M I N D Y O U
R L A N G U A G E
column by Sharda Kaushik
in multiple combinations
of my favourite language
stories recalls an annual award convocation. The announcement that 900
students had enrolled in various undergraduate courses was greeted with
spontaneous applause. The next sentence, “873 students have passed
away” left every one flummoxed, even though disasters such as floods,
release of dam water and buses falling off mountainsides are regular
news features. The announcer’s tone and his body language allowed
everyone to decode that 873 students had, in fact, graduated , not died!
The clapping resumed and the programme continued.
Watching language change
is a constant feature of language. Various data banks of changes born naturally and generated by the language community exist. But these electronic corpora are prone to controversies. While some grammarians with an authoritarian approach prescribe continuing with the established rules, many of those liberal in approach describe change as acceptable
Effective speech with a cultivated voice
“ ... While content is how a good piece should be judged, the audience has to hear the story first. If they don’t like how you sound, they’ll miss the rest.”
— Bob Bartlett
Promoting dictionary literacy
dictionary is an underutilised reference book since most learners limit its use to checking the spelling or meaning of a word, coupled with an example or two. A well-conducted tour of a standard dictionary like Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary New 8th Edition can introduce us to a variety of services a fine dictionary offers. But it is a prerequisite to understand its various abbreviations like BrE (British English), OPP (opposite), pl. (plural), its symbols like /i/ and its labels like taboo and humorous.
When asked how the nonsense word “ghoti” could sound the same as
“fish”, George Bernard Shaw explained:
“the ‘gh’ is equal to ‘f’ in rouGH
“the ‘o’ is equal to ‘i’ in wOmen
“the ‘ti’ is equal to ‘sh’ in naTIon
Phatic communication for sociability
and form alone are not sufficient for two speakers to make a successful conversation. Sensitivity to language conventions and social norms is a primary concern, particularly in case of speech acts linked with greetings, small talk, compliments and leave taking. Integral to phatic communication, their main role is to create a pleasant social environment.
“Good grammar is like personal
hygiene — you can ignore it if you want, but don't be surprised when
people draw their conclusions.” — Anonymous
was a time when pronouncing
words like “hotel” and “historical” with a silent “h” was
fashionable but it is passé now. The two words were then preceded by
the indefinite article “an”, used with words beginning with a vowel
sound. They are now preceded by the indefinite article “a”, which
comes before words beginning with a consonant sound.
Words with common affixes and roots
is hardly practical to check the dictionary each time we encounter an unfamiliar word. Numerous words in English are formed by combining one or more affixes with the root of a word. In “disagreement”, the suffix “-ment” is attached to the root “agree” to create “agreement” and further, the prefix “dis-” is linked with the base “agreement” to generate the word “disagreement”. Familiarity with the core meaning of the root/ prefix/ suffix of the word makes it easy to understand other words with common elements.
using the regular -s or -es ending to make a singular noun plural, English relies on some other techniques to play the number game. Nouns like “music” always occur in the singular form but many others like “tongs” appear in the plural form alone. Then there are words like “deer” and “focus”, which don't give us the slightest hint in their sounds or spelling on the plural they will embrace. While “deer” remains the same, “focus” becomes either “focuses” or “foci”. A few examples are taken up below:
in speech reflects good manners
speech shows concern for the interlocutors and tact on the
speaker’s part. Words, sentence forms and tone of voice work in tandem
to build a cordial atmosphere. Sometimes even sentences like “Please
reply soon” and “Help us, won’t you” may get interpreted as
instructions, not requests. A discussion on realizing politeness in
know that a verbal is a
word that combines characteristics of a verb with those of a noun or
adjective. Verbals found in the ‘-ing form’ can lead double lives
for though they are verbals, they can act like nouns and are referred
to as gerunds. In the sentence “Bob hates pacifying Sue”,
“pacifying” in ‘-ing form’ (a gerund) follows the stative
a vowel for clear spoken English
just semantically, there is no correlation between
“village” and “age” in pronunciation either. Yet many users of
English provide full articulation value to vowel letters in words
which otherwise represent short and weak vowel sounds. There exists
well-marked inconsistency between the spelling and the sound system in
English, particularly concerning its vowels. For instance, not one but
a variety of vowel letters and their sequences produce the vowel sound
<I>, as heard in “pin”.
On conventions of using infinitives
poem runs into several lines, almost every line beginning with an infinitive. The most famous quote with the infinitive, however, is the one by Shakespeare: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Evidently, the infinitive is a favourite with writers. The basic form of a verb, it is often preceded by “to”.
Making every word count
not applicable in every situation, but Cough's advice is valid
in most contexts of writing. Careful handling of words in prose
creates clarity in the reader's mind, whereas a vague depiction of
ideas elicits a vague response. The writer's intent determines the
choice of words with attention to conciseness and precision, as
appropriate honorific titles
He … merely bowed and responded in kind.
“My name is Helen, Mr. Brundy,” she said coldly.
“Very well- ‘elen,” said Mr Brundy, surprised and gratified at
being given permission, and on such short acquaintance, to dispense
with the use of her courtesy title.”
— Sheri Cobb South
titles like “Mr/ Mrs/ Ms” and
“Miss” can be of key importance in courteous communication. Our
choice of titles to address others is as much a matter of social
conventions as it is of individual preferences.
idioms to enrich one’s lexicon
"She was fascinated
with words. To her, words were things of beauty, each like a magical
powder or potion that could be combined with other words to create
— Dean Koontz
all idioms can cast a powerful spell, but their imaginative and
clever use of words can certainly add to the interest value of the
message. This explains the popularity of idioms among the native
speakers of English. Idioms are closely bound with the flow of their
thoughts. Formed with two or more words, an idiom acquires a distinct
meaning, different from the meaning of its individual words. For
instance, to "face the music" means to accept the
unpleasantness that follows one's own actions and has nothing to do
with music. Idioms are fixed phrases to be used without changing the
sequence of words and meaning.
"There's no such thing as nothing. In every nothing,
there's a something. In fact, there could be everything!" — Libba
statement above with the
term "nothing" denoting negation is somewhat defensive in
its approach since, as a concept, "negation" carries the
baggage of negativity. The English language provides a range of
negatives to communicate emotions in different styles. A few examples
verbs for smooth-flowing speech
"... the fact that their use is, for the most part, more
colloquial than literary, there still persists a certain prejudice
against phrasal verbs ... [but]it is perhaps in colloquialisms of this
kind... that we come nearest to the idiomatic heart of the English
language." —Logan Pearsall Smith
verbs are composed of one base verb and one or two particles.
The base verb "put" and the particle "out", an
adverb, give us "put out", meaning "extinguish".
The base verb "pick" and the particle "on", a
preposition, give us "pick on", meaning
"ill-treat". Sometimes both the particles combine with the
base verb, as in "look forward to (base verb + adverb +
preposition)" to coin a phrasal verb.
articulation of consonant clusters
"I want to see the thirst
inside the syllables
I want to touch the fire
in the sound:
I want to feel the darkness
of the cry. I want words as rough
as virgin rocks." — Pablo Neruda
poet’s affinity with
sounds and syllables echoes in the lines above.
or agreement for harmony in language
"Like everything metaphysical the
harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of
the language." — Ludwig Wittgenstein
or agreement is one such area of grammar which contributes
significantly to providing harmony to language, as it deals with
matching features between two or more parts of a sentence in person,
number, gender or tense. The matching can be achieved through the
conventions of grammar: "the formal agreement", by meaning
in the context: "the notional agreement" or by closeness in
location within the sentence: "the proximity agreement".
with the presence of
several languages in our environment, many of us have evolved as
privileged users of two or more languages, functioning in them at
different levels of proficiency. Each language finds a unique role and
thereby occupies a distinct place, defined by a specific term.
parallelism into play when writing
structure or parallelism,
a literary device, is widely used in almost all genres of writing. It
involves using a selected grammatical form repeatedly within the
sentence to express similar ideas. For instance, it is preferable to
write “She knows scripting, recording and also editing” in place
of “She knows scripting, recording and also to edit”. Texts with
symmetry of form, as illustrated above, are easy to process and
remember but not as easy to write. Some illustrations of faulty
Choosing precise words for clear communication
THE inherent quality of language to exist in the realms of approximation coupled with some of its users not exercising precision in choice of words causes ambiguity in meaning.
right sounds for past tense marker
"... whether pipe or harp, except
they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is
piped or harped? ... So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue
words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is
spoken?" —St. Paul
Shaw's Pygmalion, once Prof Higgins takes up the challenge of
changing the flower girl Eliza into a duchess, he begins her lessons
by asking her to say a cup of tea, which she repeatedly articulates as
a capputu-uu. Clear understanding of spoken words is an area of
concern in English since there is little one to one correspondence
between sounds and letters.
Use stative verbs with correct tense form
ON a note of satire, Ezekiel captures English as it is used by many in India. He cleverly weaves a string of stative verbs together to pen the 42-line poem, but with a twist. Meddling with rules of grammar, he uses the progressive tense form (-ing) for stative verbs, as seen in “knowing” and “feeling”. While dynamic verbs describe physical actions like “running” and “fainting”, stative verbs express mental, emotional and physical states of being like “know” and “feel.”
as skilled users of connectives
parts of a story should stick together, but the small parts need some
stickum as well. When the big parts fit, we call that good feeling
coherence; when sentences connect, we call it cohesion.” — Roy Peter
Clark For a composition to make smooth reading and for an act of speech
to effect easy comprehension, unity of thought is critical. Coherence
and cohesion work in tandem to ensure that happens by interrelating
sentences and paragraphs.
Ever-evolving word meanings
WHEN Tom Paxton crooned the 60s hit "some ladies are foolish, some ladies are gay, some ladies are comely, some live while they may ...", he was perhaps unaware that "gay" was slowly assuming a meaning that would displace all others. Words of a language are signs with no inherent meaning of their own till we, as user groups, interpret them to mean what we know them to be.
in agreement with conventions
at best is needless
clutter; at worst, it creates the impression that the characters are
overacting, emoting like silent film stars. Still, an adverb can be
exactly what a sentence needs. They can add important intonation to
dialogue, or subtly convey information."
acculturation of English
“The language I speak,
Its distortions, its queerness
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, half Indian, ...
displaying the local
flavour sneak into English as we use it for functional and literary
purposes. They surface as variations made to the core variety,
Standard British English (SBE). Though these variants are not viewed
as superior or inferior to SBE, they are certainly recognised as
different. They have earned the local variety its popular label,
“At a certain point talk about 'essence' and 'oneness' and the
universal becomes more tautological than inquisitive.”
the impression of adding
information, there are times we end up repeating an idea within the
sentence. Referred to as tautology, the word derives from the Greek
term "tauto" meaning "the same" and
"logos" meaning "word/ idea".
Asking questions with wh-words
“I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and
Why and When
And How and Where and Who.” — Rudyard Kipling
conversing on self and society or when writing a story, wh-words serve well to collect, analyse and interpret thoughts. But some learners find it hard to form grammatically correct questions with interrogative
rhythm with weak forms
"... every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was
so perfectly well turned and well placed, that, without being interested
in the subject, one could not help being pleased with the
discourse..." —Benjamin Franklin
rhythm of the language, in
harmony with its distinct melody, adds to the listener's delight and
augments communicative worth of connected speech. In English, stressed
and unstressed words are interspersed at regular intervals, and their
recurrence gives the language its characteristic stress-timed rhythm.
people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot
think well, others will do their thinking for them." — George
Expression and experience are usually interdependent. While writing we
often grapple with words to build an argument and our efforts result
in crystallising abstract and semi-baked ideas. But sometimes
seemingly well-crafted works come across as wounded writing. It may be
due to logical fallacies or errors in thinking, which rob them of
credibility. How faulty reasoning leads to faulty writing is
Punctuation for deriving deeper meaning
work in tandem with voice modulation to complement word meaning in spoken and written discourse. While making it easy for us to read, they also inform us of what follows: a surprise, a query or just the repeat. By the 18th century, the shapes of the punctuation and their uses, as we see them now, had been formalised.
Search for suitable synonyms
renowned philosopher's words show how synonyms can have different connotations or implied meanings. Denotative meanings of words found in dictionaries are their clear and direct definitions. As compared to them, connotative meanings live in the realms of human experience, depicting emotions and cultural beliefs and practices. Some synonyms may seem interchangeable but in reality they have distinct identities, as is illustrated below:
Stringing together vague adjectives
word adjective ... is ... in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.” —
Functional shift in word accent
“The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
I did not object to the object.
The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
I was content to know the content of the message.
The Blessed Virgin blessed her.”
The importance of
poet’s reflection on
personal pronouns, modern and archaic, says a lot about their
relevance in the language. While replacing nouns and noun phrases,
pronouns help avoid repetition of words. Binding words together, they
lend unity to the discourse. At times, personal pronouns also reflect
our personalities and attitudes. Some illustrations follow:
new words find acceptance
“Only through new words might new worlds be called into order...”
Language is considered to be organic, as it behaves like living
organisms in many ways. On a day-to-day basis, users of the English
language give birth to hundreds of words of which only a few hundred
find followers, fewer still find entry to standard dictionaries. What
sustains them is their frequent use by different people in equally
asking the right questions
Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask
better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.
— Anthony Robbins
well-framed, questions define the scope of answers, providing
them with a sense of direction. Some learners take a simplistic view
of the English question tags, considering them to be just seeking
confirmation. They substitute them with fixed expressions like
"isn't it", translating the Hindi tag "hai na" or
the Punjabi tag "changa".
to boost word power
But words are things, and a small drop of ink,/Falling like dew,
upon a thought, produces/That which makes thousands, perhaps millions,
—George Gordon Byron
and words are interdependent and aid each other's development.
Words, therefore, form a core element in comprehension of texts. In
the popular sentence completion activity, the learner selects a pair
of options, which on being used separately produce sentences alike in
meaning. Errors can be common but strategies help to figure out
meanings, as seen below:
Modals and nuances
surrounding English usage
interested David Foster Wallace who made them the theme of some of his
essays. The complexities of English usage can compel the best of
writers to seek occasional guidance.
comical phrase “up with which I will not put” is attributed to
Churchill. It marks his protest against the so-called rule that
sentences in English cannot end with a preposition. Apparently,
Churchill reacted to a minor change made to his speech.
rose by any other name would smell as sweet
looked at euphemisms as words which behave like secret agents in
delicate missions. That is only partially right. Euphemisms operate in a
much wider range of situations — from helping individuals and
organisations to sound politically correct to diffusing the harshness of
contemporary George Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright, in his desire
to reform the English spelling too had something similar to say about
it: an old foreign alphabet of which only the consonants-and not all
of them-have any agreed speech value. There are many reasons behind
the arbitrariness in pronunciation and spelling in this language. A
few instances follow:
the articles play
“I am afraid we are not rid of
Because we still have faith in
grammar.” —Friederich Nietzsche
grammar is integrated in
English language teaching, the articles continue to challenge the
unsuspecting learner. While students of most Western European languages
like French and Greek are familiar with the use of articles, those of
Indian languages find the concept alien. Their struggle is evident in
the following sentences:
“Tutor was good at making simple things difficult,” said Saina.
is perhaps due to the role the verbs play which compels writers
to make such statements. Amidst them, the phrasal verb finds
expression in the English language to lend an air of informality to
what is being said. A phrasal verb is a combination of two or three
words and the unit together carries a single meaning but one phrasal
verb can have more than one meaning.
“The word is the Verb, and the Verb is God.” Victor Hugo
to be word friendly
true for all walks of life, observing conventions is crucial to English
language and usage too. One among such conventions is collocation or
word partnership. As David Crystal puts it, it is “the likelihood that
any particular lexical items will occur in the immediate environment of
any other" though one can never claim to have the last word on
statements made about collocations.