• Isn’t the phrase ‘2,500 cringeworthy English’ itself cringeworthy English?

    Jose A. Carillo

    Jose A. Carillo

    My column last week called attention to the hundreds of flawed English passages found by Mr. Antonio Calipjo Go, the indefatigable bad-textbook whistleblower, in the Grade 8 and Grade 7 learning materials published recently by the Department of Education. To my surprise, that column’s title drew this reaction from a new member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum who goes by the username aidsasis:

    “I read your article, ‘2,500 cringeworthy English in DepEd’s Grades 8, 7 learning materials,’ and I’m pretty sure you didn’t write that title. I do hope you spoke to [the Times editors]about that cringeworthy error.

    “Isn’t it that the word ‘English’ functions like a mass noun? We don’t say, ‘People should improve their Englishes,’ or ‘My student made a mistake on 5 English today.’ That’s why I found the title cringeworthy.”

    Here’s my reply to aidsasis:

    The word “English” does function as a mass noun as you’ve pointed out, but depending on usage and context, it can also function as a count noun or adjective.

    It’s obviously a mass noun that’s singular both grammatically and notionally when used to denote English as a language, as in “English is a major hiring criterion today,” and as a field of study, as in “English is only an elective in my course.” A telltale sign of this mass-noun usage is the absence of the definite article “the” before the noun; in such cases, the verb takes the singular form. In contrast, “English” is a mass noun that’s plural both notionally and grammatically when denoting the English people as a group, as in “The English speak what’s known as British English.” The definite article “the” before the noun makes the verb take the plural form.

    However, “English” is a count noun that’s plural both grammatically and notionally when denoting the many varieties of English in use today, as in “Worldwide, scores of Englishes have been identified by researchers.” (http://tinyurl.com/ktvl4on) As a count noun, though, “English” can be singular both grammatically and notionally when preceded by the indefinite article “an,” as in “An English like yours won’t qualify you for a call-center job for the American market.”

    When “English” modifies a noun, of course, it functions as an adjective, as in “English idioms number several thousands, making it tougher for nonnative English speakers to speak the language with confidence.”

    Now I think we’re ready to analyze that title to see if, as you argue, it’s indeed itself cringeworthy.

    Let’s consider my usage of “English” in that title from two viewpoints.

    From the first viewpoint, we can look at each of the 2,500 flawed passages in those two DepEd learning modules as a distinct and discrete kind of English, each with a perverse grammar, syntax, and logic of its own. We can then look at each of them as a countable noun that not only can be modified but also totaled in the following manner: “1 cringeworthy English + 1 cringeworthy English + 1 cringeworthy English . . . + 1 cringeworthy English = 2,500 cringeworthy English.” We can’t call their total “2,500 cringeworthy Englishes” because each identified instance of cringeworthy English is unique and altogether, they don’t constitute a single, distinct cringeworthy variety of English.

    From the second viewpoint, we can look at the noun phrase “2,500 cringeworthy English” as an ellipted or streamlined form of the longer phrase “2,500 cringeworthy English passages” or “2,500 cringeworthy English errors,” with “passages” or “errors” dropped for brevity and easier articulation. We use this kind of ellipsis quite often in such sentences as “There are now as many as 500 walking dead in that ongoing TV series on zombies.” This sounds much better and more forthright than this fully spelled-out construction: “There are now as many as 500 walking dead people in that ongoing TV series on zombies.”

    We’ll continue this discussion next week.

    Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.



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    1. Mary Anne Celestino on

      It’s so maddening to observe not only the deterioration of English, but the reasons for it. It wasn’t too long ago that the phrase ‘will gonna’ was unheard of, but now we hear it all over (primarily from young people). I would personally like to crucify whoever introduced that into our vocabulary.

      I note an increasing hostility towards the use of English. This perverted sense of nationalism makes us sneer at those who speak English freely. Speaking in English has become a way to elicit laughter from one’s fellows. It wouldn’t be so bad if they themselves were not part of the ‘will gonna’ crowd.

      The matter with the sloppily-written textbooks no longer surprises me. I was horrified when I heard a teacher-mentor no less tell her student teachers that the meaning of ‘might makes right’ was that if one said ‘This might happen’ then it made one more perspicacious. Her students will probably be writing/checking textbook drafts years from now.

      I note, too, that young people watch English television program less and less. Listen to casual conversation and it is primarily about local programs (which may also account for the attendant stunted mental processes).

      What will it be like decades from now?