|Galileo Galilei, the father of observational astronomy|
Every one of my students says “sorry” if they make a mistake while speaking English. Every one of us Indians are embarrassed if we speak incorrect English. But has anyone come across an American, Englishman, or Australian who is ashamed because he/she can’t speak perfect Hindi or Tamil?
It is time we threw this colonial baggage into a dustbin and accepted English for what it was. For historical reasons, English has become the link language of the world. Chinese aircraft pilots overflying Siberia communicate with Russian air-traffic controllers in English. To make a living in the twenty-first century, you must learn some English. But all that most people need is to follow written and spoken English and express themselves clearly in the language.
Therefore, there is nothing wrong if we commit mistakes in English, but we must try to write and speak as accurately and beautifully as we can. There are several compelling reasons why we must.
Firstly, if you are doing higher studies, it is imperative that you shape out your thoughts in clear and compact language.
Secondly, if you transact business with overseas clients, you should be polite and impressive. And unless you have a good command of English, you are unlikely to impress anyone.
Thirdly, anything worth doing is worth doing well.
I always ask my students to do two things to improve their language skills: regularly listen to and read good English, preferably a newspaper. But English papers published from India often contain incorrect English. It’s quite possible that you’ll pick up wrong language from newspapers. Here are a few tips on reading newspapers.
Firstly, choose the newspaper carefully. The Hindu and the Indian Express are two papers that I recommend without reservations. And I am sure there are others. For example, my friend Randeep Wadhera, who writes brilliant English, contributes to the Tribune.
Secondly, in all newspapers, the language is usually good on the front page and the editorial pages. But on other pages and particularly in the supplements, the language is often terrible.
Here is something I picked up from the Education Supplement of the Deccan Herald yesterday. A reader wrote: “I am studying in Class XII and am aspiring to become an astrophysicist. I would like to know which are the government institutes offering this course and how to apply. … How many percent of marks should I have to get a seat in government institutions?”
Let’s look at the sentences individually.
1. “I AM STUDYING IN CLASS XII AND I AM ASPIRING TO BECOME AN ASTROPHYSICIST.”
“I am studying in Class XII” is fine, but in the second part of the sentence, where the verb is “aspire”, we have a problem.
Verbs like aspire, know, believe, prefer, like, etc. are called state verbs or stative verbs. They do not talk about an activity, but about a state of your mind.
The verbs that talk about the existence or state of something too are state verbs. For example the verbs in the following sentences: “There ARE many excellent universities in India.” And: “Astrophysics IS a difficult subject.”
Another group of state verbs are the sensory verbs like feel, touch, etc.
In English, we do not normally use state verbs in continuous or progressive tenses. For example you do not say: “I am believing god is existing. X” You say: “I believe god exists.”
Therefore, you can say: “I am studying in Class XII and I aspire to become an astrophysicist.”
But remember, there are always excptions to rules. For example: McDonald’s slogan “I'm loving it!”
2. I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHICH ARE THE GOVERNMENT INSTITUTES OFFERING THIS COURSE AND HOW TO APPLY.
From the point of view of grammar, this is not a question, but a statement. The correct sentence can be – “I would like to know which government institutes are offering this course and how to apply.”
Better: “I would like to know which government institutes offer this course and how to apply.”
3. “HOW MANY PERCENT OF MARKS SHOULD I HAVE TO GET A SEAT IN GOVERNMENT INSTITUTIONS?”
This sentence can be rewritten in many ways. Here is one. “What percentage of marks will I need to get a seat in government institutions?”