Author Topic: The importance of grammar-perfect English  (Read 13323 times)

Joe Carillo

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The importance of grammar-perfect English
« on: April 02, 2024, 06:13:36 PM »
Several years ago, when I went to a dental clinic in one of the big malls in Metro Manila to have a tooth filling restored, the front-desk clerk asked me to fill out a patient’s ledger card. The card was one those 5”x 8” affairs that ask for your name, address, telephone number, age, marital status, occupation, and allergies, but it had this curious final category in the all-noun information-gathering array: “Complain.” 

“Something’s wrong with this ledger card,” I told the clerk. “It spells ‘complain’ without the ‘t’ so it makes the word a command, which is grammatically and semantically wrong. The correct word to use is ‘complaint,’ a noun that has the added virtue of being in parallel with the all-noun elements in the set.”

                                        IMAGE CREDIT: COURTESY OF KASHMIRNEWSOBSERVER.COM

“Never mind that, sir,” the clerk said. “Those ledger cards are only supplied to us by a drug company for free and they all use the same word. Anyway, sir, ‘complain’ and ‘complaint’ are the same thing anyway, so why all the fuss?” 

“But I do mind, miss, because those two words don’t mean the same thing, “ I said. “You better tell the dentist to tell that drug company to tell its supplier to tell its printer to correct that word to ‘complaint’ by adding ‘t.’ And right now, before I even fill out this form, I am crossing out that wrong word and replacing it with the right one, OK?”  “If you say so, sir,” the clerk replied huffily.

“I just don’t understand why you waste your time over such petty matters.” 

Since it so happened that the dentist was ready to see me, I didn’t get the chance to explain to the clerk why all users of English should mind such errors and correct them. As my favorite saying about language goes, “A society is generally as lax as its language.” (This is the banner slogan of The Vocabula Review, a well-regarded website on English usage active at that time.)

In retrospect, though, I can see more clearly now why some people simply couldn’t fathom why the noun form of the verb “complain” should end with a “t.” The word “complaint” just happens to be one of the very few English nouns—there are actually only four of them—that had been formed by adding the suffix “t” to a verb ending in “-ain.” All of French derivation, those nouns are “complaint,” “constraint,” “distraint,” and “restraint.”

Most English verbs that became nouns took the present participle or “-ing” form, which made them gerunds, such as “undertaking” (from the verb “undertake”), “launching” (from “launch”), and “rating” (from “rate”). Many other verbs took the suffix “-ion” or “-age” to become nouns, such as “abstraction” (from “abstract”), “rotation” (from “rotate”), “marriage” (from “marry”), and “carriage” (from “carry”).

Of course, there are also several nouns formed by adding the suffix “-al” to the verb, such as “acquittal” (from “acquit”), “rebuttal” (from “rebut”), and “referral” (from “refer”), but in such cases, note that when the verb ends in a consonant, that consonant is repeated before the suffix is added. And finally, there are some abstract nouns that were formed by adding the suffix “-ence” to the verb, such as “insistence” (from “insist”), “existence” (from “exist”), and “difference” (from “differ”).

But even granting that people knew these characteristics and peculiarities of English nouns, many of them would likely still make the mistake of including the verb “complain” in an all-noun array if they were clueless about parallelism. Thus, in situations like this, it’s very important to remember this basic parallelism rule: all elements in a list—whether nouns, verbs, infinitives, gerunds, and participles—should take the same grammatical form.

Thus, in that dental patient’s ledger card where all the elements are nouns (“name,” “address,” “telephone number,” “age,” “marital status,” and so forth), you need to add a “t” to the verb “complain” to make it a noun so it will be parallel with all the other nouns in the list.

Read this essay and listen to its voice recording in The Manila Times:
The importance of grammar-perfect English

(Next: When business-speak goes over our heads)     April 11, 2024                                                                                              

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« Last Edit: April 04, 2024, 09:38:07 AM by Joe Carillo »