Take a look and read this sentence aloud: “Due to the heavy flood, the meeting was postponed.” You really won’t sense any perceptible difference in meaning.

Click to post a comment or view the comments to this posting

How to use the normal sequence-of-tenses rule for reported speech

Question from Mark L. (August 14, 2010):

Good evening, sir. I hope you are not too busy. 

Just one question lang po. And it would mean a lot kung masasagot nyo. Ito po kasi yung concept na hirap na hirap akong masagot.

You see, sir, nalilito ako kung anong gagamiting tamang verb for sentences that use “said.”

Here po is an example:

In the movie The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock sees this guy walking. She stops her car and asks, “Where are you going?”

The boy replies, “to the gym.”

And the boy continues walking

Sandra gets out of the car, catches up with the boy, and says, “You said you were going to the gym. Well, the gym is closed. Tell me, Mike, why were you going to the gym?"

Was she right using “were” instead of “are”?

Thank you po, sir, and God bless.

My reply to Mark L:

Yes, Mark, the Sandra Bullock character in that movie was right in using “were” instead of “are” when she said, “You said you were going to the gym. Well, the gym is closed. Tell me, Mike, why were you going to the gym?”

To understand why the past tense “were” has to be used instead of the present tense “are” in that line of dialogue, we need a reacquaintance with the grammar of reported speech. What’s at work here is the so-called normal sequence-of-tenses rule in English grammar. 

Reported speech or indirect speech is, of course, simply the kind of sentence someone makes when he or she reports what someone else has said. For instance, a company’s division manager might have told a news reporter these exact words: “I am resigning to join another company.” In journalism, where the reporting verb is normally in the past tense, that statement takes this form in reported speech: “The division manager said he was resigning to join another company.” 

Depending on the speaker’s predisposition or intent, the operative verb in utterances can take any tense. However, when an utterance is in the form of reported speech and the reporting verb is in the past tense, the operative verb of that utterance generally takes one step back from the present into the past: the present becomes pastthe past usually stays in the past, the present perfect becomes past perfect, and the future becomes future conditional. This is the normal sequence-of-tenses rule in English grammar. 

Now let’s review how this rule applies when that division manager’s utterance is stated in the various tenses: 

Present tense to past tense. Utterance: “I am resigning to join another company.” Reported speech: “The division manager said he was resigning to join another company.” 

Past tense to past tense. Utterance: “I resigned to join another company.” Reported speech: “The division manager said he resigned to join another company.” (The past tense can usually be retained in reported speech when the intended act is carried out close to its announcement; if much earlier, the past perfect applies.) 

Present perfect to past perfect tense. Utterance: “I have resigned to join another company.” Reported speech: “The division manager said he had resigned to join another company.”        

Future tense to future conditional tense. Utterance: “I will resign to join another company.” Reported speech: “The division manager said he would resign to join another company.” 

Now, having explained the workings of reported speech and how the normal sequence-of-tenses rule applies to the grammar of the statement of the Sandra Bullock character in that movie, let me just comment on a slight grammatical wrinkle in that statement.

Here’s the statement again as actually uttered by the Sandra Bullock character:

“You said you were going to the gym. Well, the gym is closed. Tell me, Mike, why were you going to the gym?”

The first sentence, “You said you were going to the gym,” is definitely reported speech, where the reporting verb “said” is in the past tense. In this reported-speech sentence, it’s definitely correct for the operative verb “are” in Mike’s original utterance to take one tense backward to the past tense “were.” From the standpoint of the Sandra Bullock character, Mike made that statement in the past and she is, in effect, reporting that statement, and the normal sequence-of-tenses rule should apply to Mike’s action—meaning that it should be rendered one tense backward (from “you are going” to “you were going”) in the reported speech.

I would think, though, that the use of “were” in the third sentence of the statement of the Sandra Bullock character, “Tell me, Mike, why were you going to the gym?”, is a little bit problematic. For one thing, unlike the first sentence, it doesn’t have a reporting verb. In fact, it’s not really reported speech but a declarative statement, so it doesn’t sound semantically correct for Mike’s action to take one tense backward in that sentence, and all the more so because the reporting of the statement is done only a few seconds after Mike uttered it (so the intent of “going to the gym” is obviously still in his mind). Strictly speaking, therefore, the operative verb “are going” shouldn’t take one tense backward but stay as is, “Tell me, Mike, why are you going to the gym?”  

The scrupulously correct rendering of that line of dialogue should therefore be as follows:

“You said you were going to the gym. Well, the gym is closed. Tell me, Mike, why are you going to the gym?"

If this is the case, why then did the dialogue also use “were” in that third sentence?

All I can say is that in real life, people can’t really be expected to be so scrupulously grammatical when they talk, unlike the grammarian in me while doing this grammar analysis of that line of dialogue. To put it even more simply, we really shouldn’t expect the Sandra Bullock character to be conscious of the need to shift from reported speech in the first sentence to simple declarative in the third when referring to the same statement of Mike. The normal thought process of people in day-to-day situations is really much more linear and uncomplicated than that, and I have the feeling that the scriptwriter of that movie (and probably Sandra Bullock herself while delivering her lines during the filming of that movie) thought it best to use “were” in both sentences simply for naturalness and for consistency’s sake. However, when our English is being formally tested and our future might well depend on how we score in that exam, we have to be much more exacting with our grammar than that movie dialogue.

Click to post a comment or view the comments to this posting

What do you think of compulsory speaking of English in our class?

Forum member forces20 sent me the following letter by e-mail last July 9:

Hello sir Joe,

I would like to ask your opinion or inner sentiment regarding a system that’s already in full swing in our school. It is about the compulsory speaking of the English language in our classroom. We are obliged to express ourselves fully in English in all subjects whose medium of instruction is English. If any of us is heard speaking with Filipino words or expressions, he or she is subjected to the punishment of paying 20 pesos at the end of the class. This is unless he or she fails to pass on the punishment to another classmate who violates the English-speaking rule.

Even if we are at the canteen, we should express ourselves in English. I find it very awkward but there’s nothing we can do but to abide by the rule.

I know that we have a natural propensity to speak using Filipino words especially when we are shocked or for some other reason, but this is not taken into consideration by the English-speaking rule of our class. I believe, though, that improving oral communication skills is not a matter of forcing people to express themselves but of their willingness to learn and put into practice what they have learned.

Respectfully yours,

My reply to forces20:

I encountered a similar strict English-only-speaking rule myself when I was in grade school many decades ago, so I know how you feel about it. My inner sentiments about such a rule, then and now, are embodied in the essay below, “English in a Used Jar.” I wrote it for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2002 and it later became part of my book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language. I actually posted the essay in the Forum in May last year, but let me share it with you now by posting it in direct reply to your letter:

English in a Used Jar

Several summers ago I tried to interest my two sons, then 15 and 9, in learning a third or fourth language. For their age they were already admirably fluent in English and Tagalog, so I thought that perhaps they should learn French, Japanese, or Chinese to give them the edge not only in school but in their future careers as well. I also had an ulterior motive in wanting them to do so. They were using too much time and energy playing those extremely violent Japanese-language computer games. I figured that they might as well put their amazing computer proficiency to use in something more educational, intellectual, and useful in the long term.

The language program that I wanted my sons to get into was an impressive multimedia routine entitled “The Rosetta Stone.” It offered a suite of 24 languages, if I remember my figures correctly, ranging from Dutch to Swahili and from German to Polynesian. I had found the program on the Worldwide Web and I took great interest in it because of a sad experience I had in my early teens. Tantalized by Ian Fleming’s accounts of the romantic adventures of James Bond behind the Iron Curtain, I had tried to learn Russian single-handedly. With no tutor and learning tapes and with only a battered English-Russian dictionary from a Peace Corps volunteer who had hurriedly flown back to the United States, that enterprise withered in the bud in less than two weeks.

My sons at first took to Rosetta Stone like butterflies to nectar. The older one began honing his piddling Japanese and also took a fancy to German after a day or two. The younger focused his learning resources on French exclusively, and in three days’ time was already speaking a smattering of the language complete with the schwas and the nasals. But less than a week after that, their elder sister came home from overseas and gifted them with a three-dimensional CD on time travel entitled “The Messenger.” That, in short, was the end (only for the time being, I hope) of Rosetta Stone and of my dream that my sons would become multilingual before entering college.

My predicament with my sons brought back memories of my own travails in learning English in grade school, back in my farming hometown in those years when there were yet no TV sets, no audio-visuals, no computers, and certainly no multimedia educational tools like Rosetta Stone. The only good thing going for us were our teachers, a hardy breed that rarely displayed lawyerly eloquence in English but was deeply steeped in the learning and teaching discipline. What they lacked in methods and tools, they amply compensated for in native resourcefulness. And what they did to make their pupils learn English was simplicity itself.

Our teachers made the whole school compound a strictly English-speaking zone. We were absolutely forbidden to speak any other language or dialect anywhere inside. This rule was rigorously enforced through a used two-ounce glass jar of mayonnaise or pickles. It was labeled “I was caught not speaking English,” and every time you used the vernacular or Chinese or Hindi, you were obliged under a strict honor system to accept the glass jar and drop a five-centavo coin onto it as penalty. You had to screw back the cap and furtively prowl the campus to catch another dialect-speaking violator in the very act and, bingo! the glass jar—plus his five-centavo penalty—could now be transferred to his custody. At day’s end, the last pupil with the glass jar had to surrender it to the teacher and formally remit the coins.

Oh, there were all sorts of complaints from parents and pupils alike against the dictatorship of the glass jar! There were several brawls and black eyes among early jar passers and receivers. But after a week or two, the pupils got the hang of it and started doing their damnedest best to speak straight and fluent English. The complaints stopped, and in a few months pupils from the school began winning English declamation contests at higher and higher interscholastic levels. In my case, I was an inveterate dialect-cursing maverick when the glass jar campaign started, but I learned my lessons early enough. I learned to hate being handed the jar and parting away with my five-centavo coins, which was a big drain on my school allowance. So, one day, I just decided to converse and curse consistently in English to bring down my contributions to the glass jar literally to zero.

Looking back to those days now, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if not for that used glass jar, I would not be writing this little piece in English at all. At this very moment I would likely be already out in the old farm, tilling the family’s small parcel of riceland with a carabao-drawn plow, and certain to be doing the same for the rest of my life. Not that I would have hated farming, whose utterly predictable procession of planting, growing, and harvesting has a poignant way of giving you inner peace. But truth to tell, nothing really compares with the psychic reward of getting your thoughts printed in English and having a receptive audience for them. (2002)

From English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo. Copyright 2008 by The Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Click to post a comment or view the comments to this posting

Avoiding gender bias in our English

Question from Miss Mae, Forum member (June 22, 2010):

Good day! I just would like to know your opinion about using both “he” and “she” as pronouns for a third-person subject. Some media outfits still use only “he” when the third-person subject is unknown, and I’m still getting you-must-be-a-feminist stare whenever I decide to just use “she” in some of my writings. What should I keep in mind?”

My reply to Miss Mae:

The English language indeed has an inherent gender bias, particularly in the conventional use of the male pronouns “he,” “him,” and “his” when the antecedent is a noun of indefinite gender, as in “A trustworthy lawyer is he who respects confidences,” or an indefinite pronoun like “everyone” or “everybody,” as in “Everyone is entitled to his opinion.” The easy way out is, of course, to use the “he or she” form, as in “A trustworthy lawyer is he or she who respects confidences,” or the “his or her” form, as in “Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.” This is fine if you’ll use the “he or she” form or “his or her” form only once or at most twice in a typical page of written work, but it could grate on the reader’s nerves when repeated several times.

I must tell you frankly, though, that you would be gender-biased yourself in favor of women—and deserve to get that “you-must-be-a-feminist stare”—if you habitually use the “she” or “her” form when referring to antecedents of indefinite gender, as in “A trustworthy lawyer is she who respects confidences” and “Everyone is entitled to her opinion.” Both forms do look and sound like you’re rubbing it in against men, so I would suggest that you confine such usage when you’re in the presence or company of an all-female group like, say, the Women Lawyers League.

A much better and more politic way of dealing with gender bias is to avoid it in your writing and speech as best you can. For the same situations in the sentences given as examples above, in particular, you can: 

1. Use “one” instead of “he” or “she”: “A trustworthy lawyer is one who respects confidences.” Or pluralize the antecedent noun to avoid making a gender choice: “Trustworthy lawyers are they who respect confidences.”

2. Pluralize the antecedent indefinite pronoun to avoid making a gender choice: “All are entitled to their opinion.”  

One more thing: You need to be extra sensitive to the need to avoid gender bias even in less obviously gender-skewed sentence constructions. For example, you need to cultivate the art of avoiding writing or saying, “Everybody is enjoined to bring his wife to the club picnic this weekend.” The gender-bias-free construction for that sentence is, of course, “All are enjoined to bring their spouses to the club picnic this weekend.”

Click to post a comment or view the comments to this posting

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.”

Click to post a comment or view the comments to this posting

View the complete list of postings in this section

Copyright © 2010 by Aperture Web Development. All rights reserved.

Page best viewed with:

Mozilla FirefoxGoogle Chrome

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Valid CSS!

Page last modified: 27 November, 2010, 5:00 p.m.