The Word

Dasu Krishnamoorty

We cannot speak or write without using words. The Bible considers the word as God.  Properly used, words make the world kneel before you. The two words Vande Mataram brought the British rulers down on their knees. The Mardeka word drove the Dutch out of Indonesia. Continuing our series, we will discuss the word and the mistakes we, using the word, are likely to make with eyes open or closed. Later, we will also know about the order of words in a sentence

The word is the arch stone of the sentence. Every word has a meaning and, when it gets into a sentence, acquires a function too. The word ‘good’ for instance. Besides possessing a meaning, it can, in a sentence, become an adjective or an adverb or even a noun. Read the three sentences below:

He is a good boy (adjective)

He works for the good of the people. (Noun)

His plan sounded good (adverb)

But what is a word? Let the Oxford Dictionary define it for us: “A single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed.” In short, a word is just a unit of language. It can be part of a sentence or a sentence itself. 

Words can be misspelt or used unwittingly to mean something different from what they were intended to mean. See how the noun advice below became a verb because it was incorrectly spelt in this The Asian Age report:

The Asian Age (Panaji April 2, 2015) Goa chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar is in the eye of a storm over his alleged advise to agitating nurses that they should not stage hunger strike in the sun because it will make them “dark” and “ruin their marital prospects.”

What should have been a noun has become a verb and, as if in disguise, stole past the desks both of PTI and The Age.

Here is an anecdote from the past, emphasizing the need to respect word order. When I was a copy editor in The Indian Express (Vijayawada edition) in the sixties, it carried this hilarious sentence: “Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri will broadcast a talk on NEFA which he toured last week tomorrow.” It should have been “Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri will broadcast tomorrow….” It matters where we place the words in a sentence. This order of words in a sentence is called syntax which will figure in our next unit of the series.

All writing is in the form of sentences. A short story writer uses sentences to write stories.  The journalist writes his report in sentences. Even the mistakes he makes happen in sentence forms. Do mistakes happen because, as Mathew Arnold had said, journalism is literature in a hurry?

Here is an example of a poorly written sentence from The New York Times, lacking in clarity. The story is about the courage of a transvestite.

 Julfikar Ali Malik, NYT 3 April 2015:

On Thursday, speaking about the attack in the presence of her guru, Ms. Hijra was asked whether she would appear in person to accept congratulations from the police. She looked expectantly at Sapna Hijra, who said, “Why not?”

Was the report referring to an attack that happened in the presence of the Guru or was the report referring to someone talking about the attack in the presence of the Guru? Also the active voice verb “speaking” and the passive voice verb “was asked” refer to the same person.

The modifier at the beginning of the sentence shows Ms. Hijra doing the speaking. So she becomes the subject but the verbal phrase “was asked” makes her an object, all in the same sentence.

Rewritten, the news item could have read:

When I referred to the attack and asked Ms.Hijra on Thursday whether she would appear in person to accept congratulation from the police, she looked expectantly at her Guru who said “why not?”

Or it could be split into three smaller sentences: “I met Ms. Hijra on Thursday and referred to the attack. I asked her whether she would appear in person to accept congratulations from the police. She looked expectantly at her Guru who said “why not?”

The moral for all of us is to write short and simple sentences because they are manageable. If the NYT reporter had reread his report before passing to the desk or if the deskman was alert, this embarrassment could have been avoided.

 If we write simple, unadorned prose such errors would be rare. One of America’s best short story writers of the latter half of the last century Raymond Carver wrote his short stories in simple and short sentences, using adjectives and adverbs in the rarest of rare cases. In contrast, James Joyce wrote the first longest sentence: in English literature in Ulysses, consisting of 4391 words but his feat was later dwarfed by Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters Club, published in 2001, containing a sentence with 13,955 words..

Reporters must be careful in using unnecessary adjectives or adverbs in a news report because they amount to a comment. Remember C.P.Scott’s maxim, “Facts are sacred, comment is free.”

Conventional thinking believes that words have interchangeable synonyms that mean the same thing as the word they refer to. Thesauruses show more than 50 synonyms for the word ‘walk.’ But amble, shuffle, pad, strut, scurry, scamper, slog, plod etc. are different ways of walking which is the parent word.

We have referred to grammatical elements like voices and modifier in this tract. They will be analyzed in detail when we discuss them as independent units.

Pay attention to spellings of word-pairs like goal/gaol. pare/pear, peer/pier, quiet/quite, see/sea etc. Proofreaders are likely to overlook the difference in spelling. Confusion is likely because many of them are homonyms, same-sounding words with different meanings.

(To be continued)

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