Jose Carillo's Forum


The Use and Misuse section is open to all Forum members for discussing anything related to English grammar and usage. It invites and encourages questions and in-depth discussions about any aspect of English, from vocabulary and syntax to sentence structure and idiomatic expressions. It is, of course, also the perfect place for relating interesting experiences or encounters with English use and misuse at work, in school, or in the mass media.

For the verb of motion “send,” the correct preposition is “to”

Question from IamXam, new Forum member (November 24, 2010):

What is the correct preposition to use for this sentence?

”The cheque will be sent (at or to) 123 Collin Street, Brisbane, NSW, Australia.”

My reply to IamXam:

The correct preposition for the action verb “sent” in that sentence is “to,” so the sentence should read as follows:

“The cheque will be sent to 123 Collin Street, Brisbane, NSW, Australia.”

The big question is, of course, why “to” and not “at”?

We need to use the preposition “to” because “sent” is a verb of motion. Verbs of motion need prepositions of motion to connect them to their object destination. The four other prepositions of motion are, of course, “toward,” “in,” “into,” and “onto.” 

On the other hand, “at” is a preposition for indicating place and location. In particular, “at” is used for indicating a point, as in “You’ll find us at 123 Collin Street, Brisbane, NSW, Australia.” The other two prepositions for indicating location are, of course, “in” and “on.” We use “in” to indicate spaces, as in “We always meet in an exclusive club,” and “on” for surfaces, as in “There’s a colorful drawing on the wall,” and for specific addresses, as in “The hotel is on 123 Collin Street, Brisbane, NSW, Australia.” When a preposition to indicate place and location is used, the verb is usually a form of “be” or a non-motion verb. 

For a more extensive discussion of preposition usage, click this link to Lesson #8 – Specific Rules for Preposition Usage in the Forum’s “Getting to Know English” section.

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The English, of all people, have serious problems writing in English

One would think that English being their native language, people in England and in the rest of the British Commonwealth would have no problem with their English. But it looks like they are having very serious problems today using their own native tongue. As reported by The Daily Telegraph of London, Education Secretary Michael Gove said recently that the building blocks of English had been “demolished by those who should have been giving our children a solid foundation in learning.” In a speech, Gove said: “Thousands of children—including some of our very brightest—leave school unable to compose a proper sentence, ignorant of basic grammar, incapable of writing a clear and accurate letter. And it’s not surprising when the last government explicitly removed the requirement to award a set number of marks for correct spelling, punctuation and grammar in examinations.” The result, as pointed out by business leaders, is that too many young people leave school “not fit for work.”

This situation has prompted a White Paper that proposes to reverse a decision of the British government seven years ago to scrap rewards for good literacy. Under the measure, students will lose up to five per cent of marks in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations* if they fail to display high standards of written English in all subjects, including mathematics and science.

Read “Education: pupils will lose marks for poor grammar and spelling” in The Daily Telegraph of London now!

My attention was called to this news story by Fr. Sean Coyle, a native English-speaker from Ireland who has been doing missionary work in the Philippines since 1971. A new member of the Forum, Fr. Cole sent me the following e-mail last November 20:

Dear Mr Carillo

You may be interested in this article in The Daily Telegraph (London).

The GCSE is the national exam students in England and Wales and, I think, in Northern Ireland take after three years of secondary school. They take A-levels, also a national exam, two years later, usually when they are around 18. Scotland, though part of the UK, has its own educational system.

I am forever grateful to my Fourth Grade teacher, the late John Galligan, who gave us a thorough grounding in grammar in both Irish (Gaelic) and English and who also stimulated my interest in writing and in journalism. I didn’t realize at the time what a good teacher he was. I also came to see years later that he was a wonderful mentor in every sense of that word.

I am inclined to think that there has been a decline in written English in Ireland.

God bless

(Fr) Sean Coyle

*The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is an academic qualification awarded in a specified subject, generally taken in a number of subjects by students aged 14–16 in secondary education in England, Wales, Gibraltar, and Northern Ireland. (In Scotland, the equivalent is the Standard Grade.)

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Native English speaker points out common mistakes in English

Fr. Sean Coyle, a native English-speaker from Ireland who has been doing missionary work in the Philippines since 1971, sent me the e-mail below last November 1. He is the editor of Misyon, the website of the Columban Lay missionaries in the Philippines, which can be found at

Dear Mr Carillo

If you haven’t done so already, maybe you can address some common mistakes in writing. One is, e.g., ‘The church is across McDonalds on Rizal Avenue’ instead of ‘The church is across from McDonalds . . .’ or, better, ‘The church is opposite McDonalds . . .’

I often come across such things as ‘I was discriminated by the head of the Organization’ instead of ‘I was discriminated against . . .’

Another very common misuse of English here is ‘I asked sorry’ or ‘I asked for an apology’ when the very opposite is meant: ‘I apologized’.

Another common mistake I come across often in the broadsheets is ‘Majority of Filipinos are opposed to . . .’ instead of either ‘A majority’ or ‘The majority’, depending on the context. The word ‘majority’ should always have either the definite or the indefinite article in front of it except in headlines.

‘Taken cared of’ instead of ‘taken care of’ is one of the most common mistakes.

I often read ‘The President’s plane arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport’ instead of ‘. . . arrived at Ninoy Aquino . . .’ You don’t read in American papers ‘He arrived at the John Kennedy . . .’ or ‘He arrived at the JFK’ but rather ‘He arrived at John Kennedy . . .’ or ‘He arrived at JFK . . .’ On the other hand, if the name of the airport isn’t used the use of the article is proper, e.g., ‘He arrived at the airport’.

Maybe this is due to the influence of the languages of the Philippines which use the preposition ‘sa’, e.g., in Cebuano, ‘Nakaabot siya sa Ninoy Aquino . . .’

I have come across some very fluent writers of English who nevertheless make grammatical mistakes. I don’t know if there is a good summer course available to give good writers a good grounding in English grammar.

PS I prefer to follow British usage with regard to abbreviations, e.g., ‘Mr’ instead of ‘Mr.’ The top English and Irish broadsheets go even further: ‘Major-General’, for example, becomes ‘Maj Gen’. I’m surprised that American-usage is still so old-fashioned in this digital age!

My reply to Fr. Coyle:

Thank you so much for pointing out the English-usage errors you commonly encounter in your readings. I have had occasion to discuss many of those errors myself in my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times over the past eight years and, lately, also in my English-usage website, Jose Carillo’s English Forum, that I launched in May 2009. I agree with the correct usages you prescribed, and I’m enjoining the members and guests of the Forum to take careful note of them.

The only point where I differ with you is in the matter of your preference for not using the article “the” in sentences like “The President’s plane arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.” I think this a stylistic choice that’s best left to the writer or speaker, not prescribed or forced on him or her. As far as I can gather, in both their written and spoken English as well as in the print media, Filipinos automatically put the article “the” before the proper name of international airports as a matter of convention and stylistic choice, and I think it’s best to leave it at that.

On the matter of punctuation: Since you are a native English speaker from Ireland, Fr. Coyle, I made it a point to print your e-mail as is, retaining the exact way you use punctuation marks like the period (it’s the “full stop” in British English, of course), the comma, and the single-quote quotation mark as well as the way you don’t use the period to punctuate abbreviated words like “Mr” and “Maj Gen.” The way you use those punctuation marks is actually very illustrative of how British English differs from American English—the English standard used in the Philippines—in the matter of punctuation alone. 

Let me just quickly summarize those punctuation style differences for everybody’s benefit:

1.   British English uses single-quote quotation marks, while American English uses double-quote quotation marks; then, for quotes within quoted material, British English uses double-quote quotation marks, while American English uses single-quote quotation marks.
2.   British English puts the closing quotation mark inside the period (“full stop”) that marks the end of a sentence, while American English puts the closing quotation mark outside the period that marks the end of a sentence.
3.   British English puts the comma outside the quotation mark that closes quoted material (whether the quoted material is a statement or a quoted term) before the word outside the quotes that immediately follows it, while American English puts that comma inside the quotation mark in such grammatical constructions.

(Click this link to read my extensive discussion in the Forum of how American English and British English differ in the way they handle quoted material.)

You say that the American English style for the use of punctuation marks, particularly its preference for putting the period in the abbreviated “Mr.”, is “still so old-fashioned in this digital age.” I must say that I disagree with you on this. I think it’s simply a widely accepted grammatical convention that’s no different from the way British English spelled “music” as “musick,” “traffic” as “traffick,” and “check” as “cheque” way back in the early 1800s, until Noah Webster in the United States decided to change them to their simpler spelling that are much more widely used until today. As I said earlier, style in language is a matter of choice and whatever becomes predominantly accepted is the “correct” one.

Like you, Fr. Coyle, I also don’t know if there’s a good summer course currently available in the Philippines to give writers a good grounding in English grammar. Perhaps we should address this question to Forum members who might happen to know of one. In the meantime, if I may be allowed to pitch a little commercial, I would like to suggest as reference my three English-usage books, Give Your English the Winning EdgeEnglish Plain and Simple, and The 10 Most Annoying English Grammar Errors. They deal with practically all of the grammatical mistakes you mentioned—plus so many other interesting things besides about English writing and exposition.

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Questionable English usage by the Filipino bureaucracy

A new Forum member, Prof. Roger Posadas of the Technology Management Center at the University of the Philippine in Diliman, Quezon City, made the following posting last October 26:

Hi Joe,

There are two questionable Filipino uses of English that have been vexing me for a long time:

1. The prevalent use of the term “owner-type jeep” when the simple term “jeep” will suffice. Besides, I don’t know of any jeep that has no owner. 

2. The use of “Bureau of Fire Protection” by the formerly named Fire Department. The units of this Bureau are supposed to protect us from fire and not to protect the fire as its name implies. This Bureau should change its name to “Bureau of Fire Control.”

May I know your comments on these two Filipino English oddities?

Here’s my reply to Prof. Posadas:

Welcome to the Forum, Roger! I’m truly delighted to find a real technology expert—a scientist no less—among the Forum membership.

You’re absolutely justified in getting vexed by the terms “owner-type jeep” and “Bureau of Fire Protection.” These two specimens of Filipino English are indeed misnomers, in the same way that the name “National Disaster Coordinating Council” (NDCC) was a monumental misnomer that lasted for so long. (Its recent incarnation, though, the “National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council,” isn’t only an unduly long and tedious name but also yields a vicious tongue-twister for an acronym, “NDRRMC.” It does seem like a case of jumping from the frying pan to the fire, so to speak.)  

The term “owner-type jeep” refers, of course, to the stubby Willy’s-type motor vehicle with short chassis. It’s not meant to be a public utility vehicle, unlike what we know as the “passenger-type jeep,” and as such, it’s supposed to be driven by its owner or a family member. I suspect that it used to be more aptly called “owner-driven jeep,” but that the Filipino tongue balked at articulating the strange-sounding past participle “driven” and wasn’t comfortable either with the easier said but grammatically wrong “drived.” In time, everybody must have gravitated to the single-syllable, easy-to-pronounce, easily understood word “type” in place of “driven,” thus firmly establishing “owner-type jeep” as the idiomatic Filipino English usage. Afterwards, I feel pretty sure, adoption by the Land Transportation Office (LTO) of the term “owner-type jeep” for registration purposes wasn’t long in coming. (Based on your observation that the modifier “owner-type” seems trivial, however, I would suggest that “private jeep” is a more apt term for this type of vehicle.)

As to the name “Bureau of Fire Protection,” it’s indeed a semantically flawed term that—as you correctly observed—yields the absurd sense of a bureau protecting the fire instead of protecting people from it. Obviously, the name was meant to be short-hand for “Bureau That Protects People and Property from Fire”—except that the semantics of the term got mangled when rendered in short-hand as “Bureau of Fire Protection.” You’re right, of course, that “Bureau of Fire Control” is the semantically correct short-hand for that name. Not being semantically sensitive, however, some government bureaucrat must have been unable to sense the difference—and so the semantically flaky name “Bureau of Fire Protection” came to be enshrined in our statute books. It’s not too late for the government bureaucracy to consider changing that name to “Bureau of Fire Control,” but knowing how things work in this country, that would probably be for the long haul.

I agree with you that things and government bureaus in our country need to be named more carefully and in grammatically and semantically correct ways, but we shouldn’t forget that word-formation and language generally can’t be legislated. They just happen—and people simply are too busy with their day-to-day lives to correct even oddball terms and obvious misnomers. As a result, our world is awash with names that got established from wrong assumptions, like “Indians” for natives of the New World or the Americas (the real “Indians,” of course, were to be found in India half a world away, but Christopher Columbus had gotten his geography wrong and the world got stuck with his mistake in nomenclature for posterity).

I’m afraid that we will likewise be stuck with the terms “owner-type jeep” and “Bureau of Fire Protection” for good unless, well, unless some political strongman with a strong linguistic sense throws a tantrum someday and orders that those terms be replaced with the semantically correct ones that we came up with here today.

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Using indefinite, definite articles and verbs followed by infinitives

Questions by Sky, Forum member (October 12, 2010):

1. Let us go to [a, the] cinema. Which one is correct?

2. “To my mind, essay is a means of communication using a framework that consists of organization, examples, analogies, relationships, and other elements to help illustrate one’s ideas.”

Can you explain the usage of the two verbs “help and illustrate” in that sentence?

My reply to Sky:

Sorry for this delayed response, Sky. I was out of the country for the past seven days and just got back to Manila.

Here’s what I think about your questions:

1. The normal, idiomatic construction of Sentence 1 uses the definite article “the”: “Let us go to the cinema.” This is because the cinema referred to here refers to “a motion-picture theater” or “movie house,” something that’s definite or previously specified by circumstance—meaning that both the speaker and the listener or listeners already know which movie house is being referred to. It would be different if the speaker said this instead: “Let us go to a movie.” The indefinite article “a” will be called for because it isn’t definite yet which movie they will want to see.

2. About this sentence: “To my mind, essay is a means of communication using a framework that consists of organization, examples, analogies, relationships, and other elements to help illustrate one’s ideas.” Here, “to help” is an infinitive and “illustrate one’s ideas” is an adverbial phrase modifying that infinitive. Another way of looking at that construction is that in the infinitive phrase “to help illustrate one’s ideas,” “to help” and “illustrate” are both infinitives—but the former is a “full infinitive” and the latter, a “bare infinitive.” This is because the phrase “to help illustrate one’s ideas” is actually an elliptical form of “to help to illustrate one’s ideas” with the “to” in “to illustrate” dropped, making it a bare infinitive. (Click this link to an earlier discussion of bare infinitives in the Forum.)

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For good or ill, the Filipino word “hulidap” enters global lexicon

Last October 2, Howie Severino, the GMA-7 TV writer, producer, and host who’s also one of the most awarded journalists in the Philippines, copied our mutual friend Krip Yuson, the award-winning writer and Palanca Awards Hall of Famer, the following congratulatory note to Carmela Lapeña (Melay) and Veronica Pulumbarit (Vernie):

“Congratulations to Melay and Vernie for introducing ‘hulidap’ to the global lexicon (aka Filipino portmanteau).”

This was for their being cited in Schott’s Vocab in the August 31, 2010 issue of The New York Times, as follows:

Filipino portmanteau for police arrests motivated by extortion.

(Huli [arrest] + holdup.)

On GMA News, Carmela Lapeña and Veronica Pulumbarit highlighted a term associated with police corruption in the Philippines. Commenting on the actions of former policeman, Rolando Mendoza, who took hostage a busload of Hong Kong tourists on August 23, Lapeña and Pulumbarit wrote:

“Mendoza’s fall from grace began not on that fateful day, but more than two years ago as he allegedly became involved in a controversial ‘hulidap’ operation in April 2008.

“‘Hulidap’ is a Filipino slang word coined from ‘huli’ (arrest) and ‘holdup.’ ‘Hulidap policemen’ conduct illegal arrests of innocent civilians with the aim of extorting money from them.”

The following day, October 3, Pete Lacaba, the Filipino language critic who’s more well-known as a film writer, editor, poet, screenwriter, journalist and translator, wrote Howie the note below in response, copies of which he furnished me and our mutual friend Krip Yuson, the award-winning writer and Palanca Awards Hall of Famer::

“Hulidap” was previously cited twice (2005 and 2008) in Double-Tongued Word Wrester: A Growing Dictionary of Old and New Words from the Fringes of English (, an online dictionary compiled by Grant Barrett, who also writes for The New York Times:



The same dictionary also has a citation for “carabao English”:


It also has full definition entries (not just citations) for some other words in Philippine English:

Associated with or special to Philippines or Filipino people, places, or things. You can also see citations assigned to this category.

(1/1 pages)
blocktimer n. an independent journalist or producer who buys airtime in order to broadcast programs on radio or television. (posted Aug. 23, 2004)

double-dead adj. (of meat) killed by accident or disease then butchered to be sold as fresh; uninspected or contaminated, and illegally sold. (posted Mar. 8, 2006)

presidentiable n. a candidate for presidency. (posted Jan. 12, 2005)

salvage v. to kill or assassinate. (posted Jul. 14, 2004)

skylab n. a motorbike fitted with a horizontal board at back that can seat several passengers across. (posted May. 31, 2007)

Susmaryosep n. an exclamation of surprise, disbelief, or emphasis. (posted Jul. 20, 2004)

swardspeak n. a cant spoken by Filipino gay and transvestite men. (posted Aug. 23, 2005)

trapo n. a traditional politician believed to be corrupt. (posted Jun. 7, 2004)

Joe Carillo’s comment to all these language goings-on: Sic transit gloria mundi!

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How do we quote an excerpt from original published work?

Question from Jeanne, Forum member (September 28, 2010):

I am quite unsure as to what would be most proper when you quote an excerpt of a published work, particularly involving cases in spelling. For example, here’s the original work or text: “I could starve and die before I could eat such things, yet they were sweet and savory to my taste.”  The word “savory” follows the American spelling.  But, say, you are writing for the British audience. Would it be okay to change the word into “savoury” without violating any copyright rules or offending the writer?

My reply to Jeanne:

When quoting excerpts from published work, it’s always good policy and good practice to follow the spelling and stylebook of the publication where the published work originally appeared. In the case of the word “savory” in the quoted sentence you presented, it’s best as a matter of courtesy to retain its spelling regardless of the target audience of the publication where the material is to be quoted. (I’m not sure, though, whether “savoury”—with the “u” after “o”—is, in fact, specifically British spelling; all I know is that the word can be spelled “savory” or “savoury” regardless of whether the British or American standard for English is being used.) 

Copyright rules may not necessarily be violated when changes of spelling are unilaterally made by those who quote material, but when such changes are so numerous and extensive, they could possibly mess up the material to a point of no longer being faithful to the original. This could pose problems to literary historians and archivists in the future, so it’s highly advisable for those who quote to stick to the spelling and stylebook of the original work.  

We must take note, though, that when a book originally written in the British English standard is published specifically for readers in the United States, American publishers often adopt the American English standard for the entire work, from spelling to punctuation marks. In particular, British words that end in “-re” (like “centre”) are rendered with an “-er” ending (like “center”) in the American edition of the book, and single-quote punctuation marks for dialogue and quoted material in the British edition are rendered as double quotes in the American edition. In turn, publishers in the United Kingdom sometimes do the reverse for the British edition of books originally written in the American English standard. Either way, publishers normally provide a note about the spelling and punctuation changes in the preface or copyright page of the particular edition.

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The choice between the bare infinitive and the full infinitive

Question also from Jeanne, Forum member (September 27, 2010):

What would be the general rule in using (or not using) “to” in sentences like this one:

”This section covers a breadth of important information that will help you tackle any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam.” 


”This section covers a breadth of important information that will help you to tackle any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam.”

My reply to Jeanne:

Let’s closely examine the two sentences you presented (italicizations mine):

(1) “This section covers a breadth of important information that will help you tackle any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam.”

(2) “This section covers a breadth of important information that will help you to tackle any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam.”

To simplify the analysis, let’s examine Sentence 2 first. In that sentence, the italicized phrase “to tackle any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam” is what’s called an infinitive phrase. We will recall that an infinitive phrase is simply an infinitive—a verb in the present tense that’s normally preceded by “to”—together with its modifiers, objects, or complements. In the sentence in question, the infinitive is “to tackle” and its modifier is the phrase “any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam.”

Now, in Sentence 1, the italicized phrase “tackle any analytical problem that is thrown at you on the exam” is what’s called a bare infinitive phrase. A bare infinitive phrase is one where the infinitive—“to tackle” in this case—has dropped the “to.” The particular construction of Sentence 1, in which the infinitive “to tackle” works in conjunction with the helping verb “help,” allows the dropping of the “to” in that infinitive with no adverse effect on the grammar and semantics of the sentence. In fact, we will notice that the construction with the bare infinitive reads and sounds better than the one with the full infinitive (“to tackle” spelled out), which is the case in Sentence 2.

So, you ask, what’s the general rule for using the bare infinitive form or the regular infinitive?

There are some sentence constructions where certain infinitive phrases have to drop the “to” for the sentence to work properly or—at the very least—sound right. This happens in two specific instances: (1) when the infinitive phrase works in conjunction with such perception verbs as “see,” “feel,” “hear,” and “watch”; and (2) when the infinitive phrase works in conjunction with such helping verbs as “help,” “let,” and “make.” (Sentence 1, of course, belongs to the second category, and it just so happens that although Sentence 1—the one with the bare infinitive “tackle”—reads and sounds better than Sentence 2, Sentence 2 itself—the construction that uses the full infinitive “to tackle”—also works perfectly.)

But we must keep in mind that there are sentences where only the construction that uses the bare infinitive will do, as in this sentence: “We saw the building collapse like a deck of cards.” The following construction that uses the full infinitive sounds very awkward and should be avoided: “We saw the building to collapse like a deck of cards.” 

The bare-infinitive construction is also called for in the following sentence where the infinitive “to rise” works in conjunction with the perception verb “watch”: “They watched the young man rise spectacularly in the organization without making any effort at all.” Now see how awful and stilted that sentence becomes when it uses the full infinitive “to rise” instead: “They watched the young man to rise spectacularly in the organization without making any effort at all.” 

Indeed, there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules when we are faced with a choice between using a full infinitive and a bare infinitive in a sentence. We ultimately just have to play it by ear.

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Can we use the plural form of a unit of measure when defining it?

Question by Jeanne, new Forum member (September 23, 2010):

I’d like to ask if the following sentences are indeed grammatically correct in terms of subject-verb agreement:

“Inches are the smallest measurement of length in the British System.”

“Miles are the largest unit of length in the British System.”

“Seconds are the smallest unit of time in the British System.”

“Seconds are the basic unit of time in the Metric System.”

“Years are the largest unit of time in the British System.”

“Ounces are the smallest unit of mass in the British System.”

“Tons are the largest unit of mass in the British System.”

Also, here’s this sentence: “There are 5,280 feet in every mile. 1 mi = 5280 ft.” Should the numeral 5280 be written as 5,280 or is it also acceptable NOT to put a comma between 5 and 2?

My reply to Jeanne:

No, Jeanne, it’s not grammatically correct to state the term for a unit of measure in its plural form when it is being defined. In your first example, in particular, the grammatically correct way is to state the term in its singular form followed by the definition, as follows: “The inch is the smallest measurement of length in the British System.” The same grammatical pattern needs to be observed when defining all the other units of measure you enumerated: “The mile is…”, “The second is…”, “The year is…”, “The ounce is…”, and “The ton is…” All units of measure are notionally singular and need to be treated as grammatically singular as well to ensure subject-verb agreement. When modified by a specific quantity, however, a unit of measure is stated in the singular when the quantity is 1 or less than 1, as in “1 second” and “0.5 second”; then in the plural for quantities of 2 or more, as in “2 seconds” and “55 seconds.”

The conventional way to write “5,280” is, of course, to put a comma after the first digit as shown here. This follows the standard system of writing numbers in the thousands or multiples of thousands, where a comma is placed after the first digit up to a maximum of three digits, then by a comma after every three digits thereafter, as in “1,532,630” and “999,382,567,000.” As we know, however, those commas need to be dropped for calculation purposes using digital computers; this is because digital computers can’t do their computation routines with those commas present. Also, some scientific publications have adopted a style that dispenses with commas in numbers altogether. Both styles—the one using commas and the the other dispensing with the commas—are acceptable.

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Should writers finish their compositions first before editing?

Questions from Miss Mae, Forum member (September 21, 2010):

One writing quirk I had was that I cannot write without writing down first. That is, literally penning my thoughts on paper before producing a final copy. It was laborious, all right, but what can I do? It was what worked for me in my high school and college years.

I have had to adjust, though, when I began working. I was able to, but I developed another problem. Mindful of my grammar incompetency, I can’t help fussing over what I’ve just written. I learned somewhere that that should not be the case. Writers must finish their compositions before editing. Is that always true?

My reply to Miss Mae:

Oh, Miss Mae, don’t you fret about your tendency to fuss over what you’ve just written! It’s a perfectly normal thing to fuss over your prose whether you are supremely confident or somewhat doubtful of your grammar competence. So long as you don’t obsessively and perpetually fuss over every little detail to the point of not making any progress at all—like the neurotic Mr. Monk, the hilariously perfectionist private detective in that TV series—you are OK. This is because when we write, we’re actually attempting to capture and share some of our thoughts for an audience, whether for just one reader or—in the case of writing for publication—a few thousands or millions of them. And we obviously want our writing to be not only grammatically and semantically flawless but clear, concise, readable, and convincing as well. Writing for an audience is nothing less than a public performance, so it’s but natural for us to put our best foot forward when doing so.

I must also tell you that except perhaps for short, pro-forma memos, letters, or instructions, it simply isn’t the norm for writers to be able to finish writing a composition first before editing it. From what I’ve seen over the years, in fact, most writers are like you and me—they correct or edit themselves along the way as they write. I don’t know of any writer who can complete a full-fledged essay, feature article, or opinion piece of sizable length in his or her mind before sitting down to write it, much less put it to paper or word processor without letup from beginning to finish. Anybody who tells you that he or she can routinely do this is either not telling the truth or is nothing less than a genius with photographic memory and total recall to boot.

I think it’s the lot of most writers, whether amateur or professional, to write in fits and starts. They first take down notes about their impressions and initial ideas, juggle and juxtapose them into tentative statements in their heads or on paper, then start organizing and logically linking them into sentences, paragraphs, and entire compositions. Experienced writers are able to do this at a faster clip, of course, but they generally do so in the same way that you described your own writing process: literally pen thoughts on paper first and fuss over them before producing a final draft. In short, Miss Mae, your writing process isn’t quirkish at all but is actually the norm for most writers. And with more experience and practice, you’ll find that writing process becoming much easier, simpler, and faster—sometimes even a joy—to execute.

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Is there a great difference in the meaning of “when” and “if”?

Question by Miss Mae, Forum member (August 25, 2010):

“If all else fail, would you be there to love me?
When all else fail, would you be brave to see right through me?”

About six years ago, a song with these lyrics became my favorite. I think it was the best definition of love so far: It should be beyond failures. It should be beyond expectations.

But recent events in my life have led me to rethink if I had interpreted those lines right. Just what is the great semantic difference of “if” and “when” that the composer of this song chose to begin the last two lines of its lyrics?

My reply to Miss Mae:

If all else fail, would you be there to love me?
When all else fail, would you be brave to see right through me?

These are beautiful, eminently singable lines of verse. I’m not surprised that they are your favorite, and I have no doubt that you had interpreted them right the first time around. Of course, the prism of one’s personal experience with love can momentarily blur or reshape that interpretation, but thankfully, the essence of love remains ever the same.

As to the conjunctions “if” and “when,” there’s actually no great semantic difference between them. They are practically synonymous in the sense of “in the event that.” Grammatically, though, the first line—“If all else fail, would you be there to love me?”—is a sentence in the subjunctive mood, using the conjunction “if” to denote a contingent outcome or the speaker’s sense of uncertainty. The second line, “When all else fail, would you be brave to see right through me?”, is a question in the indicative form using the “when” form of conditionality, a form that states the outcome assuming that the condition is already happening or subsisting. Semantically, though, both “if” and “when” produce the same nuance of meaning here.

In fact, Miss Mae, I checked out the origin of the lines of verse and I found out that they are the last two lines of the lyrics of the song “Same Ground” by Filipino songwriter and singer Kitchie Nadal. And what do you know? The original lyrics actually used the conjunction “when” for both lines!

If all else fail, would you be there to love me
If all else fail, would you be brave to see right through me?  

Over the past five or six years, though, a version using “when” began to appear—the version that became so meaningful to you. But no matter. Whether using “if” or “when,” those two lines of the song are both grammatically airtight and, of course, equally singable and memorable.

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The form of “be” in the present tense for the first-person singular

Which is correct: “Even I, (is/am) very much willing to be corrected but not to be embarrassed”?

My reply to Sky:

Since the subject is the first-person singular pronoun “I” in the present tense, the grammatically correct form for the verb “be” in that sentence is “am.” That sentence should therefore be constructed as follows:

“Even I am very much willing to be corrected but not to be embarrassed.”  

Always remember the basic conjugations of the verb “be” in the various tenses:

1. Infinitive form: “to be,” as in “It’s nice to be loved.” 
2. Present tense: “am” for the first-person singular, as in “I am in love”; “are” for the first-person plural, as in “We are in love”; “are” for both the second-person singular and third-person plural, as in “You are in love” (singular “you”) and “You are in love” (plural “you”); “is” for the third-person singular, as in “He/she is in love”; and “are” for the third-person plural, as in “They are in love.”
3. Past tense: “was” for the first-person singular, as in “I was in love”; “were” for the first-person plural, as in “We were in love”; “were” for both the second-person singular and second-person plural, as in “You were in love” (singular “you”) and “You were in love” (plural “you”); and “was” for the third-person singular, as in “He/she was in love,” and “were” for the third-person plural, as in “They were in love.”
4. Future tense: “will be” for all nouns regardless of person and number, as in “I/We/You/He/She/They will be in love.”
5. Progressive tense: “be” takes the form of “being” and works either with an object of the preposition, as in “He feels good being in love,” or with the past participle of the operative verb, as in “He feels good being loved.”  

The verb “be” isn’t only among the most often used words in English but, as we can see above, definitely also the most variable, difficult, and troublesome verb, so we need to memorize all of its conjugations before we can construct grammar-perfect English sentences.

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Can you please give me an Rx for the form “I have had…”?

Question from Miss Mae, Forum member (August 18, 2010):

Just as I am still confused by the usage of “has,” “have,” and “had,” I would at times come across books and articles that pepper their content with this form: “I have had...” Could you please give a clear Rx on this?

My reply to Miss Mae:

To clearly understand the form “have had + object of the verb,” as in “have had breakfast,” let’s first take up the relevant meanings of the word “have” in this particular usage.

As we know, “have” can either be a main verb that means “to hold or maintain as a possession, privilege, or entitlement,” as in “to have a car” and “to have breakfast,” or be an auxiliary verb. As an auxiliary verb, “have” or its inflections (“has” and “had”) is used with the past participle of the verb to form the perfect tenses, as follows:

  1. The present perfect tense, which has the form “has or have + the past participle of the verb,” as in “has taken” for singular nouns and “have taken” for plural nouns;
  2. The past perfect tense, which has the form “had + the past participle of the verb,” as in “had taken” for both singular and plural nouns; and
  3. The future perfect tense, which has the form “will have + the past participle of the verb,” as in “will have taken” for both singular and plural nouns.

We will recall that in English, the present perfect tense is used to denote an action that happened at an unspecified time before now (the present moment), as in the sentence “I have met that woman.” Take careful note that in the present perfect tense, the exact occurrence of the action isn’t specified in the sentence; in other words, the speaker or writer isn’t interested or isn’t in the frame of mind to give the precise time when the action took place. Instead, he or she just wants to indicate that the action happened some time before the very moment that he or she is describing it.

The Present Perfect Chart

For this reason, sentences in the present perfect can’t use specific time expressions like “yesterday,” “last week,” “last month,” “when I was a teenager,” and “when the city was founded”; when this is done, the sentence is no longer in the present perfect but in the simple past tense. Sentences in the present perfect can be constructed with no time expression at all, as in the sentence “I have met that woman” earlier given as an example, or they can use unspecific occurrence expressions like “ever,” “never,” “once,” “before,” “already,” “many times,” “yet,” and “so far,” as in “I have never met that woman,” “I have met that woman many times,” and “I have not yet met that woman.”

One other very important thing to remember about the present perfect is that it’s normally used in statements describing a personal or collective experience; in other words, it usually takes the form of a statement in the first-person singular, as in “I have met that woman,” or in the first-person plural, as in “We have met that woman.” It’s quite rare—and rather odd—to encounter third-person, present perfect sentence constructions like “He has met that woman” or “They have met that woman.” This is because the present perfect is strongly associated with statements as actually uttered by the speaker himself or herself, not as reported speech. (Click this link for a discussion of reported speech in the Forum’s Student’s Sounding Board section.)  

Now, when we come across sentences that use the form “I have had + object of the main verb,” as in, say, “I have had breakfast,” what we are reading or hearing is the present perfect tense of “have” as the main verb in the sense of “to hold or maintain as a possession, privilege, or entitlement.” In the sentence “I have had breakfast,” the word “have” is the verb auxiliary for the present perfect, “had” is the past participle of the main verb “have” in the sense of “to hold or maintain as a possession, privilege, or entitlement,” and “breakfast” is the direct object of this main verb. The present-perfect sentence “I have had breakfast” is actually the semantic equivalent of the present-perfect sentence “I have already taken breakfast.”

Another use of the present perfect form “I/we + have had + object” is to denote several different actions that have occurred in the past at different times, while at the same time suggesting that the process isn’t finished yet and that more such actions are possible. We will therefore also encounter present-perfect sentences like the following: “I have had six breakfasts and three dinners so far in this terrific restaurant.” “We have had a number of false alarms while guarding this restricted facility.” 

While we are at it, we might as well also contrast the present-perfect “have had” form with the past-perfect “had had” form so we can avoid confusing one with the other.

When “have” is used as the main verb in a sentence, its past perfect tense takes the form of “had had,” as in “She had had breakfast by the time we reached home.” Usually, in sentences using the form “had had” like the example just given, the trigger for the past perfect are the time subordinators “when,” “until,” and “by the time.” These time subordinators are used to indicate that the past action being described took place after the occurrence of another past action; indeed, the “had had” form of past-perfect sentences always need another past action as a reference point .

Here are two more examples of sentences using the “had had” form: “The lost mountaineers had had nothing to eat for five days until they were rescued last week.”
“After she’d had a nap, she felt very much rested.”

The thing about the “had had” form, though, is that in many instances, it sounds rather awkward when spoken. For this reason, many speakers would rather use its contracted form for ease of articulation, as in “She’d had a nap so she felt very much rested” and “I’d had another opportunity after not getting that job last year.” Also, in informal usage, many people simply get rid of the first “had” and construct the sentence in the simple past tense. Strict grammarians obviously will find fault with that omission, but doing it usually doesn’t seriously detract from the intended meaning of the sentence, as the following sentences show: “The lost mountaineers had had nothing to eat for five days until they were rescued last week.” “After she had had a nap, she felt very much rested.” Unless the sentence in question is part of a formal English-proficiency test like the TOEFL, TOEIC, or IELTS, we can routinely knock off the second “had” in such “had had” constructions for euphony’s sake without being penalized for it: “The lost mountaineers had nothing to eat for five days until they were rescued last week.” “After she had a nap, she felt very much rested.”

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Are “based on” and “based from” interchangeable?

Question from Sky, Forum member (August 4, 2010):         

Are these two “based on” and “based from” interchangeable, if not, which is correct? When do we use “based on” and “based from”?

My reply to Sky:

No, “based on” and “based from” are not interchangeable. Only “based on” is correct and acceptable; this phrasal verb is used to relate something to a circumstance, situation, or supposition, as in “Many successful movies are based on popular comics serials.” It’s not idiomatic at all to use “based from,” and the use of this phrasal verb will normally be considered improper and incorrect by native English speakers.

Another correct and acceptable phrasal verb that uses the verb “based” is “based in.” It is used to indicate the location or station of an entity, as in “The investment bank is based in Zurich, with branches in key cities in various parts of the world.”

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What is an elliptical sentence?

Question from Sky, Forum member (July 30, 2010):

“On how serious the mistakes are, or whether you are free to correct them, or your mood, or something?”

Is this an elliptical sentence? Why? What is an elliptical sentence? What kind of sentence is the statement above? Thanks.

My reply to Sky:

“On how serious the mistakes are, or whether you are free to correct them, or your mood, or something?”

No, Sky, I don’t think that construction is an elliptical sentence. I would call it a series of sentence fragments compounded into a question. By definition, a sentence fragment is a word, phrase, or clause that usually has the intonation of a sentence but lacks the grammatical structure that’s usually found in the sentences of formal written composition; in short, unlike a bona fide sentence, a sentence fragment doesn’t have a complete thought. (The sentence fragments in that example of yours are, of course, “on how serious the mistakes are,” “whether you are free to correct them,” and “your mood, or something.”) 

A sentence fragment like your example is usually said by the speaker or writer as an afterthought or follow-through to a previous statement, and that speaker or writer assumes that the listener or reader would readily understand its meaning and context despite the incompleteness of the thought expressed.

An elliptical sentence, in contrast, is a sentence construction that gracefully knocks off certain words and phrases (often repetitive ones), taking it for granted that the reader or listener would just mentally fill in the gaps with the missing grammatical elements. The knocked-off words and phrases form “holes” in the sentence that are called ellipses (the singular form of this word is “ellipsis”). As a rule, an elliptical sentence consists of two independent clauses, one containing the grammar elements the other has left out. The independent clause with the missing elements is the elliptical clause—an abbreviated adverb clause stripped of its subject and verb. 

The five most common ways of forming elliptical sentences are as follows: 

(1) The routine omission of “that” in modifying clauses, particularly in spoken English. This is the most familiar use of the ellipsis. Example: “They knew […] two years would be the shortest time […] they would need to subdue the enemy forces.” (Normal form: “They knew that two years would be the shortest time thatthey would need to subdue the enemy forces.”) 

(2) Elliptical noun phrases. Example: “Jennifer asked for the pink blouse but the salesclerk gave her the red […].” (Normal form: “Jennifer asked for the pink blouse but the salesclerk gave her the red blouse.”)

(3) Ellipsis of the verb and its objects or complements. Example: “The beleaguered Supreme Court chief justice would fight it to the very end if he could […].” (Normal form: “The beleaguered Supreme Court chief justice would fight it to the very end if he could fight it to the very end.”)

(4) Medial (middle) ellipsis.  Example: “Arlene will take care of the girls and Eduardo […], the boys.” (Normal form: “Arlene will take care of the girls and Eduardo will take care of the boys.”) 

(5) Ellipsis of clause. Examples: “They can leave now if they want […].” (Normal form: “They can leave nowif they want to leave now.”) Certain elliptical clauses, however, need a comma to indicate that some words have been intentionally left out; otherwise, confusion might arise. Properly elliptical: “My tour group chose Paris; theirs, Rome.” Improperly elliptical: “My tour group chose Paris; theirs Rome.” (Normal form: “My tour group chose Paris; their group chose Rome.”)

By now I think you can already see the big difference between a sentence fragment and an elliptical sentence: a sentence fragment is, as the term implies, a fractured statement with an incomplete thought, while an elliptical sentence is a streamlined, more concise sentence that manages to deliver a complete thought despite dropping some of its words and phrases.

“Based on” vs. “based from”

Question also from Sky (August 4, 2010):

Are these two “based on” and “based from” interchangeable, and if not, which is correct? When do we use “based on” and “based from”?

My reply to Sky:

No, “based on” and “based from” are not interchangeable. Only “based on” is correct and acceptable; this  phrasal verb is used to relate something to a circumstance, situation, or supposition, as in “Many successful movies are based on popular comics serials.” It’s not idiomatic at all to use “based from,” and the use of this phrasal verb will normally be considered improper and incorrect by native English speakers.

Another correct and acceptable phrasal verb that uses the verb “based” is, of course, “based in.” It is used to indicate the location or station of an entity, as in “The investment bank is based in Zurich, with branches in key cities in various parts of the world.”

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The baffling behavior of “be” in the subjunctive mood

Question from Miss Mae (July 27, 2010):

In elementary English, I was taught that the first-person personal pronoun “I” should always be followed by the past form of the verb “to be,” which is “were,” to make sense. But till now, I find it more “comfortable” to follow “I” with “was.” Movie director Gene Fowler, Jr., did so, too, in his 1957 film, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, as well as baseball player Chris Malec of the Camden Rivershark in a recent interview with The New York Times. Frank Lloyd thought otherwise though in his 14th film, If I Were King, as well as Robert Mackey, a reporter in the same American daily newspaper. Which indeed is correct? Can I get away with using “I was”?

My reply to Miss Mae:

I’m sorry to say that you got it wrong that the first-person personal pronoun “I” should always be followed by the past-tense form of the verb “be,” which is “were.” Your elementary-school English teacher was misinformed and evidently confused about that usage, and the fact that you find it more comfortable to use the past-tense form “was” tells me that you instinctively knew better than your English teacher. I must also hasten to add that the use of “was” in the movie title I Was a Teenage Werewolf (and most likely also in that interview with that baseball player) is grammatically correct, and that the use of “were” in the film title If I Were King (and most likely also by that American reporter) is also grammatically correct.

The user of “was” and the user of “were” you cited differed in their use of the form of “be” not because they had a choice but because their statements are actually in two different moods. The “was” user in your example was using the verb “be” in the indicative mood, while the “were” user in your example was using the verb “be” in the subjunctive mood. Indeed, your elementary-school teacher obviously was blind to this distinction between the two usages.

To clearly understand the distinction between these usages, let’s first do a quick review of the three moods of verbs in English. By mood, of course, we mean that aspect of the verb that expresses the state of mind or attitude of the speaker toward what he or she is saying. The three moods are the indicative mood, the imperative mood, and the subjunctive mood. As I’m sure you already know, both the indicative and the imperative moods deal with actions or states in factual or real-world situations. The subjunctive mood, on the other hand, deals with actions or states only as possible, contingent, or conditional outcomes of a want, wish, preference, or uncertainty expressed by the speaker.

The most familiar and most commonly used of the three moods is, of course, the indicative mood. It conveys the idea that an act or condition is (1) an objective fact, (2) an opinion, or (3) the subject of a question. Statements in the indicative mood seek to give the impression that the speaker is talking about real-world situations in a straightforward, truthful manner. And from a usage standpoint, indicative statements have one very reassuring aspect: their operative verbs take their normal inflections in all the tenses and typically obey the subject-verb agreement rule at all times.

Look at these examples of indicative sentences: Stating an objective fact: “The Philippines is the world’s second largest labor exporter, next only to Mexico.” Stating an opinion: “Our client seems uninterested in the survey findings.” Posing a question: “Who used my computer this morning?”

The imperative mood, on the other hand, denotes that all-too-familiar attitude of a speaker who (1) demands or orders a particular action, (2) makes a request or suggestion, (3) gives advice, or (4) states a prohibition. We all know that this mood uses the base form of the operative verb (the verb’s infinitive form without the “to”), and is most often used in second-person, present-tense sentences that use an elliptical subject or the unstated second-person pronoun “you.

Examples of imperative statements: Demanding a particular action: “Stop that car!” Making a request or suggestion: “Please take your seats.” Giving advice: “Study your lessons well to pass tomorrow’s test.” Stating a prohibition: “Don’t enter this one-way street.”

The subjunctive mood has a much more varied and complex grammatical repertoire than the indicative and imperative moods. It can take several forms to perform the following tasks: (1) indicate a possibility (2) express a desire or wishful attitude, (3) express insistence on a particular action, (4) express doubt about a certain outcome, (5) describe an unreal situation or an idea contrary to fact, or (6) express a request or suggestion.

Now let’s go to the heart of the confusion that usually attends the usage of the subjunctive mood.

First, in the subjunctive third-person singular, the verb drops the expected “-s” (or “-es”) at its tail end and takes its base form instead, as the verb “heed” does in this sentence: “It is essential that she heed the people’s clamor.” We don’t say “It is essential that she heeds the people’s clamor.” As a general rule for subjunctive “that”-clauses, their operative verbs don’t change form at all regardless of what number or person the subject takes: “It is imperative that he submit himself to the jurisdiction of this court.” (We don’t say “It is imperative that he submits himself to the jurisdiction of this court.”) To know this basic behavior of verbs in the subjunctive mood could eliminate much of the confusion when we deal with subjunctive-mood sentences.

Second, and this behavior of the subjunctive directly answers the question you raised about its usage, the verb “be” exhibits deviant behavior in subjunctive “if”-clauses. While both regular and irregular verbs in the subjunctive take the same form as their indicative past-tense forms (“worked,” “found,” “caught,” “saw,” and so on), the verb “be” exhibits totally maverick behavior. It sticks to the past-tense subjunctive form “were” all throughout, regardless of the person and number of its subject: “She acts as if she were a member of royalty.” “They avoided the man as if he were a leper.” “The people behaved as if their future were a big joke.” In such constructions, “were” deceptively looks and behaves as if it were consistently plural and in the past tense; it’s no wonder that many people—and, unfortunately, your elementary-school English teacher was evidently one of them—find it so difficult to understand the subjunctive form and how it works.

Third, the verb “be” consistently takes the subjunctive past tense in “that”-clauses that follow main clauses expressing a wish or desire: “I wish (that) she were more intelligent.” “I wish (that) I were the committee chairman.” “How I wish (that) you were here right now!” Such subjunctive constructions indicate that the wish or desired outcome is neither a present reality nor a future certainty.

And fourth, the subjunctive can also be used to denote a hypothetical state or outcome given a certain condition that is unreal or contrary to fact. Such conditions will often be indicated by the word “if” or “wish”: “If the Earth were flat, Magellan’s naval expedition wouldn’t have circumnavigated the globe.” (This is the same subjunctive form as Frank Lloyd’s title for his film, If I Were King; the statement is in the subjunctive because the person who said it wasn’t the king.) “How I wish (that) I were here when she said that! I would have told her that she was a liar.” Without “if,” such constructions can sometimes take an inverted syntax: “Were she the CEO, our management wouldn’t be pursuing this erroneous course.”

This has been a rather long explanation, but I’m afraid there’s no simpler way to make the subjective understandable except to discuss it from the total perspective of the three moods of verbs in English. Let me caution you, though, that this is actually just a very basic explanation of the subjunctive. For a more thorough and comprehensive discussion, I suggest you read Chapters 77-81 of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge. Aside from giving you a much deeper look into the subjunctive and its uses, it also discusses alternatives for avoiding the use of the subjunctive altogether.

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Good writing avoids clichés, not idiomatic expressions

A Filipina who works in the Middle East e-mailed me last July 21 to call attention to her comments to old postings of mine in my English-usage blogspot, Jose Carillo on the English Language ( “I’ve been reading your earlier posts, some of which I have commented on,” Lucky Mae wrote. “You haven’t answered them though, so I thought that either I didn’t state them properly or you think I should just figure them out myself. It’s most likely, though, that you didn’t get to read them…”

As it turns out, Lucky Mae posted her comments only this July to three of my weekly postings that date as far back as July of 2009 and February this year. No wonder then that I wasn’t able to read her comments. I keep track of replies to my blog postings only up to three to four weeks after they are published, after which I consider them closed for discussion.

(So for those who visit and read my old postings in that blogspot, please take note: When you post a comment to a posting of mine that’s more than a month old, please send me a copy of your comment by e-mail to Once you alert me about your belated comment, I’ll see to it that you get a reply both in my blogspot and also by e-mail.)   

On clichés and idiomatic expressions 

Anyway, one of Lucky Mae’s comments was about my blog on September 5, 2009, “The misguided journalistic practice of fiddling with idioms.” In that blog, I discussed the practice of some newspaper reporters of fiddling with idiomatic expressions to put color to their stories, in the process coming up with awful mixed metaphors like “people from all walks of life will paint the town yellow” and “to fall prey to glib tongues when all kinds of scams rear their ugly heads.” I pointed out that it really isn’t a linguistic crime to fashion a sentence with the use of idiomatic expressions; after all, I said, idioms are handy, off-the-shelf rhetorical devices that quickly drive home a point. But I said that to use two or more of them in the same clause or sentence constitutes bad writing.

To that blog of mine, Lucky Mae commented: “I’m not sure if it was from your first book, English Plain and Simple, that I learned to refrain from adding idioms in a composition. That better yet, for the writer to appear more emphatic, he or she should form a new idiomatic expression altogether.”

I am constrained to make this open rejoinder to correct this seriously mistaken notion about idioms that Lucky Mae supposes to have gotten from my book. Definitely, English Plain and Simple doesn’t advise writers to refrain from using idioms in their compositions, so that idea of hers must have come from elsewhere. Instead, what my book suggests is for writers to refrain from using clichés, not idioms and idiomatic expressions.

There’s a big difference between them. An idiom is the language peculiar to a people in a certain locality or to members of a particular group or occupation—it’s the way they normally speak to one another and get themselves understood. And an idiomatic expression is an expression whose meaning usually can’t be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up; even so, that expression is commonly used and clearly understood by a particular community or group.

In contrast, clichés are those commonplace, overused expressions that once might have been fresh and original, probably even written by a good writer sometime in the past. However, these expressions have been used so excessively over the years that they have become very unpleasant to hear, like “dead as a doorknob,” “smell like a rat,”and“stink like a dead mackerel.” And the problem, I emphasize in English Plain and Simple, is that “many of us drug our English insensible with an overdose of clichés.”

So, as I wrote in my column today (July 24, 2010) in The Manila Times in reply to Lucky Mae’s comment on clichés, our fight shouldn’t really be against idioms and idiomatic expressions but against clichés and, I might as well add, against mixed metaphors as well. For idioms and idiomatic expressions are essentially metaphors or short-hand language for shared knowledge or experience between the speaker or writer and the audience. They are not something we need to craft ourselves each time for emphasis. They are already embedded in the language, and to set out not to use them altogether is to make ourselves sound like strangers to the language.

To get to know more of my thoughts about clichés, idioms, and idiomatic expressions, click the following links to the following four essays of mine:

The reign of the dreadful clichés

Learning the English idioms

The nature of true idioms

Clichés and bad body English

On transitive and intransitive verbs

On a blogspot posting of mine on July 18, 2009, “Dealing with Various Levels of Intransitivity,” in which I discussed the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, Lucky Mae made the following comment: “I was taught of only one foolproof way on this subject in grade school: words ending in “-ly” set intransitive verbs apart.”

I’m positive that either Lucky Mae’s teacher mistook intransitive verbs for adverbs in teaching these parts of speech (in which case a lot of pupils in that class must have absorbed that wrong notion and carried it in their heads for God knows how long until someone corrected it for them), or Lucky Mae simply misunderstood what her teacher taught in class and have had that wrong notion ever since. For definitely, that idea is flat-out wrong. The “-ly” word ending couldn’t be a foolproof way to distinguish intransitive verbs from transitive verbs; in fact, “-ly” is not a characteristic ending of verbs but of adverbs (“tenderly,” “rapidly,” “slowly,” “precariously,” “passively”) and, in much fewer cases, also of adjectives (“priestly,” “miserly,” “portly”).       

It’s most likely then that Lucky Mae’s teacher meant to say something like this general statement instead: “One foolproof way to distinguish between an adjective and an adverb is that an adverb ends in ‘-ly.’” Even this statement, however, is also flat-out wrong; it’s a seriously misplaced and misapplied generalization. The truth of the matter is that in English, definitely not all adverbs end in “-ly” (“always,” “everywhere,” and “rather,” for instance, are adverbs), and that some adjectives—not very many, though—also end in “-ly” (as in the case of the three examples I have given above: “priestly,” “miserly,” “portly”). In other words, the “-ly” ending is not the exclusive domain of adverbs and, truth to tell, verbs—whether transitive or intransitive—should hardly figure in that grammatical comparison at all. There’s simply no connection.

On the growing noun-to-verb conversion syndrome

Finally, on a blogspot posting of mine on February 2, 2010, “Not just a curiosity piece but a little primer in verb-formation,” where I discussed the growing noun-to-verb conversion syndrome in our own time, Lucky Mae made the following comment: “But leaving to the writer/speaker the prerogative to choose the appropriate nerbs is likewise tricky. Can’t we just accept where the English language is going and tolerate it? For only a hard-and-fast rule can put a stop to this...”

All I can say about Lucky Mae’s comment is this: We can’t control or legislate the path that a language will take over time. The best we can do is only to encourage responsible use of the language, whether it’s English or another language. As I said in my December 5, 2005 essay on nerbing, “It is highly unlikely that the nerbing syndrome can be stopped…but we can at least help prevent inappropriate nerbs from swamping English by using usefulness and aesthetics as criteria for evaluating nerbs before using them ourselves. This way, only those that foster brevity as well as accuracy and clarity to language can survive and become welcome entries to the English lexicon.”

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