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Author Topic: When faulty logic overrides good grammar and semantics  (Read 110 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: August 20, 2017, 11:01:53 PM »

Some seemingly matter-of-fact and grammatically airtight statements often get accepted in everyday discourse despite their faulty logic. Known as glittering or glowing generalities, they strongly appeal to our emotions because of their close association with such highly valued concepts and beliefs as the primacy of family, home, and country, the sanctity of religious dogma, and the nobility of teaching as a profession. As such, we take them to be true at face value without examining the rationality of their premises.

     The term BNF grammar in the chart above stands for the Backus-Naur Form.*

These thoughts came rushing to mind when I was asked this innocuous grammar question recently by a Forum member who goes by the username Baklis: “Sir, I just want to know the difference between ‘being’ and ‘having been’ in these two sentences: ‘Being a teacher, she likes children.’ ‘Having been a teacher, she likes children.’”

Momentarily stumped by the perfect grammar and semantics yet disarmingly deceptive logic of both sentences, I got back my bearings and came up with this reply to Baklis:

The difference between the sentences “Being a teacher, she likes children” and “Having been a teacher, she likes children” is clear-cut, but the sense of both has a logical peculiarity that defies a simple, straightforward explanation.

In the sentence “Being a teacher, she likes children,” the use of the present tense “being” in the participial modifying phrase “being a teacher” indicates that the subject “she” is at present a teacher. However, the main clause “she likes children” makes the implication—but it’s not a certainty—that teachers typically like children, and that the teacher in this particular instance is such a teacher who likes children. This implication, of course, makes the logic of the statement debatable even if its grammar is airtight.

On the other hand, the use of the perfect gerund “having been” in the sentence “Having been a teacher, she likes children” indicates that the subject “she” used to be teacher but ceased to be a teacher sometime in the indefinite past. Like the first sentence, however, the main clause of this second sentence makes the implication—and it’s likewise not a certainty—that teachers typically like children, and that the teacher in this particular instance liked children when she was still teaching and that she still likes children even now.

That second sentence has the further implication that the experience of being a teacher or of having been a teacher imbues a liking for children, but the logical justification for that second implication is not made clear. Thus, even if the grammar and semantics of the second sentence are airtight like those of the first sentence, those two unsupported implications make the logic of the second statement even more debatable than that of the first.

Indeed, I told Baklis, those two simple sentences that he presented are semantic conundrums, or statements that raise a question or problem that only has a conjectural answer. Within such statements lurks a fallacy or illogical conclusion so grammatically flawless and beguilingly attractive that the mind encounters great difficulty rejecting it.

Two days later, Baklis came back to me with this more down-to-earth grammar question about those two problematic sentences: “Sir, if we consider only the two participial phrases in those sentences, what would be their use or implication?”

In that case, I told Baklis, here’s what each of those two phrases will denote:

1. “Being a teacher,” a present progressive participial phrase, would mean the current continuing state of teacherhood, meaning that one is a teacher by profession and is practicing it at present; and

2. “Having been a teacher,” a past-perfect progressive participial phrase, would mean that one used to be teacher but ceased to be a teacher sometime in the indefinite past, and has not been a teacher again up to the moment of speaking.

Due to their inappropriate tense, however, both of the two phrases--“being a teacher” and “having been a teacher”--don’t constitute a logical premise in the sentences they were used, thus resulting in semantically faulty statements. The grammatically and logically unassailable sentence constructions for them are as follows: “She is a teacher and she likes children” for the first (a compound sentence of two coordinate clauses, both in the present tense) and “She had been a teacher and she likes children” for the second (a compound sentence of two coordinate clauses, the first clause in the past perfect tense and the second in the present tense). Take time to ponder the grammatical and logical correctness of these new constructions.

This essay first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the May 15, 2015 issue of The Manila Times, © 2015 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
*BNF grammar, which need not concern us here, stands for the Backus-Naur Form, which is used to formally define the grammar of a language. For those who would like to know more about it, however, check out “The language of languages” in
« Last Edit: August 20, 2017, 11:03:27 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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