Author Topic: Back to basics in English sentence construction  (Read 6030 times)

Joe Carillo

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Back to basics in English sentence construction
« on: September 12, 2015, 01:17:10 PM »
An avid learner of English who follows me on Facebook, Mary Anne S. Fernandez, recently asked me two very interesting questions about sentence construction:

The first question:  “Is the sentence ‘Sophie is 11 years old female’ correct? Shouldn’t it be ‘Sophie is an 11 year old female’?”

The second question: “Is the sentence ‘We give you the latest, hottest, and updated news’ correct?”

My reply to Mary Anne:

Both of the sentences you presented in your first question are grammatically incorrect, victims both of improper punctuation.

The first, “Sophie is 11 years old female,” fails because of bad syntax. It definitely reads and sounds like pidgin English, but a simple tweak can make it grammar-perfect and structurally sound. Just insert a comma between “old” and “female”: “Sophie is 11 years old, female.” See?

Let me add here that “Sophie is 11 years old, female” is actually an ellipted (abbreviated) form of the longer sentence “Sophie is 11 years old and female” where the function word “and” has been dropped for brevity.

On the other hand, “Sophie is an 11 year old female” almost qualifies as a proper construction but ultimately fails because its complement, the noun “female,” is being modified by the structurally rickety adjective phrase “11 year old.” See how compounding that phrase by hyphenation makes it do its modifying job with finesse: “Sophie is an 11-year-old female.”

The lesson here is that no matter how inconsequential punctuation marks like the comma and hyphen may sometimes look, they can spell the difference between success and failure in English sentence construction.

Now to your second question: The sentence “We give you the latest, hottest, and updated news” isn’t flat-out grammatically incorrect but it suffers from unparallel construction. You see, in serial modifications with two or more modifying aspects like those in the sentence you presented, the aspects must be of the same comparative degree to be parallel. In this particular case, that degree is the common superlative aspect of “latest” and “hottest,” in the company of which “updated” is an odd-man-out. Of course, we can make “updated” belong by also rendering it in the superlative, “most updated.”

With that parallel fix, listen to how much better the sentence sounds: “We give you the latest, hottest, and most updated news.” Without the fix, that sentence is better off collapsed to “We give you the latest, hottest updated news.”

Aside from the two sentence construction questions above, Mary Anne had earlier asked me this grammar question: “What is the correct tense of the verb ‘watch’ in the independent clause of this sentence: ‘When Maria called me last night, I ________ television.”

My instant reply to Mary Anne was that the correct tense for “watch” in that independent clause typically would be the past continuous, which is also known as the past progressive tense: “When Maria called me last night, I was watching television.” The past continuous indicates simultaneity of the action in the main clause and of that in the dependent clause. In this particular case, the speaker (the first-person “I”) was called by Maria while the former was watching television.

I must qualify that answer though by adding that some tense other than the past continuous might be called for if there are qualifying circumstances in the dependent clause. For instance, if the caller specified that her call was about “breaking news regarding a big fire near your place,” the verb “watch” could very well take the simple past tense in that independent clause: “When Maria called me last night about breaking news regarding a big fire near our place, I watched television.”

What this means is that in complex sentences, the tense of the independent clause is determined not just by the tense but by the sense and logic of the dependent clause.

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, September 12, 2015 issue © 2015 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.