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14 May 2008

They Don't Know English

But that does not surprise, as they don't know Hindi either
Surajit Dasgupta
Almost everyday for several years now, one has been coming across headlines and texts in the Indian newspapers and sound-bytes in the television news channels that are horrendous examples of communication. Even if content is considered more important than language, what cannot be ignored or glossed over is that many sentences do not mean what the respective writers had intended them to mean. This list is to highlight major flaws of the type. The collection does not include flaws that do not convey to the reader a wrong message. The nature of this post is such that it has to be constantly updated with new additions. So, watch this space

  • The Economic Times' 14 May 2008 issue read:
    "Mobile services provider Bharati Airtel on Tuesday announced it would focus on
    extending its services to villages in Tamil Nadu with a population of

    We didn't know the population of Tamil Nadu was a mere 3,000. Thank you, ET, for the (mis)information.

    Edited: "Mobile services provider Bharati Airtel on Tuesday announced it would focus on extending its services to villages in Tamil Nadu,..."
    "... each of which has a population of 3,000 or more."
    OR "... each of which has a population of at least 3,000."
    OR "Mobile services provider Bharati Airtel on Tuesday announced it would focus on extending its services to villages with populations of more than/ at least 3,000 each in Tamil Nadu."

    • A headline in The Indian Express, 15 May 2008 issue read:
      "Probe discovers striking parallel: bombs in Jaipur, Hyderabad ditto"

      That is, the bombs that had blasted in Hyderabad in August 2007 were re-used in Jaipur in May 2008. As preposterous as laughable! For, "ditto" means "the same", not "similar": used, especially in a list, underneath a particular word or phrase, to show that it is repeated and to avoid having to write it again (Oxford English Dictionary)

      Edited: "Bombs in Jaipur, Hyderabad: probe discovers striking parallel"
      The word "ditto" or any of its synonyms was not needed at all as "parallel" sufficed.

    • A headline in The Asian Age's 15 May 2008 issue read:
      "Suspect sketch out, ISD calls checked"

      Was the sketch the suspect? One thought it must be the character depicted in the sketch.
      Edited: "Suspect's sketch out, ISD calls checked"

    • This doesn't mean English speakers know their English well. One is unlikely to get, in the first attempt, the meaning of the following sentence in this report in The Washington Post(14 May 2008):
    • "'We also asked were serious complications, such as death and
      organ failure, lower for aprotinin compared to the two other drugs,' Fergusson

      It is disturbing to note that the rules pertaining to reported/indirect speech are increasingly being flouted all over the world, causing a lot of confusion in the mind of the learned reader. In the sentence above, the "were" after the "asked" causes a sudden break in the flow of reading.

      Edited: "'We also asked if/whether serious complications, such as death and organ failure, were lower for aprotinin as/when compared to the two other drugs,' Fergusson said."

    • How do you "do well from" a given point of "time"? What do I mean? I don't really know! Has somebody been keeping well for a year? Find out from The Indian Express, 24 May 2008:
      "Government schools have also done well from last year — 2.99
      per cent more students have passed to take the tally to 85.7 per cent."

      Edited: "Government schools have done/performed better this year..."

    • "Also" and "too": a common Indian confusion; the usage of "also" by most Indians is such that it does not remain a synonym of "too"!

      A Times Now report filed on 28 May 2008 at 10:04:59 pm:

      "It has been more than two weeks since a 14-year-old DPS Nodia student Arushi
      Talwar was found murdered in her own home. A day later, the family servant
      Hemraj was also found dead..."

      "Hemraj was also found dead" implies that they found Hemraj to be something else as well! But that's certainly not the intended meaning here; the "also" must be referring to another dead/murdered person (besides Arushi).

      Edited: Hemraj, too, was found dead (commas before and after "too" optional)

      Also note the unnecessary use of "own" as in "... murdered in her own home"

      The Press Trust of India isn't any better:

      "Nupur, who is also a dentist, said she cannot believe that her husband could be
      behind the murders."

      So, Nupur is what else?

      Clearly, the reporter/editor intended it to be "Nupur, who is a dentist too (like Rajesh and Anita), said she could not believe that her husband could be behind the murders."

      Further, note that "cannot" cannot go with "said".

    • This morning (2 June 2008), Zee News telecast a programme on futuristic technology that may be able to predict natural calamities. They had decided to club with it aspects such as astrology, premonition, clairvoyance and retrocognition.

      In the programme, on several occasions, the person providing the voiceover translated "déjà vu" [déjà = already; vu = (past participle form of the French verb, voir - to see) seen] as pUrwAbhAs (पूर्वाभास) = premonition. The two are certainly not the same; in fact, the thought process is just the opposite. In case of "déjà vu", you come across something and feel that you had, some time in the past, seen it somewhere; whereas in case of a premonition, you first see something and then it happens exactly as you had seen it.

    • India is the only country that has several "ministers for planets"! For, many journalists in the Hindi electronic media pronounce the term for "home minister", griha mantrI (गृह मंत्री), as grah (ग्रह) mantrI!

    • It's a shame that a big chunk of the population of English users in India, including journalists, do not know the difference between "alternate" and "alternative".

      "Diesel cars could also be preferred over petrol, considering the fuel is
      cheaper. Also, alternate fuel options like LPG and CNG could be
      in demand. 'There can be a further shift to diesel cars from petrol. However, a
      big shift to LPG/CNG versions may be restricted due to their limited
      availability,' Jajoo said."
      from a report in The Times Of India, 5 June 2008 -

      And a whole lot of other newspapers and websites follow with as much innocent ignorance:
      The Economic Times:
      "CII undertakes initiatives for alternate fuel usage (like wind
      energy and solar power); energy efficient furnaces and boilers; energy labeling
      for oil fired systems and gas stoves; extensive awareness campaigns to promote
      oil conservation in small and medium industries and domestic sector; switchover
      of captive steam generators from fuel oil to alternate sources; etc, concluded

      "(Prime Minister Manmohan) Singh used the speech to push the Indo-US nuclear deal and urged the country to tap alternate sources of energy."

      The Canadians have forgotten their English too:
      "In Watkins Glen, N.Y., there is a Grand Prix that truly is green. Aptly named
      the Green Grand Prix, for the last four year it has brought together owners of
      hybrid and alternate fuel vehicles in the only road rally of
      its kind in the United States sponsored by the Sports Car Club of America,"
      said The Gazette's 31 May 2008 edition.

      Now, say, in a week if the alternate days are Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, since the contents extracted from the top to the bottom of a fractional distillation column for crude oil are in the order: naphtha, gasoline, paraffin, diesel, grease, fuel oil (for ships, factories, central heating, etc) and residue petrol, are the newspapers asking us to use gasoline, diesel and fuel oil alternately to run our cars? That may still be possible, though it would mean carrying three engines in every car and allied accessories for each fuel, making your car as huge as a mini ship in the process. But some editor should explain to us how we can run our vehicles on naphtha, paraffin, grease or oil residue!

    • The Indian Express should now think of claiming a copyright for the following mistake (highlighted): PAGE 1 ANCHOR
      Charlesworth, called to revive Indian hockey, hasn’t been paid four-month dues
      Navneet Singh
      Friday, 20 June 2008
      Rs 17 lakh dues from November to March still pending, SAI says we are trying to sort it out
      Did SAI say that the staff of The Indian Express were trying to sort out the problem?

      Edited: SAI says it is trying to sort out the problem

      As Chandril has commented below, it must be nothing but egotism that does not let such editors correct the mistakes they have been doing for ages. The following is an e-mail I had written to the newspaper's chief editor, Shekhar Gupta, last year, disgusted as well as exasperated with the wrong usage of the first person in reported speech in its headlines. Clearly, the newspaper will arrogantly keep passing this error as 'style'.

      from: Surajit Dasgupta 16/08/2007
      to: shekhar@expressindia.com
      date: 16 Aug 2007 20:59
      subject: Express English
      mailed-by: gmail.com

      Dear Mr Shekhar Gupta,

      It may be very unconventional of an editorial staffer of a newspaper to correspond with the editor of another paper except when the former is looking for a job. But the constant wrong usage of English on the front page of your otherwise brilliant publication has been disturbing me so much for the last three years that today I thought of breaking the convention.

      My specific objection is to the use of first person pronouns in the headlines. It is only to a certain extent that grammar can be compromised for the sake of a paper's distinct, individualistic style. The examples I'll quote will show that it has crossed that limit.

      Consider two headlines on the front page of today's edition (17 August 2007):
      (1) CPM says we will push hard rather than pull out on deal; &
      (2) India should answer why they stopped appeal... I was ready for the Q case: Public Prosecutor.

      In the first instance, did you mean "CPM says Indian Express will push hard rather than pull out on deal"? Certainly not. Then, who is "we" (referring to)? This sentence seems to have been phrased by a person who thinks in Hindi (or any other Indian language) but has to write in English, as it is in our native languages alone that the reported speech does not see the pronoun in the speech part agreeing with the person of the speaker.

      If you want to retain 'we', then "we will... on deal" should be within quotes. And
      if there isn't enough space for the punctuation marks, then the correct usage of
      English takes care of the constraint: "CPM says it will..."

      The "I" in the second example is, however, okay simply because you have used a colon before "Public Prosecutor". Though it does not have the inverted commas mandated by school-bookish grammar, that much of compromise is admissible not only in journalese but also from a reader's viewpoint. Further, to address the issue of space, the first headline could have been "CPM: We will..."

      I would not have written this letter to you had this kind of erroneous English not been a regular feature of your front page. Either the first example -- despite being wrong -- shows Express's distinct style or the second, the preferable one, does. Employing both confuses the reader, presuming -- I suppose, correctly -- that an Indian Express reader is discerning.

      Please discuss the matter with your page-one editorial staff and fix the problem. This I request as a humble student of the English language.

      Thanking you,
      Surajit Dasgupta.
    • Indian Express's 'copyrighted' (wrong) English continues... as predicted!
      Page 1 flier headline: SP deals Kalam trump card
      Tagline: Kalam told us nuclear deal is in best national interest, says Mulayam, hours after he gets UNPA allies to agree to disagree, soften their opposition

      Edited: Kalam told him nuclear deal was in best national interest, says Mulayam
    • This was not expected at all. Of all papers, The Hindu has published a report that reads so funny.

      Gujarat riots’ victims do not want to return home: Survey
      Staff ReporterWednesday, Sep 10, 2008 |
      "The first two years after the 2002 Gujarat riots were the most difficult for the victims as the rehabilitation camps were forcibly closed down, points out a survey on the socio-economic condition of the riot victims released in the Capital .

      Titled “The Wretched”, the survey conducted in March 2007 in Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Panchmahal, Bharuch, Anand, Mehsana, Dahod and Sabarkantha was aimed at assessing the living conditions of each and every family affected by the riots. The survey team members interviewed 4,182 individuals. Addressing a press conference here, scientist Gauhar Raza said a majority of the respondents did not want to go back to their homes because of the fear psychosis prevailing in the State.“Even six years after the riots, Muslims fear identifying their Hindu neighbours who saved their lives during the riots and Hindus also fear claiming proudly that they were the ones who helped their Muslims friends during the carnage."

      Now read the highlighted portions together in this order:
      The survey was aimed at "assessing the living conditions of each and every family affected by the riots" which were living in "rehabilitation camps" that "were (already) forcibly closed down"...

      "... respondents (in Gujarat) did not want to go back to their homes (Gujarat)..."

      That is, the surveyors went to a camp that does not exist, for the news item reports in the very first paragraph that the camps were shut down within the first two years after the riot! And, those already in Gujarat did not want to go back to Gujarat!
    • Research's impact

      It feels good to believe someone in The Indian Express has read my blog. The headline of one of the news reports in today's edition of the 'Express' reads: "Killing of CEO: PM steps in, Oscar ‘sorry’, but says ‘I am for the poor’"
      So far, the 'Express' would have it this way: Oscar says I am for the poor (notice the absence of inverted commas), meaning perhaps that Oscar Fernandes says that The Indian Express reporter is for the poor!

      Well, Shekhar Gupta could argue the government is so impressed by his paper that its ministers go out of their way to advertise it in their speeches!

      ... to be continued
      The writer is a mathematician and linguist, now a corporate communicator and has been a journalist, a teacher and marketing manager (in reverse chronological order) in his previous vocations


    Chandril said...

    It is really embarrassing to work with a boss whose English knowledge is poor. He is neither ready to accept the editing done by a subordinate nor he can himself do so. As a result, errors persist and ultimately the chap who pointed out the errors is held responsible.

    In India the situation is awful. A considerable number of bosses, especially in the media, are full with their self engineered notions of grammar. If someone from subordinates raises some error, the boss reacts strangely as if the junior fellow is wrong and he is correct with his flawed knowledge. Even if the subordinate produces online dictionary corroborating his voice, the boss asks him to check with the print version. Because in India most people from the print media think that all the data available on the Internet are false, although they mostly collect stories and pictures from websites. If the chap tries to prove the mistake showing the print version of the dictionary, the boss says that there must be some typos in dictionary.

    As a result, the subordinate fellow falls prey to the boss’s ire. Because the boss knows if this fellow is allowed to continue working with the organization he will point out more and more mistakes, which will squarely prove the incapability of the former.

    The days are, therefore, gone when teachers used to advise students to go through some newspaper or magazine in order to strengthen their English knowledge.

    Anish The Gr8 said...

    Does it really matter? As long as the readers understand what is written, who cares if the grammar is right or not? I also feel that journalism is an art like poetry, so journalists should be free to use words in any way that they feel is most suitable to attract most attention from the readers.

    Surajit Dasgupta said...

    It does matter, Anish. A learned reader/viewer cannot be expected to know whether or not a journalist knows proper English. And the meanings conveyed in the two cases are different. Take for instance the first example where I have quoted the Economic Times. Wouldn’t an English or American businessman who functions in the telecom sector — and who does not know much about the Indian states — understand wrongly, though not for his fault, that the population of Tamil Nadu is a mere 3,000? Should he base his marketing strategy on such a report? Given the fact that this is the most circulated newspaper of India, he shouldn’t normally doubt its credibility. But it would be disastrous for him to believe what has been written.

    What does “Nupur Talwar is also a dentist” mean? Isn’t it something like “Nupur Talwar is a woman”, “Nupur Talwar is a mother” and “Nupur Talwar is also a dentist”, instead of the intended “Nupur Talwar is a dentist like Rajesh Talwar and Anita Durrani (are)”?

    Wrong usage of English puts an extra bit of pressure on the reader/viewer who has to first search for the actual English equivalents of wrong Indian English to be able to get the intended message.

    Also note that the electronic media journalists pronounce a lot many words wrongly. Now, there are people in the West whose knowledge of English orthography is not good. They identify words and relate to their meanings based on their phones. Indian journalists have a penchant for an excessive use of “penchant”, which is pronounced by most of them as /pen-chunt/ or /pen-chent/. Especially an American will never understand that the word is /pα~Śα~/. This I say based on my experience of teaching many students of the American Embassy School. And what about the Indian reader/viewer who has learnt English well? How can he be sure that this is supposed to be “penchant” and not a new word that he didn’t learn at school?

    No wonder Indian newspapers, irrespective of the massive circulation of some of them, have still not gained respectability internationally. One of the reasons is unintelligibility. The other is a clear political bias that all of them suffer from, which, of course, is not the subject of discussion of this blog-post.

    Anonymous said...

    Your comments are interesting. My English knowledge can't evaluate the mistakes and the level of those newspapers in the language of Sakespeare.
    Therefore, in your minds, who are the best newspapers in english? Time? New York Times? Times of India?
    Right now, I am embarrassed because if I must read those newspapers with a bad english. I don't know how I will be able to improve myself!!!

    Anish The Gr8 said...

    I did not think about any forigner who might be reading the reports. It might confuse them. But to Indians who read the reports, a small human error wont make a huge difference. People no longer rely on newspapers (especially national dailies) to bring them news. TV channels do that, so people depend on newspapers for more details about news, for opinions on news, and for some local and international news.

    I see this as a good trend. It will lead to the emergence of Indian English as a new language, similar to American English. While American English was about new words and new spellings, Indian English will be all about a new concept. It will be a language which will transform sentence construction. Maybe a language that allows that assumes that the reader has some common sense.

    Surajit Dasgupta said...

    Anish, there is a problem with your presumption that Indian English can rise to attain the standard of American English. For one, the former lacks the standards that the latter has. Also Indian movies do not represent any average standard followed in Indian phonetics, unlike Hollywood movies almost all of whose actors have the same accent, with a little difference between the styles of speech of Black and White actors. In certain cases, Hollywood has been setting yardsticks of English even in England. But if you were to learn Hindi from Hindi movies, you have little option but to stop viewing movies made after the 1970s. Dilip Kumar’s diction was superb. Amitabh Bachchan’s is acceptable. Shah Rukh Khan’s is tolerable. And Akshay Kumar’s is as repulsive as Punjabi Hindi can be.

    Indian English per se, which sounds like English but may not be so in numerous cases, could not be deciphered even by the Indian scholars (university professors) who compiled the Indian English supplementary section in the Oxford English Dictionary. They expressed their inability to present in a standardised form the phonetics and grammar of English-sounding words and expressions invented by Indians.

    A few examples should demonstrate the problem of intra-India communication in Indian English: What do you, a person who hails from Kerala, understand when someone from Delhi refers to a “cut” while talking of roadways? Did you know that many Bengalis use the word “callous” to mean “kæbla”, a Bengali slang for “stupid” or “ham-handed” instead of meaning that the subject is “insensitive to others’ concerns”? When a Bihari says “fight”, it may specifically mean the action of “punching with a fist” instead of any other kind of brawl. Should a north Indian take offence if a Tamilian calls him a “rascal”? Can you be sure that your friend has had lunch at a “hotel” when it may have either been a restaurant or really a hotel where he had eaten the day's meal?

    It is so confusing to hear north Indians pronounce “content” always as /kən’tent/ (“a person satisfied with what he/she has”!), while it has to be /’kawn,tent/ if one is referring to “what something contains”. Similarly, few know that the only difference between the pronunciations of “president” and “precedent” is the z-sounding ‘s’ in the former. If that doesn’t confuse because “president” and “precedent” are contextually far apart, “vine” and “wine” have ample scope for confusion, as vines may be of grapes that make wine. Even as most Indians are unable to pronounce “v” with the friction of the upper teeth and the lower lip, television and radio journalists must be trained — famous linguist Kusum Haider trains Doordarshan’s newsreaders whose far better diction is evident — to distinguish between the two.

    It could be scandalous if some Hindi media journalist pronounces “fasAnah” (tale) as “pha~sAnA” (entrap)! They also don't know that by pronouncing "Khan" (a title) as "khan" (a mine), they may be insulting the person whose name is being called. And yes, for the infinite time let me try to teach them: "KhulAsah karnA" means "to summarise", not "to disclose".

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    Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.