(A new column for those who are interested in English language proficiency)

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Experience simply is the name we give our mistakes, said that wizard of epigrams Oscar Wilde. All of us in the writing profession, by that token, are experienced. Sometimes we are in good company too.  But the readers don’t enjoy mistakes and the fun they offer. In a humorless world, it is better to avoid making mistakes, which we can manage by not writing at all.

This series is aimed at pointing out simple mistakes men and women, whose job it is to write or process writing in English, make and at showing how they can be avoided. It is not about teaching the language. Instead of proceeding from theory to example we cite an example and explain it by theory. Here is the good company I had said we would find ourselves in:

“Hans India, 6 May, 2014, New Delhi (PTI): Appearing before a bench headed by Justice B S Chauhan, Additional Solicitor General K V Vishwanathan submitted that blocking all such websites would cause greater harm. “Everything would be blocked and even good literature would be blocked and it would cause more greater harm.”

The above excerpt from the agency report eluded two sentinels, first at the PTI desk and next at the Hans India desk. What is wrong with it? We will tell you as we advance into the series. This next example you will read also will go into the freezer to be taken out at the appropriate time. It shows what distinguished company we sometimes can crash into. Read this passage from R.K.Narayan’s Salt and Sawdust published by Penguin Books, Reprinted 2003, page 173):

“While passing Grover Street, one morning an uncle of mine hailed me from his door.” See how the uncle could pass the street as well as be at his door to hail Narayan. This ambiguity passed the scrutiny of both Narayan and the distinguished Penguin editors.

We may disown mistakes arguing English is not our mother tongue. Englishmen whose mother tongue it is too are no different. To show this Bernard Shaw writes in the preface to Pygmalion: “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”

English has become the lingua franca of the world. It is also the language of diplomacy, science and technology and global commerce. India has the second largest English-speaking population in the world. In view of the growing opportunities that await English speakers and writers to travel the path of success parents, even from the most economically weaker sections of the people, are sending their children to what are called English medium schools. As more and more foreign companies are opening shop in India they are ready to absorb the new arrivals with English writing and speaking skills.

Indian print and broadcast media too have room to absorb the influx of English-speaking students. According to the 55th report of the Registrar of Newspapers for India, there are 11,478 newspapers and periodicals in India and 211 news and current affairs TV channels, all of them employing tens of thousands of journalists. They use the English language on a daily basis and 24 hours basis in the case of broadcast channels.

Languages help us receive and transfer information. Each language has a set of rules called Grammar that ensures intelligibility of communication. The problem with many things that are familiar to us is they create a false sense of ‘knowing.’ In fact we don’t know many things we think we know just because they are familiar to us. Take the word ‘do.’ Who doesn’t know its meaning? We know that it means to perform an act. The word by itself and in combination with other words has 54 meanings, according to Dictionary.Com. How many of them do you know to make a perfect English writer?

This series will help the reader know some very basic mistakes we make because we are too lazy to open a grammar book or dictionary. He will learn who thinks what he has learnt is not complete. We know that there are eight parts of speech.  But we treat each one as a heading.  Under the heading there is a lot of information that is as interesting as fiction and as informative as information that few of us know.

These are not grammar lessons. Please don’t begin reading this column without a dictionary and a grammar book by your side. If you ask ten persons how many of them have last opened a grammar book, nine of them would tell you that they haven’t opened one after they had left school. We are so self-assured we don’t readily look into a dictionary when we don’t know the meaning of a word. Even the words whose meaning we know, we don’t know they have several other meanings we don’t know. For example, set, put, get and do. For each one of these simple words the dictionary shows more than 50 meanings. At best we know six or seven meanings. This means we are using a word to mean fewer things than it actually means. .

The aim of this column is to show that correct English can be good English too. It is all a matter of how we choose our words and how we present them. When it ends, this series will become a kind of primer of English mistakes.  That, at least, is our goal. English is a simple language, easy to learn and easy to understand. We wish to show how people who are already doing writing-related jobs make mistakes and how they could stop doing that. All of us, including this writer, make mistakes but the bigger mistake is not to try to rectify them.

First, we must know what is a language. When A speaks to B he talks in some language B understands. A language is what helps us to converse with others and understand when others converse with us. It is a medium of communication/conversation. Signs are also a language. Here we are talking about a spoken or written language. Used by humans.

Usually, writing or speech is in the form of sentences. A sentence is a collection of words formed according to grammar. Sometimes a word also can be a sentence. When A says ‘listen’ it means he is asking someone to listen to him.

Some primary expressions that occur in the discussion about grammar are words, phrases, sentences, clauses and subordinate clauses. It is necessary to know these terms to understand what we are talking about. For the present, it is enough to know that a sentence is “a group of words which expresses a complete thought. A sentence must contain a subject and a verb“

A word is the basic unit of a sentence.

Every word has a meaning. A meaning is different from sense. The word ‘dog’ has a meaning. It means a member of the canine family. But when you say ‘dog’ it does not make sense. Dog what? Dog where? Dog why?  A sentence formed according to the rules of grammar makes sense. ‘This dog is mine.’  This makes sense because the words appear in a discipline grammar ordains. Grammar is a set of rules mainly about constructing a sentence. These rules are known as syntax, which refers to the actual way in which words and sentences are placed together in writing.

A sentence consists of one or more of what are called parts of speech. They are 1. Noun, 2. Verb, 3. Adjective, 4. Adverb,  5. Preposition,  6. Pronoun,  7. Conjunction and  8. Interjection.

We have to know what part each one of them plays in a sentence. A sentence is incomplete without one or more of these parts.  We know what a noun is but when it is a collective noun we may make a mistake in the use of the verb. Should it be ‘the team is’ or ‘the team are?’

We will discuss them with examples when their turn comes.

(To be continued)

2 Responses

  1. SM Krishna says:

    It is very useful to the people who know English to make it “good” and “correct” also and for the people who think they know English but do not know “correct” English, as the case may be. The passage in the column advocates me to buy an Oxford dictionary and Wren & Martin Grammar

  2. Pasupathinath says:

    My friend and colleague has chosen well to educate all of us who think we know English.

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