Online : Style, substance and serious slips

When readers communicate with me, I find they (at least most of them) have one aim: to see their paper is better. That is my aim too — ever since I began interacting with readers more than 30 years ago. That principle has gained added strength in my work as Readers’ Editor; it has been an enriching experience. Collaboration, not confrontation, should mark the relationship between a newspaper and its readers. The newspaper is a commodity that has to be sold and readers are the consumers. Not all their views or suggestions are acceptable or feasible, but after sifting the chaff, the grain needs to be properly weighed.

I recall an incident many years ago. An article had appeared about an institution, then facing problems, with two factions vying for ascendancy. That afternoon I had a call from a person connected with the institution, asking me whether I was aware that the writer, from The Hindu, was with one of the factions. Our conversation went on for quite some time, he criticising and I defending. As it ended, I had a summons from the Editor. He said he had, by chance, come on the same line and listened to the conversation. You should have just asked him to write a letter and ended the discussion, the Editor said. My reply was that there was no harm in allowing the reader, a knowledgeable person, to have his say and feel relieved.

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It was in that spirit that I told K.R. Menon (Thiruvananthapuram) mea culpa when he wrote about my last column (June 9, 2008): “Your comments are praiseworthy. But I feel the phrase ‘sometime or the other,’ which appears in the column a couple of times, isn’t quite right. I believe the correct forms are ‘some time or other,’ ‘one time or the other’ and ‘one-time or another’.” Menon unerringly spots language lapses even in editorials and so his latest exercise did not unnerve me.

Menon’s reproaches are always gently worded. Not so the one from Christy Bharath (Chennai) and he seems to have reasons for “lashing out against such humiliation of the English language.” “I am not writing this out of spite but rather out of concern. The Hindu is widely regarded as boring, but still it is the premier source of news over a cup of coffee. But with reports such as these ... I am ready to give up my coffee addiction. The English language is more important to me than coffee.”

Bharath proceeds to make a line-by-line dissection of a Chennai report in the paper. He has a pen (or keyboard?) sharper than the scalpel and it hurts. The angry reader concludes with a piece of advice: “Call in the ghost of Bergman (the Swedish film director). He made a career out of conjuring beauty out of the mundane.”

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That was a complaint in great detail and the reader must have spent quite some time on it. I felt it was motivated by a desire to improve quality and so it deserved mention at some length. The complaint was about style and substance in a news feature, which was not a straight news report. Such pieces allow the writer a certain leeway; but sometimes the desired effect is not achieved. More so when the basic rules of language and logic are not adhered to. In this instance the breaches were evident and the reader made good points, though he laid them on a bit too thick.

Not all readers indulge in such clinical analyses. They are mostly brief, picking out an error in the day’s paper. These messages produce a chuckle, which gives way to sadness — how do such elementary mistakes escape the writer’s or sub-editor’s eye?

What follows is a small selection from readers’ messages.

“Ms. Baker’s lawyer T.K. Ravikumar said the investigation was in a primitive stage” (A. Balu, Chennai).

“MRPS leaders though insisted on a more concrete assurance from the Chief Minister” (B. Niranjan Prasad, Hyderabad).

“… she would fight his battle for justice and not sit quite.” “… the flight was about to take off at 12.15 noon.” “President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, seen within an Indian chief” (V. Pichumani, Chennai).

“Less number of people were opting for armed forces” (P.V. Ramana Rao, Guntur, quotes grammar books to point out that “less” is for quantity or amount and “fewer” for number).

“… among the buildings to be rehabilitated … upgradation of Archives department building” (Clarence Samuel, Vellore, says living things are rehabilitated and systems can be upgraded. The reporter’s defence is that the words were taken from the Government department’s policy note and pertained to Assembly proceedings. I did not know that there was legislative privilege attached to wrong English!)

“A flock of birds enjoying the climate…” (S.J. Thomes, Tirunelveli: Climate is the weather conditions over a period, weather is the state at a particular place and time.)

“No room should be given for violence on both sides” (either side says, P.K. Visveswaran, Chennai).

“It has been decided to revert back to the old system” (T.I. Buhari, Chennai).

“Santemarahalli constituency has seized to exist following delimitation and Santemarahalli hobli has been annexed to Kollegal constituency.” (Sampath S. Chakravarti, Ridgefield, CT, USA)

“It was virtual enactment of that overused and hackneyed statement ‘when dog bites news it is no news, but when a man bites a dog it is news.’ Only this time there was newshounds that have been taken for a ride by political workers.” (P.S. Vaidyanathan, Bangalore)

From headlines: “New water drinking plant inaugurated” (Prathima Balaraman, Chennai), “Discussed about genetically modified crops”, “Shane Warne’s team enters into IPL final.”

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“A reader pointing out a number of mistakes says, ‘Truly English is a dying language.’ Not a dying language, dear reader, but in some instances a tortured one.” Not my words, but from Connie Coyne, Readers’ Advocate of The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, UT, US).


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