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.

Is the question “Are you writing?” grammatically correct?

Question sent in by e-mail by Grace N. Toralde (February 20, 2011):

Dear Sir,

I would just like to ask something. Is the question “Are you writing?” correct?

If I ask someone “Are you writing also?”, am I using the correct tense?

My reply to Grace:

The question “Are you writing?” can be taken to mean in at least two ways. 

The first is in the context of the speaker asking the person who is unseen or isn’t physically present—perhaps the question is asked over the phone or through a letter or e-mail—if he or she is currently doing some form of professional writing like, say, literature or journalism. The speaker knows that the person being addressed is a writer by profession or avocation and by asking that question, wants confirmation that the person being addressed is, in fact, pursuing that profession or avocation.  

The second sense of “Are you writing?” is in the context of the speaker asking the person face to face if he or she is going to write the speaker sometime soon, in the same sense as that of the sentence “Will you write me soon?” or “Will you write me sometime soon?” In this particular case, the speaker is using the interrogative progressive tense form as the semantic equivalent of the interrogative future tense form—a usage that’s perfectly acceptable among native English speakers.

Both of the two senses above of the question “Are you writing?” likewise apply to the question “Are you writing also?” This time, however, the speaker is asking another person the same question he or she had earlier asked someone, and this someone happens to be within hearing distance when the question is asked the second time around. The adverb “also” is added by the speaker to convey the idea that the person he had earlier asked that question answered in the affirmative.

In all the situations described above, the questions “Are you writing?” and “Are you writing also?” are grammatically correct and in the right tense.

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What’s the correct usage for the verbs “brought” and “taken”?

Question from Isabel Escoda in Hong Kong (February 13, 2011):

Hey Joe—I hope you can help me out regarding a verb that’s been bothering me for a long time, one which I believe is always used in the wrong way by Pinoy journalists. It’s the past tense of the verb “bring”—“brought.”

Today a friend in Manila forwarded an article about Gen. Angelo Reyes who committed suicide.   The story had that pesky word in this sentence: “His body will be BROUGHT to Camp Aguinaldo…”

Shouldn’t the verb be TAKEN since the reporter is writing about something that isn’t being delivered to HIM (the reporter) but to somewhere else? In other words, someone BRINGS something to me, while one TAKES something to a point away from me. Am I explaining this clearly?

Other journalistic examples: “He was BROUGHT to the police station” is always used (when it should be TAKEN); “She was BROUGHT to the hospital”—again, that should be TAKEN.  One is dealing with coming and going—so why do folks get this wrong so often?


My reply to Isabel:

The verbs “bring” and “take” are actually synonymous in the sense of “to convey, lead, carry, or cause to go or come along to another place,” but the choice between the two depends on the point of view or position of the speaker in relation to the action described. When the movement is clearly toward the place from which the action is being regarded or where the speaker is, was, or will be, “bring” is conventionally used, as in “Bring your friend here” and “Your mother brought me a slice of carrot cake yesterday.” On the other hand, when the movement is clearly away from which the action is being regarded or where the speaker is, was, or will be, “take” is conventionally used, as in “Take your friend to the zoo” and “Your sister took some gardenias from my garden this morning.”

In the case of most news stories, however, the speaker is usually an absent third-person narrator objectively describing the action; as such, he or she is an observer who makes it a point not to get involved or doesn’t intrude into the action. In short, in news told objectively, the news reporter is neither here nor there, and this is when the usual distinctions between “bring” and “take” no longer apply. Such is the case of the news reporter who, as you quoted from that article about Gen. Angelo Reyes’s suicide, wrote “His body will be brought to Camp Aguinaldo…” Now, you ask if “brought” is incorrectly used here and if “taken” should be used instead. I think that from the news reporter’s point of view as an absent spectator, “brought” and “taken” are both correct and can be used interchangeably. 

For the same reason, the two other journalistic examples you presented, “He was BROUGHT to the police station” and “She was BROUGHT to the hospital,” are also grammatically airtight, but, of course, so are these versions that use “taken” instead of “brought”: “He was TAKEN to the police station” and “She was TAKEN to the hospital.” From the standpoint of the objective reporter, the “brought” versions and the “taken” versions aren’t dealing with coming and going. Indeed, they are not dealing with actions towards or away from the speaker, but with lateral actions in front of his eyes, as if on a stage tableau. In such situations, as I said earlier, the distinctions between “bring” and “take” don’t apply.

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How do we use the word “occupation” in a sentence?

Question from nostalgic haze, new Forum member (February 10, 2011):

I read someone use this word like this: “My occupation is a teacher.” But I think “My occupation is that of a teacher” and “My occupation is teaching” sound more correct.

Could anyone help me with this? I can't find any credible source online for this one.

My reply to nostalgic haze:

By definition, an “occupation” is an activity one engages in or is the principal business of one’s life, and the noun “teacher” means one who teaches or whose occupation is to instruct. To say “My occupation is a teacher” is therefore grammatically and semantically wrong. It erroneously makes the activity of teaching equivalent to the person who engages in it. Of course, the alternative statements you suggested, “My occupation is that of a teacher” and “My occupation is teaching,” sound correct, but they are grammatically and semantically correct to a fault.

We must take note here that the first-person statement “My occupation is a teacher” is a typical flawed response to this question: “What is your occupation?” The correct, natural, and straightforward response to that question is, of course, “I’m a teacher” or simply “Teaching.” To say “My occupation is that of a teacher” or “My occupation is teaching” is too agonizingly correct and stilted, and I must say that the English of the teacher who talks that way leaves much to be desired.

Rejoinder from nostalgic haze:

Thank you for the explanation, sir.

I was wondering how to use this in a simple sentence to show ESL students the meaning of the word. Can I just use “My occupation is teaching”?

(By the way, I am not a teacher. I'm just helping out in editing some ESL materials.)

My reply to this rejoinder:

Yes, of course, you can use “My occupation is teaching” to show ESL students what the word “occupation” means. I just want to point out that while grammatically correct, it's not an idiomatic way to talk. When asked about their occupation or when they want to introduce themselves, native English speakers who are teachers normally would use this simple declarative sentence: “I teach” or “I’m a teacher.”

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Grabbing readers with the first paragraph

Mr. Charlie Agatep, president and CEO of the public relations firm Agatep Associates Inc. and group chairman of Euro RSCG Manila, would like to share with Forum members this e-mail that he sent to the company staff to help improve their writing skills: 

This is intended for our writers mainly, but I thought we could all learn from the words and wisdom of Jeanette Smith (The New Publicity Kit) and William Zinsser (On Writing Well)—as they stress the importance of the first few paragraphs, or the lead.

In any form of writing—whether a PR letter proposal, an invitation letter to President Benigno Aquino III, or a feature article for Canon products—the importance of the lead cannot be overstated.

William Zinsser said: “The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn't
induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn't induce him to continue to the third sentence, it is equally dead.”

The length of the lead could be one or two paragraphs; there is no pat answer. But it must capture the reader immediately and “force him to keep reading.”

In writing a feature article, Jeanette Smith quotes Hugh Mulligan: “There is no set pattern for beginning a feature story. But there is one decree. The lead must grab the readers’ attention. In other words, good feature writers ‘bait their hooks’ in their leads, then follow up with facts (the five W’s) later throughout the story.

On the difference between a straight news story and a feature story

In a news story you have to be objective, meaning that you are not supposed to insert your opinion. You can’t say, “He was a remarkable fellow.” Hindi pwede ang opinionated sentence.

But in a feature story, there is no requirement to be objective. No need to aim for that lean, brief writing style that marks a news article A feature story aims to entertain or that sense it is like a short story, “it must read smoothly, build in intensity, and carry the reader along right
to an end that is a climax.”

A feature story is not written in the inverted pyramid style. You can begin your feature story with the human side of the news, perhaps in a conversational style, like, say, “You’ll never guess who I met today.”

Or, writing about cheaper medicines, you could start as follows: “This is hard to believe. A year ago the cost of a tablet of 5mg Norvasc (generic amlodipine for high blood pressure) was PhP44. Now you can buy the same tablet for only PhP 2.75! That’s a 93.75% decrease in cost.”

So guys, let’s examine our first paragraphs, whether it’s in a PR proposal or in a feature story, and unless those first paragraphs can create some “commotion” in the reader’s mind, let’s make it a point to do a rewrite.

The beginning paragraph of The Stranger by Albert Camus, Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature, starts this way: “Mother died today. Or perhaps yesterday, I don’t know. I received a telegram from the home: ‘Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Sincerely yours…’ That doesn’t mean anything. Perhaps it was yesterday.”

I hope to see better first paragraphs in our future articles or letters.

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Grammatically faulty sentences in locally written English workbook

I received the following e-mail from a Forum member in the evening of January 28, 2011:

Mr. Carillo,

I was fortunate to find a mint copy of your book English Plain and Simple at a nearby National Bookstore and bought myself a copy. I enjoy reading your forum online, but a book still has its advantages.

Anyway, beside your book on the shelf was a big, well-thumbed book that looked like a workbook. Written by two Filipino authors, it is entitled From Grammar to Fluency in 30 Days and had a cover price of P895.

When I opened it, I saw that it was indeed a workbook with examples, exercises, etc. On page 25 the following sentence caught my eye:

“Children are charmed by the Pied Piper’s music wherever he went.”

I thought initially that that sentence was being cited in the book as erroneous. When I read the instructions on that page, however, I saw that the reader was being asked to identify which part of the sentence is a certain kind of phrase (I think it was prepositional phrase, but I may be wrong, since I was not able to write the instructions down). In other words, the sentence above was being presented as a correct sentence despite the inconsistency in the tenses of the verbs.  

And then I turned to page 28. This time I wrote part of the instructions down. The section I saw was talking about “Verbless Clauses.” It said that these are structures without verbs and often without a subject, and that the omitted verb is usually the verb “be” and that its function is to modify a noun. It then proceeded to give the following three examples, which I copied verbatim:

1. “Garbage in very corner, Divisoria is such a dirty place.”
2. “A group of girls, most of them inexperienced, are brought to the city to work in the brothels.”
3. “The cake, when overdone, is hard as cookies.”

I was aghast! This is a book which is supposed to teach Filipinos correct English grammar and it presents these erroneous sentences as valid examples. There obviously is no regulatory body which reviews content and approves publication of books, since even officially sanctioned textbooks have been found to have a lot of errors. However, is there a way that these authors can be put to task for such a blatantly poor-quality product? Instead of promoting good English, this horrible book does the exact opposite. It should be immediately withdrawn from circulation, all copies burned, and its authors and publishers drawn and quartered.

I could not cite more examples since I did not want to spend P895 on basura. I pity the poor student or professional who bought this book in the hope of getting better grades or a better job.  

(Name of Forum member withheld upon request)

Comments and reactions from Forum members?

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A very serious case of a dangling subordinate clause

Question from jonathanfvaldez, Forum member (January 24, 2011):

Hi Joe,

Cleaning up the garage, I browsed some magazines and came across this sentence in an article, “Platon’s Portraits,” in Esquire’s May 2004 edition: 

“Though he’s a Greek who grew up in London, the iconic photographs in Platon’s first book, Platon’s Republic (Phaidon, $60), are a veritable primer on American culture. We asked the photographer to reflect on a few memorable subjects.”

Something seems amiss. Am I right?


My reply to jonathanfvaldez:

Yes, you’re right; there’s not only one but two grammatical things awfully amiss in that sentence—and both are fatal to its semantics:

“Though he’s a Greek who grew up in London, the iconic photographs in Platon’s first book, Platon’s Republic (Phaidon, $60), are a veritable primer on American culture. We asked the photographer to reflect on a few memorable subjects.”

The first grammatical flaw is that in the first sentence, the subordinate clause “though he’s a Greek who grew up in London” is a dangling modifier. Because of its faulty positioning, that clause just hangs there without modifying anything. Although adjacent to the noun phrase “the iconic photographs in Platon’s first book,” it can’t logically modify that phrase. Indeed, that subordinate clause should be modifying the noun “Platon,” which is its logical referent subject, but is unable to do so because the clause is misplaced.

The second grammatical flaw in that sentence construction is that it really has no valid subject. Its logical subject is obviously the noun “Platon,” but it can’t function as such because it’s in the possessive form “Platon’s first book.” Grammatically, the noun “Platon” can only function as a subject or doer of the action if it is in its subjective or nominative form, “Platon.”

That sentence needs a total overhaul to correct these two fatal grammatical flaws. Here’s my suggested fix:

“Though he’s a Greek who grew up in London, Platon has come up with a first book, Platon’s Republic (Phaidon, $60), whose iconic photographs are a veritable primer on American culture. We asked the photographer to reflect on a few memorable subjects.”

This time everything is in its proper place performing its legitimate grammatical job: the subordinate clause “though he’s a Greek who grew up in London” logically modifies “Platon” as its legitimate subject, the noun “Platon” does the action of coming up with his first book, “Platon’s Republic,” which is now the logical subject of the relative modifying clause “whose iconic photographs are a veritable primer on American culture.”

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Prescription for repeated “that” in a sentence

Question from Miss Mae, Forum member (January 9, 2011):

The sentence below makes sense, but is it also grammatically correct?

“Never mind that that taxation system would abolish other tax stratagems.”

My reply to Miss Mae:

Yes, this sentence is grammatically correct in every way: “Never mind that that taxation system would abolish other tax stratagems.” Here, the first “that” is a subordinating conjunction linking the main clause “never mind” and the subordinate or dependent clause “that taxation system would abolish other tax stratagems.” The second “that” is, of course, a pointing adjective.

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Are “persons with disabilities” better than “disabled persons”?

A discussion with Miss Mae, Forum member (January 2-4, 2011):

Miss Mae: During the first quarter of last year, the former president signed an amendment to the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons. The law has also distinguished “disabled persons” from “persons with disabilities,” favoring the latter. Is there really a grammatical argument on that?

Joe Carillo: From a layman’s standpoint, I understand the term “disabled persons” as referring to those who are severely incapacitated by illness or injury such that they can’t perform gainful work or have the mobility to live without dedicated assistance by another person. On the other hand, “persons with disabilities” are those who are generally healthy and able like normal individuals but are just constrained by a specific impairment of the senses or of the body, like poor eyesight, poor hearing, poor speaking skills, or paralysis of a particular limb or limbs; any of these disabilities may prevent them from getting employed or moving about unassisted but otherwise, they can engage in most of the day-to-day activities that a normal individual can do. In this layman’s sense, “persons with disabilities” may be considered better off than “disabled persons.” Our legislators might have defined “disabled persons” and “persons and disabilities” in a different way, though, so perhaps a Forum member who is a lawyer can provide us with a precise legal distinction between these two terms.

Miss Mae: Thank you for your reply. Could you please also explain how the difference came to be?

Joe Carillo: From a grammatical standpoint, we can explain the semantic difference between the terms “disabled persons” and “persons with disabilities” this way: In the term “disabled persons,” the adjective “disabled” modifies the noun “persons,” thus conveying the idea that in each case, the disability applies to the “person” as whole and not just to a particular sense or part of the body; the incapacitation is such that the person can’t fend off for himself or herself. In the term “persons with disability,” on the other hand, the modifier “with disability” indicates only the possession of a particular disability by the person referred to; the disability is limited to a particular sense or part of the body and does not mean total or serious incapacitation.

Miss Mae: Thank you. Guess the lawmakers were just right to legislate that distinction. I rest my case.

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Is it advisable to write in sentence fragments?

Question from Miss Mae, Forum member (December 12, 2010):

How about writing sentence fragments, sir? Are writers who opt for them putting themselves in a bad light?

My reply to Miss Mae:

Are writers who write in sentence fragments putting themselves in a bad light? Not necessarily. It’s understandable to do so when you’re in such a hurry and you need to jot down a short message fast, like, say, “Back by midnight. Dinner with boss. No need to wait for me. Bye!” That’s four sentence fragments in all, but the message is crystal clear. And as we know, fiction writers even put such sentence fragments to very good use in creating a sense of urgency to the narrative. 

I think writers could put themselves in a bad light and embarrass themselves only if they write sentence fragments unknowingly. Such writing is ungrammatical and sophomoric—an indication that the writers don’t have a very solid grounding in English grammar and composition.

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Confusion over the use of “so” and “so that”

Question from Miss Mae, Forum member (December 8, 2010):

My English professor in college warned me in using the connector “so.” “It should be ‘so that’,” I remember her saying. Though I have heeded her advice since then, there were times when I would get confused. For instance, should I write “The old spiced it with terror so the rest of humanity would observe superstitions” or “The old spiced it with terror so that the rest of humanity would observe superstitions”?

My reply to Miss Mae:

The conjunction “so” is conventionally used to introduce clauses of result in the sense of “with the result that,” as in this sentence: “The pipeline has been fixed, so the water is flowing now.” On the other hand, “so that” is conventionally used to indicate purpose in the sense of “in order that,” as in the second sentence you presented, “The old spiced it with terror so that the rest of humanity would observe superstitions.” But this distinction in the sense of “so” and “so that” has practically disappeared in modern usage. In my case, in fact, I wouldn’t take issue with anyone who uses “so” instead of “so that” to come up with the sentence “The old spiced it with terror so the rest of humanity would observe superstitions.” However, I’m inclined to agree with grammar purists when they insist that the use of “so that” in this sentence is iffy and rather awkward: “The pipeline has been fixed, so that the water is flowing now.” So, when the clause being introduced is that of a result, just stick to “so” and forget “so that” as an alternative. You can’t go wrong with that choice.

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The use of “and” as compounder and as coordinating conjunction

Question from Miss Mae, Forum member (December 8, 2010):

Sir, should the word “and” when used to enumerate be preceded by a comma (as in “He has already inspired some Filipinos to get up to their feet, and believe in an administration once more”) or should the comma be restricted to constructions where “and” is used as a coordinating conjunction (as in “Filipinos now can tell an act from an act, and political leaders have the social responsibility to be honest to their constituents”)?

My reply to Miss Mae:

In the sentence “He has already inspired some Filipinos to get up to their feet, and believe in an administration once more,” the word “and” is actually not a coordinating conjunction; it is an additive function word that compounds the prepositional phrases “to get up to their feet” and “(to) believe in an administration once more.” That sentence is therefore a simple sentence, not a compound sentence, and that comma shouldn’t be there at all because its presence truncates the sentence, weakens the additive power of “and” as a function word, and makes the meaning of the sentence ambiguous. Indeed, because of that comma, it is unclear what the operative doer of the action is in the phrase “believe in an administration once more.” Is it “he” or “some Filipinos”? 

See how that ambiguity disappears when that comma is dropped altogether: “He has already inspired some Filipinos to get up to their feet and believe in an administration once more.” In this comma-less construction, it’s clear that the doer of the action for the two prepositional phrases is the noun “some Filipinos.” It also clearly indicates that what we have here is a simple sentence, not a compound sentence, and that what follows the direct object “some Filipinos” is a compound prepositional phrase—meaning two prepositional phrases compounded by the additive function word “and.” 

Even if not grammatically necessary, however, putting that comma sometimes becomes advisable for the sake of clarity. This often happens in news journalism, particularly in the case of simple sentences with an extended compound predicate, as in this example: “He has already inspired some Filipinos to get up to their feet and believe in an administration once more, and managed to come up with well-thought-out reform programs without being challenged in the courts of law.” Here, the comma before the second predicate (“managed to come up with well-thought-out reform programs without being challenged in the courts of law”) serves as some sort of demarcation line or signal that what follows is, in fact, a second predicate rather than part of the enumerated actions whose referent noun is “some Filipinos.” It must be noted here that the sentence in question here is, like the first example we examined, a simple sentence, one consisting of a single doer of the action (“he”) and two compounded verb phrases (one the verb phrase with “inspired” as operative verb and the other with “managed” as operative verb).

In the case of compound sentences, it is grammatically mandatory to put a comma between the first coordinate clause and the second coordinate clause. Thus, the use of the comma in the sentence you provided as example is correct: “Filipinos now can tell an act from an act, and political leaders have the social responsibility to be honest to their constituents.” In this case, the comma is functioning as a coordinating conjunction, in contrast to its function as an additive function word in the first two examples we evaluated earlier. We can see that the presence of the comma not only creates a clear demarcation line between the two coordinate clauses in a compound sentence but also signals a momentary pause that makes it easier for readers to comprehend what the sentence is saying. 

In practice, though, news reporters and editors tend to eliminate the comma between the coordinate clauses of compound sentences. It’s a breach of good grammar that makes their news stories tougher to read and understand, and we can only hope that they will realize this and make sure to supply that comma every time it’s needed.

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When is it advisable to make use of complex sentences in writing?

Question from Miss Mae, Forum member (December 8, 2010):

I’ve always read: In writing, K.I.S.S. (Keep It Short and Simple). How can writers know when it is better to write complex sentences?

My reply to Miss Mae:

The KISS prescription is only an admonition to writers to aim for brevity when they write. It’s actually not a prescription to use simple sentences instead of complex, compound, or complex-compound ones. In English, as I explain in my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, “simple sentences are not necessarily short or uncomplicated, and compound or complex sentences are not necessarily longer or more complicated than simple sentences. This is because the structural complexity of a sentence doesn’t really depend on how many words it has or on how many phrases are attached to it, but on how many clauses and what kinds of clauses are to be found in it.” 

(Recall now that in a sentence, it is the number of clauses—those groups of words that contain a subject and predicate and that typically can function as a complete sentence by themselves—that determines sentence structure, not the number of words or phrases a sentence has.)

Below, for instance, is a 20-word sentence of simple structure—in short, a simple sentence—that’s definitely not short and uncomplicated because aside from its main and only clause (“the woman wore a starkly red dress and red high-heels”), it also carries an absolute phrase (“decided to upstage everybody”) and a prepositional phrase (“at the costume party last night”):

Decided to upstage everybody, the woman wore a starkly red dress and red high-heels at the costume party last night.” 

In contrast, here’s a complex sentence with only nine words: “He who was declared winner doesn’t deserve his win.” The main clause is, of course, “he doesn’t deserve his win,” and the subordinate clause, the relative modifying clause “who was declared winner.”

So, you ask, how then will writers know when it is advisable—not necessarily “better,” which is how you worded it in your question—to write a complex sentence instead of a simple one? It’s advisable to do so when the writer wants a wider opportunity to clarify ideas or establish their context better within the same sentence framework; that is, to elaborate on or texture those ideas without coming up with a new sentence or several more of it. 

Take a look at the following complex sentence:

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.” 

In the sentence above, the independent clause “meet him at the airport” is flanked by two subordinate clauses: “when the general manager returns from his foreign trip this Sunday” and “unless you get a call from me by seven that morning not to do so.” This way, without starting a new sentence, the writer is able to provide the statement in the main clause, “meet him at the airport,” both its motivation and its limitation.

See how that statement would look like and hear how it would sound using only simple sentences:

“The general manager returns from his foreign trip this Sunday. Meet him at the airport. Do so by seven that morning. I’ll call you if you don’t have to.”

The simple sentences in the statement above follow the KISS rule, but the speaker would certainly sound unpleasantly simplistic by talking that way. It’s not the natural way for people to talk. Even in ordinary discourse like this, in fact, people tend to use complex sentences without even becoming conscious that they do. 

That, as simply as I can explain it, is the advantage of using complex sentences instead of simple ones. I must also add in closing that there’s no poetic license involved when choosing complex sentences over simple ones; it’s simply in the nature of language to use complex sentences every now and then to texture ideas with minimum effort.

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Some words just happen to work either as a noun or an adjective

Question from Sky2, Forum member (December 1, 2010):

Which is which?

1. “We are family” or “We are a family”?
2. “They are family” or “They are a family”?
3. “They are couple” or “They are a couple”?

My reply to Sky2:

Both sentences in Item 1 are grammatically correct, and so with both sentences in Item 2.

In the sentence “We are family,” the word “family” is functioning as an adjective; working as a adjective complement to the subject “we,” it describes the individuals referred to by the pronoun “we” as members of the same family. On the other hand, in the sentence, “We are a family,” the word “family” is functioning as a noun, and “a family” serves as a noun complement to the subject “we.” The meaning of both sentences is practically the same, but “We are family” is more idiomatic—meaning that it’s more often used in speech by native English speakers—than “We are a family.” 

The same distinctions above apply to the sentences “They are family” and “They are a family.” The only difference is that the subject in these two sentences is the third-person plural “they,” while that of the first two sentences above is the first-person plural “we.”

In Item 3, though, only “They are a couple” is idiomatically correct usage. The construction “They are couple” isn’t used in speech in the same way as “We are family” or “They are family.” I can’t say for sure why. It’s most likely because native English speakers don’t have the same level of comfort when saying “They are couple” than when saying “We are family” or “They are family,” so “They are couple” has not become acceptable in conventional speech.

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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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