Author Topic: Looking back to a bad English grammar syndrome  (Read 13374 times)

Joe Carillo

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Looking back to a bad English grammar syndrome
« on: January 24, 2024, 06:22:18 AM »
On that very first day of February in 2003, the English grammar of my wife’s favorite newspaper had taken such a serious plunge that she just blew up during breakfast.

“What kind of gibberish is this?” she asked, furiously pointing to a front-page photo caption. “Listen:

                                              “The world’s a stage for the concerns of the family which deeply concern Pope
                                              John Paul who addresses the Fourth World Meeting of Families at the Quirino
                                              Grandstand on Saturday via a live video feed direct from the Vatican."

“So what’s wrong with it?” I asked, drinking my coffee. 

“You’re the editor in this house,” she said, “so you tell me. Why would anyone string up so many details in one sentence? Isn’t there a journalistic rule against a 40-word run-on behemoth like that? And what does this mean: The world’s a stage for the concerns of the family which deeply concern Pope John Paul II’? I know there’s an allusion to Shakespeare there somewhere, but why make ‘the concerns’ the performers? And isn’t it rather queer to use ‘concerns’ twice? What kind of English is this?”

“A strange one, which could happen when you’re about to miss your deadline,” I said. “You use clichés already in your head for effect—for literary resonance—but there’s a downside: you risk being obscure or funny because nonliterary people may not get what you mean. As to the writer’s grammar, I wonder why it’s so unnaturally atrocious today, but it’s only a caption, no need to get upset about it.”

“Caption or not, I still think that it shouldn’t be exempt from the rules of good grammar,” she said. “And what’s this ... another caption seeking exempt-status from those rules? Listen:

“And baby makes 10. Rose and Rodrigo Alenton with their nine children, plus one, Maria Jose (inset) born to his mother, a delegate to the congress of families which ends today.”
Maria Jose born to his mother?” Did she give birth at the congress? Isn’t that and the math and the whole caption gibberish again?”

“Looks like, but again, it’s only a caption.”

“No, love, I think it’s a serious bad-grammar syndrome,” she said, pulling a folder from the nearby computer table. “I can’t take it anymore. Let me show you the lousy grammar things I clipped from this paper’s issues these past two weeks. Here’s one bad-grammar lead:

“Did the shootout among cops in Quezon City came  as a result of credit-grabbing?”

“Oh, oh, must be a simple typo—forgivable. It should be ‘come,’ of course.”

“Really? But what about this columnist’s lead sentence:
“Taxes and death being the only two sure things in life, add tax evasion.”
“What kind of semantic nonsense is that?”

“Ouch! The columnist probably was just in a hurry, maybe for a date. She must have meant this: ‘Taxes and death used to be the only two sure things in life. Now add tax evasion.’” 

“You’re so defensive of your kind! But let’s see if you can be as forgiving with this front-page lead:
“The People Power II Revolution is the movie in the nation’s mind again, as Filipinos mark its second anniversary tomorrow.”
“Isn’t ‘the movie in the mind’ thing preposterous?”

“That, of course, is a line from Miss Saigon. You know that; we watched the play on Broadway almost 17 years ago, remember? The writer probably thought everybody had watched the play or memorized Lea Salonga’s song. That’s just another attempt at resonance.”

“Resonance, my foot! I think it’s nothing but unwarranted and obscure exhibitionism! Anyway, look at this other suspicious lead:
“In a stirring twist, two witnesses claimed [name withheld] had provoked his assailant into shooting him.”
“My dictionary says that ‘stirring’ means ‘busy, exciting, rousing, thrilling.’ What’s exciting or thrilling about that twist? The guy’s dead, isn’t he? Isn’t that macabre?”

“Oh, the reporter must have meant ‘surprising’ or ‘intriguing’—‘stirring’ was probably only a slip of the keyboard.”

“You’re defending them again! But try defending them over this one:
“Expect memories to awaken when, after so many years, classmates at the University of the Philippines College of Law meet again.”
“Do memories awaken?”

“I don’t think so, but passions do. ‘Awaken’ means ‘to rouse from sleep’ or ‘to wake up.’ Rather tough for memories to wake up, even if they are personified.” 

“Now you are getting the drift. But don’t defend these guys all the time just because you were once a reporter yourself. Now figure out this funny lead:
“Zero assets and zero bank accounts. That, according to [name of a public official], is what he has in the United States...”
“There are two subjects, ‘zero assets’ and ‘zero bank accounts,” so the correct usage should be ‘those are’ and not ‘that is,’ right?”

“Of course! In English, those two items don’t add up to zero. It’s the number of the noun—not its modifier—that makes it singular or plural. In this case, good math simply happens to be not very good English, but don’t be so hard on the reporter for not knowing that.”

This essay in conversation form is Chapter 143 of Jose A. Carillo’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge. It first appeared in his column "English Plain and Simple in the February 1, 2003 issue of The Manila Times, © 2003 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

Read this essay and listen to its voice recording in The Manila Times:
Looking back to a bad English grammar syndrome

(Next: Retrospective on political propaganda)          February 1, 2024                                                                                              

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« Last Edit: January 25, 2024, 02:09:44 AM by Joe Carillo »