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GETTING TO KNOW ENGLISH
Blessed are they who can speak in simple, clear, effortless English
Last week, I argued that there’s really no such thing as a complex-complex sentence and explained why there are only four types. But a very articulate follower of my new English-usage features page on Facebook, Maximo Tumbali, thought otherwise. He suggested there’s even a need to add a sixth type—the complex-complex-complex-complex—like this one: “He got mad when I told him that he should study in order to be able to move on to the next level until he graduates from the secondary.”
Let me share our animated online exchange:
Max Tumbali: Don’t you think the continuing complexity of a sentence complicates one’s effort to seize what it all means, but to the composer it’s a mark of ingenuity?
Joe (that’s me): Oh, yes, complexity is the stuff that not a few stupefying grammarians in academe love to revel in. It feeds their vainglory to declare that some sentences can get very complicated in construction. It’s really a good, absorbing, brain-stretching diversion to parse and diagram them. From the looks of it, though, that example of yours is simply a complex sentence. It has “he got mad” as the independent clause, with “when I told him” as the first dependent clause and “that he should study” as the second dependent clause, which is then modified by the adverbial clause “to be able to move on to the next level until he graduates from the secondary.” I hope I didn’t confound you with that analysis.
Max: Absolutely not! On the contrary, you enlightened me so much about that sentence type’s anatomy. You’re truly a guru. But how would you classify Marcel Proust’s typical kilometric sentence?
Joe: I would classify Proust’s long prose as one overextended sentence that wonderfully works without any hitch, as in a flowing, uninterrupted dream. Of course, it defies traditional sentence diagramming, and I won’t recommend to lesser creative mortals like you and me to pursue such writing. To be truly communicative, it pays to write plain and simple prose.
Max: You’re undoubtedly right, although sometimes some writers admit that they can better express their thoughts through more complex sentences. And do you agree with what one English teacher said sometime ago that the easiest way to learn English is through or by ear? And that an English sentence is construed to be correct if it sounds good to the ear?
Joe: Yes, absolutely, it’s easiest to learn English by ear. Just beware that doggerel can sound good to the ear even if it has atrocious grammar and syntax.
Max: But if communication is the apparent purpose, shouldn’t there be less emphasis on the study of English grammar and more on the oral use of English where most often grammatical rules are violated or just taken for granted?
Joe: All the more should good English grammar be emphasized, whether in written or oral communication. It’s the mark of an educated, precise, discerning, knowledgeable thinker. Whether we admit or not, we get assaulted by bad English and get leery at someone who, no matter how high in social standing or authority, bungles grammar and usage much too often and may not even be aware of it.
Max: That should always be the case. So aren’t you alarmed that most college students, graduates, professionals—worst, even statesmen—can’t speak correct English these days? How would you account for this decadence in the quality of their spoken English?
Joe: Those who habitually express themselves in complex-compound and compound-complex sentences aren’t really clear and precise thinkers. They haven’t learned how to organize their thoughts and make them easily understandable to their listeners. When I listen to them, I can’t help but silently exclaim that blessed are they who are able to speak in simple, clear, plain, effortless English!
This continues my animated online discussion on complicated sentences last week with Max Tumbali, a very articulate follower of my new English-usage features page on Facebook. The discussion left off with with me saying that those who habitually express themselves in convoluted sentence constructions haven’t really learned how to organize their thoughts and make them easily understandable to their listeners.
Max: I agree with you but with regard to a philosopher trying to deliberate on a philosophical issue, he thinks that by employing complex sentences, he can better drive home the point taking into account not only its denotative meaning but also its connotations and nuances. His effort is much similar to preparing a special menu that requires more varied ingredients to achieve a desired taste.
Joe: Maybe so, Max, but I think a philosopher who can explain his complicated ideas in plain and simple language can convince people much more easily than philosophers who use very dense and convoluted prose.
Max: I think so too. But then simplifying the medium of expression in the desire to make an idea or thought intelligible and understandable, one may court the danger of reducing the scope that that idea is intended to cover, thus sacrificing the integrity and the wholeness of the thought. The explanation may be complicated, but if it serves to evoke all that the idea stands for, then why should it be jettisoned in favor of a much simpler one?
Joe: Let me be lecturesque a little bit, Max. Communication is actually a matter of conveying one’s thoughts and ideas in the appropriate language register, which is simply the variety of language that a speaker uses in a particular social context or situation. Philosophers will have their own language register, and so with poets, clerics, managers, salesmen, office clerks, and janitors, but the good communicator calibrates his language register to fit a particular audience or listener. In truth, you can only communicate effectively with someone by using the words, thoughts, ideas, and images that are already in that person’s head.
Max: Well, I think I deserved that lecture considering my mind’s limited reach. But what I want to point out is that in our attempt to convey our message to others in the clearest and simplest way possible, we somehow in the process chip away some elements that, though maybe not essential, can aid in capturing the whole essence of what we want to convey… We dare reduce to the barest minimum our mode of expression in the hope that others won’t miss the meaning of our message. But then as you have said, one has to calibrate his mode of communicating to suit his listener’s capacity to understand. In short, it obliges all parties involved to be generous, sincere, capable, tolerant, and unprejudicial in pursuing the task of attaining clarity of meaning.
Joe: That’s true, Max. When we write or say our ideas, we are actually trying to share our perception of reality with other people. But no matter how long or detailed we are in sharing that perception, it will never be the totality of all that we know because that totality can only be perceived by ourselves alone. It’s the stuff of what we are as a unique living mind.
Max: Well, I guess that encapsulates our understanding of the nature of human communication. But just a thought: Wouldn’t we in the future perhaps stumble on an invention that will render obsolete our usual way of communicating—perhaps a piece of invention that will bring us closest to a genuine understanding of ourselves, our thoughts, and our reality? And I’d like to add that our unintended misperception of reality is a dangerous thing.
Joe: That’s right, Max. It’s just that some people actually couldn’t resist pursuing dangerous things.
This essay appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its December 10 and 17, 2016 issues, © 2016 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.