M I N D    Y O U R    L A N G U A G E

A weekly column by Sharda Kaushik

November 29, 2014

‘Pass’ in multiple combinations
One 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.

November 15, 2014

Watching language change
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 behaviour.

November 8, 2014

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

October 25, 2014

Promoting dictionary literacy 
The 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.

October 18, 2014

Examining sound-spelling behaviour
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

October 11, 2014

Phatic communication for sociability
Content 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.

October 4, 2014

Practising English articles 
Sharda Kaushik

“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.

September 27, 2014

Words with common affixes and roots
Sharda Kaushik
It 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.

September 20, 2014

Practising plurals
Sharda Kaushik
Besides 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:

September 13, 2014

Politeness in speech reflects good manners
Polite 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 speech follows:

September 6, 2014

Use with caution
We 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  verb “hates”.

August 30, 2014

Knowing a vowel for clear spoken English
ot 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”.

August 23, 2014

On conventions of using infinitives
The 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”.

August 9, 2014

Making every word count
erhaps 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 discussed below:

August 2, 2014

Choosing appropriate honorific titles
He … merely bowed and responded in kind.
“Lady 'elen.”
“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.

July 19, 2014

Learning 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 powerful spells."
Dean Koontz
Not 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.

July 12, 2014

Expressing specific emotional intensity
"There's no such thing as nothing. In every nothing, there's a something. In fact, there could be everything!" — Libba Bray
The 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 follow:

July 5, 2014

Phrasal 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
Phrasal 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.

June 28, 2014

Clear 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
The poet’s affinity with sounds and syllables echoes in the lines above.

June 21, 2014

Concord 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
Concord 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".

June 14, 2014

Understanding language terms
Blessed 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.

June 7, 2014

Bringing parallelism into play when writing
Parallel 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 parallelism follow:

May 31, 2014

Choosing precise words for clear communication
HE 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.

May 24, 2014

Using 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
In 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.

May 17, 2014

Use stative verbs with correct tense form
N 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.”

May 10, 2014

Evolving as skilled users of connectives
The big 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.

May 3, 2014

Ever-evolving word meanings
HEN 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.

April 26, 2014

Adverbs in agreement with conventions
"Overuse 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."

April 19, 2014

The acculturation of English
“The language I speak,
Becomes mine,
Its distortions, its queerness
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, half Indian, ...

                                            —Kamla Das

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, Indian English.

April 12, 2014

Re-examining tautology
At a certain point talk about 'essence' and 'oneness' and the universal becomes more tautological than inquisitive.” —Christopher Hitchens
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".

April 5, 2014

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
When 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 pronouns.

March 29, 2014

Enhancing 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
The 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.

March 22, 2014

Avoiding logical fallacies
F people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them." — George Orwell
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 demonstrated below:

March 15, 2014

Punctuation for deriving deeper meaning
Pauses 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.

March 8, 2014

Search for suitable synonyms
The 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:

March 1, 2014

Stringing together vague adjectives
"The word adjective ... is ... in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.” — Anne Carson

February 22, 2014

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.”

February 15, 2014

The importance of pronouns
The 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:

February 8, 2014

How new words find acceptance
“Only through new words might new worlds be called into order...” —Saul Williams
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 different contexts.

February 1, 2014

On 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
When 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".

January 25, 2014

How 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, think.
—George Gordon Byron
Thoughts 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:

January 4, 2014

Modals and nuances
Controversies 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.

December 28, 2013

Puzzles in prepositions
he 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.

December 21, 2013

...a rose by any other name would smell as sweet
risp 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 realities.

December 14, 2013

Sounds of silence
His 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:

December 7, 2013

Games the articles play
I am afraid we are not rid of God
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.

November 30, 2013

Parlance at ease
“The word is the Verb, and the Verb is God.” Victor Hugo
It 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.

November 23, 2013

How to be word friendly
s 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.





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