How Bill Gates seduced our castes and tribes

S.R. RAMAKRISHNA, the news and desk head of Mid-Day, Bangalore, wrote this column on May 3

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Very few of us who work in English language newspapers speak English at home. But that is not why we trip up when it comes to usage.

It seems ridiculous for us Indians to lament about the state of the English language when we care so little about our own
languages, so my apologies for this rant. But  must tell you how that great gift of the Empire tricks us hacks into making complete idiots of ourselves.

As I said, it’s not what we speak at home or where we study. Even journalists with expensive convent-school backgrounds make unbelievably silly mistakes, and come across as nitwits when you look at what they write.

A sports journalist who actually spoke English as his mother tongue came up with such racist observations, and in such offensive and awful  prose, that he would have been in jail had he been a little more high profile.

At a newspaper where I worked for eight years, copy came in from the districts from stringers who mainly worked for a sister publication in Kannada. Since they had been told to file copy for the English paper as well, they dabbled in the language, with memorable results.

One of them, from a northern Karnataka town, came up with expressions that left us on the desk too stunned for words.

He once wrote about citizens handing over a memorandum to the MLA, seeking a bus shelter or some such civic amenity, and telling him, “Lead kindly light!” On another occasion, the same legislator received a petition, urging the urgent posting of a lady doctor at the government hospital. Citizens reportedly told him, “Women here are suffering from all kinds of diseases, including pregnancy.”

Another reporter came back from the site of a highway accident and wrote, “Three persons died on the spot, and three others were killed in hospital.” True, perhaps, but it was truth inadvertently told.

English is everywhere, and many of us get by when it comes to talking, but it isn’t as easy to bluff one’s way through writing.

Not that talking is a lesser art. In fact, most well-paying, new economy jobs require talking rather than writing skills. Think of managers, marketers, sales executives, radio jockeys, TV reporters and anchors…They need to look smart and talk well. But let them to write, and you see how badly equipped they are in this department.

Bill Gates is adding to our confusion.

When we type something in MS Word, the program presumes it knows better, and makes ‘corrections’ that get us all confused about spelling and grammar. Last week, a reporter had written about a minister ending up in the dock for not declaring his assets. He meant to say the leader belonged to a scheduled caste. I don’t know what he typed and what Word understood, but when his copy reached the desk, scheduled had become seduced!

Most of us believe writing comes naturally, that we just need to study a bit of English in school and college to be able to produce decent writing. Writing flawlessly is not easy. And simplicity is difficult to achieve. Simple is hard!

What T.S. Eliot said of tradition is true of good writing as well: you can acquire it only through hard labour. But let’s not forget the sudden dash of colour that wrong usage brings to our humdrum lives. Just imagine what fun it would be to belong to a seduced caste!

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