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Jose Carillo’s English Forum invites members to post their grammar and usage questions directly on the Forum's discussion boards. I will make an effort to reply to every question and post the reply here in this discussion board or elsewhere in the Forum depending on the subject matter.

Why there’s really no such thing as a complex-complex sentence

I’ve followed with great interest a fascinating discussion in Jose Carillo’s English Forum between two English-usage enthusiasts, an American teacher based in Florida who goes by the username Kal and a Filipino English teacher based in Manila, Michael Galario. The subject: “the complex-complex sentence.”

Let me say at the outset that I’ve always subscribed to the idea that structurally, there are just four types of sentences: the simple sentence, the compound sentence, the complex sentence, and the complex-compound sentence (or vice versa).

We all know the drill. A simple sentence has only one independent clause and no dependent clause, as in “She likes avocado.” A compound sentence has at least two independent clauses linked by a coordinating conjunction and with no dependent clause, as in “She likes avocado but I prefer oranges.” A complex sentence has at least one independent clause linked to one or more dependent clauses by a subordinating conjunction, as in “She likes avocado when it’s in season.” And a complex-compound sentence has two or more independent clauses plus one or more dependent clauses, as in “She likes avocado when it’s in season but she shifts to strawberries afterwards.”

But Kal recalls that two years before, he stumbled on a book by John Bremner, Words on Words: A Dictionary for Writers and Others Who Care About Words, that had the complex-complex sentence as a fifth classification. Defining it as consisting of an independent clause and a dependent clause that’s subordinate to another dependent clause, Bremner presented this example: “He got mad when I told him that he should study.” 

By inspection though, I find that Bremner’s sentence has one independent clause, “he got mad,” that’s linked to a dependent clause, “when I told him,” that in turn is linked to another clause dependent on it, “that he should study.” This structure may seem complex-complex, but that distinction is actually superfluous because it’s already well-covered by the complex-compound definition. 

Initially, Kal couldn’t locate Bremer’s book and its example of a complex-complex sentence, so he decided to construct one himself: “Now, popular kids were pursuing those that once pursued them that they had rejected in the past.”

Michael analyzed that convoluted sentence and concluded that it isn’t complex-complex but just a complex sentence. He correctly argued that this is so because it has an independent clause, “now, popular kids were pursuing those,” and two dependent clauses, (1) “that once pursued them” and (2) “that they had rejected in the past.” Indeed, Michael said it was the first time he heard of a complex-complex sentence and was doubtful that there’s such a sentence structure.

As I said earlier, I doubted that fifth classification myself so I combed the Worldwide Web for proof. Lo and behold! Of the 712,000 entries yielded by Google, only one acknowledged that “complex-complex” sentences exist. A contributed post in Using English.com defined it as “a sentence in which at least one subordinate clause itself has a subordinate clause.” It gives this example: “The man who saw the horse that was grazing in the field was sitting on the fence that enclosed the farm.”

That rather knotty sentence does seem to combine two complex sentences, “the man who saw the horse that was grazing in the field” and “(he) was sitting on the fence that enclosed the farm.” On closer inspection, however, we’ll find that “the man who saw the horse that was grazing in the field” is a noun clause that functions as the subject of the sentence, with “was sitting on the fence that enclosed the farm” as its predicate. 

The phrases “that was grazing in the field” and “that enclosed the farm” are, in fact, not subordinate clauses but simply adjectival modifiers. So, that structure isn’t really a complex-complex sentence but just a simple sentence. 

This essay appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its December 3, 2016 issue, © 2016 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

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The difference between elliptical sentences and elliptical clauses

A few days ago, reader Kristian Paul Abran asked me on my Facebook page: “Is there any difference between an elliptical sentence and an elliptical clause, or are they just the same?”

I replied to Kristian that although related, an elliptical sentence and an elliptical clause are not the same. They are distinct grammatical constructions from one another.

An elliptical sentence is a form of a sentence that knocks off some of its words or phrases for brevity’s sake, taking for granted that the reader or listener—aware of the context—would just logically fill in the gaps with the missing grammatical elements. For instance, before being ellipted, the sentence may run this way: “You may go when you’re done with your school assignments.” That sentence can drop the words “you may” and “with your school assignments” to come up with this ellipted statement: “Go when you’re done.”

On the other hand, an elliptical clause is either an independent or subordinate clause in which some words have been left out or ellipted, with the writer or speaker assuming that those missing words would just be supplied by the reader or listener based on the pattern or logic of the statement. For instance, in a conversation, the runaround-sounding sentence “Many did favor the maverick candidate, but others didn’t favor the maverick candidate” would normally be ellipted to “Many did favor the maverick candidate, but others didn’t […].” For brevity’s sake, the repetitive phrase “favor the maverick candidate” is routinely knocked off in the second clause.

Effective writers use ellipsis to be economical with words, methodically dropping off redundancies and pruning out needlessly repetitive phrasing that might just turn off readers. In fact, when there’s no danger of breaking the flow of the exposition and of being misunderstood, ellipses also deliberately drop certain predictable words and phrases from sentences and just depend on the reader to mentally fill them in based on context. It’s a very neat streamlining device if handled well.

Here are some of the common elliptical forms that you can learn using in your written and spoken English:

(1) Routine omission of the conjunction “that” in modifying clauses. Unellipted: “They somehow knew that they would be routed by the maverick candidate.” Ellipted: “They somehow knew […] they would be routed by the maverick candidate.”

(2) Elliptical noun phrases. Unellipted: “Amelia ordered the regular-size orange drink but the salesclerk gave her the large-size orange drink.” Ellipted by dropping “orange drink” in the second clause: “Amelia ordered the regular-size orange drink but the salesclerk gave her the large-size […].”

(3) Ellipsis of the verb and its objects or complements. Unellipted: “The ailing candidate declared that she would campaign to very end if she could campaign to to the very end.” Ellipted by dropping “campaign to the very end” in the second clause: “The ailing candidate declared […] she would campaign to very end if she could […].”

(4) Medial (middle) ellipsis. Unellipted: “Edwin will take care of the urban sector voters and Carina will take care of the rural sector voters.” Ellipted by dropping “will take care of” in the second clause: “Edwin will take care of urban sector voters and Carina, […] the rural sector voters.”

(5) Ellipsis of clause. Unellipted: “They can start voting now if they want to start voting now.” Ellipted by dropping “start voting now” in the second clause.: “They can start voting now if they want to […].”

There are so many more elliptical forms to be learned in the English language. They can make writing and speech more cohesive, compact, and forceful. Actually an advanced form of exposition, they can be mastered by getting to know the various patterns of the ellipsis—the grammatical hole in an elliptical sentence—and then applying them logically, unobstrusively, and gracefully.

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its May 7, 2016 issue, © 2016 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

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The correct form and usage of the future perfect progressive tense

The following question about the proper usage of the future perfect progressive tense was raised in Jose Carillo’s English Forum sometime ago by member MelvinHate:

“What is the tense used in this sentence: ‘Just think, this time next month I have been working here for ten years.’ Is it the present perfect progressive or the future perfect progressive? When are we supposed to use the future perfect progressive?”

My reply to MelvinHate:

The sentence you presented, “Just think, this time next month I have been working here for ten years,” is defective in construction. I can tell you outright that it is neither in the present perfect progressive nor in the future perfect progressive tense.

At first blush that sentence looks and reads like a future perfect tense sentence, considering that two future time-frames are involved (“this time next month” and “for ten years”) and the construction does seem like that of a future perfect sentence. When read as a whole, however, we find a disturbing discrepancy in that sentence between its grammar and semantics. Indeed, the way it is constructed, that sentence really doesn’t make the grade.

To find out precisely what’s wrong with that sentence, we might as well do a quick review of the perfect progressive tenses in English.

Recall that perfect progressive sentences focus on the completion of an action in progress in the past, at present, or in the future. They are meant to give us a better idea of how long an action, activity, or process takes place by providing time referents for ascertaining its progress.

As with the three simple tenses, of course, there are as many perfect progressive tenses: the present perfect progressive, the past perfect progressive, and the future perfect progressive.

The present perfect progressive describes a continuous action that has been finished at some point in the recent past, or one that started in the past, continues up to the present, and may continue into the future. This tense has the following form: Subject + “has/have”  + “been” + the verb’s present participle (the base form of the verb + the suffix “-ing”). Two examples: “I have been working here for ten years now.” “She has been doing her work diligently until this week.”

The past perfect progressive tense describes an ongoing action that was completed before some other past action. This tense has the following form: “had” + “been” + the verb’s present participle + time relation to a referent action. Example: “The choir had been doing their rehearsals regularly but disbanded when many members moved out of town for good.”

The future perfect progressive tense describes a future ongoing action that is anticipated to occur before some specified future time. This tense has the following form: “will have” + “been” + the verb’s present participle + time relation to another future action. Example: “By this time this August, we will have been working in this company for 12 years.”

Now let’s go back to the problematic sentence you presented: “Just think, this time next month I have been working here for ten years.” On closer inspection, we can see that this sentence has practically the same structure and the same requisite elements as the example of the future perfect progressive sentence given above, except for one small but very crucial grammar element—it missed out on the auxiliary verb “will” for forming the future perfect progressive “will have been working.” This is why it wrongly took the present perfect progressive form “have been working,” which as we have seen is fatal to the sense and logic of that sentence.

So, simply inserting “will” in that problematic sentence will make it a perfectly legitimate future perfect progressive: “Just think, this time next month I will have been working here for ten years.”

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its March 6, 2016, © 2016 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

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