When faulty logic overrides good grammar and semantics

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SOME seemingly matter-of-fact and grammatically airtight statements often get accepted in everyday discourse despite their faulty logic. Known as glittering or glowing generalities, they strongly appeal to our emotions because of their close association with such highly valued concepts and beliefs as the primacy of family, home, and country, the sanctity of religious dogma, and the nobility of teaching as a profession. As such, we take them to be true at face value without examining the rationality of their premises.

These thoughts came rushing to mind when I was asked this innocuous grammar question recently by a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum who goes by the username Baklis: “Sir, I just want to know the difference between ‘being’ and ‘having been’ in these two sentences: ‘Being a teacher, she likes children.’ ‘Having been a teacher, she likes children.’”

Momentarily stumped by the perfect grammar and semantics yet disarmingly deceptive logic of both sentences, I got back my bearings and came up with this reply to Baklis:
The difference between the sentences “Being a teacher, she likes children” and “Having been a teacher, she likes children” is clear-cut, but the sense of both has a logical peculiarity that defies a simple, straightforward explanation.

In the sentence “Being a teacher, she likes children,” the use of the present tense “being” in the participial modifying phrase “being a teacher” indicates that the subject “she” is at present a teacher. However, the main clause “she likes children” makes the implication—but it’s not a certainty—that teachers typically like children, and that the teacher in this particular instance is such a teacher who likes children. This implication, of course, makes the logic of the statement debatable even if its grammar is airtight.


On the other hand, the use of the perfect gerund “having been” in the sentence “Having been a teacher, she likes children” indicates that the subject “she” used to be teacher but ceased to be a teacher sometime in the indefinite past. Like the first sentence, however, the main clause of this second sentence makes the implication—and it’s likewise not a certainty—that teachers typically like children, and that the teacher in this particular instance liked children when she was still teaching and that she still likes children even now.

That second sentence has the further implication that the experience of being a teacher or of having been a teacher imbues a liking for children, but the logical justification for that second implication is not made clear. Thus, even if the grammar and semantics of the second sentence are airtight like those of the first sentence, those two unsupported implications make the logic of the second statement even more debatable than that of the first.

Indeed, I told Baklis, those two simple sentences that he presented are semantic conundrums, or statements that raise a question or problem that only has a conjectural answer. Within such statements lurks a fallacy or illogical conclusion so grammatically flawless and beguilingly attractive that the mind encounters great difficulty rejecting it.

Two days later, Baklis came back to me with this more down-to-earth grammar question about those two problematic sentences: “Sir, if we consider only the two participial phrases in those sentences, what would be their use or implication?”

In that case, I told Baklis, here’s what each of those two phrases will denote:

1. “Being a teacher,” a present progressive participial phrase, would mean the current continuing state of teacherhood, meaning that one is a teacher by profession and is practicing it at present; and

2. “Having been a teacher,” a past-perfect progressive participial phrase, would mean that one used to be teacher but ceased to be a teacher sometime in the indefinite past, and has not been a teacher again up to the moment of speaking.

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

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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4 Comments

  1. I’m glad to say that we are now on the same wavelength about logic and rational thinking. You seem to have a lot of very interesting and instructive ideas to share about logical thinking and language in general. May I invite you to register as a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum so you can discuss your ideas freely and at length in its many discussion boards? To register, simply go to the Forum homepage at http://josecarilloforum.com and look for the membership registration button. Membership is free and registration shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes. (I found very minor grammar errors in your posting but I have no way of fixing them here. I did correct them though in the version that I posted in the Forum just now.)

  2. Amnata Pundit on

    You are one of only a few writers i know who can make hair splitting sound interesting.

    • Thank you for the compliment, Amnata Pundit, but “hairsplitting” is defined as making excessively fine distinctions in reasoning. I don’t think it’s hairsplitting to call attention to the fact that the sentences “Being a teacher, she likes children” and “Having been a teacher, she likes children” are logically flawed. They are the kind of statements that Logic 101 tells us are false on their basic premise yet so alluringly believable. Indeed, it is faulty reasoning of this kind that gets humanity into all sorts of trouble–needless disputes, internecine feuds, religious wars, even genocide. For this reason, I do wish that our educational system–and those of many countries in the whole world for that matter–can be more purposive in teaching children and even adults how to think and express themselves not only clearly but logically and rationally. I think the world would be a much better, more peaceable, and much more pleasant place for all of us if this were the case.

    • Amnata Pundit on

      Faulty logic starts with our most basic belief, and that is religion. Since childhood we are conditioned without realizing it to abandon our faculty of critical thinking that we were born with- this faculty is not acquired as many believe- by being force fed the religious authorities illogical, incoherent religious teachings that are totally indefensible in a free wheeling discussion. After this corruption of the mind, it becomes easier for other authorities to MANUFACTURE CONSENT ( Noam Chomsky’s words) with regards to oppressive, cruel and outright diabolical arrangements in the fields of politics, economics and even thousand year old social traditions like marriage, so that we now have the PPP, BS Aquino, George Bush, faux democracy, gay marriages and transexualism, debt slavery, vat and sin taxes, BBL, wars and so on. This requires a long treatise but in short, your complaint of faulty logic is rooted in false religion. I suggest you read Ephesians 6:10-20 about the Armor of God where this armor should be interpreted to mean as your faculty of critical thinking which you must wear at all times as your protection against evil schemes are currently the scourge of today’s world. I hope I did not make any grammatical errors here.