Thursday, April 30, 2009

Splitter's Dilemma - From my Scrapbook

This is something that I copied (I think, from the Times of India) down in my scrapbook more than two decades back but I enjoy reading it even today.

Nothing angers writers more than nit-picking copyreaders and publishers who attempt to improve their grammar. No wonder the French essayist, Montaigne, commented that “the greater part of world’s troubles arise because of questions of grammar.” American novelist Raymond Chandler was incensed when his English publisher ‘corrected’ some split infinitives. “When I split an infinitive, God damn it”, he said in an angry letter, “I split, so that it stays split!”

Winston Churchill as a cabinet minister also discovered that his bureaucrat secretaries were forever “improving his English” and correcting his odd penchant for splitting infinitives. On one such Whitehall file, he noted: “This is the kind of impertinence up with which I shall not put.”

Even the mighty Fowler in his Modern English Usage concedes that the English-speaking world may be safely divided into five categories: those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; those who do not know, but care very much; those who know and condemn; those who know and approve; those who know and distinguish.

The authority concedes that those who neither know nor care are the vast majority and are a happy folk to be envied by most of the minority classes. ‘To really understand’ comes readier to their lips than ‘really to understand’, lamented Fowler, who felt that category three should be bogey-haunted authors. He says that in their phobia of avoiding split infinitives, they make their normal writing style awkward and humpy.

Fowler is full of praise for category four who boldly go forth and break rules where necessary and reject the trammels of convention. Fowler says, “We maintain that a real split infinitive, though not desirable in itself is preferable to either of two things – real ambiguity or patent artificiality. We will thus split infinitives rather than be accused of ambiguity or artificiality; we will admit to sufficient recasting to avoid them altogether.”

George Bernard Shaw had a very low tolerance threshold for newspaper sub-editors correcting his copy. He once complained to the editor of The Times, London, “There is a busybody in your staff who devotes a lot of his time to chasing split infinitives.” Asserting that every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it, he urged the editor to dismiss “this pedant”. It is of no consequence whether he “decides to go quickly; quickly go; or quickly to go. The important thing is that he should go at once.”

Thirteen Gremlins of Grammar - From my Scrapbook

Thirteen Gremlins of Grammar

1. Correct speling is essential.
2. Don’t use no double negatives.
3. Verbs has got to agree with their subjects.
4. Don’t write run-on sentences they are hard to read.
5. About them sentence fragments
6. Don’t use commas, that aren’t necessary.
7. A preposition is not a good word to end a sentence with.
8. Remember to not ever split infinitives.
9. Writing carefully, dangling principles must be avoided.
10. Use apostrophe’s correctly.
11. Make each singular pronoun agree with their antecedents.
12. Join clauses like, a good conjunction should.
13. Proofread your writing to see if you words out.

And above all, avoid clich├ęs like the plague.

The Spell-Check - From my Scrapbook

This is a favourite of mine:

Eye halve a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea.
It planely marx four my revue
Miss tax I do not sea.
I’ve scent my message threw it,
And I’m shore pleased to no
Its letter perfect in its weigh
My checker tolled me sew.
- Author unknown

William Safire's Rules for Writers - From my Scrapbook

I had written this down somewhere but do not know where I had kept it. The other day a good friend stumled upon it and sent it to me.

William Safire's Rules for Writers

Remember to never split an infinitive.
The passive voice should never be used.
Do not put statements in the negative form.
Verbs have to agree with their subjects.
Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
A writer must not shift your point of view.
And don't start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)
Don't overuse exclamation marks!!
Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
Always pick on the correct idiom.
The adverb always follows the verb.
Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

Parts of Speech - From my Scrapbook

I realised that the best thing to do when you have nothing else to post is to dip into your scrapbook and find some gem like this:

A NOUN’s the name of anything;
As school or garden, hoop or swing.
ADJECTIVES tell the kind of noun:
As great, small, pretty, white or brown.
Instead of nouns the PRONOUNS stand
Her face, his face, our arms, your hand.
VERBS tell of something being done;
To read, count, sing, laugh, jump or run.
How things are done the ADVERBS tell;
As slowly, quickly, ill or well.
CONJUNCTIONS join the words together,
As men and women, wind or weather.
The PREPOSITION stands before
A noun, as in or through a door.
The INTERJECTION shows surprise;
As oh! how pretty! ah! how wise!

Added on 26 Oct 2011. Till today, I did not know who had written this marvellous piece.

A Google search reveals that the poem is titled 'A Grammar Rhyme' and the authors (!) are by David B Tower and Benjamin F Tweed.

A Victorian Schoolmistress’ Rules of Punctuation - From my Scrapbook

This is not something that I have written. It is from my scrapbook. I do not know who the author is, nor when it was written, though there is a reference in the caption that may give a rough idea of the period.

A Victorian Schoolmistress’ Rules of Punctuation

Sentences start with a Capital letter,
So as to make your writing better.
Use a full stop to mark the end.
It closes every sentence penned.
The comma is for short pauses and breaks,
And also for the lists the writer makes.
Dashes – like these – are for thoughts by the way.
They give extra information (so do brackets, we may say).
These two dots are colons: they pause to compare.
They also do this: list, explain and prepare.
The semicolon makes a break; followed by a pause.
It does the job of words that link; it’s also a short pause.
An apostrophe shows the owner of anyone’s things,
And it’s also used for shortenings.
I’m so glad! He’s so mad! We’re having such a lark!
To show strong feelings use an exclamation mark!
A question mark follows What? When? Where, Why? And how?
Do you? Can I? Shall we? Give us your answer now!
Quotation marks” enclose what is said
Which is why they are sometimes called “speech marks” instead.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Litmus Test

In Kerala, Malabar is considered the cradle of football. The school I studied in was the State football champion. The only other school in the town was the runner-up and, like the celebrated ‘We try harder’ slogan of Avis Car Rental which was No 2 in the business, they tried harder.

Sethu, the captain, was the toast of our school. He was excellent in the football field. A half-back, he would receive the ball from a full-back, and send it to the centre-forward through his classic long pass to net a goal. He was good at dribbling too: it was sheer joy to see watch him dribble the ball past opponents.

The trouble was: Sethu was good at little else. Academics held no interest for him. He failed in several classes and was, at the age of eighteen, still in Class VIII. This was a cause of worry for his father, a tailor, as Sethu was the only hope of the family. He looked forward to the day his son would start working.

A well-wisher, a middle level officer in a reputed industrial venture, had assured Sethu’s father that he would ensure that Sethu gets a job in the company he worked for. Sethu would be an asset to the football team of the company. It was prominent among the National B League teams and with Sethu in the bag, it was hoped, the team might make it to the A League.

There was a snag, however. Sethu HAD to pass Class X. Sethu’s father was worried. With good reason: Sethu was still Class VIII and going by the past records, it would take at least half a dozen years for him to reach Class X. As for passing the Board Examination, well, that was anybody’s guess. The day his son would start supplementing the income to run the family looked distant.

It was because the eighteen-year old footballer had spent a couple of years in a few classes that he came to be my classmate. It was his third year in the class. Sethu had, as expected, fared poorly in the final examination. With his one-digit score in chemistry, it was clear that unless the school was generous, he would not make it to class IX.

He met the headmaster and told him: either you promote him or I pull him out of the school. The headmaster of the rival high school in the town had agreed to admit him in Class IX. The headmaster was in a quandary. Should he give in to the threat and relax the academic standards to the lowest levels? At stake if he did not do that was the reputation of the school in sports and games. The choice was difficult and the trade-off unethical.

He consulted the senior teachers. The physical instructor Mr Sadanandan was keen to retain him in the school at any cost, but the vocal Mr Thomas who taught Chemistry was particularly against such a dilution of standards. The other teachers adopted a middle-of-the-road policy – it would be good if Sethu can be retained, but their value-system did not allow them watering down the levels. (This was much was before the advent of grace marks.)

Finally, they came to an understanding: a small committee would be formed to re-assess Sethu’s ‘prowess’ in Chemistry. The headmaster would chair the committee and the members would be the physical instructor and the Chemistry teacher. There would be an interview. Three questions would be asked. If Sethu answered none correctly, he would have to be sent out. If he answered at least one correctly, the Headmaster would use his discretion and give a couple of marks to make it 35% and Sethu would pass.

In the final event, to everybody’s surrise, Sethu was promoted. One of those evenings, on our way home from school, Sethu told me want happed on that fateful day.

On the appointed day, Sethu was summoned before the committee. Mr Thomas fired the first salvo: What is H2SO4 commonly known as?
Sethu was at a loss.

Mr Thomas asked: The Cl in Na Cl stands for chlorine. What does Na stand for?

Sethu had no reply.

The headmaster tried to be helpful: Na Cl is common salt whose chemical name is sodium chloride.

Still, Sethu had no clue. He remained silent.

Mr Sadanandan’s face fell. It was sure Sethu did not have a fighting chance. He requested the other two members: Let me ask the next question. They agreed.

The physical instructor asked: If blue litmus paper is dipped in an acid, what colour does it turn to?

Sethu had no reply. Mr Sadanandan encouraged him: Sethu, it’s a simple question. Tell us the answer.

Sethu said: I don’t know, Sir.

Mr Sadanandan said: Yes, that is the right answer. He does not know.

The headmaster, eager not to lose him to the rival schools, agreed, exercised his discretion, and thus out came Sethu with flying colours!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Words, Words, Words, Redux

Those of you who have been following my blog (The number is just a handful, sob, sob) may recall that one my posts was on words coined to meet the demands of the modern day.

A friend who read it has very kindly supplied me with a few interesting words. There is something common and peculiar to them: all of them have been formed by addition, subtraction or alteration of a letter to or from a word found in a standard dictionary.

Take, for instance, SARCASM. Add an H to get SARCHASM, defined as the gulf between the person who comes up with biting sarcasm and the person who doesn't get it.

Or DOPELER EFFECT which is the tendency of stupid (dopey) ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

A hoarding erected, or a poster pasted, or a slogan painted, very, very high on a wall is, you guessed it right, GIRAFFITI.

The BOZONE LAYER is formed by cronies surrounding the boss in such a way that bright ideas from others cannot penetrate that layer. (This one, unlike the ozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future!)

Remember the scriptures? Satan in the form of an insect – a bee, a bug or a mosquito - that gets into your bedroom in the night and cannot be cast out is, what else, a BEELZEBUG.

KARMAGEDDON? It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.

Not exactly in the league of add-delete-or-change-one letter, is CATERPALLOR, (for, two letters have been changed), the colour you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you're eating.

You have been told that decaffeinated coffee is good for you. Decathlon is the tough ten-event sporting contest. Forget that two letters have been changed here too, DECAFFLON is the gruelling ordeal of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

Before reading on, I have a caveat: this friend of mine is no saint and some of the coinages are a bit off-colour. Some of them may offend your sensibilities, but I cannot resist the temptation to put them in, for, if I do not, I will be denying unadulterated mirth to others. They have been arranged in ascending order of my perception of smuttiness, and therefore, gentle reader, stop when you feel that you have reached the threshold of your tolerance. Having applied for that anticipatory bail, let me proceed:

One word for all promise and no action (not necessarily of the carnal variety) by a glib talker is GLIBIDO.

Add an H to CASTRATION, to get CASHTRATION, defined as the act of acquiring an asset without resorting to a loan, as a result of which the subject is rendered financially impotent.

OSTEOPORNOSIS is defines as a degenerate disease. Need I say more?

You might know someone who knows nothing. If he is a despicable fellow to boot, what better word would describe him than IGNORANUS?

FOREPLOY is any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

If after reading this, you are tempted to remark that I suffer from VOWEL MOVEMENT (the inevitable verbal diarrhea that spews from one’s mouth when there is nothing significant to say), my day is made!

Note: My friend who supplied me with these words tells me that most of these were received as entries for a contest run by the Washington Post.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pun with Words

There was this king who hated puns. Sadly for him, the best jokes his courtier related were all puns. His Majesty was fed up with the courtier’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of what the King found distasteful. Having been inflicted with puns day in and day out, the King challenged him, ‘Come up with a pun on me if you can!’ Pat came the reply, ‘But, your Majesty, the King is no subject!’

That was perhaps the first pun that I came across. Mr Venceslaus who taught us English in Class IX was the one who narrated this to us. Ambrose Bierce, he had added, had defined it as a ‘form of wit to which wise men stoop and fools aspire.’ That was the first time I was hearing of 'The Devil’s Dictionary' authored by Bierce. Coming to think of it, Mr Venceslaus was the one who introduced me to several things that have caught my fancy and had me in their thrall – like crosswords, tongue-twisters, puzzles, word games, brain-teasers etc.

But then, I digress. This piece is not about Mr Venceslaus, it is about puns. The world consists of two types of people: those who like pun and those, like the king we spoke of, who do not. The latter seem to subscribe to the theory that puns don’t make us laugh, but groan. Caligula was one such: it is said that he ordered an actor to be roasted alive for a bad pun. Dryden called it the ‘lowest and most groveling kind of wit’.

Dissecting a pun, one could say it arises from the use of two similar-sounding words that differ in the sense or a word with two (or more!)meanings. They are considered to be the feeblest species of humor because they are ephemeral: their life is no longer than the nanosecond in which we resolve the semantic confusion. Most of them are, at least look, contrived, though Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, that master of humour in contrived situations, himself was no punster. Mark Twain too, like Plum, enamoured reviewers with punlessness.

Shakespeare, however, does pun, and pun often. Many are bawdy: puns operate, after all, on double entendre. Yet the bard is guilty less of punning than wordplay, which Elizabethan taste considered more a sign of literary refinement than humor; hence ‘puns’ in seemingly inappropriate places, like a dying Mercutio’s ‘Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.’

The heaviest dose of puns that I ever received was the answer to the contrived question (which is an integral part of the joke) ‘Why can a man never starve in the Great Desert?’ The answer, which packs a three-pun-punch is, ‘Because he can eat the sand which is there. But who brought the sandwiches there? Why, Noah sent Ham, and his descendants mustered and bred.’

My friend Marcel Hickman once told me of a colleague of his in what was then called Exide India. On a complaint from his wife of domestic violence, he was nabbed by the police. This was reported in The Statesman, Calcutta (It had not been rechristened Kolkata then) beneath the headline ‘Exide Employee Charged with Battery’. Knowing that Marcel is given to invent stories like this, this might be apocryphal, but nevertheless punny, oops! …funny.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Placement of a Different Kind

I am worried about placement. At the ripe old age of 62? Yes.

So was Andre Agassi, going by what he is supposed to have said. ‘Placement is everything’, he said, talking about winning strategy in Roland Garros.

And my son Gautam, when in the last trimester in the B-School, too was worried about placement.

Yes, gentle reader, we are talking about placements of different kinds.

The placement in question right now is in the game of Scrabble. The number of points you garner is everything and at each stage, it varies with placement. It could fetch just the sum of the face-value of the tiles, or a lot more, depending on where you get to place the tiles. The over-all image, the big picture, is what drives and dictates where to place what tiles.

To me, the points that the placement gives is all that the tiles mean. Smutty words are perfectly par for the course in Scrabble for me, as long as they fetch points and help me on my way to winning another game.

Like if I have K and F, I would pray for a C and a U (rather than an O and L, or an O and R) so that I can put the F on the red square at the top left or the bottom left corner, the K in the light blue square three squares away to the right of or below F, and fill the intervening squares with U and C. F means 4 points, K is 5, and C is 3 and U, as a vowel, has only one point. That makes it 13 points, but the placement gives you 54. Get what I mean? But then you should be so lucky.

I prefer tiles of lesser value like H, Y and V to the high Z or Q or even X or J, sometimes. The latter fetch lots of points, yes, but you are stuck with them until you find the exact spot to place them to get a triple word score or double letter score.My personal strategy is to hold on to a tile of U until the queen of the lot, Q, has put in an appearance. Because, The humble one-point U is a valuable tile. Without U, you can't make many words using Q. There are only four of them. Until the Q is played, I do not let go of the first U that I get.

Of course, this requires some cerebration and calculation. If you stand to make some 30 points and also get the bonus of 50 points for using up all seven tiles, you should go for it. That sort of lead is hard to beat, unless your opponent chances upon a big one too.As a rule, I try to hold on to at least one S, one D and a blank tile till near the end of a game, because that's when the going gets tough and your options get limited. I don't use up my blank tile quickly either. It is precious; I hold on to it and go on playing small simple words until I lay the killer word on board and slay'em.

I am talking about leisurely Scrabble games with friends like Santanu. We play a fairly open game, not minding giving the other player a chance to open a new area of the board. As a result of the cooperation, we toted up a combined score of over 932 points. We got Bhawani to immortalise that moment through a photograph with the two of us flanking the board, much like the shikaris with the trophy – the carcass of a tiger or a wild bison that was the game of the day!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Vote Your Caste

No, gentle reader, that was no typo. I mean ‘Vote Your caste’ when you cast your vote.

April 16 is drawing near; we Indians are preparing to exercise our franchise some time between the middle of April and May. We are expected to choose our destiny by electing those who will make ours, but our leaders are exhorting us, covertly and overtly, through their actions and words, to vote our caste.

Look at what the leaders and candidates, no matter the colour of the flag they salute, have been doing: they have been calling on our sadhus and ulemas, raagis and behenjis, chaplains and pundits, preachers and mahants, bishops and maulvis, and sanyasis and dervishes. The ‘godmen’ – that oxymoron touted as India’s ultimate enrichment of the English language – must be rubbing their hands in glee that they, generally shunned, are in great demand.

Winning or losing is, understandably, a life-and-death issue for the candidates. This critical juncture in their life may bring to the surface the old fears that haunted the primaeval man. The believers among them can be pardoned if they reach out for the comforts of superstition, supernatural and ritual.

But the members of the revolutionary parties? The general election is not an ordinary event; so much depends on its outcome and one cannot take chances. They do not want to leave any stone unturned. Several Communists, whether in West Bengal, Tripura or Kerala, look as much to pujas as to the politburo to bless them with power.

And not just that. They choose the candidate after looking at the religious composition of voters in the constituency. Look at the rivals of put up by the major parties or fronts. Surely, it is no coincidence that the candidates belong to the same religion or caste? And this religion and caste is what the majority of voters in the constituency belong to.

They also call on the religious leaders ‘seeking their support’ which translates into a diktat to their membership to vote a candidate they suggest.

The moral of the story? The parties expect you to vote your caste.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Ten Reasons Why I Do Not Want Shashi Tharoor in the Indian Parliament

1. He is handsome; no one will take a second look at me.
2. He has had a brilliant academic career; I barely scraped through my school.
3. He is a reputed author; my read does not go beyond the newspaper.
4. He has held exalted assignments; I am a lower division clerk.
5. He is widely travelled; the farthest I have gone to is the taluk headquarters.
6. He is highly-connected; the most powerful person I know is the secretary of the party in my village.
7. He goes around wearing natty suits and rimless glasses; I have no such accoutrements.
8. He sends email messages from his Blackberry; my prepaid mobile does not work because I have not recharged it.
9. He is proud of his Malayali lineage but spells his name as Shashi, not Sasi.
10. I am a progressive Keralite, but his name does not tell me what caste he belongs to.


For those who have not been watching the election scene in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala very closely, Dr Shashi Tharoor, author and former UN official is a candidate. Though a Keralite by descent, he was educated elsewhere (Kolkata, Delhi and abroad). The average Malayali who has not had the opportunity for such exposure just cannot stomach the possibility of his making it to the Lower House. These are the typical thoughts (slightly exaggerated, of course) that go through their minds (Forget that true to their intellectual pretensions, they might put forth more rational arguments). How do I know? Simple: I am one such.