Cricket commentators were wrong, said the venerable Oxford-educated principal of the school I went to. “It’s never ‘the benefit of doubt always goes with the batsman’.” “The benefit of the doubt always goes with the batsman” — this is what we swallowed.
The principal taught us many other beautiful things, most of which I do not remember now. But this piece of wisdom stayed on my mind, probably because of its association with cricket.
The years that I thought were the best of my life were spent without ‘the’ problem. But it returned after I joined the job of finding fault with what other people write. And my discomfiture has grown, particularly after I came in touch with an editor who was extremely particular about using articles correctly. Some people called him ‘The Editor’ — out of respect, not derision.
One of the most difficult and hotly debated things in the English language is the use of the definite article. I learnt in school that ‘the’ was not necessary before a proper noun. Why then “the Ganga”, or “the Ministry of Home Affairs”, or the “the Bharatiya Janata Party”? “The winter” or just “winter”, I am told, is a matter of subjectivity.
Where do I check? The Editor had told me English was a most “illogical language”. Let’s face it — many of us in the trade have not learnt the language well, despite having to keep up a pretence to the contrary.
One good thing that the Uttar Pradesh government has done (maybe other governments too have done it) is to do away with English in its official communication. Communication in English by the political class, or communicating in English with, it can lead to disaster, as Ronen Sen and Shashi Tharoor have learnt the hard way.
No Speaker of the Lok Sabha can be expected to check whether there is really an idiom with “headless chickens”. We Bengalis once called Satyajit Ray “our holy cow”. Try telling that to a Congressman.
Over the past 15 years or so, I have often had arguments with colleagues over this word or that, whether it exists or not, etc. I was often told the word in dispute has become part of ‘everyday use’ and hence acceptable. The irony of the situation became stark when the same worthies resisted words like ‘prepone’. I was admonished for writing “Company X sinks Rs 500 crore …”. My supervisor thought “sinks” meant throwing away money. Why don’t they check?
And — why blame the politicians alone?