Don’t Clumsy My Brain With English

24 07 2007

I heard a story a few months back from my aunt, from when she was taking a course/workshop on how to use English properly at the Asian College of Journalism. At the time, she had a student who had a knack for being able to convey exactly what she meant, despite the fact that proper grammar and a strong vocabulary weren’t really her strengths. The other thing about her, the student, was that she was missing classes once too often, and the college management was getting concerned. So my aunt asked her after one of her classes [incidentally, she never missed any of my aunt’s classes… might have something to do with the fact that the classes were in the evenings…] why she was missing classes. The girl responded, “Ma’am, there’s just too much to remember. [I think this is what she said. If not I’m paraphrasing.] I don’t want to clumsy my brain.“. [This line is verbatim.]

When my aunt told me about this, we were in the midst of a discussion on how poor the standards of English are in India. On hearing the line “I don’t want to clumsy my brain”, I just burst out laughing. I had never in my life come across the word “clumsy” being used to indicate a state of mind. However, I did understand what she was trying to say, that she didn’t want to confuse herself with too much information. Upon reflection, I have to admire the way she was able to convey her meaning so clearly while not actually using the right word. But the whole problem is just that. I had to take extra time after hearing the statement to reflect and try to absorb just what she was saying.

The above example is representative of just how poor the standard of English is in India today. At this point, I’d just like to clarify that I’m not trying to bash India [well, not too much…] but rather trying to highlight the general apathy that seems to exist when it comes to using what you think is English, as opposed to what actually is English. The girl thought she was she was using correct English, and while she got her point across, it wasn’t grammatically accurate. You can argue that written and spoken English are different, but the fact is that the same basic rules govern sentence construction for both. Otherwise, you could get away with something like, “King illegal forest to pig wild kill in it a is!” [Hey, I managed to sneak in a Mel Brooks line into this.] Yes, a bit of an exaggeration but if you read of some of the stuff I’ve come across recently, its not half bad.

My biggest beef with India, especially being in IT, is with two words. To the not-so-clueless I think you know which two I mean. For the rest, the words I love to hate are “Upgradation” and “Updation”. Up until 10 years or so, they were malapropisms. The words simply didn’t exist. Then came the IT revolution and Y2K, and with it the arrival of the Indian IT engineer on the global stage. With his/her bag full of tricks, armed with considerable mathematical and analytical talent, and the ability to communicate well (in his/her personal opinion) in English, the world was suddenly flooded with all sorts of new fangled jargon, courtesy of Tanglish, Hinglish, and every other sort of -lish you can think of. Words like “updation” and “upgradation”, and phrases such as “now you can able” or “can’t able to” became commonplace in offices and IT support centres from Frisco to Tokyo.

Instead of saying “I’ve finished the update and the upgrade”, they decided to show off their command of the language by “verbing” the noun forms of update and upgrade. So today we have to endure hearing “I’ve finished the Updation and Upgradation.” It’s almost as if they’re trying to imply that they’ve achieved a monumental task.

“Hey, have you revised those addition formulas in that Excel spreadsheet?” “Almost Sir, I’m just finishing the updation.”

This Calvin and Hobbes strip pretty much sums up what these clowns are doing:

Fast forward to 2007, “Upgradation” and “Updation” are now found in Webster’s New Millenium Dictionary, the first edition of which was published in 2002. What I suspect happened was that by the sheer volume of usage, the words became commonplace and were eventually absorbed into the English language, which says more for English rather than the people who started using the words incorrectly in the first case. Never mind that they were not even words 10 years back. But, the language is willing to adapt, and thus it is now law. I can no longer strike out those words from any written communication with my usual gusto and grammatical fervour. *Deep Sigh* I’ll miss that. C’est la vie.

But thankfully, the laws of English grammar and common sense still prevail in some respects, and the phrase “can’t able to” is still illegal. But, people in India continue to use the phrase, either due to ignorance or due to apathy and an unwillingness to change.

Just consider the sentence, “I can’t able to do this.” This is something I hear every day at work. In its entirety, the sentence reads as “I can not able to do this.” The whole problem with this is that you’re using the word “can” as a positive, followed by the word “not” as a negative, followed by the word “able”, which is a positive on its own, to imply a negative meaning. You wouldn’t immediately notice this in a conversation, but doesn’t it look wrong written out? Why on earth do you want to confuse the issue? Why not just say “I can not do this” or “I am not able to this” ???

When I point out this mistake to people, they question why it’s wrong. When they use the Tamil “Yennaku panna mudiyilai” it translates correctly, according to them. I point out that the word “panna” from the root “panarthu” means “can”, and “mudiyilai” means “not able to do” or “can’t do”. So, if you literally translate the Tamil phrase, it reads as “I can can’t do” or “I can not able to do”. The whole problem here is that you’re using the word “can” and the word “can not” in the same sentence. You end up with a contradictory statement. So given the negative context of the statement on hand, you should only say “can not”.

Also, you can’t really use the word “can” twice in the same sentence, whatever the context. The only time you even use “can” twice in the same sentence is to refer to the “can-can”, a dance popular in burlesque clubs in early part of the 20th century.

Ironically, Indians know this rule so they substitute “able” instead of “can”, but stick to the original “I can can not do this” formula. So, “I can’t able to do” continues to torment me and and those like me who were forced to learn grammar from Messrs. Wren and Martin, while having to endure our parents glaring at us and threatening us with no snacks and tidbits or the even more dangerous threat, “no playtime until you finish your English homework.”

Having been around the world and seen the various ways English has been corrupted and bastardized (try listening to Singlish if you ever get the chance. Thats whats found in Singapore and Malaysia.), I thought I was quite immune to how badly people can use the language. But, upon reading the following email sent a few weeks from a company’s receptionist back to a prospective candidate, I realized I was wrong. I was mortified.

“You supposed to join on or before 23rd July 2007 as per the Offer Letter. Have a confirmation of this by sending Mail or make a call .”

I couldn’t help wondering, “Why the heck is this person so bloody pissed off?” If I had received this message, I would have flat-out turned down the offer. I found it rude, insulting even. It has a demanding tone. You don’t do that. You request a confirmation. The first line seems like an accusation that the person didn’t join on the specified date. Given that this was sent in the first week of July, it’s absurd to take this tone.

Analyzing the usage of certain words and sentence construction, you start questioning “Is ‘supposed’ the right word to use?” “Is the first sentence constructed correctly?” “What is ‘Have a confirmation of this by sending mail or make a call’ supposed to mean?” It looks like two half-written sentences joined together!!! It’s just down-right unprofessional.

One way to write this message would be, “As per the offer letter you received from us, you are supposed to join us on or before the 23rd. Please send a confirmation of this by email or call us.” Simple, polite, and to the point.

Another one that I got recently that set me off was, “This mail is regarding the telephonic conversation had with Mr. yesterday. I had a discussion with my PM regarding your offer, I understand that he needs my service indispensably, I am in the critical position now to accept your offer and I regret for the same, please bare with me regards this, thanks for the opportunity.”

If you notice closely, the second sentence is actually 5 sentences joined together using commas. He would have been better off using periods/fullstops rather than commas. But more interestingly, what does “I am in the critical position now to accept your offer and I regret for the same” mean? Is he taking the offer or not? Or is he deferring the decision, given that he said “please bear with me regards this”? I eventually called this guy and found out that he couldn’t be relieved as promised, so he was turning down our offer.

Sometimes I really don’t understand why people try and use certain words in conversations without fully understanding the meaning of those words. They just end up writing absolute rubbish and leave the reader confused as to what the author’s trying to say. I recall an English professor of mine from college, who ripped one of my early papers apart. His beef with me was that while I wrote well, I unnecessarily used certain words when simpler words would have been enough. He pointed out that the objective was not to impress the reader with fancy words, which would only leave them confused if they didn’t understand the meanings correctly. The objective was to communicate the message in a way that was effective, yet simple and unambiguous. He was more caustic than that actually. He said, “If you want to write a novel, you write like you’ve written here. Otherwise, write as I tell you to.”

Getting back to the bad English at hand, when I was in school here in Chennai around 10 years back, most of my classmates were able to write coherent and grammatically correct sentences, even though some didn’t have the same exposure (which is a common excuse given today as to why people’s English is bad) that some of us had. Okay, they had funny accents and all, but when it came to the written word, they adhered to the fundamentals of grammar and certainly didn’t succumb to stuff like “Have a confirmation of this by sending mail or make a call” or “Can’t able to”.

But today, I’m having to cajole my engineers to take classes outside of work to improve their English by focusing on their grammar, and have even started impromptu classes in the lunch room during tea time with some of the guys to get them to improve their English. I’ve had to convince people by pointing out the career growth prospects, and even mildly rebuking them in front of others for incorrect usage in an effort to get them want to improve, basically using the carrot and the stick approach. All in the name of better English.

Of course, I still get gems like “A Thesaurus is a container of words”, or “A Thesaurus gives word meanings and Dictionary gives meaning of words”, but I at least feel that I’m being proactive rather than just complaining about it. I’m even talking to some people to try and setup a website to help people learn and improve their English. ‘Course, I’m looking at the financial benefits as well, but I really do see a huge need for tools to help people improve.

For the most part, my guys have reacted well to my criticisms. They have asked me how to improve. I suggested reading books and magazines, not the filmy crap, and watching English programs on TV, preferably the BBC or movies, to understand usage better. I’m not asking them to become literary pundits ala Shakespeare. I’m just trying to get them to understand and use the basic rules of the language properly to communicate effectively.

One major stumbling block though is that the newspapers and magazines here are not much help. I regularly find errors in grammar and usage when I read the papers. And god help us with the SMS shortcuts. I’ve got no problems if people use the shortcuts for a SMS or a personal mail. But when a person tries and use that in formal letters/emails/reports, you’re just asking to be screwed.

I have two reasons as to why I’m writing all this down. One, I believe that India is asking for big trouble in the near future unless people are aware that this is a problem and take steps to correct this. These days you really need to communicate well to interact with people not just from the native English-speaking countries, but from practically anywhere in the world. You can’t go about writing “can’t able to”, and “clumsy my brain”.

Secondly, I needed to vent and get it out of my system. A year of bottling all this up really saps at your patience. It was almost starting to “clumsy my brain.”

Ironically, just as I was finishing this up, I received the following link from a friend.

One of my favorites on that site is:

Maybe there’s hope for Indians yet. Incidentally, another example of verbing and the problems being created is covered in this article. Apparently, some clown TV journalist used the phrase “to podium” as a verb. It also examines the etymology (for lack of a better word) of “verbing” through the ages. It’s an interesting read. Oh and its got the Brits blaming the Americans for bad English. 🙂




5 responses

24 07 2007
Ram H. Viswanathan

You missed something in the email from the person refusing to take the offer as he couldn’t leave his previous job (“getting relieved” as they say it in India). He said please bare with me not bear :). A simple “mistake” can change the meaning of a whole sentence – assuming you can understand what he was trying to say in the first place!

24 07 2007

Well yes and no! I didn’t bother with that cause that was a typo… Course when you think about its does sound like a not-so-straight proposition… 😉 Figured I had enough ammo to go on… This is one of those posts that go on forever…

19 10 2007

good stuff….kinda cliche though……..will there ever be a light at the end of this tunnel???????

26 11 2007
I, Me, Myself

English is the only language, which I think is having this open door policy. Every year there are few words, which are made popular by Indians are entering into the dictionaries. Bollywood is an officially accepted word now. You cannot keep complaining about people using it wrong or right, because what you think as wrong today might become right and get into the dictionary tomorrow. So stop ‘Polambifying’.

19 06 2008

Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

cheers, Brecht.

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