Author Topic: Grammatically and semantically troublesome threesome  (Read 7201 times)

Joe Carillo

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Grammatically and semantically troublesome threesome
« on: June 26, 2009, 10:06:14 PM »
I came across the following grammatically problematic passages in three of the major Metro Manila broadsheets during the past several days:

(1) Lead paragraph of a front-page story on the swine flu near-pandemic:

“Churchmen announced the holding of religious processions and special Masses, students trooped back to schools with bottles of alcohol in their bags and guards in some colleges carried thermometers to check temperatures, as Filipinos joined hands in a battle against the swine flu virus.”

(2) Lead paragraph of a front-page headline story on the swine flu near-pandemic:

“An association of accredited clinics has proposed administering flu shots to overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) bound for the Middle East as additional protection to the workers and to allay the fears of host nations that they might be carrying the influenza A (H1N1) virus.”

(3) Lead paragraph of a front-page story on the country’s need for more foreign direct investment:

“Optimistic of a 6-percent economic growth for the year, economist Bernardo Villegas, noted on Wednesday, however, that the Philippine must attract foreign direct investment (FDI) to at least ride on Asian economies’ resilience against the global recession.”

What’s wrong with the English grammar and usage of these three sentences and how can we rectify them and avoid them?

MY CRITIQUE AND SUGGESTED IMPROVEMENTS:

1. A razzle-dazzle* sentence goes pfft!

“Churchmen announced the holding of religious processions and special Masses, students trooped back to schools with bottles of alcohol in their bags and guards in some colleges carried thermometers to check temperatures, as Filipinos joined hands in a battle against the swine flu virus.”

This is a so-called razzle-dazzle news lead that doesn’t impress but confuses the reader instead. I had to read it three times to figure out what it wanted to tell me, and I’m sure that many of you would need to read it a few more times to finally get what it’s saying. From a readability standpoint, that’s terribly bad news indeed!

The semantic confusion spawned by that sentence stems from four grammatical problems:

(a)   The extremely delayed delivery of the unifying idea of that sentence, which is the coordinate independent clause “Filipinos joined hands in a battle against the swine flu virus.” This is the reason why up to the very end of the sentence, many readers would still be scratching their heads trying to figure out why the writer was assaulting their brains with all those mental images about churchmen, students, and guards. If the unifying idea was provided right at the beginning of the sentence, it would have been much easier to sort out all of those details and make sense of them.

(b)   The questionable use of the coordinating conjunction “as” to mean “while” or “when” in that particular sentence construction. This gives the wrong impression that all of the dramatis personae (churchmen, students, guards) enumerated in the three serial coordinate clauses that come before the last are not part of the “Filipinos [joining] hands in the battle against the swine flu vurus.” Of course, they are unquestionably all Filipinos, so there’s no need to semantically segment them.
 
(c)   The erroneous use of a comma before the coordinating conjunction “as.” As a rule, when two coordinate independent clauses are joined or compounded by “as,” they should not be set apart by a comma. (Take this sentence, for example: “The international community applauded as Filipinos joined hands in a battle against the swine flu virus.” Now see how the semantics and the internal logic of the sentence are disrupted—if not entirely ruined—when a comma is inserted before the coordinating conjunction “as”: “The international community applauded, as Filipinos joined hands in a battle against the swine flu virus.” Something like this happened in the newspaper sentence in question here.)

(d)   The unwillingness of the writer (or of the editor) to use a serial comma to set apart the serial clause “students trooped back to schools with bottles of alcohol in their bags” from this last serial clause, “and guards in some colleges carried thermometers to check temperatures.” This creates a semantic entanglement that needlessly slows down or halts the reading of the sentence. (I know that many editors are trained not to use the serial comma, but I think this is one instance where they should make an exception in the interest of clarity.)

Taking all of these observations into account, we can now come up with better, grammatically airtight ways of constructing that sentence. Here are two suggested reconstructions:

(1)
“Filipinos have joined hands in the battle against the swine flu virus, with churchmen announcing the holding of religious processions and special masses, students trooping back to schools with bottles of alcohol in their bags, and guards in some colleges carrying thermometers to check the temperatures of the students.”

(2)
“Joining hands in the battle against the swine flu virus, churchmen in the Philippines announced the holding of religious processions and special masses, students trooped back to schools with bottles of alcohol in their bags, and guards in some colleges carried thermometers to check the temperatures of the students.”

2. The A (H1N1) virus gets into the wrong host

“An association of accredited clinics has proposed administering flu shots to overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) bound for the Middle East as additional protection to the workers and to allay the fears of host nations that they might be carrying the influenza A (H1N1) virus.”

The sentence above hosts a misplaced modifier. Take a look at the last phrase: “…to allay the fears of host nations that they might be carrying the influenza A (H1N1) virus.” It gives the wrong, absurd impression that the host nations are fearful that they themselves might be carrying the influenza A (H1N1) virus. This is because the bad positioning of the pronoun “they” makes “host nations” appear to be its antecedent noun by virtue of proximity. It stands to reason, of course, that it is the host nations that fear that the workers might be carrying the virus.

There’s a very simple fix for misplaced modifiers of this kind—just replace the troublesome pronoun with its antecedent noun:

“An association of accredited clinics has proposed administering flu shots to overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) bound for the Middle East as additional protection to the workers and to allay the fears of host nations that the workers might be carrying the influenza A (H1N1) virus.”

3. Conspiracy of too many commas and a wrong adverb

“Optimistic of a 6-percent economic growth for the year, economist Bernardo Villegas, noted on Wednesday, however, that the Philippine must attract foreign direct investment (FDI) to at least ride on Asian economies’ resilience against the global recession.”

This hodgepodge of a lead sentence reads very badly because of its overuse of the comma—four in a row!—and its misuse and very awkward positioning of the adverb “however.” As a result, both its grammar and semantics as well as its logic suffer so horribly indeed! (Read it again—preferably aloud—to know exactly what I mean.)

Another thing: the use of “Asian economies’” as possessive for “resilience” is grammatically awkward. As a general rule, we should avoid making apostrophe-s or s-apostrophe possessives for inanimate things or concepts—certainly not “economies”! They sound very tacky!

A major rewrite is clearly in order to streamline that sentence and clarify what it really wants to say. I offer this rewrite:

Although economist Bernardo Villegas is optimistic of a 6-percent economic growth for the year, he said on Wednesday that the Philippines must nevertheless attract foreign direct investments (FDI) so it can at least ride on the resilience of the Asian economies against the global recession.”

See how the strategic use and positioning of the subordinating conjunction “although,” the adverb “nevertheless,” and the conjunctive phrase “so it can at least ride” has captured the unique nuance of what Dr. Bernardo Villegas is really saying.

This will be all for this week.

*Razzle-dazzle
Function:noun
Etymology:reduplication of dazzle
Date:1889

1 : a state of confusion or hilarity
2 : a complex maneuver (as in sports) designed to confuse an opponent
3 : a confusing or colorful often gaudy action or display
  –razzle-dazzle adjective

-----
What do you think of the state of English usage in the Philippine media today? Has it improved or has it worsened? Why do you think so? Click the Reply button to post your thoughts on Jose Carillo’s English Forum.
« Last Edit: June 27, 2009, 02:33:38 AM by Joe Carillo »

maxsims

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Re: Grammatically and semantically troublesome threesome
« Reply #1 on: June 27, 2009, 12:47:09 PM »
...the resilience of the Asian economies against the global recession.

It seems to me that "resilience" and "against" are so widely separated that, at first reading, we have "Asian economies against the global recession" as a self-contained descriptive phrase.   What about "..the Asian economies' resilience against the global recession"?

And "resilience against"?    I like the traditional "from".

Joe Carillo

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"Resilience against," "resilience from," or "resilience to"?
« Reply #2 on: June 27, 2009, 08:50:39 PM »
...the resilience of the Asian economies against the global recession.

It seems to me that "resilience" and "against" are so widely separated that, at first reading, we have "Asian economies against the global recession" as a self-contained descriptive phrase.   What about "..the Asian economies' resilience against the global recession"?

And "resilience against"?    I like the traditional "from".

You're right in your misgiving over the prepositional phrase "resilience against." I was actually more lenient with the original sentence with respect to that usage. Yes, using the prepositional "from" to form the prepositional phrase "resilience from" would be much better, but I think even more idiomatic is the form "resilience to," as in "resilience to the H1N1 virus" and "resilience to economic downswings." I think you'd agree it's the best of the three phrases after saying all three aloud.

Yes, the construction "...the Asian economies' resilience against [or 'from'] the global recession" looks and sounds acceptable, but I think "the resilience of the Asian economies to the global recession" is a much more elegant and idiomatic construction.