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Know your English

WHAT IS the meaning and origin of the expression "to give someone an even break"?

(A. Ramaniah, Secunderabad)

When you give someone an even break you are giving the person the same opportunities as others to do something. In other words, you are giving a fair chance to the individual; you are being impartial. Here are a few examples.

*Sarita has tonnes of talent. All she needs is someone to give her an even break and she could be at the top.

*If you don't have a Godfather, then no one will be willing to give you the even break you need to prove how good you are.

*Prasanna gave the even break Sneha was desperately looking for. She will always be grateful to him.

There are several explanations as to the origin of this expression. I will deal with only one here. According to some scholars, the expression comes from the sport of dog racing. In the old days it was common practice for people to take bets on whose dog was faster and which one was better skilled at "hare coursing". In order to determine this, the owners held the animals tightly by the leash and released them at the same time. This letting go of the leash at the same moment - so that neither dog was at an advantage - was referred to as an "even break." In case you are wondering what "hare coursing" is, well, a poor hare was let loose and the dogs were made to chase and kill the frightened animal. A cruel sport, indeed! By giving the dogs an even break, the faster and more skilled animal was likely to catch the hare. Later, the expression "to give someone an even break" began to be used with horse racing as well. Here it refers to the clean start to a race; where all the horses start off at the same time.

Can we say 7 into 20 is 140?

(S. Mohan, Kovaipudur)

This is the standard practice in India. When we want to multiply, we say one of the following: multiply, into, or times. Native speakers of English, on the other hand, tend to use either "multiply" or "times". For example, a native speaker might say, "Three hundred and twenty times twenty is six thousand four hundred" He may also say, "Three hundred and twenty times twenty makes six thousand four hundred". For a simple sum like the one that you have given, the native speaker would say, "Seven twenties are one hundred and forty". Notice that it isn't "is", but "are". Two fives are ten. Three tens are thirty.

The word "into" is normally reserved for division and not multiplication. For a native speaker, ten "into" one hundred and twenty would mean one hundred twenty divided by ten. The answer in this case is twelve. But for many Indians the answer would be one thousand two hundred - because we tend to associate "into" with multiplication.

What is the difference between "despise" and "hate"?

(T. Aparna Raman, Mysore)

When you "hate" someone, you dislike the person intensely. Here are a few examples.

*I hate all politicians.

*There was a time when Reshma hated her Principal.

*When she was young, Janaki hated her sister.

"Despise" is a stronger word than "hate". When you say that you despise someone, it implies that you "hate" that person, but it also carries with it the sense that you have contempt for him/her. In other words, when you hate someone, you dislike the individual intensely, but when you "despise" him, you not only dislike him, but you also look down on him. So, when you despise someone, you consider him being beneath you; you may think that the individual is worthless. The word "hate" does not carry with it this negative connotation. You can hate someone who is superior to you. Here are a few examples.

*Nandita despises her new boss.

*I am told that Tara despises the company I work for.

Which is correct? "Co-brother" or "co son-in-law?"

(V. S. Rama Sarma, Cuddapah)

Indians, particularly those from the south, use the terms "co- brother" and "co son-in-law" to refer to one's wife's sister's husband. Native speakers of English however do not use these terms. Co-brother and co-son in law are terms used in Indian English alone. If you were to introduce someone as your "co- brother" to a native speaker of English, he/she would not understand you. Within the Indian context, I guess, we can continue to use the terms.

How is the word "exposi" pronounced?

(N. Visvanathan, Chennai)

The first syllable "ex" is pronounced like the prefix "ex". The "o" in the second syllable is like the "o" in "go", "so" and "no". The following "s" is like the "z" in "zoo", "zip" and "zing". The final "i" sounds like the "ay" in "say", "gay", and "may". The stress is on the second syllable "po". It is also possible to have the main stress on the final syllable. In order to do that, you must pronounce the "o" in the second syllable like the "a" in "China" and "India". By the way, the final "i" has an accent mark on it.

An exposi is generally a story in the mass media - radio, television, newspapers, etc - which reveals the truth about something to the public. Here are a few examples.

*The exposi triggered off a parliamentary debate.

*We want an exposi of the shady deals of builders.

*The local newspaper relies on exposi to survive.


"Anytime four New Yorkers get into a cab together without arguing, a bank robbery has just taken place." Johnny Carson.


Erratum: A "quarterly" is a magazine that comes out every three months and not four as indicated in the column dated July 31. A quarterly is published four times a year!

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