What a difference the word ‘off’ makes in an idiom!


How the absence of a seemingly inconsequential word can make a big difference in what we want we to say!

I really hate to be a spoilsport, but I think the web edition of a leading Metro Manila broadsheet pulled a boner recently in this lead sentence to a controversial news story:
“Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile pulled a surprise on Wednesday when he announced his irrevocable resignation from his post.” (italicization mine)

The use of the verb phrase “pulled a surprise” in that sentence is grammatically faulty; what should have been used instead is the phrasal verb “pulled off a surprise,” an idiomatic expression that means “to succeed in doing something difficult, unexpected, or challenging.”

So, that lead sentence should have been worded this way: “Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile pulled off a surprise Wednesday when he announced his irrevocable resignation from his post.” Without the preposition “off,” that phrasal verb is reduced to “pull a surprise,” a literal phrase that means “to stretch the surprise or to draw it apart.” This is obviously not what that sentence intended to say.

Even without “off,” however, “pull a surprise” could work properly if it’s followed by an object of the preposition, as in this variation of that faulty lead sentence: “Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile pulled a surprise on his fellow senators Wednesday when he announced his irrevocable resignation from his post.” Here, a different idiomatic expression is used, “pull a surprise on someone,” which uses “his fellow senators” as object of the preposition “on.”

By the way, “to pull a boner,” the idiom I used to describe the omission of “off” in the figurative expression at issue here, means “to do something stupid or silly.” On second thought, that’s too harsh for that act of omission. In fairness to that newspaper, the literal phrase “made a mistake” would have sufficed in plain and simple English.

On the lighter and more delightful side of language, I’d like to share with readers this question e-mailed to me a few days ago by Mr. Juanito T. Fuerte, a Filipino-American balikbayan:

“In connection with the topic of chiasmus that you discussed in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently, here’s one for you: What is the difference between a teacher and a train engineer?

“Even if you don’t know the answer offhand, I know you can easily figure it out. But,
just for fun, I thought I’d ask the question anyway.”
My reply to Mr. Fuerte:

“That’s a very tough question, and I must admit that I had to scratch my head for not just a few minutes, but to no avail. That’s when I said what the heck, I might as well Google it and lo! the following answer popped out of my computer screen:
“A teacher trains directors, and a railroad engineer directs trains.”

As you cryptically hinted, that answer is indeed a chiasmus, with the word “trains” repeated—first as a verb in the present tense, then as a noun in the plural form—to yield different ideas in a deliciously parallel juxtaposition.

Mr. Fuerte sent me this rejoinder:

“The difference between a teacher and a train engineer? A teacher trains the mind, and a train engineer minds the train.

“As you can see, the answer you gave and the one I have may be worded differently but the thought is the same. And you’re absolutely right about the key word “train.” In addition, the word “mind” also came in (as a noun and then as a verb) to add tang to what you described as “deliciously parallel juxtaposition.”

“Perhaps it would be even more fun if you could also think of other questions that can be answered in the form of chiasmus. You then can invite other Forum members to participate by finding or providing the right answers to them.”

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



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