July 23, 2008

Tenses out of temporal context

Two tenses most frequently abused by writers and even editors are the present continuous and the present perfect continuous tense. Copies keep coming in, or even getting in print, with sentences such as 'the government is doing this for a month,' which needs to be in the present perfect continuous tense because of the period of time, and 'the agency has been doing the work,' which needs to be in the present continuous tense because of the absence of any period or point of time to go with the verb. A glance at reports published in Dhaka newspapers even in the past shows such mistakes have kept coming in print... for years.

July 15, 2008

Not all words do fit in all contexts

A copy on corruption said charges were framed against a few caretaker engineers. Governments can be caretakers, in Bangladesh, and buildings can have caretakers, too. But why on earth should there be caretaker engineers, as position on job, unless, of course, some engineers volunteer to take care of a building, or a place, or even a construction job? Baffling! Another reporter passing by said the writer meant 'superintending' by 'caretaker,' both of which can be used for the single Bengali word depending on the context. And the reporter might nonchalantly have missed the context as he was writing.

June 30, 2008

The cure-all preposition

Most copies that land on the news desk these days have a cure-all, as, probably, unanimously agreed on among the writers, preposition in almost all the cases but for where it is required. Some of the select constructed collocations are 'to participate at a rally,' 'to join at a discussion,' to discuss at something,' 'to contest at polls,' 'to intervene at the process,' 'to start at Monday,' and the latest of them all, 'bleeding at someone' (to mean of, of course).

In almost all the instances of meeting, 'from' as in 'they made the decision from a meeting' is all to come by, but for 'at,' which is the norm.

May 12, 2008

Wheels of a train compartment

A report that landed in the past week on the derailment of a train on a route in a district where such incidents are commonplace quoted a high railway official to explain how the accident had taken place. The official, as reported by the out-of-the-station writer, said all the 48 wheels of the seven compartments had derailed. Forty-eight divided by seven comes to 6.8571 (other digits truncated); the each compartment had an extra, being the odd number, wheel which had already been broken, being in the fraction, by about one-seventh. Writers and editors are always advised a second check if there are numbers. It pays!

March 11, 2008

Verbs, backformed

Backformation of verbs is making verbs by truncating portions of nouns, linguistically and many lexicons often mention the formation process. Backformed nouns are also possible whereby nouns are formed, mostly, by addition portions to verbs. About a decade and a half ago, one of the seniors on the editorial desk, writing a story, used 'to destruct' to mean 'to destroy.' He was corrected in exchange for a bit of frowning. The word 'self-destruct' on red buttons in labs or contraptions in sci-fi led the writer believe that the noun of 'destruction' was 'to destruct.' The verb 'to construct' also had a hand in the belief.

A couple of days ago, a junior writer used the verb 'to solute' to solve the problems, a backformed entity from 'solution.' Asked why he did this, he said the Microsoft Word speller did not mark the word with a red wavy line underneath. Fair enough. He depended heavily on MS speller. But he did not care to consult the dictionary which would have told him that 'solute' is a substance that is dissolved in another substance called 'solvent,' a term in the knowing of the people involved in the studies of chemistry. The Microsoft speller has no reason to mark it with a red wavy line.

March 02, 2008

Words unwarranted, unintended

Writers and even editors have become a lazy lot as they depend mostly on Microsoft Word auto-correct feature to spell words correctly. This feature can be damaging for writers and editors and equally demeaning for the newspaper they work on. 'Intelligence' has for many times become 'intellectual,' and 'presidential' 'prudential.' Even the police 'superintendents' not knowing how to swim have become 'supernatants.' A reporting chief who has set his system to write 'Friday' whenever he keys in 'fri' has ended up in so many bizarre options on so many occasions. A report that reached the desk a few weeks ago contained 13 instances of 'meeting' spelt as 'meting.' Why? The reporter said the auto-correct feature was to blame. He, in fact, somehow earlier mishandled the feature to set 'meeting' to be replaced with 'meting.' Worse still could have happened if he had mistyped 'mating' for 'meting' and the worst that could happen, but did not, that they could get in print as they were spelt by the writer. Never let your writing tools become smarter than you. As for programs, the duffer, the better.

February 29, 2008

Forcing transitivity on intransitive verbs

Reporters, even editors, often force transitivity on intransitive verbs. People who are lazy put off their jobs. and writers and and editors describe the happening in words such as 'government indecisions often linger projects.' Most reporters and editors do not use any of 'against,' 'at,' or 'about' after the intransitive verb 'to protest' in placing an object to mean opposition. British usage suggests, in the sense of opposition, 'to protest' is an intransitive verb and warrants the use of a proposition. In the transitive sense, it means 'to champion' as 'you protest you innocence.' In the US English, 'to protest' does not need any preposition to mean opposition. A similar Americanism is to use 'to appeal' to mean 'to appeal against.' So is writing sentences such as 'I will write him' rather than 'I will write to him.'

February 27, 2008

-st: two letters too many

The leader walked amongst the workers, he cooked whilst she read a book and she left the meeting amidst misunderstanding. Although all the three sentences are perfect examples of good English; in all of them, the -st forms of among, while and amid could be conveniently dispensed with.

The -st forms are bit too poetic, if not archaic. But reporters and editors at least working on daily newspapers should not strive to be poets, nor should they try to assume an aura of being ancient when any newspaper does not have temporal importance beyond eight o'clock in the morning.

Still there are some people around who think 'whilst' could be used in a temporal context as (and not 'since,' which should also be reserved for temporal senses) 'while' in both the British and American English also mean 'although' and 'whereas.'

February 17, 2008

Eyewash or nonsence, simply

Eyewash usually refers to a fluid used in rinsing the eye; it can also mean the apparatus used to wash the eye contaminated by foreign substances. The word is quite common in Dhaka newspaper headlines and political speeches. '"It is actually an eyewash ahead of Ramadan, which would not contribute at all in containing the price hike," said a business leader.' Verbosity and wrong preposition apart, the use suggests the word has been used to mean something that would distract people's attention or something to cover up something. The word is used an adejective: 'A workers' leader urged the factory owners to stop their campaigns on "eyewash" labour welfare.' Here, it means something to make people think that things are rolling.

The meaning of the word is simple 'nonsense' and is an uncount noun, which means it does not take an indefinite article.

January 21, 2008

Sloppy substitute for 'after'

Grammarians are against the use of 'following' as a preposition; so are the stylebooks of newspapers which ask writers and editors to use 'after,' almost always. 'Following' needs a noun to agree with as this is the participle of 'to follow,' the verb: 'his promotion, following his hard work, was expected.' But 'following the verdict, the judge walked out of the courtroom' sounds awkward. 'After' could best express the meaning. It is also better to use 'in accordance with' in sentences such as 'following the High Court order, the government promulgated the ordinance.' 'As a result of' is better in places such as 'it came to my notice following a recent visit of the people concerned.' 'Following shower last night, the roads collected water' could be rephrased with 'in consequence of' for better. Although 'following' is regarded as a sloppy, and sometimes pretentious, substitute for 'after,' the onslaught of 'following' for 'after' might force its acceptance as a preposition, at least by descriptive grammarians.

January 16, 2008

The digit that sticks out or gets in

Someone can point a, or the, finger at someone else and someone else can equally give someone the finger for that, although giving someone the finger, done by raising the middle finger towards someone, is offensive, and obscene. But fingering someone can only be done with the consent of the person administered, otherwise, it might be considered a felony.

'To finger,' in the literary world, can mean to touch with the fingers, or play on (instruments) with the fingers; but the verb, in the world of slang, can mean to penetrate fingers into women's genitals.

A reporter wrote that the authorities had fingered some people for making troubles; in the standard meaning, this can be embarrassing for the troublemakers and in the other meaning, the authorities might be sued on charge of 'forced penetration with a foreign object.' Expressions matter, even if they involve fingers, or even fists.

Even after all these things, fingering someone is considered polite in the Unix world: 'finger <e-mail>' is the standard command to find out if the person with the e-mail address is logged in to a computer network.

January 14, 2008

Prior to... posterior to

'Prior to' as a preposition, many grammarians say, is close to non-English, although text that lands at the desk remains larded with the phrase. 'Prior to' also finds way to reports published in newspapers where English is the first language for most of the writers and editors, although most house styles advise them not to use it as a preposition. Almost all of the stylebooks say 'before' is simple.

Fowler's Dictionary of Modern Usage does not object to the use use "prior to" at best in cases where the connection between two events is 'more essential than the simple time relation.' Ernest Gowers in his The Complete Plain Words said: 'There is no good reason to use prior to as a preposition instead of before. Before is simpler, better known and more natural, and therefore preferable.' The stylebook of the Times asks reporters and editors not to use 'prior to,' but the newspaper keeps printing sentences with 'prior to' as a preposition, even sentences such as 'they were unbeaten here prior to today,' which sounds awkward.

John Bremner, a teacher of journalism at the University of Kansas, once asked, 'If you don't use posterior to, why use prior to? Would you say "Posterior to the game, we had a few drinks?" So why say "Prior to the game, we had a few drinks?" Make it: "Before and after (and even during) the game, we had a few drinks."'

Most stylebooks also ask the people on the writing and editing panel not to use the phrase 'ahead of' as a synonym for 'before' in temporal relation. The use of the phrase in 'she stands far ahead of him' or 'Bebo is marginally ahead of Facebook' in spatial context is permissible; its use also sounds sound in contexts such as 'she is far ahead of her time.' But its use in 'ahead of polls' as a synonym for 'before' is deprecated.

January 12, 2008

Burglary at bank

Dhaka newspapers keep calling the recent burglary at the Dhanmondi branch of the BRAC Bank a robbery. Why? Perhaps the huge amount of gold and money taken away by the gang led the editors, and the writers, to believe that it could be a robbery. Perhaps there are something else. Whatever the case is, this is a simple case of burglary. No one knew when the incident, detected early January 6, took place. None of the offended was present and there was no use of force; the roof and lockers were broken and money and gold were taken away.

Robbery is taking something away from someone by the use of force, threats or intimidation, committed in the presence of the victim. An unlawful entry of a building, when windows and doors are broken or forced, screens, walls or roofs broken and tools used or even when doors or windows remain unlocked, for a theft or felony is described as burglary. Larceny is burglary only when the entry is not illegal and forcible. Theft is often synonymous with larceny.

The Bangladesh Penal Code defines robbery as robbery when it is committed by less than five persons and dacoity when it is committed by five or more than five persons, punishable with imprisonment for varying periods. Henry Yule's Hobson-Jobson says, 'The term, being current in Bengal, got into the Penal Code. By law, to constitute dacoity, there must be five or more in the gang committing the crime.' In the English laws, the Bangladesh Law Commission in a report in 1998 said, robbery is synonymous with robbery and dacoity. The distinction is still maintained in the penal codes of India and Pakistan, in keeping with the continuity. The Indian Penal Code 1860 became the Pakistan Penal Code after 1947 and the Bangladesh Penal Code after 1971.

January 03, 2008

Literal use of figures of speech

There were jubilations. People were out on the streets at almost midnight. It was a cricket feat. A junior reporter wrote the team and the people were over the moon at winning the game. A senior editor punched his literary acumen into the report and rephrased it as '... literally over the moon...' which sounded an absurd proposition.

The first manned landing on Earth's Moon took place on July 20, 1960 as part of the Apollo 11 mission commanded by Neil Armstrong, joined in by Edwin Aldrin. Since then, 24 astronauts have travelled to the Moon --- 12 walking on the surface and three making the trip twice. There were no players and no common people among them.

Moral: Never use the word 'literally' in reports. Its use, at the hands of reporters and editors, is wrong in most cases, and entails judgement of a sort.