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Good grammar is long went

2 May. 2012 11:35 PM IST

In a world getting increasingly complicated, one is always searching for some certitudes. You want that old song to sound the same (no remixes), that old shop still to be where it was (no malls). This is not just nostalgia for its own sake; these are the unshakeable pillars that you can hold on to in the bewildering, fast moving universe.
Language is one such constant. One recog-nises that language must move with the times — this is what gives it flavour and relevance — but some rules cannot and should not change. They should not be treated in an off-hand manner, to be discarded because of fashion or worse, repeated abuse by the masses. And yet, such travesties take place all the time.
At the risk of sounding like a prissy and pedantic English teacher, I must lay bare the things that annoy me — the rampant use of it’s instead of its (and vice versa), the interchanging of there and their, the use of the word “presently” instead of “currently” or “at present”. There are many more instances: for example, why do people write “for e.g.?” It doesn’t make any sense. Publications are full of the most astonishing howlers and scrolls on news channels can drive one to tears.
The mind goes back to countless, Wren and Martin-brandishing English teachers who had no hesitation rapping their rulers on young knuckles at the casual abuse of the rules of grammar. One such teacher, who always looked suspiciously at prepositions, especially if she found them at the end of a sentence, led a personal crusade against the Oxford comma, because she fell it was redundant and took away the importance of the “and”.
The lesson became part of one’s DNA, even if the jury is still out on that issue. On the subject of hopefully, however, there was no dispute. It means “full of hope” and not “it is hoped”. The sentence “hopefully it will not rain tomorrow” is patently wrong; the correct one is, “we hope it will not rain tomorrow”. But of course the former version is in popular use and has become part of everyday vocabulary.
All this wouldn’t matter but for the fact that Associated Press has now said that it will accept the wrong one. The general public may not realise the importance of this shift, but for generations of journalists, editors and grammar Nazis, this is an earth-shattering development. The AP Stylebook is a Bible — indeed, more than a Bible — for writers and journalists and the final arbiter of correct writing. If it is ready to shift, what hope for mere
mortals who are constantly trying to correct others for their lax standards?
In an era of texting and tweeting, should such rigid rules matter? Should we worry about conjunctions, or even spelling, when the meaning of the sentence is perfectly clear? Isn’t communication the prime and perhaps only objective?
True, a text such as “C U Der dude” is perfectly understandable in a text and the 140 character rule imposed by Twitter has thrown up some novel linguistic calisthenics — vowels, for example, get short shrift in an effort to save characters. It is not difficult to understand what is being communicated.
But those who fall in the “let’s mangle the language because we are cool” camp must know that such writing will not win them any brownie points in examinations or formal documents.
No teacher will accept an answer paper written in the style of a text and your boss will not be impressed if your important presentation to a client is full of grammatical mistakes. Inevitably, your growth will slow down, no matter how smart you are. In the real world, such things are still very crucial.
The point is, some rules must be learnt and followed if the world is not to become a chaotic place. Language should be a dynamic thing that keeps pace with changing fashions, but the fundamental framework cannot be treated with casual disregard. We need it to prop up civilised discourse and, by extension, civilisation itself.
Some years ago, while cleaning up a young colleague’s copy, which was a minefield of howlers, I was asked, “Why are you so old-fashioned?” In modern India, which is young and smart and ready to take over the world right away, the term old-fashioned is a kind of ultimate insult, a phrase that immediately consigns you to the Jurassic, pre-1991 era, when Indians lived on trees and yearned for smuggled jeans and, it appears, worried about silly things like the rules of grammar.
Then, noticing my discomfiture, this bright young thing said, “Don’t bother with the editing, I will spellcheck it.” That was wrong on so many levels but I let it go. Who can fight the onslaught of MS Word, which now is imposing American spellings and grammar rules on the world?
It’s a losing battle. Lynne Truss, who wrote the excellent Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which was one long despairing cry against the cavalier attitude towards punctuation, was for a zero-tolerance approach towards rule-breaking. But that is easier said than done when one is faced with a continuous tsunami of poor usage. It’s not going to get any better either.
The wise men and women who design and predict our future say that in the coming eras, people will only be interested in data and information, not insight or knowledge. They will want quick and easily digestible bits of news, conveyed to them via their mobile phones that will not tax their brains too much in the age of info overload. Subtlety and nuance will be abolished, because they demand too much mental exertion.
As for grammatical mistakes, there will come a time when young children will be taken to museums to show them ancient artifacts like books on grammar (and perhaps mummies of English language teachers). A brave new world is coming and it has no time for outdated grammar-obsessives. Let a thousand bloomers flower.

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Sidharth Bhatia