Sunday, February 6, 2011

What's Wrong with Correct English?

Published in The Hindu Literary Review (Feb 6, 2011):

Original, uncut version: 
Indian English Today : Evolution or Disease?

David Crystal says in his book, The Fight for English, ‘To many people in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, the language was seriously unwell. It was suffering from a raging disease of uncontrolled usage. And it needed help if it was to get better […] People needed to know who they were talking to. Snap judgements were everything, when it came to social position. And things are not much different today. We make immediate judgements on how people dress, how they do their hair, decorate their bodies – and how they speak and write. It is the first bit of discourse that counts.’

Crystal is not really arguing for ‘standard’ English in his book, or the ‘prescriptive’ rules that, he says, a bunch of pedants laid for the usage of the English language. Rather, he is arguing for the several languages English becomes in the hands of different people, in different settings, and in different cultures.

That’s indisputable. However, the new generation of Indians speaking and writing in English today seems to have taken those words quite literally, leading to a complete deterioration of the art of speaking and writing. Why is it that if you speak about correct English today, you’re immediately branded as an ‘elitist’, and looked upon as ‘the other’?

Once upon a time English was a language to which few people had access. People, who mastered it, spoke and wrote well, respecting the language for its beauty, fluidity, and nuances.

It’s no longer so. With the ‘Indianisation’ of the language, the attitude of the people towards English seems to be changing completely. If you belong to the ‘elitist’ group of Indians, (that is, if you’re particular about correct usage and grammar), you have the option of sending your child to a board that does teach grammar and literature. Otherwise, you have a problem with Indian English, not the rest of the country.

How did this happen? Does the problem lie right at school-level teaching, and treatment of the language? That, after all, is the time when foundations are laid. Over the years, English has been stripped to its skeleton, focusing more and more on function, and less and less on the finer points that exercise the intellect and enhance creativity.

While it’s a debatable issue whether the switch over from the structural approach to communicative has played villain, most people agree that little attention is given to the art of creative writing these days. The earlier emphasis on essay or story writing is absent in most schools now.

Ever since the functional approach has taken over in some schools, thumbing its nose at grammar, English seems to have become a hapless marionette in the hands of the young learners. Syntax and structure are no longer vital. And where there are no rules, chaos is of course the new czarina. Heavy blinds have been drawn over the pursuit of literature.

Worse, we seem to be promoting this culture every day, encouraging redundancies such as pleonasms and tautology, and locking essentials like sentence construction and punctuation into oblivion. Removing emphasis on correct usage or grammar is like removing the vertebral column of a language.

It’s a different matter when learners learn the rules first and then break them with their skill, creating something new and artistic. However, if we leave them in a chaotic world to begin with, where are they supposed to end up?

‘I don’t think languages are given importance in our schools, which is a pity. The so called subject teachers usually lack language skills. It is made to seem as if information is all, and language isn't important to convey or learn this information,’ says Dr GJV Prasad, Chairperson, Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. ‘There can be no education without a strong basis in language. We should teach languages well in our schools rather than teach absurd levels of science and other subjects. Our students can't enter intellectual exploration without a strong grounding in language.’

One always gets to hear that, since students are already overloaded with their science and math courses, it is best to go easy on English. Hence, most students land up not taking the subject seriously at all, and laugh at those who do. There is a dearth of schools that still make the effort to expose their students to nuances of the language, or go a step ahead and initiate them into the magnificent world of literature.

Language – the vehicle of thought and expression, and comprehension of the world we live in – sacrificed completely to the study of facts and figures, mass and matter!

These decisions at school level often cause more damage than one can imagine. Is it surprising that we eventually manufacture unthinking semi-automatons, who can only react arrogantly to what they do not know and haven’t learnt to value?

Dorothy Tressler, director, Somerville schools, says, ‘In India, we teach classes consisting of more than forty students. There is mayhem if you try to make these children learn a language using the communicative approach. You cannot make them read, speak, or spell individually every day. The weak ones are forgotten. They end up learning nothing. The traditional methods worked well for large classes.’

Vivek Govil, president, Pearson Education, India, doesn’t think the communicative approach is necessarily a bad thing. He says, ‘It is certainly a better way for people, for whom English is a second language, to acquire the language. My concern is that we are teaching the same courses to children regardless of whether English is a native language, a second language, or a foreign language. This is going to be an even larger issue when the Right to Education Act comes into play, and you have less homogeneous groups in school. And it is certainly destroying the language for those who should be learning at higher levels.’

That indeed is a crucial point. English is suffering at various levels, and this is perhaps the first casualty.

Dr Mita Bose, professor of English, Delhi University, believes that English cannot be taught either by trying to drill rules into the students (structural approach), or by switching over to functional English (communicative approach). ‘Once you’ve explained the rules to them, you need to teach them to look out for them while they read, speak, or hear the language,’ she says. ‘Constant exposure is important.’

The focus on a working knowledge of English nowadays is perhaps responsible for another significant development – ‘Indianisation’ of the language. ‘Indian English' seems to be the justification for all the errors that these speakers or writers in English make. Instead of accepting a mistake and correcting it, they brazenly defend themselves using ‘Indian English’ as their breastplate. Perhaps because English has suddenly become accessible to everybody, now that they don’t have to worry about the fundamentals, people don’t find it worthy of regard any longer.

In the long term this may hamper professional development, regardless of whether one is looking at a career in writing or not. Eventually, correct communication skills are critical in getting ahead, whether it’s email or spoken English. Sloppiness sets in under the skin and is almost impossible to get rid of. That’s why the top MBA courses in Ivy League often have refresher courses in the liberal arts – both for free thinking and exposure to quality language, which, in turn, is an exposure to quality minds. That is why many interview panelists ask their candidates what books they read.

The revised dictum today?

Saare niyam tod do; niyam pe chalna chhod do. Inqalab zindabad. (Do away with all the rules. Long live the revolution.)

Mediocrity has become the latest status symbol. Courtesy: the free-for-all, the new breed of speakers and writers is creating its own version of English – sans elegance, sans structure, sans finer nuances.

Correct English isn’t simply about avoiding splitting infinitives or putting a preposition at the end of a sentence. It’s about eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and beauty.

Sometimes these young authors do have stories to tell, but lack the requisite skills; at other times they have neither a story, nor the skills. Yet, they get published. Yet, they sell. This happens to be another ‘casualty’ for the English language.

‘Most readers have always read pulp, but there’s disrespect for the written language now that I think is new,’ says Udayan Mitra, publishing director, Penguin Books India. ‘People can’t tell the difference between its and it’s, for instance, and don’t care what the difference is either. This disrespect – and nonchalance – is certainly reflected in a lot of the manuscripts we receive. A lot of people send in manuscripts now, who would not even have thought of writing some years ago.’

These changing trends now seem to be riding roughshod over the publishing industry that initially welcomed the boom (of pulp fiction) by and large from college-going writers. Many of these authors today are using this mongrel language in their novels and books without restraint. They justify their writing saying that they don’t pretend to be literary writers anyway. Their writing supposedly helps ‘bridge the gap’ between the literary elite and the general masses.

The question is – is it really so? Are they really bridging the gap by pandering to the latter in this manner? Is it a good enough rationale for the dumbing down of Indian writing in English at international level?

Ironically, this trend, rather than bridging the gap between the ‘elite’ and the ‘masses’, is widening it instead. The readers for whom English is a second language, or a foreign language, will never acquire the skills or the finesse of the ‘elite’ (or first-language learners) if they never strive to learn the correct language. The gap will never be bridged. Indian English might work for them in India but, outside India, or while interacting with non-Indians, they would always struggle with their home-produced potpourri.

Publishers are not against the genre of non-serious writing or pulp fiction per se. (In fact this is crucial for the development of the larger reading habit).What they are concerned about is the way this genre is being dealt with today.

‘There is obviously a demand for these books,’ says Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette India. 'There's both a plus and a minus to this. The plus was that there was, at least in the beginning a sense of liberation (India has been locked into the literary midlist mindset for the past five decades) with promise of a new genre of commercial writing that one thought would emerge – vibrant, innovative, contemporary. The minus is that this has not happened. Most publishers do have a whole slew of new manuscripts pouring in every day, but hardly any are of quality.’

Most publishers agree that, of late, the quality of submissions from young writers has been steadily sliding downhill.

‘Despite the much touted fact that English is dynamic and constantly evolving, there are still standards of correct grammar and syntax whether you are a believer in Wren & Martin or Noam Chomsky. Even ‘Hinglish’ brought in for character authenticity has to be located within a narrative framework of grammar and usage. However, a lot of today’s writing seems to eschew the need for correct English completely,’ adds Abraham.

‘I am simply disappointed. As a publisher it hurts to see such books,’ says Saugata Mukherjee, managing editor and rights manager, HarperCollins India. ‘I am all for commercial/mass market books, but can't quite believe there are only badly written ones. I guess publishers need to be a little more discerning and not compromise basic quality.’

Nobody can deny that language is ever-evolving. From feather quills to ball points, from Remingtons to VAIOs, writers have woven rich word tapestries, using different forms of English.

Where has the craft disappeared today? Where is the art? Where is the finesse?

Dr Bose puts it across beautifully. ‘If you want to offer your audience a dish, would you scatter it haphazardly on the table and expect them to dip a finger here and there and lick it to get a taste, or would you serve it nicely in a pretty bowl? Shape and structure are essential for a wholesome experience.’

There is a serious danger that we may never stop entering shops from their ‘backside’, looking for ‘loosepoles’ instead of loopholes, singing songs with ‘feel’ rather than feeling, going to the market ‘by walk’, or arriving at office ‘from inside-inside the colony only’.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to be concerned. For most people, ‘Indian English’ is simply ‘evolving’. It’s a disconcerting thought that tomorrow, some of these very people might land up in positions of authority – as English teachers, editors in publishing houses or even at newspaper offices – judging other people’s language skills, or writing our editorials.

It is not merely idle whining by another bunch of snobbish linguistic fundamentalists, but a genuine concern of a handful of those who still love the language for its grace, and admire orators and writers for their true genius. Hopefully, lovers of English will take some notice, for the industry-wallas will surely be watching, wary of 'bowing to the ineluctable pressures of what-happens-nextism’.


  1. Divya, I really agree with what you say 100% because I spend most of my time editing the terrible English prose of first-time writers. I can live with cleaning up the language if the story is first-rate and original, but if both are bad, then it is really a pain, not a pleasure, doing this job.

    I think we Indians tend to have a herd mentality. We would like our progeny to do well in life, hence the tendency to focus on a course of education and careers that will help them lead a comfortable life. If, in my grandparent's generation, it was the law and the government services, where the knowledge of languages was a must, in our parents' and our own generation, it is the science (for doctors and engineers) and commerce (for MBAs) streams that we concentrate. Language, which is a basic tool for communication, is neglected--kids seldom get a chance to read and I don't know how many parents really have the time to read to their kids. So whether it's Hindi, English or any other language, it is neglected in favour of a subject that will get the student the maximum number of marks possible to get into the right college.

    However, this neglect of language arts hampers people in their professional and personal lives. I hate doing it, but when I hear someone murdering a language--any language--by speaking it atrociously, I begin to wonder where on God's earth he or she was educated. And it is these very people, who, when they go abroad for further studies, tend to huddle in only-Indian groups--their lack of confidence in speaking a language affects their ability to communicate in class and on the street, so to speak.

  2. Gopali Chakravorti-GhoshFebruary 7, 2011 at 1:02 AM

    Dear Divya
    From a completely different perspective may I say that English or the "elite" aka the "correct" version is universally dying. Perhaps it is the dynamic quality of English that is hastening its demise. I teach English at senior secondary level in the UK and am also a Board examiner for the same subject here. My so called "elite" education in India ensured my job although technically I am still classed as a NON NATIVE SPEAKER of English. However....
    Grammar and the finer points of the language are antediluvian here but they are expected to answer questions in the exams on "How does the author use language to create tension?" How will the poor things know when most at comprehensive(government) schools don't know the difference between a adverb and an adjective let alone a simile or a metaphor. Primary schools have too much of a burden to be teaching all this and so by the time they come to us at secondary, they know little. Yet they have to have these skills in order to get jobs.And so we kill ourselves trying to teach them and the job at best is a poor one. Vocabulary is minimal, spellings are abysmal and grammar is enough to make you take to the drink! I kid you not. And there are also those who write stuff in the exams that leaves me gasping with amazement as to how does a 16 year old produce this in exam conditions? The answer lies as in most things... Nurture. And I bet you it is the same in India. Those who read and by this I mean proper reading (thank you JK Rowling) do well and write well. Those whose parents foster this and read to them or force them to read, eventually do well in all subjects because of the transfer of skills. And those who don't read, do not do as well. It's a universal phenomena. The ghetto mentality of Indians abroad persists because of the inability to articulate correctly in English despite their fabulous marks in other subjects.
    India is now a society where the study of Humanities and the Languages is looked down upon; you must be "thick" in slang parlance if you don't study science and especially if you are male. How very sad is this. Yet no one seems to realise that without proper language skills we do our children a huge disservice. We need to wake up and that too pretty soon if we don't wish to have a generation of tongue tied graduates.

  3. Very interesting essay*. I've posted the version appearing in "the Hindu" on my FB page for literary friends who may not follow the Indian English-language scene.

    *Intentional use of a sentence fragment.

  4. In my recent experience of India -New Delhi, English there remains far superior to English in Malaysia where bad grammar is the norm and Manglish (Malay - English) and Chinglish (Chinese - English) are widely accepted. English is deteriorating in Malaysia badly, there are few who are able to write coherently in the language and its saddens me.

  5. @Gopali: That's amazing, but I have seen examples myself. What do I say? If THEY couldn't care less, what does one say to the others who are not native speakers? It is very sad. How can one expect these students to go on to become great speakers and writers tomorrow? It's true that only parents who are bothered and particular make sure they do something about their children's education at home.

    @ Yusuf, we have the same problem here. Hinglish is taking over completely.

  6. A very interesting article for all of us who love the language for its beauty. The ruthlessness with which the language is dealt with today bothers me so much. we can't depend on the schools any more. we should take upon us the onus of passing on correct language skills to our children by somehow inculcating in them the habit to read. By the way, is'nt that how all of us improved our skills too?

  7. Divya...that was a supremely relevant article. Congratulations on a very well written piece. I have a few observations of mine to make here. We have only addressed the problem, but if you look at the core of the problem, it lies in the mapping patterns. The Indians who now profess to speak English, speak it after processing it in their own vernacular. Hence what is perfect syntax and grammar in the vernacular gets horribly contorted when transferred to English. I do believe that even the teachers of English today are guilty of the very same mistake. Hence, I think the teaching of English has to factor in this unconscious mapping which happens and find a way to address that. I dont blame the Indians for the kind of English they pick up because its human nature. I am a non native speaker of French, having learnt it rather late in life as an adult. So while I try to be as correct as possible when writing it, my thought processes are by default in English, English being my primary language. I know for a fact that native French speakers will not use the same sentence structure that I do. The problem lies in the defensive posture adopted by people when errors are pointed out. Hence, it all lies in the openness that one has to learning from mistakes which is a slightly difficult thing to do when one is already an adult.

    It would help if parents realised that all the science and maths grades that their wards receive in school and college will not help, if they finally lack in effective communication skills. I think a miss in a comma or a full stop is not something to cry hoarse about, the occasional spelling mistake can also be pardoned if the person is able to communicate effectively. Not everyone is going to be a writer but everyone definitely will need to communicate effectively. Hence its better to have a working knowledge of the language and the correct one at that.

    Last word on the subject. I am not surprised that English skills are deteriorating everywhere. The visual media is taking over the written media space and no one needs to read anymore. Children today live on borrowed imagination. They do not have (rather, exercise) the freedom to think up their own version of a "farm in the countryside" for example. They have someone else's imagination drumming up one for them.

    Final final word. I hope there have been no goof ups in my long essay. I have tried to be extremely correct. :))) The Queen I hope will not be disappointed. :)

  8. Going to school in 1970s England (admittedly in a school that was firmly grounded in the 19th century), I think that correct English is very important - although, I have to admit, I lack some of the finer points myself. Every time I see sloppy grammar and punctuation, though, it feels like I have been stabbed in the eye.

    People tell me that English is a living, evolving language and standards must adapt to reflect current usage (current in both time and place, of course, since the article focuses on Indian English), and I do see a virtue in that argument. Imperial Victorian English became too rigid, and at times is barely comprehensible. But to abandon rules in response is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. At the risk of being trite, Picasso learned to draw, and draw very well, before he embraced Cubism. You have to know the rules before you can make informed decisions about when and how to break them.

  9. Divya, I already have an example to share. Unfortunately, this new breed of English users has already started landing in positions of authority. I was very disturbed after reading the following article on the website of Society of Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP):

    SfEP is a highly-recognised professional organisation, based in the UK, for editors and proofreaders. If they can have such a view for professionals from India, I believe, many careers are at stake.


  10. Dear friends,
    Thank you very much! :)

  11. @Shalini: You hit the nail on the head!

    @Graeme: That's what I strongly believe too. People must know rules to break them.

    @Harsha: Yes, that's what bothers me. It's affecting the industry here too.

  12. One of my articles "The Forgotten Art of Letter Writing" along similar lines was published in Hindustan Times some time ago:

    We are planning to add training modules to our existing site to encourage the use of correct English grammar and syntax.

  13. Thanks, Vipin. It's good to hear that some people still care about it. :)

  14. Divya, of course! I remember a much respected editor of a much respected MNC publishing house "correcting " my sentence in a manuscript , from "The truth will out" to 'The truth will COME out'. Offering the alternative 'The truth will BE out'. Hahaha! More than correct grammar, idiom has been totally forgotten.