If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Good English, bad English

Anil Babu, a fine, formidable, and fearsome teacher of our school once narrated this story.

Two men got into an argument on a public bus. One of them was a dignified elderly gentleman, whom our teacher labelled as a professor. The other was an arrogant young fellow who, once again according to Anil Babu, could only have been a junior clerk in a merchant firm. Minutes after the argument began, when the professor was clearly winning the contest, the young man switched over to English. It was a common practice then, if Indians wished to sound authoritative, they spoke the king’s language. Perforce, the professor had to respond in English. And that turned the tables against him. He spoke in correct, grammatical English, but haltingly. And that was no match for the torrent of terrible English the clerk churned out. Finally, just as a drowning man clutches at straws, the professor said, ‘Have you read Wren and Martin?’

If you are an Indian over thirty and you've been in a school, you'd get the drift. For the rest of humanity, M/s P. C. Wren and H. Martin were the venerable authors of a grammar book that was a combination of the Geeta, the Koran, and the Bible for English teachers in India for generations. And it was the nub of a serious problem. Each chapter of the book contained a set of prescriptions about how to frame sentences. And the examples and exercises that followed usually had lines that no one would use in their lifetime. Indians were also taught that speaking "incorrect English" was sacrilege.

But English is such a funnily unfettered language! Speaking or writing it correctly is challenging to even educated non-native speakers. To make matters worse, out of the hundreds of hours of English classes in school in our country, not one was devoted to teaching how to speak. (Unfortunately, the situation hasn't changed in most of our schools even now.)

So, generations of educated Indians could hardly express themselves in the language, even when they needed it. And those who could treated the rest of their countrymen as dirt.

English is important in this integrated world, we can't live without it. But should we think of committing suicide if we made a few mistakes here and there while using the language? How important is it to speak/write correct, flawless English? Let me quote an authority on the language, David Crystal:

Many people now realize that labels such as ‘sub-standard’ and ‘broken English’ are just as insulting and out of order as any set of racist or sexist names. We have seen a move away from the linguistic subjugation of the prescription era, with people asserting their right to be in control of their language rather than to have it be in control of them. For many, prescriptivism has come to be seen as a bad dream from which we are only now beginning to awake. The operative word, in all these sentences, is ‘many’. We are only half way along the road, and not everyone is persuaded that it is the road that they ought to take. But … it is only a matter of time. A major step has already been taken in schools, where a renaissance in linguistic study has already begun to produce generations of school children who are aware of the importance and relevance of Standard English without seeing any need to dismiss or condemn non-standard English. – The Stories of English, Penguin Books, Page 534


  1. i love this piece. the train episode - i can easilt relate to it.

    i've listened to david crystal. i wanted to ask him a few questions but was so overawed by his name that as usual i became tongue tied.

    but i was glad that he acknowledged that the 'standard ' and RP were fading concepts, impossible to be sustained with the ever increasing number of non native speakers who are becoming less and less awed by the language.this is particularly true of the chinese and japanese who were never colonised and therefore look upon the language as a mere utility tool.

  2. I have been educated in "English Medium" right from Day 1, and I believed that correct pronounciation and usage of English was what got a person ahead in his career and life - That was until, one fine day in 1994, at a B-School in Kochi, I had the opportunity to listen to Mr. T Thomas. For those of you born in the 60s or later, let me introduce him as the legendary CEO of Hindustan Lever of the 70s, who was later elevated to the board of Unilever (always refered to as the Anglo-Dutch MNC, Note the Adjective "Anglo", it is relevant). What particularly caught my attention was the way he pronounced the word "Company" - In true native Kerala style, he refered to it as "Kambany". That shook me into my senses and I realized instantly that what actually matters is the quality of the Ideas that a man has, and his ability to convey them convincingly. If this can be achieved, Pronounciation or Spelling or Grammer can go take a walk.

  3. Thank you Kochuthresiamma and Damu.

    KPJ, A big thank you because this was churning in my mind since reading your unpublished letter to an editor protesting against a particularly nasty (and stupid) article written by an English lady about how badly English is spoken by average Indians. (Good writers usually live on borrowed money and bad writers usually live on borrowed ideas. You know that I belong to the second group!)

    Damu, I heard this from you earlier, although I did not recall the incident while writing the piece. You are absolutely right: ideas are more important than how they are expressed. But there has to be a balance, as Crystal mentions in the last sentence quoted by me.

    One sentence in this article was originally: "If you are an Indian over thirty who have been in a school, ...". A reader, Abhigyan Mallick pointed out the mistake and I have corrected it. Thank you, Abhigyan.

  4. Santanu, KPJ and Damu, I would like to sound a note of dissent.

    This is an issue I have always had with KPJ, though I may not have been very vocal about it. Though she is/was in the business of teaching English, she has conveyed the impression that she is not too very meticulous about spelling or fastidious about grammar. And both Santanu and Damu are with her.

    Lapses of the above nature in an otherwise well-written piece containing the greatest of ideas distract me, as, I guess, it would anyone else. Imagine the unlikely scenario where I was asked to air my views on some topic and they exactly coincided with those of, say, Shashi Tharoor. Would the impact that a poor speaker like me mouthing those ideas make be a fraction of what a good speaker, like Tharoor, gifted with the power of the word, known for the choice of words, clipped accent and cultivated diction? I rest my case.

    Or, did I miss the point? Perhaps you mean that there is no such thing as 'incorrect' English? That whatever conveys what one wants to convey, is 'correct' English?

    Disclaimer: I do not claim that I write/speak correct English; I only try my best to. And, I agree, my endeavour to do that makes me speak haltingly when I do not shut up.

  5. East Indian Railway started its operations in 1854. But even 55 years after its maiden run, most of the trains did not have toilets in them.

    On July 2, 1909, an aggrieved Babu Okhil Chandra Sen lodged this complaint to the then transportation superintendent, Sahibgunj Station.

    The letter goes like this :

    Dear Sir,

    I am arrive by passenger train at Ahmedpore station, and my belly is too much full of jack fruit. I am therefore went to privy, Just as I doing the nuisance, the guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with lotah in one hand and dhotie in the next hand. I am fall over and expose my shockings to man, females, woman on platform. I am get leaved at Ahmedpore station.

    This too much bad, if passenger go to make dung, that dam guard no wait 5 minutes for him. I am therefore pray your honour to make big fine on that guard for public sake, otherwise I am making big report to papers.

    Your faithful servant,
    Sd./ Okhil Ch. Sen

    It is not known if the complaint went to the papers but it promptly proved itself as the most vital 'utility tool'!


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.