Author Topic: The English of some Aquino cabinet members verges on gobbledygook  (Read 5627 times)

Joe Carillo

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In contrast to President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III use of down-to-earth Tagalog for his inaugural speech last June 30, it looks like several members of his newly minted cabinet are fond of speaking highly figurative English bordering on gobbledygook. This much we can gather from their statements to the media during their first day in office with the President the day after, as reported by the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a news story last July 2 (“Aquino checks coffers; Cabinet hit ground running”).

(1) Deep idiom: “to get to know the lay of the land”

Let’s begin with the statement given by the President’s spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, to Agence France Presse: “The President gave his marching orders to each Cabinet member. They have two weeks to get to know the lay of the land.”

I’m sure that not a few newspaper readers will readily understand what’s meant by “his marching orders”—it is forceful figurative language for “authoritative orders or instructions especially to set out on or as if on a march”—but “to get to know the lay of the land”? The deep idiom “lay of the land” must have sent thousands of readers scurrying to check its meaning with their dictionaries or book of English idioms. Its literal meaning is, of course, the contours of a large land area—a meaning familiar to geodetic surveyors. But to expect the general public to know that it’s actually figurative language for “the general state or condition of affairs under consideration” is perhaps too unrealistic in this case. I would think that even if speaking with media people, the President’s spokesman should always go for plain and simple English—the better for the President’s ideas to be understood even by the not-so-English-savvy among newspaper readers or even reporters (If you speak on TV with such deep idioms, in fact, you’re bound to raise at least a few million eyebrows and needlessly distract as many people from understanding your message).

On the part of print media people, I think they should make it a point to just paraphrase spokespersons who are in the habit of using very deep figurative expressions like “to get to know the lay of the land” in their briefings. Even if they are impressed with the speaker’s great facility with idiomatic English, they shouldn’t assume that the average newspaper would understand what’s being said and would similarly be impressed.

(2) Deep idioms: “a full-court press”; “No witch-hunt…we will not discriminate on height, weight, race, color or gender”

Not being a basketball aficionado myself, I was perplexed and taken aback when new Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima was quoted as giving this description of what he will be doing in President  Aquino’s anticorruption campaign: ““This will be a full-court press… [But] there will be no witch-hunt. “We will not discriminate on height, weight, race, color or gender.”

What did he mean by “a full-court press”? How did the “press” and the “court” get into the anticorruption picture? I must admit that I didn’t know, so I checked my Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary and found that “a full-court press” means, literally, “a press employed in basketball on both halves of the court,” and figuratively, “an all-out effort or offensive.” (While we are at it, I must give credit to the reporter in this particular instance for being astute enough to note that Secretary Purisima was “using a basketball analogy” when he used “full-court press” in his statement. For the benefit of the readers, this is really something that reporters should be doing routinely when people make quotable but highly figurative statements.)

We can reasonably assume, of course, that a lot of people will understand Secretary Purisima’s figurative use of the word “witch hunt” to mean “the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (as political opponents) with unpopular views” instead of the literal “searching out for persecution of persons accused of witchcraft.” After all, “witch hunt” figures so often in political language both locally and abroad that I think not many people would make the mistake that Secretary Purisima would instead be hunting for aswangs—Tagalog for witches. But I do think that Secretary Purisima went overboard with his figurative English when he elaborated on that reference by saying that “We will not discriminate on height, weight, race, color or gender.” What do these quantifiers and measures have to do with corruption? I have this feeling that he meant that statement in jest, but that the joke was lost on the reporter, who then took it literally—hook, line, and sinker.

(3) Deep idiom: “wake up the sleeping dogs…hopefully they don’t bite”

Even Trade and Industry Secretary Gregory Domingo seemed to have been carried away by the figurative language euphoria during that initial cabinet meeting—giving me the uncomfortable feeling that some of the new cabinet members were trying to outdo one another in showing their grasp of deep English idioms.

Listen to Secretary Domingo elaborating on his mission of delivering in the areas of jobs creation, a better business environment, fair trade and consumer protection: “I will try to wake up the sleeping dogs. Hopefully they don’t bite. We have a big task ahead of us.”

What in heaven’s name did he mean by “wake up the sleeping dogs”? He obviously didn’t mean it literally, but I personally found it so difficult to correlate his figurative language with any existing idiomatic English expression. I seem to have a dim recollection that in finance circles, “sleeping dogs” are companies that are currently moribund but that have been determined to have good long-term prospects, and I suspect that Secretary Domingo was actually alluding to such companies. At any rate, I have this feeling that he had mistakenly used the “sleeping dogs” in the idiomatic expression “Let sleeping dogs lie,” which figuratively means “not to disrupt a situation that is going well as it will lead to problems” or “allow inactive problems to remain so.”

The expression “Let sleeping dogs lie” is actually an English proverb that dates back to the 13th century, an allusion to the disastrous consequences of waking up and being mangled by a fierce watchdog. This being the case, I think Secretary Domingo had actually mixed metaphors and didn’t really make himself clearly understood. This, I submit, is another situation where the reporter, had he or she known better, should have gently intervened by simply paraphrasing the speaker or explaining his figurative language to the lay reader.

(4) Plain talk as opposed to metaphorical language

In contrast to the deep figurative language of the three cabinet members quoted above, the quotes from the new Education Secretary, Br. Armin Luistro, were admirably literal and plainspoken. He did play along with the “marching orders” metaphor in his statement about his mission of addressing the chronic shortages plaguing the Philippine education system, saying, “My marching orders were: In the next two years, fill up the backlog in classrooms, teachers and textbooks,” gamely used the widely used idiom “pork barrel funds” in keeping with the tenor of the meeting, and even playfully used the word “creative ways” to describe how the Department of Finance would fund his projects. Being the educator that he is, however, he prudently didn’t break new or unfamiliar ground in the figurative language area, keeping his English plain and simple for his audience.

***

In closing, I would like to say that during initial meetings with their peer group, it’s perfectly understandable for government officials to make an effort to make a good first impression through the use of idiomatic English, particularly in the presence of their common superior and the media people covering the proceedings. But I do think that they should be careful not to be carried away in using overly colorful or obscure figurative language. What should be higher on their personal agenda, I think, is the need to be understood by the media people covering them and by the general public itself. This being the case, I think they really have no choice but get used to using plain and simple English every time to communicate their ideas in public forums.

SHORT TAKES IN MY MEDIA ENGLISH WATCH:   

(1) Philippine Daily Inquirer: “Faux pax” twice over?

Quote
Palace spokesman apologizes over press briefing ‘faux pas’

MANILA, Philippines – Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda apologized on Thursday for what he described as a “faux pax” when he prioritized a television interview over a scheduled press conference in the morning.

Lacierda then went down to the press office to apologize.

“I just came down to apologize...It was a faux pax,” he said.

I noticed that in the headline of the news story above, the deskmen of the paper were careful to correctly spell the French word “faux pas”—which means “a social blunder”—with an “s” at the tail end, but seemingly made such a suspiciously big point by wrongly spelling it twice with an “x”—“faux pax”—in reporting how Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said it when he apologized to the media people after the incident.

Is it their naughty way of saying that Mr. Lacierda pronounced “faux pas” as “foh paks” instead of “foh pah” with a silent “s”? Or is the twice wrongly spelled “faux pax” in the story simply a repeated faux pas of their desk people or proofreaders? It would be nice to know.

(2) The Manila Times: Wrong form of modifying participial phrase; dangling and garbled sentence

QC officials take oath

Vowed to pour more infra projects, housing for the poor, class rooms and road network, Mayor Herbert Bautista of Quezon City formally took his oath Thursday as the Eleventh chief executive of the city, together with other elected city officials. Bautista was accompanied by his father former Councilor Butch Bautista, sister Harlene, and brother Hero and family during the oath-taking ceremonies at the Liwasang Aurora inside the country’s emerging world-class Garden Park Quezon Memorial Circle.

Officiated by Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, Bautista and Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte, daughter of former city mayor turned congressman Sonny “SB” Belmonte, along with the elected city councilors and representatives.

The first sentence of the lead passage above suffers from a particularly serious case of a modifying participial phrase in the wrong form. So it can properly modify the referent noun, “Mayor Herbert Bautista,” the verb phrase “vowed to pour” in the participial phrase “vowed to pour more infra projects, housing for the poor, class rooms and road network” should be in the progressive form “vowing to pour” instead.

Then the sentence in the second paragraph isn’t really a proper sentence because its subject is missing. That subject, of course, is “the oath taking,” based on the preceding paragraph. Even worse, the sentence is garbled and should have been spun off into two sentences for clarity.

So here’s that passage as corrected:

Vowing to pour more infra projects, housing for the poor, class rooms and road network, Mayor Herbert Bautista of Quezon City formally took his oath Thursday as the Eleventh chief executive of the city, together with other elected city officials. Bautista was accompanied by his father former Councilor Butch Bautista, sister Harlene, and brother Hero and family during the oath-taking ceremonies at the Liwasang Aurora inside the country’s emerging world-class Garden Park Quezon Memorial Circle.

The oath taking was officiated by Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona. Bautista and Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte, daughter of former city mayor turned congressman Sonny “SB” Belmonte, took their oath along with the elected city councilors and representatives.”

(3) Manila Bulletin: Wrong verb usage twice over; wrong word construction

Quote
Guidebook on coral reef protection launched

Local government units (LGUs) and fishersfolk in the Philippines, which encompasses the Coral Triangle Region, known as the world’s center of marine biodiversity, will find a useful guide to monitor marine protection in a more comprehensive but easy-to-use guidebook released Tuesday.

The six countries encompassing the Region are Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste.

In the first sentence of the lead passage above, the verb “encompasses” is not the correct word for the intended sense, and the nonrestrictive modifying clause “which encompasses the Coral Triangle Region, known as the world’s center of marine biodiversity” is badly phrased and badly punctuated. Much better: “which lies in the Coral Triangle Region that is known as the world’s center of marine biodiversity.” Also, the noun “fishersfolk” is erroneously compounded; it should be spelled “fisherfolk” without the “s.”

In the second sentence, “encompassing” is an improper word choice for the intended sense; it should be “comprised” instead, and the phrase should be reworded to “that comprise the Region are.”

Here’s that lead passage as corrected:

“Local government units (LGUs) and fisherfolk in the Philippines, which lies in the Coral Triangle Region that is known as the world’s center of marine biodiversity, will find a useful guide to monitor marine protection in a more comprehensive but easy-to-use guidebook released Tuesday.

The six countries that comprise the Region are Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste.”

(4) Manila Bulletin: That very common subject-verb disagreement pitfall again!

Quote
Increased tariff on imported bio-ethanol sought

CEBU CITY – Business leaders in the Visayas region has issued a resolution urging the Department of Energy (DoE) to require local oil companies to sign the Supply and Purchase Agreement as mandated by law.

“All liquid fuels for motors and engines must contain biofuels produced locally, with the Local Bio-ethanol Investors and Producers qualified under the implementing rules and regulations of the Biofuels Law of 2006,” read the proposed resolution made by Visayas chamber organizations during the recently concluded 19th Visayas Area Business Conference (VABC) held in Cebu City.”

In the first sentence of the lead passage above, there’s a subject-verb disagreement between the nominative plural noun form “business leaders” and the singular verb form “has issued.” It should be the plural form “have issued” instead. The writer was misled into thinking that it’s singular because of the intervening singular noun form “Visayas region.”

The lead sentence as corrected:

Business leaders in the Visayas region have issued a resolution urging the Department of Energy (DoE) to require local oil companies to sign the Supply and Purchase Agreement as mandated by law.”
« Last Edit: July 03, 2010, 09:44:02 AM by Joe Carillo »

hill roberts

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Re: The English of some Aquino cabinet members verges on gobbledygook
« Reply #1 on: July 04, 2010, 04:36:40 PM »
Grin all the way over here in Spain after reading the pretentious metaphors applied to some of their speeches. "Witchcraft , of course, is used by a good number of British reporters and journalists so that in recent months, they got tired of using it at all. I also didn't hear them use it during the Parliamentary elections here, so that was a relief. For those newly-appointed Cabinet officials to misuse a beautiful language like the English language isn't new since these are the very people who are prepared to mislead and consider the public too lazy to check out what they actually mean: meaning, what they say means nothing! And they are smiling thinking that they got one over you, the reader. Wrong! Those who are fond of metaphor like myself would certainly find their brand laughable since adapting the way the British speak doesn't bode well with their own local brand, knowing the readers to be more Americanised--and their own brand and sense of humour are totally not in cahoots with the Brits in the first place-- ;D :D. I know of some of my American friends who take metaphor literally! These Cabinet appointees should now re-think what they really want to say instead of beating around the bush for the heck of it, just to impress, not the reader, but their own ilk. In which case, these are two groups who think using such obscure phrases would make them better speakers.  ??? A funny lot indeed considering that they hold very important jobs to rectify and straighten that country's enormous problems. Change? They need to change their outlook! They are living in the past without  wanting to open their eyes fully. :'(

Meikah

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Re: The English of some Aquino cabinet members verges on gobbledygook
« Reply #2 on: July 05, 2010, 04:36:52 PM »
You know how it is with Filipinos; they love to use big words to sound smart and perhaps credible. I agree with you that statements, especially from the President, and with the intent of letting most people understand, should be stated simply.

However, often, the simplest sentence is the most difficult thing to write! :D

Joe Carillo

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Re: The English of some Aquino cabinet members verges on gobbledygook
« Reply #3 on: July 05, 2010, 05:13:00 PM »
Here's an e-mailed reaction from Ms. Nenette Baldes in Germany to my critique of the highly figurative language of some of President Aquino's cabinet members:

That's a stupid criticism. If the president is facing the mass people specially the natives of the Philippines, he has to speak Tagalog, of course. If the president is in a group of highly qualitative brain squeezers, naturally he knows that he has to give out his most high I.Q. in this situation.

I hope there would be great reform in the Philippines especially "HYGIENIC ENVIRONMENT." May I point out that one of the most important reform to be done is the garbage collector BUS. They must have a special one, a BUS with cover on top. The suburban areas are clean enough but they do not have this garbage BUS COLLECTOR and they do not know what to do with this garbage around the PHIL. Suggestion: a big building with an area where the garbage can be burned, I think that is not expensive for the government to provide.
« Last Edit: July 05, 2010, 05:18:11 PM by Joe Carillo »