November 24, 2007

Sidr: the jujube tree cyclone

A daily newspaper in Bangla the day after very severe cyclonic storm Sidr had roared inland through west Bangladesh coasts in the afternoon on November 15 ran a report on the front page, headlined 'Sidr means eye.' The report said it is a Sinhalese word for 'eye' or 'hole'. A newspaper in English the next day in a report said it means 'hole' or 'eye' in Sinhalese. The origin of the word as laid out in the reports stands little chance to be correct. And the train of thought is perhaps influenced by the analogy that the cyclone had an eye, which is typical of all strong tropical cyclones with an area of sinking air at the centre.

The Sinhalese word for 'eye' is what could be written as 'aesa,' with the first syllable 'ae' pronouncing 'a' as in ash, and the second 'sa' pronouncing with a neutral relase of the vowel. The Sinhalese word for 'hole' is 'sidura.' But that does not help in this argument as the name given to the cyclone has been contributed by Oman, and that too in Arabic. Other names Oman has provided for the series are Baaz, Ward, Mujan, Hudhud, Nada, Luban and Maha.

In keeping with the table of names of tropical or subtropical cyclones in the North Indian Ocean, internationally agreed on and valid between mid-2004 and 2009, the system that developed near the Andaman islands on November 9 as an area of disturbed water and dissipated over the eastern Himalaya on November 16 after striking Bangladesh packing a speed of 240kmph officially at 5:00pm (Bangladesh Time) was christened Sidr, from as-sidrah or as-sidr, the Arabic word for Ziziphus spina-christi, which is commonly known as jujube tree.

The sidr tree, also known as lote tree, Christ's thorn, or nabkh tree, is mentioned in the Qur'an. The tree is also mentioned in Ibn Sina's Cannon of Medicine (al-Qanun fi al-Tibb). In Oman, the crushed leaves of the sidr tree were used to clean the hair, a beauty-care product.

The next possible cyclone of the North Indian Ocean may be named as Nargis, contributed by Pakistan, or Abe, by Sri Lanka, or Khai-muk, by Thailand.

November 14, 2007

That that that does not matter

Standard grammatical norms are in many cases not applied to the writing and editing as English, which is not the cradle tongue of the writers and editors of the Dhaka-based newspapers, remains something to be learnt --- the harder the way, the better the standards adhered to. The house style asks the editors and writers to drop 'that' in cases where it is not important for meaning.

There are two such most-frequented contexts in English --- in relative clause and in that-clause. In both the cases, 'that,' where it does not add substantially to meaning, could be dropped. And the aspects of the grammar have their names too.

Grammatically speaking, the first case in which 'that' is dropped in a relative clause is called 'zero relative clause': 'this is the house Jack built' from 'this is the house that Jack built.' In the second case in which 'that' is dropped in a that-clause is called 'zero that-clause': 'he said he would be late' from 'he said that he would be late.'

A few editors at a review meeting said they should not follow the sequence of tenses when 'that' is dropped in a that-clause; dropping just a 'that' off a that-clause should not allow any writers or editors to flout the rule of the sequence of tenses, although some news agencies do that bit of flouting.

November 02, 2007

Apostrophe ess

A copy out of the desk had the headline printed in the newspaper as 'Court orders freeze on Dhaka Bank accounts of Abba's wife.' The mistake was spotted the next morning when the newspaper reached all its readers. This is an example of how mistakes develop at the layout unit, or on the stone, as they said in the olden days. In this case for instance, an editor, standing by the layout man with the page sprawling in QuarkXPress on the monitor before him, in passing said that this time it was Abba(s)'s wife (abba is the Bangla word for 'father') and the man doing the layout somewhow thought the word should be changed from Abbas' to Abba's.

The repoter in the evening claimed the headline was printed as he wrote it the previous night. And the editor who corrected the copy defended the reporter and said the reporter had written Abbas's and he changed it to Abbas' in consultation with another editor who also thought 's after Abbas might be somewhat incorrect, in which the Associated Press copies might have a role as Abbas', to mean of Abbas, according to the Associated Press Stylebook, is the order.

The house style of the newspaper says: 'possessive in words and names ending in s normally takes an apostrophe followed by a second s: Jones's, James's, this is mostly in case of modern names: use the plural apostrophe where it helps: Mephistopheles' rather than Mephistopheles's.'

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr, published in 1918, says: 'Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant.... This is the usage of the United States Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press. Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus''

The textbook Practical English Grammar by AJ Thomson and AV Martinet also says: 'classical names ending in s usually add only the apostrophe... other names ending in s can take 's or the apostrophe alone.' Both forms are correct. The newspaper prescribes its editors, and writers, to make the distinction between the ancient names and the modern ones. Abbas is a man modern, when it comes to grammar.