lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Friday, July 07, 2006

Singular madness

There was a time, maybe a century ago, newspapers were read not just for news, but to learn correct usage, too. Nowadays though, it is all one can do to wince and gnash one's teeth through the day's lot of howlers. They don't seem to proof-read or correct the grammar before they publish anymore.

Admittedly, English is a second language for us, and it has its quirks. Take plurals for example.

English has so many different and bewildering forms of them: plurals are formed by adding s, certainly, but in the case of nouns ending with s, ch, sh or o, plurals are formed by adding es. But some nouns ending with o are left alone, like in mementos or pianos.

Where nouns end with fe, the plural form changes the f to v and adds es; but there are exceptions, like chiefs, dwarfs or roofs. For nouns ending with y, plurals are formed by changing the y to i and adding es. Some plurals forms are achieved by changing the vowel inside the noun like teeth or feet. And then there are plural nouns that are formed by adding en.

Some nouns are used only in plural, like tongs, trousers or nuptials, some are used only in the singular, like news, mathematics or measles.

Collective nouns are something else. They are singular in form but are used as plurals. Some nouns are used as both singular and plural. Words borrowed from Latin or Greek retain their original forms of plurals.

If all that is not enough, some nouns mean different things in singular and plural forms. Take spectacle for instance. It means different things in the plural form. Ditto premise. I could go on, but you get the drift.

I was doing what I do best, which is nagging my son. It was time to start getting packed and it meant I had to nag full time, non-stop.

As I waited for him bring out his stuff for me to pack, I was doing the other thing I do best, too. Fuming about the standard of English in newspapers.

This was about a beauty column, and a reader had written in to ask if colouring her hair regularly was safe or " will it damage them." Hair is always singular, I grumbled. Why can't people bother, I fumed. This is the influence of the vernacular and literal translations, I theorised.

My son caught the gist of my rant as he (finally) deigned to bring his things out for me to pack.

"What does it matter, as long as you make yourself understood?" he said, as he dumped the last armful of clothes next to his suitcase. "You are a puritan," he added.

"A purist, " I corrected, sitting down before his mammoth suitcase. He rolled his eyes in response.

"Pass me the scissors, will you?" What for, he asked, in the spirit of the eternal inquirer. "I could snip some designer rips in your jeans, I suppose." I said, indicating the price tags on the new clothes.

"Ah, a scissor have multiple use," he gravely intoned, and took my wince as due applause.



Anonymous Rajesh said...

Will your next post be titled 'Insanity is inherited, you get it from your children'?

4:39 pm  
Blogger db said...

They don't seem to proof-read or correct the grammar before they publish anymore.

Sorry to digress, but I couln't help thinking ... why would newspapers care about grammar and spell-checks, given the interests of many readers these days. Indian newspapers seem more interested in entertainment, gossip and utter nonsense rather than politics economics, business or technology issues. What else would explain a scantily-clad Mallika Sherawat occupying the front page of the Monday Times of India ... needless to mention the Page3, gossip et al.

6:23 pm  
Anonymous priya said...

i remember the days when my uncle used to tell me to watch dd news just to pick up usha albuquerque's english. now, learning english from a news channel is a big joke, especially when they have inarticulate buffoons for newsreaders and worse, reporters who get all hyper when they are sent out on a story, and forget how to move their lips in sync with their thoughts.
it's the same in any form of media in india.
we are witnessing a gradual dumbing down of our sensiblities.
all im hoping for is that it's just a phase, and will pass.

9:00 pm  
Anonymous Ash said...

Your son has a wicked sense of humour.

But Lali, why do you expect newspapers to provide good English? The media is all into sensationalism now, and don't care a fig for correct usage.

That's a collective noun and probably a wrong usage you will pounce on too, but what the heck!

Inglish is here to stay.

9:58 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rajesh- That'd be telling. :D

Ram- I agree; it is pathetic how real news is given short shrift and celebrity tracking seems to be the main purpose of journalism these days.

Priya- You forgot to mention the screechy voices and the breathless routines. NDTV seems to be the worst culprit when it comes to incoherent shrill babble.

Maybe we are heading towards a Grand Unified Lingo, at that.

Ash- No way, nohow. :D We are dumbing ourselves down, as Priya says.

10:27 pm  
Anonymous priya said...

the question isnt of english or inglish. we dont want reporters who fumble for words. there are many radio jockeys who speak inglish, but they do so fluently, with proper articulation and pronunciation. this is really a great thing, as the rjs in blore switch between kannada, english and hindi all the time, and make sure they dont mispronounce any word. i've got to say it's a treat to listen to their inglish, coz it doesnt sound standoffish ... it feels informal as well as in-command.
reporting, be it print or tv, should make sure that appropriate words are used to describe events, and not vice versa.

8:03 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Priya- You won't get an argument from me aboout whether Inglish is comprehensible or not. But written word deserves some care.

10:32 am  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

From a fellow sufferer - this post struck a chord with me.
Here's hoping the purity of language can stand against the tide of decay. When will these morons learn that lanuage can be fun, an art even, not just a medium for slapdash communication?


4:51 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

J.A.P.- Ah, a kindred spirit. We can but hope. I know language keeps evolving, but some usages are lovely and we should hold on to them. Tradition ought to count for something, after all.

6:47 pm  

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