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« The Egyptian uprising: voices from a distance | Main | Egypt: Revolution fueled by youth and technology »

February 09, 2011


As a lover of pleonasms (a new word for my vocabulary), I refuse to remove them from my personal vernacular. I picked up the habit as a child and I'm not letting go now.

How does one join the grammar police? Is it like a real police force, where a disposition for violence is a net benefit? Of course, linguistic violence is a little less odious. Maybe I should sign up.

In the case of the Indian grammar police, they all place their hands on the Wren & Martin and swear to uphold the cause of killing dangling participles, misplaced modifiers and other assorted grammarian crimes, doing so in the most pleonastic way possible. Most importantly, they are not bound by the same rules that they promise to uphold, having earned the right to transgress their own rules by claiming to know the rules.
Maybe grammar police are like that all around the world, whether they speak Englisch, Deutsch or Tagalog. Or even Trinidadian English. I wonder if Tricia would turn up her nose at those who claim to know her language better than her, if she had pleonasms thrown at her all day long.

Pleonasm (a new word for me, also) is nothing other than Neoplasm of the vocabulary - words multiplying uselessly and abnormally until all meaningful language is obscured. This is a bright example of the text book style pedantry, a typical harrumphing style of the Indian gatekeepers of "graceful" English. Thanks Sujatha for locating this scolding platitudinal piece which did not even bother to illuminate us with a few examples of the "pleonasmic" Indian English that she objects to so vehemently.

Lots of excellent examples of Pleonasm, across multiple languages here:

I didn't realize that the French word for 'today' - "aujourd'hui' was a pleonasm meaning "on the day of today". Or that languages are more or less prone to their own forms of pleonasm.

Here's a sampling of the kind of Indian English Ms.Dubey might be objecting to, as a publisher. It's taken from "Cutting and Tailoring Practicals - Part 2" by Eshwari Anwani and Lakhraj Hans.

"Different type of purses are available in the market to keep the change. But you can make a purse according to your need small, big, round, triangular, square, etc.
It can be made of thick cloth or oil cloth material. Thin material can easily tear off and also looses the shape. It should be of dark colour as light colours gets dirty quickly."
" Combing your hair often has become a fashion now-a-days. Girls prefer short hair and boys also grow their hair a little more than normal. Loose hair look unkept if are not combed regularly. So one has to keep comb in ones pocket. If you keep the comb without a comb case then the pocket get spoil with the oil. So it is better to keep the comb in a case."

Inelegant, graceless aren't terms one would wish to apply to a master tailor attempting to convey the nuances of his craft to a gaggle of eager students hanging on his every word as he starts his lecture on how to cut and stitch a purse or a comb case, even if he is translating from his mother tongue to a group of convent-educated home-ec students.

This is very puzzling. There is pedantry and elitism aplenty, for sure, but what's wrong with admiration and appreciation of verbal grace? I understand that one shouldn't apply to a user's manual critical standards one would bring to a sonnet. I understand that Dubey's assumption is amiss when she writes, "Why is it that if you speak about correct English today, you're immediately branded as an 'elitist'?" She evidently mistakes correctness for effectiveness. But there is something to her reported point that a great deal of marketed literature pretends to vibrancy and innovation, when all it really achieves is a blandness resembling vernacular, primped up with the rigors of an MFA.

Take Whitney Otto's first novel, for instance, which begins, "At first I thought I would study art. Art history, to be exact. Then I thought, No, what about physical anthropology?--a point in my life thereafter referred to as My Jane Goodall Period." This isn't Indianised English, of course. It's Irvined, and as graceless and mediocre as can be--and therefore it was wildly successful.

The backlash against "grammar police" irritates me. Like "lawyer bashing" or the targets of Godwin's Law, the term takes concrete, palpable violence as a figure for--what?--a gauche hyper-enthusiasm?

Sujatha, that first "sentence" is actually three sentences. Which one runs on?

Just in time! Stanley Fish's latest book! He'll fix this.

Dean, you're right about there not being any run-on sentences, though a mixed metaphor were there in the example ('lock essential... into oblivion'). The sentence structure of 'Ever since the functional approach has taken over, thumbing its nose at grammar, syntax and structure are no longer vital.' required me to read it twice before I could make sense of it.
I personally have nothing against the Grammar Police, used to be one of them in my younger days,until I decided that correcting others to their face when they used wrong grammar wasn't a 'nice' thing to do. I started paying more attention to what they were saying and not how gracefully they said it. As for written materials, I have the luxury of ignoring bad grammar and spelling coming from others, since I am not an editor by profession.
( Yay, I still remain champion of the run-on sentence!)

I am not a great fan of "mood of the moment" vernacularized English writing or for that matter Anglicized vernacular writing. I find them tiresome and as Dean says, "blandness..., primped up with the rigors of an MFA." And I don't like lawyer bashing either:-) I am 2/3 way into an anthology by Alice Munro whose short stories I have read here and there over the years. Now, there is an example of "graceful" text - I am enchanted.

My problem with Dubey's article was her own very "ungraceful" style. Just as I avoid reading show-offing contemporary writers who are more interested in infusing street cred in their literary style, I would also ignore a piece in the stiflingly prissy style of Ms Dubey. Correct grammar and syntax do not a good read make.

I should have added that I really enjoyed the "vernacularized" memoir of the young girl from Trinidad. It is a natural voice. She isn't self-consciously trying to sound authentic and thus escapes the MFA trap. Dean, do you agree that in her case, ungrammatical is charming rather than irritating?

I do agree, Ruchira, and it demonstrates what I meant when I pointed out Dubey's confusion of correctness with effectiveness. There is a kind of grace to the young woman's writing. It is evidently prompted by a directness and innocence, rather than by aesthetic sophistication. Only a superior writer would be able to imitate it effectively. Amos Tutuola and William Faulkner come to mind. I'm condescending a bit here, but it's hard not to do so. That's how the excerpt in Sujatha's post first struck me, namely, as another illustration of Samuel Johnson's remark about women preaching. But the "palpable sense of the girl and her life" is not altogether a linguistic phenomenon. Imagine a similarly grammatically skewered clip from Sarah Palin. Graceful? No. Innocent and direct? Nope. The effect depends on what we take to be a real speaker writing genuinely about her own life, confirmed as much by Sujatha's set-up of the excerpt. This young woman's manner of writing can't entirely be taught.

I, too, had to reread the sentence about "grammar, syntax and structure," until I realized that the Oxford comma (hit song, isn't it?) was purposefully left out. It took needless effort, the argument goes, to read the sentence, which should have been rewritten for the sake of efficiency. But if efficiency is an irrefutable standard for "good writing," then why do we not merely tolerate but come to admire "Is 12 children in my family. I’s the last girl. Two boys after me."? Those sentences took me more than a skim to parse.

I would say Tricia' account is definitely more efficient in conveying her story than all the verbosity and grammatical wizardry that Dubey tries to employ in her essay. It almost qualifies as a kind of pithy poetry, despite the extra effort that it might need to parse. I get no such satisfaction from the double reading of Dubey's lines.
I still can't get Tricia's voice out of my head where she baldly states "I get along well with my mother. Not my father. He careless." I instantly get the image of a happy-go-lucky guy who has couldn't care less about his ex and their kids.

Fascinating debate, an issue close to my heart.
I’ve fought tooth and nail against English language policing -in the blogsphere, in seminars before I discovered the blogsphere. Of late, I’ve been doing some thinking about the frustration of the English language purists, and also did some introspection on my violent response to it and arrived at the following conclusions. quarrel is not with correctness (?) of language but with but the arrogance and rigidity of those who can handle English competently; and also their patronising approach to those who handle the English language with difficulty. So my problem is political in nature. It’s the subaltern posture that I’ve assumed for a long timed now, that makes me resist this policing. I tend to attribute the pride in the ability to handle English well to colonial hangover.
2.a language that does not change will become dead, like Sanskrit and Latin. English is changing like all living languages, but at a breakneck speed, with the non-native speakers of English becoming movers and shakers in fields of science, technology and business glabally. The language purists are unable to keep pace with the bewildering speed of change. Hence they resist change.
3. No language is more vulnerable to change than English. That’s the price that the empire has to pay for not allowing the sun to set on it for four long centuries. I think in Malayalam. But when I speak and write in English, it's impossible to keep out the Malayalam influence totally. Perhaps in official communication or academic writing, I’m forced to approximate my language as far as possible to Standard English, but if I’m writing a novel or a poem or a short story, I will not be true to myself if I allow my loyalty to Wren and Martin and their successors to dictate my language. My loyalty will be to my sensibilities born and nurtured in a different linguistic culture. So I will have to bend and break the English language to reflect my sensibilities honestly. If the correctness of English grammar is the casualty, well, too bad! But that's the way it has to be. Creativity cannot be mutilated by forcing it violently into grammatical straitjacket.
Sujatha, this might contradict everything I’ve said in this comment. But I too believe in ‘know the rules before you break it’.
Now for the irony of it all. A reality show in kerala has a compere who speaks Manglish (Malayalam like English and English like Malayalam). It doesn’t matter to me that she slaughters English, but when she mutilates Malayalam, it irritates me no end.
So can you blame the English language vigilantes?
Sorry for the harangue.

As far as 'Know the rules before you break them', I'm afraid that I never formally learnt (learned?) the rules of English grammar. I can't parse a sentence to save my life. All that I can say is that I know when something sounds wrong and can rephrase it correctly without much effort.
For, you see, I think in English and translate it into other languages, including Tamil,my mother tongue, which I lost completely at the age of two. There's nothing like losing and having to relearn languages to engender an appreciation of how much one has lost in not knowing a mother tongue very well.
I suspect that the compere Mangling her Manglish must have undergone a similar loss of fluency, transitioning from a Malayalam household to a 'speak nothing but English' school.

I would one day like to have a neurological test to determine which of the two is indeed my "natural" mother tongue - English or Bengali. I am as close to being a true bilingual thinker / speaker as one can possibly get, having picked up both languages in early childhood and not "losing" either at any time during my life. Bengali came first and since I have kept up the uninterrupted habit of speaking, reading and thinking in that language, it probably is my primary language. I am an equally fluent reader of both languages although I write with far greater facility in English. Yet it is very hard for me to figure out whether I am thinking in Bengali or in English. For example, I am aware that I definitely think in Bengali when I am going about my daily routine around the home. I also mostly count in Bengali but read a mathematical expression in English. I "see" most foods in Bengali but colors in English. English takes over completely when I write anything. From a simple reminder note to a well thought out essay, the thoughts are formed entirely in English. A written composition in Bengali HAS to be translated from English in my mind. But I suspect my ordinary thought processes can go in either direction although I am never really conscious whether I am "thinking" in English or Bengali, so interchangeable are they as the languages of my mind.

Interesting, I never really think in Tamil, except when I am hearing and processing it. Depending on whether it is ordinary spoken language or the purer literary form, I may or may not have to translate it into English in my mind. But all of this is done so fast that I barely notice it, except when I consciously slow down to observe, and everything starts to come out in the English voice,rather than the Tamil one.

To the extent that I think at all, I'm not sure I think in English, the only language I (barely) speak. What does it mean to "think in" a language? I might converse silently with myself: "Let's see, I need to buy tomatoes and basil." But that's not exactly thinking. It's more like testing my thoughts by expressing them linguistically. My desire for tomatoes and basil is pre- or extra-linguistic in an important sense. If I'm poised to make a tomato sauce later today--as it turns out I am--then I have a visceral or tacit knowledge outside of language that I will need to buy tomatoes and basil.

Which reminds me that I need to invite Wittgenstein to dinner.

Ab initio, all thoughts are probably abstract. But expressing them linguistically such as, "Let's see, I need to buy tomatoes and basil." is also thinking, in translation perhaps. That is what Sujatha, KPJ and I have been discussing. What is the language in which we are having such conversations with ourselves?

But if that's the case, Ruchira, then what are you asking when you write, "Yet it is very hard for me to figure out whether I am thinking in Bengali or in English"? If expression, even to oneself under one's breath, so to speak, is thinking, then what about the expression makes identifying the language so difficult? I'll take a stab at an answer. You may be relying on the diction of one language, but the syntax of the other. You're "in" neither language, or you have a foot in each of them.

We've gotten far afield from grammar police, if that matters.

Fear not, Dean. The thought police are just right around the corner and will be popping by, shortly.

The thought police are just right around the corner and will be popping by, shortly. :-)

What I mean is that the process of switching occurs so fast and so frequently, that I may actually "think" one sentence like,"Let's see, I need to buy tomatoes and basil." in two different languages. My switches also happen to be grounded in certain relationships and habits. I speak almost entirely in English with my husband and in-laws, peppered with some Hindi (no Bengali). With my sister it is a 70-30 mix of Bengali-English. With my parents it was 100% Bengali. So, when I think of people, my conversations with myself tend to take place in the language in which I converse with them.

I will give you one example that I shared with Sujatha the other day.

My mind tends to switch languages given the context. As I indicated in my comment, I almost exclusively write in English although my written Bengali is fairly competent. I often stick little recipe hints on the inside of my spice cupboard on Post-It notes (tandoori mix, channa masala, biriyani etc.) for quick reference. Some of the spice names are in Hindi / Bengali but written in the English script. There is also one Post-It for a Bengali spice mix among them that my mother had dictated to me over the phone. One day Sudhir opened the cupboard and asked, "Why is one note in Bengali? I never see you jot down things in Bengali" I was very surprised and went to look. I had noted down the Bengali spice mix in Bengali script, so natural it was for me to do so when my mother was speaking to me.

All this tells me that unlike KPJ (Malayalam) and Sujatha or you (English) I probably don't have one primary language for conversing with myself.

'My desire for tomatoes and basil is pre- or extra-linguistic in an important sense.'
say that to post modern thinkers and you'll be assaulted:-( reality /thought is the creation of language, they'd swear.
i think we should respect the wisdom of our forefathers.remember the first line of St. john's gospel: In the begining was the WORD.:-)
btw, no disrespect for the holy book. it's a much quoted line to show that language preceded thought.

KPJ: Fortunately, there is no such thing as a postmodern thinker, so I'm safe. Your reference, I take it, is to Derrida, in particular Of Grammatology, but also related essays taking to task so-called logocentrism, the so-called privileging of the aural over the inscribed, of which John's aphorism is, as you note, a frequent example. But it's not a matter of language's priority over thought in a science-fiction-like extension of Sapir/Whorf. Derrida was impressed with the material foundation of linguistic expression. When I speculate that my unspoken need for tomatoes and basil comes before language, I don't mean it isn't embodied.

Anyway, the tomatoes and basil worked out really well. Yum.

i guess i went a little further back to saussure with his without language thought is vague and that there are no preexisting ideas, or no clear ideas before language - things to that effect.
i still dont know if i take all this seriously. fascinating when you read it but sounds crazy when you think back about it. but one thing i know. it's these theories which made believe that we think in languages.
of grammatology - ugh! couldn't get through five pages of it.too difficult. whatever little i know of derrida and deconstruction is from glossaries!
tomatoes and basil - strange and exotic combination to us south indians!

My Saussure is rusty, KPJ, but I think you're on to something. Saussure wrote of langue and parole, the former being something of a structure, an abstract system of language independent of the particular linguistic elements that comprise it. The latter is the lexicon and grammatical elements, the uttered or written words that can actually occur in an expression. This excursus in the comments about thinking in a language has pertained solely to parole, i.e., to words like "tomato" or "basil," and the question of whether or not these are the words that come to mind when we think about the objects to which they refer. Saussure held that langue precedes thought. I don't believe he expected the same of parole.

Speaking of tomatoes, I'm reminded (yet again!) of Stanley Fish. I quote part of a correspondence with a friend of mine:

In the context of a discussion of NEA v. Finley, in which the Supreme Court held that Congress could require the NEA to follow a decency standard, Walter Dellinger related a story about his "deconstructionist colleague Stanley Fish." Dellinger had been watching the Miss Oklahoma pageant (didn't explain why), and one of the contestants sang "You say potato, I say potato . . ." but pronounced all instances of potato, tomato, etc. the same way. Dellinger told Fish about this, and Fish threw up his hands and said, "Brilliant! She's the first beauty contestant who actually understands the song!"

and i haven't progressed beyond saussure!

yes. langue precedes thought and parole is circumscribed by langue/exists only in relation to it/derives its 'sign' from it. hence it's only logical that language precedes thought. guess i'm oversimplifying things?

but for me this is a personal discovery. i guess this is the case with all those in my predicament - thinking in one language and not being able to write in it which necessitated me to write in english.i often find myself TRANSLATING my thoughts when i write, and this affects the english that i write. the non-native quality of it would immediately strike the reader.

by the way in my part of the world there is an adage built into malayalam. you wake up a person in deep sleep roughly enough to startle him. the language in which he asks 'what's wrong' is the language in which he thinks:-)

come to think of it, the song makes more sense when the dialectal difference in the pronouncialtion is dropped!

by the way in my part of the world there is an adage built into malayalam. you wake up a person in deep sleep roughly enough to startle him. the language in which he asks 'what's wrong' is the language in which he thinks:-)S

I have seen the same adage in other languages.

Apparently, Arundhati Roy thinks in English and translates to other languages,as another case of mother tongue lost.
There's an amusing memory of her use of a 'bad word' in Hindi, when she was about two years old. But this was more of a case of 'Monkey see, monkey do' than a spontaneous eruption in the language inherent to her thoughts.

I'm wary of crediting the "power of words," and it appears so is Roy. She says, "I don’t know whether these stories I'm telling you are about becoming aware of the power of words, or about developing an affection for words… the awareness of a child’s pleasure which extended beyond food and drink." I think it is affection and desire at work, and an admiration for the useless and ineffectual, to which we incur no debt. One of the best challenges to my point of view is Catharine MacKinnon's Only Words, which disputes the "sticks and stones" theory of the empty force of language. But even there I think a distinction must be made between words and communicative behaviors.

KPJ, there is something to "the song makes more sense when the dialectal difference in the pronunciation is dropped!" I wonder if that's what Fish was getting at, too. The song isn't an ironic prescription for breaking up as a result of negligible differences between the two (toe-MAY-toe, toe-MAH-toe), but a considered expression of incompatibility due to their utterly boring redundancy. Who needs two orders of oysters?

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