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Updated: April 21, 2014 00:15 IST

When words fail

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A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan
The Hindu
A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

Innumerable requiems to the magical wordsmith Gabriel García Márquez have brought out his mastery over the language and the craft of storytelling. As a journalist, my personal debt to him comes from his description of journalism as the best job in the world. I cannot think of any other speech that captures the excitement of journalism than his speech at the General Assembly of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) in 1996.

“Journalism is an insatiable passion that can only be digested and humanized by its brutal confrontation with reality. No one who hasn’t suffered it can imagine that servitude that feeds on the unexpected occurrences in life. No one who hasn’t lived it can even conceive the supernatural beating of the heart produced by news, the orgasm of having an exclusive, the moral demolition of failure. No one who wasn’t born for this and is willing to live only for this could persist on an occupation that is so incomprehensible and voracious, with an ouvre that is over after every news item, as if it were going to last forever, but that doesn’t allow for a moment of peace while it starts all over again, with more ardor than ever in the next minute,” he said.

Crossword errors

One of the biggest lessons I learned from him, though not perfectly, is the importance of using the right words. He never opted for a synonym that would kill the magic of his narrative. One of the repeated complaints I get from readers is about not getting the word right in the clues for the crossword puzzles of this paper. I get complaints from the crossword setters about inadvertent spelling mistakes almost every week.

For instance, there was a mistake in the April 17 crossword (2 Down) though the copy sent by the setter was correct. It was a misprint. The word “expert” was printed as “export.” This single letter goof-up spoiled the clue. The setters are justified in their anger. They rightly point out in crossword clues one word instead of another cannot lead to the answer.

One of the setters and a consultant to The Hindu Crossword wrote an angry letter saying that no effort is taken to correct it in the web edition, which is accessible for free by anyone subsequently. Another mistake pointed out by him brings out the importance of the capitalisation of proper nouns. Here the clue (issue dated April 19; 11 Across) was “Poles” — a nationality and not “poles” as in a stick. But the failure to capitalise fails to offer a meaningful clue to solvers.

His mail did not conceal his irritation that his numerous complaints were in vain. He wrote: “I have written to successive readers’ editors as to how and when and under what circumstances these mistakes occur … Yet, I am not sure whether any inquiry was made and efforts were made to put into place a fail-safe system. I am dismayed by the low priority that is given to the crossword feature. Sorry for saying this but I cannot bottle it up: as far as the crossword feature is concerned, the institution of the readers’ editor is a total failure in listening to the complaints from setters — leave alone readers/solvers — and taking remedial steps. The title is a misnomer.”

The puzzle in The Hindu

Let me share a few details about The Hindu Crossword which I learned from him. The Hindu takes the credit for launching an original daily crossword puzzle set by an Indian in 1971. Even today it is the only mainstream nationwide broadsheet that has an original weekday puzzle. It also takes credit for printing the feature in a reasonably allotted space and without altering the text box and without shrinking or enlarging the grids depending on the exigencies of space availability and layout constraints. The Hindu Crossword setters also do thematic puzzles periodically. For instance, on December 21, 2013, it had a special crossword to mark the crossword centenary.

In this context, I can understand the anger of setters and solvers when typos mar their hard work and eliminate the joy of wordplay. May I inform all the readers, crossword setters and solvers that every complaint of yours is taken very seriously. The editor of the crossword section holds the setters in high esteem. He said: “the crosswords are created by a set of panellists of repute. All of them have been forwarded a set of dos and don’ts. They are specifically asked to avoid references to living personalities and clues that hurt religious feelings. All the puzzles are emailed. Each and every crossword is gone through by our crossword consultant…The contributors are mostly youngsters with high calibre. Unfortunately, sometimes errors do creep in due to oversight while going through the proof. I feel the answer is having robust proofreading.”

In one of my earlier columns, “The limits of technology,” February 25, 2013, I touched upon the issue of well-known poet Kavimani Desiga Vinayagam Pillai being printed as Caveman Desiga Vinayagam Pillai. I need to reiterate what I said then. Despite all its artificial intelligence, a machine cannot handle the challenges posed by the language. Yes, we need vigilant subeditors.

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