Sunday, September 16, 2007

Decision marred by faulty English

By Jose A. Carillo - Manila Times

It’s most unfortunate that the Sandiganbayan decision on the Estrada plunder case, a landmark document in Philippine jurisprudence, should be marred by far from impeccable English. Many sentences in that 84,257-word decision violate the basic rules of English grammar and usage, and would have greatly benefited from more judicious copyediting and competent proofreading.

That decision’s very first sentence is an ill-crafted, bewildering piece of English: “Republic Act (RA) No. 7080 as amended was approved on July 12, 1991, creating and introducing into our criminal legal system the crime of ‘plunder’.” The qualifying phrase “as amended was approved on July 12, 1991” is missing the comma that would have properly set it off from its subject, “Republic Act No. 7080,” and its poor syntax has actually given rise to a run-on sentence. And from the logic and tenor of that sentence, its operative verbs would have done a much better semantic job if they were in the simple past tense, “created” and “introduced.”

So here’s how that problematic sentence might have been improved: “Republic Act (RA) No. 7080, as amended and approved on July 12, 1991, created the crime of ‘plunder’ and introduced it into our criminal legal system.” (But come to think of it, since the law had not really intended to create plunder from thin air and foist the crime on us, wouldn’t it have been more advisable to use the verbs “defined” and “incorporated” instead of “created” and “introduced”?)

The decision’s second sentence is grammatically erroneous and structurally problematic as well: “This law penalizes public officers who would amass immense wealth through a series or combination of overt or criminal acts described in the statute in violation of the public trust.” The verb “amass” in that sentence doesn’t need the verbal auxiliary “would,” and the phrase “in violation of the public trust” is a misplaced modifier that wrongly modifies the noun “statute.” And the whole sentence itself, by stacking so many improperly linked prepositional phrases to modify “public officers,” has such a garbled construction.

Here’s a clearer and more readable version of that sentence: “This law penalizes any public officer who, in violation of the public trust, amasses immense wealth through a series or combination of the overt or criminal acts described in the statute.”

Similarly marred by infelicitous word choices, fractured syntax, and faulty sentence structure is the quoted opening statement of the majority opinion in the case of Estrada v. Sandiganbayan (G.R. No. 148965, February 26, 2002, 377 SCRA 538, 555). Take its very first sentence: “Our nation has been racked by scandals of corruption and obscene profligacy of officials in high places which have shaken its very foundation.”

The verb “racked” in that sentence (roughly meaning “tortured”) should instead have been “wracked” (meaning “utterly ruined”) or “rocked” (meaning “disturbed greatly”), and the relative clause “which have shaken its very foundation” doesn’t only dangle but wrongly uses the nonrestrictive relative pronoun “which” instead of the restrictive “that.” The result is another run-on sentence that suffers semantically from carrying so many poorly linked modifying phrases.

Here’s a simpler, more readable rendering of that opening sentence: “Our nation has been shaken to its very foundations by so many scandals involving the corruption and profligacy of high officials.”

The sentence that follows the quoted majority opinion’s opening sentence, apart from being overwrought, mixes and mangles its metaphors: “The anatomy of graft and corruption has become more elaborate in the corridors of time as unscrupulous people relentlessly contrive more and more ingenious ways to milk the coffers of the government.” The peculiar clause “the anatomy of graft and corruption has become more elaborate in the corridors of time” probably would have made better sense if “anatomy” were changed to “mechanism,” and “in the corridors of time” to the literal phrase “over time.” It’s also very likely that the writer of the decision mistook the figurative phrase “corridors of time” for the more semantically appropriate “corridors of power.”

But this much simpler construction of that sentence would have done much better: “Over time, graft and corruption have become more elaborate, with unscrupulous officials contriving more and more ingenious ways of milking the government’s coffers.”

Many more instances of inadequate English are to be found in the Sandiganbayan decision, but the point has been made: Along with many of the English-using sectors of Philippine society, there’s a crying need for the country’s judicial system to improve its English.

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