The book you must read to rid your English of Indlish. In other words, read this book to learn to write plain English.

NOVEMBER 6, 2010

If writing is part of what you do (in life, at work), these are some of the books you must buy and read:
  • The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White
  • On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
  • Pocket Writer's Handbook, Penguin Reference Library (author's name not stated)
  • On Writing, By Stephen King
And, of course, you also need a good dictionary. My recommendation: The Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners. (For a more detailed list of books that will help you improve your writing skills, check out my Pinterest board.)

But this week I finally laid my hands on a book that I had heard about, though I had not seen it in Bangalore's bookstores until a few days ago when I spotted it in the "Reference Books" section at Landmark.

Indlish: The Book for Every English-Speaking Indian, by Jyoti Sanyal, is a must-read — I can't emphasise this enough — for all media students, would-be journalists, and journalists in India because this book, more than any other I have read, addresses all the difficulties that crop up when we Indians write in English.

Sanyal, who was a journalist with The Statesman for 30 years, has already done journalism a service by writing the very useful Statesman Style Book (available in the Commits library). With Indlish, his aim is to stimulate us to use good contemporary English instead of the Raj-day commercialese, our bureaucrats' officialese, and the media's journalese. He is particularly harsh on journalists working for English-language newspapers in India. Sanyal writes in his prefatory note:

I owe a debt to many correspondents, reporters, sub-editors and one edit writer in particular, who worked for Bangalore's self-styled 'leading English daily'. Their daily output invariably gave me more bad examples than I could use in my column.

The editor of The Statesman, Ravindra Kumar, is just as severe on our journalists, writing in his foreword to Indlish:

It is bad enough that young TV and print journalists inflict abominations on us; worse is that their seniors appear to see nothing wrong with this, and often resist efforts at correction by explaining away errors of grammar and syntax as eccentricities imposed on them by style. No wonder bad English has become stylish.

Yes, indeed, if one wants to read bad English, one only has to read some of the reports and features and editorials in our newspapers. Sanyal provides examples aplenty in Indlish. An excerpt from the chapter titled "Case for the defence":

Indian English abounds in archaisms. This is especially evident in the Victorian euphemisms one finds in English-language newspapers, such as 'Police said he was in an inebriated condition' instead of 'He was drunk'. A prominent daily of Karnataka goes several steps further in its crime reports:

A three-member gang waylaid two persons travelling on a scooter ... and relieved them of their wrist watches and cash together worth Rs 5,500.

A 50-year-old woman was relieved of her gold chain worth over Rs ... in ... on ....

(Sanyal then gives four more examples of "relieved" used incorrectly.)

Those six examples from daily crime reports show the absurdity of archaic euphemisms. Money or gold chains aren't snatched, and no one is robbed. Each is relieved of a burden.

One would have to search pre-Victorian literature to find some words and expressions that appear with distressing regularity in English-language newspapers every day:

A four-member dacoit gang struck again at ... and decamped with seven tolas of gold items. The dacoits attacked the inmates of the house in the wee hours of the morning before they escaped into the darkness with the loot.

In another case, a person who had rented a car to reach Bangalore from Hyderabad reportedly made away with the car after throwing chilly powder at the driver ... in the wee hours of the morning.

The Middle English word wee lives only in nursery rhymes such as Wee Willie Winky runs through the town. But our English-language newspapers keep this ludicrous archaism circulating, just as they do decamped in the first example. The latter comes from the East India Company's survey teams that pitched camp each evening and then decamped (demolished and left it) the next morning, when they moved on. Why a gang of dacoits should pitch camp anywhere near their target and leave clues when they decamp defies logic.

Archaic commercialese unknown outside business correspondence appears in almost all reports in our English-language newspapers:

The police have booked several motorists for drunken driving and added that stern measures have been initiated to check the same.

The minister said the BMP alone owed the Social Welfare Department Rs 6 crores which had been collected as beggar cess. But, the BMP had expressed helplessness to remit the fund on the ground that the same had been diverted for other activities.

(Sanyal then gives three more examples of "the same" used incorrectly.)

All these were printed in July 2000. Here is what Fowler said about such use over 75 years ago:

Same, or the same, in the sense 'the aforesaid thing(s)/person(s)' as a substitute for a pronoun (it, him, her, them, they) was once good English, abundant in the Bible and the Prayer Book, but is now an archaism, surviving mainly in legal documents and commercialese.

Why do our English-language papers keep circulating all that is fuddy-duddy? Obviously because the reporters and sub-editors who work for them absorbed all that is fuddy-duddy from the papers and books they read. And because no one taught them to identify commercialese, officialese and archaisms.

Sanyal then lambasts the "he said/she said" style of reporting in some newspapers, devoting to the subject a chapter titled "He noted, and said and added". An excerpt:

It's a wonder such newspapers employ reporters at all. A few stenographers would do the work better: at least they'd be more accurate. These 'stenos-alias-reporters' have little to do except tag on such phrases as he said and added to sentences they regurgitate after a briefing or copy from the handout that goes by the sanctimonious name of 'Press Note'. After years of such mindless work, they come to believe ... that the craft of journalism lies in sprinkling some mantras that convert gibberish to news. ... The language of reports in this daily shows the reverence that these clerks-turned-reporters have for their mantras: 

Noting that the position of women in Indian society has changed over the years, the Governor opined that.... Ms Rama Devi noted that women advocates have a persuasive approach.... The condition of women advocates has markedly improved... she noted.

What is one to make of such use of 'noted'? Dictionaries will not help us, for they make clear that the verb note is a formal way of saying 'to take notice/give attention to/make a record of'. ... not even the Concise Oxford Dictionary mentions a use of 'noted' as a synonym for 'said'. Reporters working for English-language papers, on the other hand, are convinced that note is a synonym for 'said'. Where do they get this conviction from?

Just as our clerks to this day cling to the orientation the East India Company gave their forebears, so India's English-language press reporters fall back on journalese of the pre-Victorian days. And in those days, English-language papers did indulge in such preposterous use of the word. No paper published in English-speaking countries would use noted in this absurd fashion today. But then, no reporter in India's English-language press would know that, for his reading is limited solely to what is churned out as 'Press Notes' by people whose orientation goes back to the East India Company.

Some reporters even opt for double attribution in their 'he said/she said' fare, as in the first sentence of the excerpt above. Each variant of this mantra can only confuse the reader:

Speaking at a function organised by the India-China Friendship Society... he said.... The bilateral trade had been rapidly growing... he noted.

That absurd construction could have been rewritten to say 'Trade between India and China was growing rapidly, Mr... said today. He was speaking at a function organised by...'.

More variants:

Chief minister SM Krishna on Saturday categorically denied any mega project coming up in Uttara Kannada stating that he did not visualise any such big project in the district.

Better: 'No major project is coming up in Uttara Kannada. The chief minister scotched such rumours on Saturday.'

Stating that corporate support for this project was encouraging, he said....

Better: 'Corporate support for this project was encouraging, he said.'

Minister for Kannada and Culture Rani Satish, who spoke, called on the pourakarmikas to take a pledge against alcohol consumption. She pointed out.... BMP Commissioner ... also spoke.

Better: 'Rani Satish, minister for ... asked pourakarmikas to...'.

I have always wondered why our newspapers are so fond of the word "miscreant". Only yesterday I read this strapline in Bangalore Mirror: "Woman was walking home when she was accosted by miscreant". Crime reports in other English-language newspapers are also sprinkled liberally with "miscreant", whose archaic meaning is "heretic or infidel", though, according to, it can mean "a vicious or depraved person; villain".

Is that the sense Bangalore Mirror intended? Would "stranger" have been better?

In Indlish, Sanyal takes reporters and subs to task for "turning people into miscreants". An excerpt from the chapter titled "Two miscreants aborted... and escaped":

To go by English-language newspapers in India, people turn into miscreants when a police officer briefs reporters. And it is the police officer who decides when one is to be described as which, as this report makes clear:

Two motorbike-borne miscreants stabbed a petrol bunk worker in.... According to police, two persons on a motorbike came to a bunk located in... for refuelling... and picked a quarrel.... The two miscreants returned around 8 pm and stabbed... with a knife and escaped.

In the Middle Ages, a committee decided if someone accused of working against the Church was a miscreant. Reporters in English-language papers wait for a police verdict. A police inspector decided that as long as those two were on the motorbike or off it and quarreling, they were persons. They became miscreants only when they returned to the place after 8 pm (are then miscreants close cousins of vampires?).

The real problem is that the reader often has no clue what exactly a miscreant is supposed to be up to. To go by reports in English-language newspapers, he may be endowed with dangerous 'clutches' from which people need to be rescued. And again, he might be no more than an ordinary burglar. What, for instance, is the reader to understand from this account of what a senior police officer told reporters?

He cited an example of robbery incident in HAL police stations where miscreants robbed 10 persons within half an hour.

To go by the emphasis on the singular number, there was either only one robbery or one incident, but for some strange reason, several police stations got into the mêlée. An undisclosed number of miscreants did their thing with 10 persons in (of all places) HAL police stations. And it all took half an hour.

Now and again, reporters do leave some clues for the reader:

Miscreants broke into a video coverage shop in... and made away with electronic gadgets worth....

The miscreants had entered the house by breaking open the rear door, police said.

Two miscreants who were attempting to burgle a house in... aborted their plan and escaped after assaulting two persons on....

The reader is able to guess that the miscreants in these three reports were burglars. What he cannot figure out is why then they aren't said to be burglars. Nor can he figure out why HAL police decided that those who 'robbed 10 persons within half an hour' were not robbers, but miscreants.

... One can only suppose that during [the East India Company] days, some police officer somewhere used miscreant to describe some law-breaker he considered a greater scoundrel than others. Other officers may have liked the ring of the word, so that it then gained wider currency. Only research can show whether it ever indicated a specific crime.

The Company-day officers handed down a legacy for those who succeeded them, so that police officers to this day keep using this meaningless term, rather than a word that conveys any specific crime. Being faithful stenos of the police department, so do reporters — even when they have specific words that tell the reader the nature of the crime, e.g., pickpocket, thief, burglar, robber, dacoit, murderer, and so on. The reason: the English-language press reporter believes his work has nothing to do with informing his readers, and everything to do with playing steno to officials.

Sanyal also has harsh words for us regarding the letters we write. In the chapter titled "Of false starts", he quotes from Rudolph Flesch's The Art of Readable Writing (1973):

Let's look once more at business letters and news reports. Sure enough, the old-style business letter — with its standard 'your letter of ...' opening — is hopelessly old-fashioned. That much is clear. But how should it be changed? Answer: by using the example of the spill-the-beans, inverted-pyramid news reports. Start your letter with the main item of information and you can't go wrong....

The inverted-pyramid newspaper story can and should be used as a model for any kind of writing — business letters, memos, reports, factual material of any kind. Start with a brief spill-the-beans lead and follow it up with more and more details, in descending order of importance. When you've said what you wanted to say, stop.

Sanyal then gives us an example and shows us how to apply this technique:

Here's a letter the Karnataka Government's Department of Information and Publicity sent to heads of schools, colleges, and research institutes in the State:

Dear Sir,

Sub: Publication of 'Pioneering Educational and Research Institutions of Karnataka'

The Department of Information and Publicity desires to bring out a Publication, which intends to introduce the premier educational institutions in Karnataka to the public at large. The proposed publication aims to explain the educational opportunities and avenues available in Karnataka. The publication is designed to incorporate all the relevant information on each of the premier institutions for the benefit of the students in particular. Therefore, I request you to provide all the information available about your institution right from its inception, courses offered, facilities available, and the present status of the institutions. As the publication has to be brought out very early, your cooperation is highly solicitated [sic].

Thanking you,
Yours sincerely,
Senior Assistant Director (Publication's) [sic]

That text (not counting the 'subject' and 'ending') runs to 108 words. But not even after an addressee reads the first 65 of them does he understand how he relates to the 'proposed publication'. The reason: the letter first talks about a 'proposed publication' and only after three sentences 65 words long begins to tell the addressee that he must contribute to it.

Inversion of that order would place what is relevant to the addressee first, and details about the 'proposed publication' second. That would make the letter read something like this:

Dear Sir

Would you send me as soon as possible such details about your institute as potential students need to know.

We wish to include this in a directory our department will soon publish of Karnataka's premier educational institutes. Readers should find all relevant information below each entry.

Yours faithfully
Senior Assistant Director (Publications)

That 51-word text now places the project's relevance to the addressee first (that's most important to him). Only then does it detail the scope of the book. The head of an institute surely does not need the official to spell out what information he should send; the 'details ... students need to know' suffice.

There's so much you can learn, as I did, from reading this 388-page book, which was first published by Viva Books Pvt. Ltd. in 2006, and reprinted in 2007 and 2008. Indlish is priced at Rs.295 but you can get it on for Rs.268 (free delivery). Buy it today.
  • The illustrations in Indlish — each of them worth a thousand words — are by Sarbajit Sen.
  • Samit Basu offers an artful send-up of "Indian English" style in the October 20 issue of Femina (see below). Thank you, Shreya Dutt (Class of 2010) for the tip-off.

Additional reading:
  • Indlish was edited by Martin Cutts, research director of England's Plain Language Commission. Clicking on the 'Linguistic Links' button on this website will take you to a list of helpful sites, such as "How to write clearly", "Simple language", and the "Apostrophe Protection Society".

The following comments were sent to me via email by a Commitscion who works with a leading daily newspaper. The former student’s identity has been kept confidential for obvious reasons:

I relate completely to the point made by the editor of The Statesman, Ravindra Kumar:

It is bad enough that young TV and print journalists inflict abominations on us; worse is that their seniors appear to see nothing wrong with this, and often resist efforts at correction by explaining away errors of grammar and syntax as eccentricities imposed on them by style. No wonder bad English has become stylish.
Today most of us juniors suffer from lack of quality because very few follow the style sheet. Does our newspaper have a style sheet? Yes, we do. Do we follow them? No, because we create our own style sheets! The sub-editors are blinded by work pressure (well, we love the pressure), and unfortunately, the editors are crushed by deadlines. That leaves us with very little time to refer to style sheets or consult our seniors during edition time. I guess the scenario is similar elsewhere too. Crummy, but true.