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  Books   25 May 2018  Whatever happened to plain, simple English?

Whatever happened to plain, simple English?

Published : May 25, 2018, 1:46 am IST
Updated : May 25, 2018, 1:46 am IST

The charges in the said case have also led to users trying their hand at English to outdo Tharoor.

 A book is an object that needs to be sold in the market and how well this can be done would lie in its appeal to readers. (Photo: Pixabay)
  A book is an object that needs to be sold in the market and how well this can be done would lie in its appeal to readers. (Photo: Pixabay)

Poor Macaulay must be doing cartwheels in the great beyond! Having recommended English as the medium of instruction in educational institutions in 1835, he expected the native classes to play a subaltern role and help in the perpetuation of British rule in India. He certainly did not expect that in some distant future Indians would become so proficient in the use of words in both spoken and written English that all others, including native speakers of the language, would scurry to the dictionary to look up the meaning. Sometimes even the dictionary could prove inadequate. The latest in the string of words that would raise more eyebrows than an understanding nod is that of our ebullient MP Shashi Tharoor, now unfortunately in the news for all the wrong reasons.

He recently signaled his resolve to go off his Twitter handle. Stating that many of his followers on Twitter were guilty of “epicarcicy” he announced that he would not be putting things out on Twitter till he had vigorously defended himself against the charges brought on him. The term epicarcicy, and this is where we say an ordinary dictionary may not do, means “revel in the misery of others”. Tharoor’s latest is in a long line of English usage that would do a Fowler or a Burchfield proud. Reacting furiously to a leading English news channel and its anchor leveling charges against him, he described it as an “exasperating farrago of distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies being broadcast by an unprincipled showman masquerading as a journalist”. Very similar in tone to the English playwright Robert Greene’s anonymous pamphlet in 1592. “There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse
as the best of you”. The subject of Greene’s attack was Shakespeare and we have no reason to doubt that Tharoor knows his Shakespeare.

The charges in the said case have also led to users trying their hand at English to outdo Tharoor. The latest to describe his predicament states he finds himself “in a glutinous admixture of herbaceous viands, succulent meats, and pulverized legumes daintily stewed over a benignly blazing flame”, in other words, a soup!

But Tharoor is not the only politician to use words that make media headlines. Some years ago, the irrepressible MP Jaipal Reddy, then in the opposition, once thundered that the minister’s statement in Parliament was a “humongous lie”. Reddy’s statement not only grabbed headlines but also drew a closer scrutiny of the minister’s assertion.

Using words that are not easily understood is a strict “no,no” as far as courses in creative writing are concerned and specially so in written English. Publishers always tell their authors to use words that are easily understood and comprehended. All authors write for an intended readership and the idea is to entice and hook the reader. One of the many functions of the editor in publishing is to tidy up language. A book is an object that needs to be sold in the market and how well this can be done would lie in its appeal to readers. It would be quite annoying for the reader to constantly keep reaching for the dictionary.

Martin Cutts is the research director of the Plain Language Commission. In his book, The Plain English Guide he gives several instances of using language that confuses and obfuscates and in many cases, is simply archaic. Cutts gives the example of an insurance company acknowledging receipt of a premium. “The said aggregate further single premium shall be apportioned equally among existing Policies and consequently in relation to each such Policy the Further Minimum Sum Assured secured by the part of the said aggregate further single apportioned thereto shall be a sum equal to the aggregate Further Minimum sum specified in the Schedule” etc, etc. Phew! The only thing that seems to be clear is that multiple policies seem to be taken and premiums will be apportioned among the policies.

Cutts gives further evidence of misleading language. On top of a screw cap bottle. “To open, pierce with pin and push off”. On aircraft maintenance “check undercarriage pin. If bent, replace”. The pin was indeed bent and was put back with disastrous consequences to the aircraft. A notice below the instructions to a flush toilet in a train stated “failure to use the above instructions will result in the malfunction of this amenity”.

This is a gem from Cutts. The training manager of a company circulated an internal office memo where he stated that he preferred “a pedagogic approach” during training programmes. He was told by the management to be out of the office by lunch time as the company did not tolerate “paedopholic perverts!”.

After he successfully defended himself citing the meaning of the term “pedagogic” in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, he was reinstated. But the company management sent out a directive to all company personnel that only words to be found in the local newspaper would be used in all future office memos. The case was reported in Personnel Today. Clearly, the company was in urgent need of training in English.

So, what is plain English? Chaucer in one of his plays had a character say “Speketh so pleyne at this time, I yow preye, That we may understonde what ye saye”. Simply put, plain English means writing that gives a motivated reader a chance to understand what is being said at the first reading and in the same sense that the writer intended it to be understood.

Unfortunately, all written communication does not follow this simple rule. As a result, we need third-party intervention to interpret what is being said. Disputes on interpretation are settled through adjudication. Clearer documentation in plain English can improve people’s access to services, benefits, justice and a fair deal. People can also make informed choices. Many of our documents are couched in legalese that few can understand. We had so many members of our Constituent Assembly with a legal background that our Constitution constantly requires interpretation.

When I passed out of boarding school in the picturesque Nilgiri hills in the mid-sixties, my late and revered principal wrote in his certificate, among other things, that I was “a voracious reader with a keen sense of humour”.

I wondered then as I wonder now at his choice of words. Why “voracious” rather than “prolific” for I always felt the former had more to do with appetite. I console myself with the thought that my appetite for reading put pressure on the school to constantly augment the resources of the small library we then had.

The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books   

Tags: poor macaulay, shashi tharoor, shakespeare