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Tuesday, Apr 30 2013 11:00 PM

MANUEL FUDERANAN: English, the world's tongue, is full of usage land mines

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    Manuel Fuderanan

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Winston Churchill, the eloquent British prime minister, committed a grammatical blunder in the opening statement of his famous speech at the outbreak of World War II when he bellowed from his official balcony: "It's me, Winston Churchill." English language purists must have been squirming in their graves since then. The nominative form of the personal pronoun, "I," has been waylaid, once again -- and it was done right in England, the presumptive heartland of the English language.

A language may belong to either of two types: the "ideogrammic" language which relies mainly on symbols, objects or verbal accent to convey a message, or the highly structured, grammar-based languages which some language enthusiasts would like to refer to as "hypostatic" languages. The languages of ancient civilization and most Southeast Asian dialects are ideogrammic in nature. A sentence in an ideogrammic language may be deemed to have complete thought even without a subject and predicate. In this language type, a slight variation in accent would convey a totally different meaning of the same word. That is not a problem as far as verbal messages are concerned, but ambiguity sets in when an ideogrammic language is used in written communications. To the latter type belong English, Latin, Romance languages such as Spanish and Portuguese, and most languages of modern civilization. Hypostatic languages have grammatical rules to follow but they are easier to learn, write and read than the ideogrammic ones.

We may need to take a bird's-eye view of the global influence and importance the English language has over the whole world as the default, albeit unofficial, primary global written language in various fields of human endeavor. Although Latin is the official language of the Roman Catholic Church, papal encyclicals are invariably translated into English for its dispersal worldwide. Imagine a papal encyclical in a grammatically challenged English translation. It would lose its linguistic integrity, scholarly luster and its import as an "ex-cathedra" pronouncement. It might not be taken seriously by the flock.

The Philippines, a country of multiple languages and dialects, has English as one of its three official languages under its 1935 constitution -- the other two being Spanish and the Tagalog-based national language. The reason is obvious. English, as opposed to any of the regional or provincial dialects, is understood by all and it is the common medium in government, education, commerce and industry, politics and other fields. Eighty percent of newspapers and magazines in the Philippines are written in the English language.

My expectations were high In my first few months of integration in this country. But then I soon realized that English, as the language at birth, was mostly taken for granted. One does not need to go further into the intricacies of diagramming and proper sentence construction in advanced English grammar and composition. It is just the day-to-day use or misuse of simple words in different environments. And one will encounter many of these incorrect word usages, spelling errors and grammatical inconsistencies even from unlikely sources.

"Principal" and "principle" are the most common "Websterian" partners in crime. They are invariably interchanged, advertently or inadvertently, by supposedly educated people. A lot of times, even in formal interoffice memoranda, the adverb "maybe" supplants the verb phrase "may be," leaving the sentence hanging and without a verb at all. "Site" and "sight" are two different creatures in the English language. I come into them quite often because of the nature of my work. Sometimes, I am horrified by the possibility that a court of bespectacled grammarians may cite in contempt someone who insists on maintaining that the "sight" where the fence is located has no "site"-line obstruction.

Redundancies are the bane of language purists. We were taught in elementary English grammar that a "bouquet" always pertains to an arrangement of flowers and nothing else. So, a "bouquet of flowers" is a classic redundancy. A "bouquet of roses" perhaps, or a "bouquet of golden daffodils" would be not only poetic and romantic but more grammatically appropriate.

Not straying from the topic of redundancy, "so" and "therefore" have the same meaning. There's no need to put "therefore" after "so" in a modifying phrase or clause. A "double possessive" might be just too possessive for comfort. Do we really have to say: "A friend of Peter's" instead of just "A friend of Peter" -- or more simply, "Peter's friend"?

Years ago, I overheard snippets of conversation from two people in a lunch break. One must have asked the other some question because I heard this faint response: "Yes, I have no bananas." I was floored off my seat.

Manuel D. Fuderanan is an engineer with the city of Bakersfield.

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