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Author Topic: Two instructive cases of English misuse and suspected misuse  (Read 302 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: November 26, 2017, 05:02:32 PM »

I’d like to take up two instructive cases of English misuse and suspected misuse that were brought to my attention several years back.

The first was e-mailed to me by my friend Ed Maranan, a Hall of Famer of the Palanca Awards for Literature, who made these observations:

“In the February 10, 2012 editorial of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, ‘Hollow Victory,’ the last sentence of the third paragraph reads: ‘Add speaking in forked tongues to the serious character flaws the country’s highest magistrate seems to be afflicted with.’

“In the phrase ‘speaking in forked tongues,’ the editorial writer combined or conflated two well-known expressions, ‘speaking with a forked tongue’—which, in Native American folklore, means ‘telling lies’—and ‘speaking in tongues’ or glossolalia, which is the uttering of words or phrases from foreign languages previously unknown to the speaker (this is a supposedly Christian phenomenon characteristic of religious or mystical possession).

“But even if one speaks an unlimited number of foreign languages when religiously or mystically possessed, it can only be with just one ‘forked tongue.’ In relation to Chief Justice Renato Corona, though, the editorial writer got it wrong. That sentence in question obviously called for ‘speaking with a forked tongue,’ the Native American expression for the White Man’s wily ways of using stealth and falsehood to conquer the natives.”

My open reply to Ed:



You’re correct in your analysis of the mistaken use of “speaking in forked tongues” by that Inquirer editorial. The preposition “in” and the plural “tongues” are both incorrect, so that phrase couldn’t be just a copyediting or proofreading error. Quite simply, it’s a “slip of the tongue,” or, more aptly (since it’s written and not spoken), a “slip of the mind.” The phrase “speaking in forked tongues” is, in fact, an egregious example of a “mixed metaphor,” a figure of speech that combines an inconsistent or incongruous figurative analogy. You will recall that mixed metaphors are such a big no-no in formal English writing that a student who deliberately or unwittingly uses one in an essay or term paper risks getting a reprimand or even a failing grade for it.

Now let’s go to the suspected language misuse, which was posted by Forum member Clementejak:

“My wife, who teaches English in third and fourth year high school, was fuming mad when she arrived home last night. Her problem was that she had made this posting in her classroom’s bulletin board: ‘Best in English:  Altamirano; 98, Cruz; 98, Tan, 97.’ A co-teacher corrected her, pointing out that the word ‘best’ can apply to only one person, not to two or three as was the case in her list.

“I explained to her that indeed, she can put the three names under ‘Best in English’ only if they have identical grades in that subject. Otherwise, she can list under ‘Best in English’ only the name with the highest grade.

“Am I correct?”

My reply to Clementejak:

There’s really nothing wrong with what your wife did. When she listed those three students as “Best in English,” she meant that she considered all three to belong to that distinguished category. In her reckoning, despite the small differences in their grades, those students are in a class by themselves or sui generis, that Latinate phrase often bandied about in the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Corona.

Your wife actually came up with a grammatically and semantically legitimate classification like, say, “Best Brands,” “Best Books of the Year,” and “Worst Movies of the Decade.” Such listings look at the whole of a particular category rather than make distinctions between the items under it. This is admittedly a subjective way of looking at things that have a common attribute, but doing so can’t really be logically or linguistically disputed.

This essay, 779th of the series, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the February 18, 2012 issue of The Manila Times, © 2012 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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