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English

Ernest Hemingway once told an aspiring young writer: “So, you want to be a novelist, eh? At 18, you think you already know enough of the language, of life? Tell me, Perry, have you reached that level of confidence where you can finish a fictional story without feeling a need for an editor?” Yes, sir. “And I suppose you consider dictionaries and thesauruses to be unnecessary tools for your craft?” Absolutely, sir. “Young man, you’ll need a whole lot of serendipity to get there.” Serandapity? What’s that, sir? “Forget it, Perry.”

The foregoing narration was a bit of fiction, its essential fact being that Hemingway did give such a piece of advice to journalists and non-journalists, pro and non-pro, who came to him for a rating. I am one of his followers, although I never quite learned to employ his lingual terseness and simplicity. Can you believe that at one time I found myself being influenced by the more complex styles of Blas Ople and Boris Pasternak?

The lesson? Serious young writers should never even attempt to imitate other writers. They will eventually develop their distinctive styles as a natural result of undiluted self-expression. Such is true in all other art forms, like drama, ballet and jazz. A writer’s originality showcases his integrity, and integrity rejects plagiarism, the same way a president’s integrity should reject betrayal of his oath of office by not resorting to subterfuges to justify an unconstitutional second term right after his hand has been caught in the cookie jar.

I never operate my ipad for an essay without having by my side an Oxford English Dictionary, a Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a quotable-quotes pocketbook, one on idioms (both American English and English English), another one on grammar, and some of my own scribblings and books from high school, business school and law school. Incidentally, as a columnist, I’ve learned to patiently edit my articles a few times over.

You think I’m kidding? Try writing, say, a 700-word piece and editing it yourself. Set it aside for a day or two, then when you go over it again, don’t be surprised to see some errors. BTW, for technical pleasure and leisure, Readers Digest and Time Magazine rank among my favorites. Such flawless reading materials!

I was neither a serious law student nor a committed lawyer in the initial years of legal practice. A Filipino barrister’s principal instrument is the English language, both oral and written, which must be expressed on high standards of articulateness and proficiency; so, at 31, I figured that if I was going to be anywhere near that plateau, I’d have to slow down on such enterprises as girl-ogling, classical poetry, classical music, fine arts, pop songwriting, singing, chess, billiards and golf.

My professional immersion in English started in my late twenties when Doy Quisumbing’s Lawyers Inn gave me my apprenticeship. Doy was so impressed that he assigned me to the research and pleadings section; as a result, I never did court appearances — which I deeply regretted. Besides, what I learned mostly in Lawyers Inn was an immensely quaint and boring language called Legalese. “Whereupon, I posthaste departed therefrom, to join government on the enticements of my father, the said relative being a member of the Lower House, by which office I would be employed on his recommendation to serve as the cited recommender’s Technical Assistant.” See what I mean?

I was some kind of a paradox at the Ateneo de Manila. I scored in the high 90s in math, algebra, geometry, physics and English Composition, but struggled in religion and history, and even flunked Latin and Tagalog. I hated Latin cuz it was Greek to me; my parents allowed only English to be spoken at home until we reached high school, and it didn’t help any that ADM corporeally disciplined students caught speaking languages or local dialects other than English.

I believe Filipinos are among the best in oral and written English among peoples who don’t have English as their indigenous language. Although English is not our native tongue, we handle it quite proficiently on the world stage of diplomacy, trade, entertainment, sports, and what have you — a truly outstanding communications cutting edge of a people who are diverse in tribal customs and mores, and who are so differentiated from one another by over eighty dialects, that they sometimes have to interact in a foreign language called English.

As Filipinos, we should realize that our best English speakers and writers will never hold a candle to their foreign counterparts who, in the first place, created the language. Our best may sometimes match, but never beat, their best in grammar. But in idiom? Absolutely never. Occasionally, in a clash between grammar and idiom, the latter is preferred. E.g., the Englishman’s “It is I” is perfect grammar, while the American’s “It’s me”, although grammatically wrong, is idiomatically perfect. Thus, for us who have been trained in American English, “It’s me” would be utterly correct. We say “friend” instead of “bloke”, “apartment” instead of “flat”. Let’s not be pretentious by sounding British.

I owe to Ateneo’s American Jesuits and Hollywood movies my fairly good command of the twangy manner of pronunciation or intonation characteristic of an average American’s idiolect. While this command has nothing to do with writing proficiency, it is an added resource in colloquial chats and, most especially, in formal occasions, like a UN-sponsored conference, where a Filipino envoy with a disturbing Visayan accent could yet trigger a diplomatic row, if not a major setback in the search for peace. Can you imagine the pandemonium if he proposes a toast to “Hess Eek-ceiling-say, Premier Shit You (Hsieh Tiu)”?!

Seasoned Filipino English writers will do well to occasionally bone up
on such grammar basics that deal with syntax, the nine parts of speech (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, articles, prepositions and interjections), gerunds and participles, hyperboles, personifications, the pesky subjunctive mood, dependent and independent clauses, the two-comma rule, adverbial phrases, the two voices, punctuation marks, dangling modifiers, infinitives, antonyms, redundancy, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Oh, before I forget: never, never, never literally translate from, say, Tagalog to English. The results will be catastrophic. There’s a rule of thumb: In case of doubt, don’t write or say it.

But don’t get me wrong; I’m very much at home with American English. I thank my parents and Ateneo’s American Jesuits, as I have nonetheless become a fairly typical Filipino, even if my first name is Ronald and five grandchildren of mine are natural-born Americans. I love hot dogs drenched in mustard, coke zero, Arnold Palmer and Frank Sinatra; I go bananas over Manny Pacquiao, Bata Reyes, buntot kare-kare, balut and adobo…all rolled up into an Ilocano who has but a smattering of Diego Silang’s dialect. When I was once asked in a Tokyo restaurant if I was a senior citizen, I joked, “No, I am an Ilocano.” The waiter broke into stitches and gave me an extra tempura onion ring on the house.

Well, I’m not exactly an Ilocano. I was born in Manila, raised and studied in Manila, married and reared a family in Manila, and worked and retired in Manila. As Manila’s western sun slowly descends upon my horizon, l near fulfillment under the aegis of a fading memory, albeit beneath the intensifying iridescence.

English
Ronald Roy — Sept. 21, 2014

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