Minding your language

Published On: November 17, 2017 09:01 AM NPT By: Gunjan Upadhyay

In the year 2000, at an event in Florence, South Carolina, the then president of the US, George W. Bush, addressed the audience with this statement – “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” This subject-verb disagreement was one example of many grammatical errors that characterized the public speaking of the former US President.

All of his semantically challenged pronouncements and troubles with syntax not only drove the purists mad but also spawned an entirely new word for the phenomenon – ‘Bushism’. A cursory look on the internet will unearth entire lists devoted to the former president’s howlers, which on its own is quite enough to drive any self-respecting English teacher round the bend. 

In our part of the world, however, it really is ‘Indianism’ that has taken hold. Indianism is a word or phrase characteristic of Indian English that we have unknowingly adopted. We tend to use a lot of them in our conversations and in print (there are far too many to list out here) but my personal favourite is the phrase – ‘met with an accident’.

He or she or they met with an accident. I don’t know about you but I suspect no one goes out with the intention of ‘meeting an accident’, not even if the person you are going to meet happens to be the proverbial walking, talking accident. 

I was in Bengaluru at the onset of the BPO boom at a time when your earnings depended proportionately on how fast you lost that Indian twang from your speech and this turn of phrase along with a few other ‘Hinglish’ ones (for instance, ‘please hold the line’) were actively discouraged by the employers.

Our very own ‘Alt-Write’
While Dubya’s gaffes were public and very entertaining, mistakes are often inexcusable in modern day communication. Think simple errors on a CV or an important email copied to the who’s who of your organization. These errors can give off a whiff of incompetence about the sender or worse – an impression of laziness. 

It’s almost criminal in this age of autocorrect, spell-check, and grammar prompts to be guilty of grammatical and language errors. In our case the duality of our exchanges – in Nepali and English – perhaps plays a part in our error-strewn communications. Add to this the Romanization of Nepali that is often used in social media interactions and the waters become a lot muddier.  

When correcting papers as a teacher, I have often come across copious use of the letter ‘u’ instead of you, liberal use of casual slang (gonna, wanna etc) and many more. What the sheepish reaction of students when asked to correct it really shows is that it creeps in even subconsciously into our ‘official’ work. 

I have heard folks say it shouldn’t matter to us when English isn’t even our first language. Well, a lot of parents these days spend thousands of rupees a month to put their kid into schools that promise ‘holistic’ development with proficiency in English being a big part of the reason for those decisions.

It’s not enough to have a ‘as long as they understand me’ mentality these days when impressions count for almost everything. We all witnessed our PM’s cringe inducing answers to questions at Columbia University and it really isn’t something worth emulating. 

At the other end of the spectrum is an entirely different story though. In this age of internet trolls and being all ‘judgy-wudgy’, it seems everyone is a ‘grammar Nazi’ – or more in keeping with the age of Trump – a part of the ‘alt-write’. In the case of public figures and social media, it does feel like someone is just waiting in the wings for them to slip up before they can start the process of making them feel inadequate. It’s like these folks are after some imaginary award – one upping the other for pointing out slang and errors on the internet. Here, give this unemployed man or woman a medal for their grammatical exertions because they really don’t have anything better to do.

Meanwhile in Nepal
A beauty pageant winner gets trolled for trying to highlight the difficulties rural women face in Nepal on a daily basis. Granted, her statements had sweeping generalizations and wasn’t the most coherent or factual speech, and being lampooned a bit through memes and comments is a part and parcel of being a public figure. 

But it’s another thing entirely to be subjected to an avalanche of ad hominem attacks for a little miscommunication. Just reading all the nastiness directed towards Niti Shah after her urban and rural women speech and supposed semantic shortcomings was enough to make most folks cringe. I’m not sure many of those going on the rampage online could articulate their thoughts any better. It reminds of the old saying about stones and people in glass houses. Hope there won’t be any of that stone throwing at this article for its unintentional mistakes. I’m banking on my editor to save me from it.

The writer loves traveling, writing, and good food when he is afforded an escape from the rat race. He can be contacted at

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