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Author Topic: A breathtaking cardinal sin in media’s English grammar  (Read 5659 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: October 01, 2010, 11:43:32 PM »

It’s been quite a long while since I came across English grammar so breathtakingly wrong in one of the four major Metro Manila broadsheets—and in a front-page headline story at that! For several weeks now, as I’ve repeatedly observed here in my media English watch, their reporters and editors have been chalking up remarkably near-flawless performances in the English of their major stories—indicating that they were near total control in pursuing zero tolerance for grammar errors. But I’m disappointed to report that in its reporting of the now-raging Philippine birth control issue, one of the leading broadsheets committed what I’d call a cardinal sin in English grammar.

Take a look at the very serious grammar faux pas that I’m referring to:

Philippine Daily Inquirer: Grammatically and logically faulty subordinate clause; subject-verb disagreement error

   

Quote
CBCP reminds Aquino about excommunication

MANILA, Philippines—The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines on Wednesday reminded President Aquino III that providing contraceptives to poor couples who opt for artificial birth control face excommunication from the church.

Speaking on the Church-run Radio Veritas, Bishop Nereo Odchimar of Tandag, Surigao del Sur, the current CBCP president, said that even Mr. Aquino may be covered by excommunication. Mr. Aquino, a practicing Catholic, has stood by his position that Filipino couples who choose to use artificial contraceptives should be allowed to do so.

Now take a close look at the subordinate clause that I’ve underlined in that lead sentence: “that providing contraceptives to poor couples who opt for artificial birth control face excommunication from the church.” What is its doer of the action? It is, of course, the gerund phrase “providing contraceptives to poor couples who opt for artificial birth control,” which functions as a noun in that subordinate clause. And what is the operative verb in that subordinate clause? The verb “face,” of course. And finally, what’s the predicate of that subordinate clause? The noun phrase “excommunication from the church,” no doubt.

Now let’s parse that subordinate clause to see how grievous its grammatical sin is. For starters in our analysis, since the nominal subject of its gerund phrase is the gerund “providing contraceptives,” we can state that subordinate clause in short as follows: “that providing contraceptives face excommunication from the church.” We therefore have here an absurd situation where the act of “providing contraceptives”—not the person committing that act—is the target or the object of excommunication by the church. Worse, since gerunds and gerund phrases are by nature always singular, the absurd construction “that providing contraceptives face excommunication from the church” also commits a subject-verb disagreement error. Grammatically, even if we accept its absurd premise, that clause should be corrected to put the verb in the singular form, as follows: “that providing contraceptives faces excommunication from the church.” (To look at it in another way, the plural noun “contraceptives” isn’t the doer of the verb “face” but the singular gerund “providing contraceptives,” so the verb “face” should take the singular form “faces.”)

By now, of course, it should be very clear that the subordinate clause “that providing contraceptives to poor couples who opt for artificial birth control face excommunication from the church” is patently illogical and grammatically erroneous, too. But how do we fix it?

First, we must clearly understand that every subordinate “that”-clause needs a proper subject or a doer of the action that can legitimately do the action of its operative verb; and we must remember, too, that except for the fact that subordinate “that”-clauses are always preceded by the subordinating conjunction “that,” each of them is itself a sentence that needs a subject, a verb, and a predicate. In the subordinate clause in question, of course, the subject is the gerund phrase “providing contraceptives to poor couples who opt for artificial birth control,” the verb is “face,” and the predicate is “excommunication from the church.”

But the problem with the gerund phrase “providing contraceptives to poor couples who opt for artificial birth control” is that it denotes a deed or act and not a doer, so it couldn’t logically serve as the subject of that subordinate clause. The basic error of that entire lead sentence, in fact, is that it forgot to supply a doer that could legitimately perform the action of “facing” possible “excommunication from the church.” I suspect that the writer of that story and the copyeditor thought or simply assumed that “President Aquino III” was the logical doer of that action, and for that reason, they committed the fatal error of no longer supplying a doer of the action in the subordinate clause.

Semantically and logically, though, the subject “President Aquino III” couldn’t be automatically taken as the doer of the action in that subordinate clause. Indeed, the true and correct subject of that subordinate clause could only be any or all of the Roman Catholic faithful who commit the sin of “providing contraceptives to poor couples who opt for artificial birth control.” That subject, of course, could be any “person,” “people,” “individual,” or “member of the Roman Catholic flock”—in fact, any entity we can think of in the generic sense. And in the English language, the most appropriate word for capturing this generic sense of that doer of the action is, quite simply, the pronoun “those.”

Take a look at how using the pronoun “those” in that subordinate clause neatly and efficiently banishes the serious grammatical, semantic, and subject-verb disagreement problems of that lead sentence:

“The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines on Wednesday reminded President Aquino III that those who provide contraceptives to poor couples who opt for artificial birth control face excommunication from the church.”

Now that’s a threat that carries not only ecclesiastical weight but also grammatical and semantic legitimacy!

SHORT TAKES IN MY MEDIA ENGLISH WATCH:

(1) Manila Bulletin: Inappropriate allusion; dangling modifiers

Quote
A Changed Life

MANILA, Philippines – His is the typical Cinderella story.

From a poor family in Batangas, selling siomai on the streets after school to sustain his studies and help his family, 16 year-old Jovit Baldivino is now a certified singing sensation. And his journey is just beginning.

After his triumph at the talent reality show “Pilipinas Got Talent,” Jovit now has a hit album under Star Records, a string of concerts here and abroad, product endorsements, and a role in the ABS-CBN primetime series “Idol.”

(a)   Inappropriate allusion: If only for the fact that the subject of the story is clearly male, I don’t think it’s advisable to use the metaphor “His is the typical Cinderella story” as the lead for his success story. Even after reading only its next two paragraphs, those who are familiar with the Cinderella fairy tale will know at once that there aren’t no valid parallels—if any at all—between Jovit Baldovino’s life and Cinderella’s. Without a wicked stepmother, three nasty stepsisters, a pumpkin turning into a grand carriage, and a prince fitting Jovit with a shoe—to mention only a few of that fairy tale’s particulars—there’s no way Jovit’s could be a “typical Cinderella story.” The metaphor simply won’t hold. So if I were the editor of that story, I’d have knocked off that lead sentence. The story would have been much better off without it.
(b)   Dangling modifiers: The second sentence of the lead passage makes for very confusing reading because of its two dangling modifiers—“from a poor family in Batangas” and “selling siomai on the streets after school to sustain his studies and help his family.” The way they are positioned in the sentence, we just couldn’t be sure which subject is being modified by which of them. The sentence needs a major rewrite to clarify what it’s trying to say.

Here’s a proposed improved and corrected version of that problematic passage:

“MANILA, Philippines –Jovit Baldivino, a 16-year-old Batangueño who used to sell siomai on the streets after school to sustain his studies and help his poor family, is now a certified singing sensation. And his journey is just beginning.

“After his triumph at the talent reality show ‘Pilipinas Got Talent,’ Jovit now has a hit album under Star Records, a string of concerts here and abroad, product endorsements, and a role in the ABS-CBN primetime series ‘Idol.’”

(2) The Philippine Star: Extremely convoluted sentence

Quote
Niece arrested for ‘bag woman’ murder
  
MANILA, Philippines - A niece of a woman whose body was stuffed in a traveling bag and dumped along a road in Caloocan City was charged yesterday for murder.

Senior Superintendent Jude Santos, Caloocan City police chief, said they have a “hard case” against Ruby Imperial, 23, niece of murder victim Neria Salapang, 29, both residents of Good Harvest Subdivision in Camarin, Caloocan City North.

“We have a very strong case against the suspect. Aside from the witnesses, circumstantial evidence and forensic examination results all pointed to her,” Santos told The STAR.

OK, you must have already finished reading the lead sentence that I underlined above. Now answer these questions: “Who was charged for the murder? Was it the niece of the woman whose body was stuffed in a traveling bag and dumped along a road in Caloocan City? And whose body was it that was stuffed in a traveling bag and dumped along a road in Caloocan City—the niece’s or the aunt’s?

The problem with that lead sentence is that it’s so difficult to figure out which of its modifiers is modifying which subjects; it has to be read back and forth at least a few times before it can be understood. This happens because of this problem: the subject of the sentence is too far removed from the operative verb. In the sentence in question, in fact, the subject “niece” is no less than 19 words away from the operative verb “charged.” In English, it’s always good form to make subject and verb as close to each other as possible to strongly establish the grammatical link between them.

Here’s a straightforward reconstruction of that convoluted sentence that does just that:

Police charged for murder yesterday a niece of a woman whose body was stuffed in a traveling bag and dumped along a road in Caloocan City.”

Another easily comprehensible construction:

Police filed murder charges yesterday against a niece of a woman whose body was stuffed in a traveling bag and dumped along a road in Caloocan City.”

These two versions are, of course, both active-voice renditions of the original passive-voice sentence. They show to us that when push comes to shove, the active voice could be handy and very effective in simplifying and clarifying convoluted passive-voice sentences.

(3) The Manila Times: Faulty punctuation; improper punctuation of the additive phrase “as well”

Quote
Six charged in Chinese couple’s kidnap slay

SANTIAGO CITY: Six persons, including scions of wealthy and political families in Isabela have been charged for the recent kidnapping, as well as the gruesome killing of a Chinese business couple and their agent. Cagayan Valley police director Chief Supt. Francisco Villaroman identified the suspects as Jaylord Dimal, 29; Eduardo Sapipi, Allan Castillo, Arvin Guirao, 42; Robert Baccay, 38; Michael Miranda and a certain Villador.

(a)   Faulty punctuation: In the first sentence of the lead paragraph above, the modifying phrase “including scions of wealthy and political families in Isabela” suffers from faulty punctuation. It needs a closing comma after the word “Isabela”—punctuations of this sort always comes in pairs—to properly set off the modifying phrase from the main clause.
(b)   Improper punctuation of the additive phrase “as well”: The additive phrase “as well” doesn’t require a comma to set it off from the noun preceding it. In this particular case, the presence of that unneeded comma just fractures the sentence. Also, that sentence would have been much clearer and more concise if the additive word “and” was used rather than “as well.”

See how much better that sentence reads with the corrections suggested above:

“Six persons, including scions of wealthy and political families in Isabela, have been charged for the recent kidnapping and gruesome killing of a Chinese business couple and their agent.”
« Last Edit: December 01, 2017, 07:32:58 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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