Back to basics in English sentence construction

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An avid learner of English who follows me on Facebook, Mary Anne S. Fernandez, recently asked me two very interesting questions about sentence construction:

The first question: “Is the sentence ‘Sophie is 11 years old female’ correct? Shouldn’t it be ‘Sophie is an 11 year old female’?”

The second question: “Is the sentence ‘We give you the latest, hottest, and updated news’ correct?”

My reply to Mary Anne:


Both of the sentences you presented in your first question are grammatically incorrect, victims both of improper punctuation.

The first, “Sophie is 11 years old female,” fails because of bad syntax. It definitely reads and sounds like pidgin English, but a simple tweak can make it grammar-perfect and structurally sound. Just insert a comma between “old” and “female”: “Sophie is 11 years old, female.” See?

Let me add here that “Sophie is 11 years old, female” is actually an ellipted (abbreviated) form of the longer sentence “Sophie is 11 years old and female” where the function word “and” has been dropped for brevity.

On the other hand, “Sophie is an 11 year old female” almost qualifies as a proper construction but ultimately fails because its complement, the noun “female,” is being modified by the structurally rickety adjective phrase “11 year old.” See how compounding that phrase by hyphenation makes it do its modifying job with finesse: “Sophie is an 11-year-old female.”

The lesson here is that no matter how inconsequential punctuation marks like the comma and hyphen may sometimes look, they can spell the difference between success and failure in English sentence construction.

Now to your second question: The sentence “We give you the latest, hottest, and updated news” isn’t flat-out grammatically incorrect but it suffers from unparallel construction. You see, in serial modifications with two or more modifying aspects like those in the sentence you presented, the aspects must be of the same comparative degree to be parallel.
In this particular case, that degree is the common superlative aspect of “latest” and “hottest,” in the company of which “updated” is an odd-man-out. Of course, we can make “updated” belong by also rendering it in the superlative, “most updated.”

With that parallel fix, listen to how much better the sentence sounds: “We give you the latest, hottest, and most updated news.” Without the fix, that sentence is better off collapsed to “We give you the latest,hottest updated news.”

Aside from the two sentence construction questions above, Mary Anne had earlier asked me this grammar question: “What is the correct tense of the verb ‘watch’ in the independent clause of this sentence: ‘When Maria called me last night, I ________ television.”

My instant reply to Mary Anne was that the correct tense for “watch” in that independent clause typically would be the past continuous, which is also known as the past progressive tense: “When Maria called me last night, I was watching television.” The past continuous indicates simultaneity of the action in the main clause and of that in the dependent clause. In this particular case, the speaker (the first-person “I”) was called by Maria while the latter was watching television.

I must qualify that answer though by adding that some tense other than the past continuous might be called for if there are qualifying circumstances in the dependent clause. For instance, if the caller specified that her call was about “breaking news regarding a big fire near your place,” the verb “watch” could very well take the simple past tense in that independent clause: “When Maria called me last night about breaking news regarding a big fire near our place, I watched television.”

What this means is that in complex sentences, the tense of the independent clause is determined not just by the tense but by the sense and logic of the dependent clause.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com

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10 Comments

  1. What is wrong with this sentence if past continuous is used here. Please elucidate on it.

    “When Maria called me last night about breaking news regarding a big fire near our place, I was watching television”

    Thanks.

    • Nothing’s grammatically wrong with this sentence that uses the past continuous in its main (independent) clause: “When Maria called me last night about breaking news regarding a big fire near our place, I was watching television.” It just means to say that Maria made the call while the first-person speaker was watching television–meaning that the two actions were simultaneous or happened at the same time.

      This is in keeping with what I said at the end of my column above–that the tense of the independent clause is determined not just by the tense but by the sense and logic of the dependent clause. The version you presented could very well also take the grammatically correct form “When Maria called me last night about breaking news regarding a big fire near our place, I watched television,” but this time it’s not the sense intended by the speaker. In short, the sense that emerges from a complex sentence should be a logical play between grammar and semantics. If the logic is off or askew, then something is wrong with the construction of the sentence.

  2. I prefer the collapsed “We give you the latest,hottest updated news.”
    “most updated news” gives [maybe just] ME the impression that the news had been updated several times that its credibility suffers— much like palatial releases, pronouncements or whatever. ;-)

  3. Thanks Mr. Carillo for this informative article. I’m bothered a lot by statements with missing articles such as “This is powerful story” and those with added articles such as “Go buy a bread” or “Let’s open the Facebook.” By sharing the rules of English grammar, we are able to stand our ground against the rising tide of bad English

    • It really takes a lot of doing to master the use of articles, determiners, and prepositions–not to mention the conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs–in the English language, so it pays to start early in getting conversant with them. The “Getting to Know English” section of Jose Carillo’s English Forum has put together most of their basics and should be a good place to learn or review them. Check them out all for free at http://tinyurl.com/ozldgun, anytime 24/7. You won’t regret it!

  4. Justaskingseriously on

    “In this particular case, the speaker (the first-person ‘I’) was called by Maria while the latter was watching television.”

    Questions: Is the use of “latter” correct? Is the use of “latter” justified even when it obviously properly refers to the “I” in the active sentence, “When Maria called me last night, I _____television.”? Or is the meaning of “latter” confined to the sentence where you find it?

    • Thanks for raising that question, Justaskingseriously. The use of “the latter” in that sentence is incorrect; it should have been “the former,” or the exact opposite of what was written there.

      Here’s how the glitch came about: If I had that particular sentence worded this way, “In this particular case, the speaker (the first-person ‘I’) was called by Maria while she was watching television,” it wouldn’t have been obvious that the pronoun “she” refers to the first-person speaker; Maria herself could very well be the “she” watching television. To get rid of the ambiguity, the choice is to have the pronoun “she” followed by either “the speaker” as a parenthetical modifying “she”–the form is “she (the speaker)”–or by “the former” as a stand-alone substitute for “she.” I decided against the parenthetical “the speaker” modifying “she” as too awkward-sounding. So my choice was actually “the former,” but whoa! my fingers inadvertently typed “the latter” instead and, regrettably, I was unable to spot the error during proofreading.

      I apologize for that oversight.

  5. Can’t help but notice this article about correct English grammar.

    This was what came to my mind:
    Are there still Filipinos who talk straight and correct English?

    Except for newspaper columnists, many Filipinos prefer to write and speak in Taglish, which in my opinion, is not the proper way of communicating. It’s nothing more than an excuse to show that a pinoy can start a sentence in English but is unable to finish it in that same language.

    I have stopped using Taglish many many years ago. I now speak either pure Tagalog (my dialect/native language) or English but NEVER mixed. Also, to make the situation worse, Pinoys continue to invent new words (e.g., texting terms like “Good AM” “Aq”, etc) that even make the communication situation in the Philippines worse.

    • Gloria B. Wilhelm on

      Taglish will be the demise of the Pilipino language. Texting will be the demise of both languages. The youths of today don’t even know proper nouns, what to capitalize, how to spell, let alone “past perfect tense, past progressive, future progressive, etc.” Can you just imagine how they would ever be able to compose a simple business correspondence?

    • Roy, to help as many Filipinos as possible to talk straight and correct English is my personal advocacy. As an educator-friend of mine said in encouraging me to go on with it, “It’s better to light even just a small candle than to forever curse the darkness.”