Are you article-challenged?
Why is it that millions of people can never get the right?
“The what?” you might ask.
Take this last bit from a covering letter sent to me, with her résumé, by a young journalist.
“… I will be really gratified if you give me an opportunity to work with organization. Thanking you.”
Who wouldn’t want work done with organization and efficiency? But that’s not what she meant.
The in English is known as the definite article. Used before nouns, it’s described as “definite” because it implies something specific or already known. There’s also the indefinite article (a or an). The use of these articles is so important, one grammarian calls them “precision tools,” because they contribute immensely to the accuracy of what you’re trying to express. (Compare What is the time? with the more philosophical What is time?)
But many of us (let me try sounding authentic) have serious problem with definite article. We murder the English with misuse of indefinite article. (Thankfully, no Brit died as a result.)
Infinitely more Indians speak English today when compared to my schooldays in the 1960s. Since then, English-medium schools have multiplied, but they often give more importance to the sciences. Very practical, but language got a backbench and became unmanageable, with too many English teachers who are not sure when to use their articles, or when not to use any article at all. Two real recent examples:
1. The one thing that all the teachers detest most: the parents who deride or put down the teachers in front of the students.
2. AIDS has now become curse for world.
Article use follows certain rules, but with several exceptions that ought to come as naturally as breathing. “Indian writers have the bad habit of using ‘the’ before proper nouns,” a young Mumbai journalist recently wrote to me. “For example, the Congress, the BJP, and so on.”
The journalist didn’t know how off the mark he was. You can’t imagine even the BBC doing anything else: “Ed Miliband is elected leader of the Labour Party” [Headline at bbc.co.uk].
With proper nouns, you also use the before names of structures (the Taj Mahal) or hotels (the Oberoi), mountains (the Himalayas), deserts, seas, tribes, rivers, etc, and even countries that have plural names (the Philippines; the USA, where States is plural). Or large areas taken together (the Middle East). But why “the Punjab”? Because it’s a plural name, meaning “five rivers.”
For more, read “A Short Article on Articles” at DavidAppleyard.com (click on the Article Usage link). You’ll learn there that even US and British usage can vary. Euphony, or how good it sounds, may also determine article usage. For instance, “the BBC” sounds right, but “the AIR” doesn’t. That’s why natural users of any language, who write or speak “by ear,” don’t care for the rules yet never go wrong.
Reading alone will not give you this skill; you need to hear it spoken, since natural language can be inherently imprecise and doesn’t always play by the rules. For this, try listening regularly to the BBC (TV, shortwave radio, or download free podcasts of their programs at bbc.co.uk/podcasts). For the young, learning nursery rhymes, poems and speeches by heart helps, because the way we use language gets hard-wired early in our brains and it’s often impossible for adults to change it.
Rules That You Break
Speaking of rules, I have several male readers (somehow, they’re never female) who keep writing to me about rules they follow and terms they avoid, by which they believe their English to be superior to that of the average Indian. For argument’s sake, a few examples:
Old adage. A Bangalore reader is very critical of this commonly used term. Because, he maintains, adage by itself means a traditional maxim, a wise saying. Thankfully, language isn’t algebra. Take the usage example for adage in the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. It says: He remembered the old adage ‘Look before you leap.’ But old in that example is in bold letters, to indicate a “collocation” which, the dictionary explains, “are words that are used very often with the word you are looking up. If you learn these collocations, your English will sound more natural.” So would you consider old adage a mistake?
Mistakes are often the stepping stones to utter failure. [New adage.]
Sad demise. A Mumbai reader asked me why Indian obituary ads habitually use this form. “Who was sad?” he asks. “The dead person or those he left behind? Sad is redundant.”
An Internet search revealed that while “sad demise” must be of Indian coinage, it is finally going places. I found a recent report headlined “Prince of Wales laments sad demise of The South Bank Show” in The Telegraph of London. The prince’s exact words were “sad loss,” according to the report. So how did “sad demise” make it? Elementary. The credit below the headline reads: By Anita Singh, Showbusiness Editor.
I think “sad demise” (from the Hindi dukhad nidhan) only goes to show that we have a heart and that we’re still contributing useful phrases to modern English. Sad is used in collocation with demise here. And who is to say there have never been any happy demises? (People were in a festive spirit when the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and Saddam Hussein died.)
Talking of sad demise, I’ve also heard happy birthday (as in “Oh, so it’s your happy birthday!”)
What is your good name? “I wouldn’t use it,” says yet another reader.
But good name too comes from the elegantly polite shubh naam of Hindi. Terms like that can only give Indian English a positive
identity of its own. I would use it with pride.
I was tickled pink when a young man from northern India recently used “mines” to describe something that belonged to him (just like theirs, yours or ours). I’ve since heard that on a couple more occasions, but took it seriously only after I had it in writing, in a joke sent to us:
A man inserted this classified advertisement: “Wife Wanted.” The next day he received a hundred letters. They all said the same thing: “You can have mines.”
Coal mines? Gold? It took a while for me to understand it. I then googled “mines” and all I got was stuff about minerals. But when I tried “you could be mines” (using the quote marks), I got 4820 results. Intrigued, I tried “you can have mines” and got 57,000 results, like “Don’t want to sell the book but if you want to read it you can have mines or borrow it from someone…” [Comment at Amazon.com.]
That means even people who read are using mines! The countless examples you’ll find are mostly on foreign websites, and Indians are not solely guilty of this crime.
So that one’s really for Interpol.
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