(I’ve just had the privilege of attending the book launching of my friend, magazine editor and journalist par excellence AA Patawaran or Arnel to family and close friends, earlier this evening at Powerbooks in Greenbelt. Congratulations, Arnel! “Write Here Write Now,” Arnel’s initial stab as a book author, is more than just another how-to book on writing, making it an ideal gift to yourself and your loved ones this Christmas season.
(As veteran journalist Jullie Yap Daza, Arnel’s friend and mentor, said, the slim volume is a memoir of sorts of the author’s long, passionate and undying love affair with the written word. I will write more about the book as soon as I’ve savored every page either in this blog or in Arnel’s second most favorite newspaper soon. 😉
(In the meantime, I’d like to share with you a full version of an essay I wrote, part of which made it to the pages of Arnel’s book, about my own personal struggles as a Filipino writing in a foreign language. [It was an honor and a pleasure, Arnel.] And that language ain’t Yiddish. :-D–AYV)
MOST Filipinos’ tenuous hold on the English language is nothing new. It has been plain for everyone to see (and hear!) since we, upon America’s insistence, first adopted and adapted to a foreign language other than Spanish more than a century ago.
To begin with, English, which eventually became the country’s second language associated with business and the elite, has virtually nothing in common with any of our mother tongues—be it Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, Kapampangan, Bicolano, Waray, Hiligaynon, Tausug, etc.
Still we’ve tried and persisted in using it all these years with amazing, sometimes brilliant, but occasionally uneven, hilarious and even appalling results. As a journalist, I’ve seen this weakness all too often in others as well as in myself.
While not a few English-speaking Filipinos, for instance, have become consummate masters at using the most colorful adjectives of the Miriam Defensor-Santiago-variety to describe their unique existence and sometimes to make short shrift of creatures they hold in contempt (“fungus-faced” comes to mind), most of us have yet to master tenses (especially those pesky irregular verbs and precise perfect tenses), plural forms (including when to resort to collective nouns instead of merely adding s or changing y to i and adding es), tag questions, subject and verb agreement, idiomatic expressions, contractions vis-à-vis possessive forms, genders and pronouns, and, most especially, prepositions.
(Dangling modifiers, mixed metaphors and the wrong use of idiomatic expressions, which require an entirely different entry, are also some of the most common mistakes Filipino writers in English commit again and again.)
The last, in my mind, has proven to be the most troublesome, for the simple reason that there are no clear-cut rules carved out in stone when it comes to using prepositions. Like when do you use in time instead of on time, at peace instead of in peace, in the store instead of at the store? Alas, as far as I know, there are no hard and fast rules even in the most complete and compleat English grammar book!
Instead, everything about prepositions (and idiomatic expressions) is learned by playing it by ear and through constant practice. Now, unless you’ve spent some time in the English-speaking world or speak English at home as a first language with a bunch of proficient English speakers, there’s practically no way for you to pin down the right preposition except by constantly writing, reading books and watching films in English.
Read to write
Reading in itself comes with its own caveats. Reading what? Reading the right materials in English, of course, which eventually strengthen, improve and even challenge our understanding of Shakespeare’s favorite language instead of further muddling it.
To illustrate my point, a simple and often-used phrase like “I’ll get back TO you” could drastically change from one expressing courtesy, to one stating outright hostility with the use of the wrong preposition. Tell me you won’t get either alarmed, amused or even pissed off when your hear the other person say “I’ll get back AT you” when asking him to clarify something whether in person, through text or on the phone.
Get back at me? Why, what have I done to you to earn such retribution?
The seemingly simple use of he/she paired with his/her often gets mixed up, especially in long, complex sentences, since we don’t have such gender-specific pronouns in any of our local languages.
He went to the department store, scoured the women’s section and sought a saleslady’s suggestion before finally finding the perfect gift for HER wife.
After all that information between the man and his gift, the writer seemed to have forgotten all about the husband. Instead, the writer’s focus has shifted to the wife, and using a feminine pronoun like her seemed like the most logical thing to do. Probably, it is, had the writer begun his sentence with a she.
Literal translations from the vernacular to English aside, the use of tag questions could produce its share of hilarious results. Of course, no Filipino reaches high school without hearing what has become a national cliché poking fun at the way we handle basic tag questions: “It’s raining, aren’t they?”
Again, the seeming confusion of when to use is it, isn’t it, are they, aren’t they, do they and don’t they isn’t totally of our own making. It simply comes from a mindset wherein Filipino (the still-evolving and far-from-complete national language we hope to speak as one nation in the distant future) has only one tag question, ’di ba?
Thus, we often end up unknowingly using the tag question “isn’t it” or “is it” during casual conversations requiring a tag question when we probably should have used aren’t they, are they, don’t they, do they and a whole arsenal of tag questions that are supposed to be at our disposal.
Well, I’ll let you in on a secret. When talking to a native English speaker, and I suddenly find myself in a situation where I can’t summon up the right tag question, I simply resort to using the “universal” tag question “right.”
True, “they shoot horses, right?” is certainly lacking in drama compared to “they shoot horses, don’t they?” Well, at least, technically, the former is grammatically acceptable, right?
“Furnitures and fixtures”
And I haven’t even touched on plural forms. All too common, a herd of deer becomes simply “deers” to the inexperienced Filipino writer/speaker. Pieces of furniture are automatically lumped with fixtures to become “furnitures” and fixtures. A bunch of stuff becomes mere “stuffs” to take care of. A pair of scissors is simply described as scissors or, worse, “a scissor.” I can go on and on.
And then, finally, a paragraph or two on contractions (not construction, mind you, a bigger, more unwieldy task I will leave in the capable hands of this book’s author) vis-à-vis possessive forms of certain pronouns, and how some Filipino writers in English, even supposedly seasoned ones, confuse one from the other.
I remember my first boss way back when, as a fresh journalism graduate from the University of Santo Tomas, I joined the newspaper biz as a wide-eyed and clueless proofreader decades ago. My boss had taken it upon himself to read through a veteran journalist’s column, not to alter or in any way rewrite and shorten his opinions. That would have been courting trouble.
Instead, he was on the lookout for a seemingly minor yet recurring error this supposedly accomplished and larger-than-life journalist with a legendary temper (may he rest IN peace) kept on repeating.
“For all his accomplishments in the newsroom and the academe, he doesn’t seem to know when to use its and it’s,” said my boss to me one day. “He keeps on interchanging the two. So whenever I’m not around, please make sure that you make the necessary corrections. Other than that, do not touch his copy.”
His marching orders stopped me dead in my tracks. Wait a minute, I said to myself then. Come to think of it, is there really a difference? How is “its” different from “it’s”? Hmmm.
If it weren’t for that encounter, I probably wouldn’t have known that there was (and that difference are worlds apart) until much later. But the problem, it seems, manages to persist and recur, as it cuts across generations of writers.
The problem has become more pronounced in the age of the blogosphere when everyone with a blog, and without the benefit of an experienced editor, styles him/herself as a writer.
In a related development, the explosion of glossy magazines, although good venues for feature writers and photographers to express themselves as well as rich sources of ad revenue, has seen the need for more editors of every shape, size, form and persuasion, who, it turns out, are often big on vision and visuals, but woefully short on talent and/or training when it concerns the written word.
Indeed, at no point in the journalism profession has the job of “editor” become so cheap. In my opinion, only a handful of editors today have truly earned the right to call themselves as such. But I digress.
A colleague who used to conduct advance writing classes for practicing journalists brought this point home to me fairly recently.
She was conducting one of her writing classes one fine day when one of the seminar’s participants, a magazine “editor,” approached her and asked, rather innocently, “Miss X, what is the difference between its and it’s? When is it proper to use one over the other?”
That the question was coming from a supposed editor steeped in the art and science of overhauling copies while thinking of cool story ideas instantly blew my colleague’s socks off.
After all, she wasn’t teaching basic grammar to a bunch of kids to have to deal with such a patently inane question. She was there to talk about such topics as finding your voice as a writer, developing your own style and appreciating as well as drawing inspiration from the works of great writers in English, for heaven’s sake!
After the initial shock, my colleague managed to regain her bearings, bared her fangs ever so subtly and said in an even tone: “You don’t know the difference? No wonder you’re an editor. They must have hired you for your networking skills.”
“I don’t know if she understood my point because she still appeared clueless right after I told her that,” said my inimitable colleague. “But I guess she finally caught on. I’ve been hearing from mutual acquaintances lately that she now hates me.”
And they didn’t even touch on a seemingly unexplained anomaly as to why only the pronoun her gets an s when it mutates to the third person singular possessive form. Why not “hiss and hers”? Had that happened, it wouldn’t have been farfetched to see my colleague hissing in disbelief.