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The Other Tongue: Avoiding Common Pitfalls in English Language Use

Given that English has been in use extensively in India for a really long time, most people would find it ridiculous, if one were to call it a foreign language. However, what cannot be denied is that English has come to India as a colonial heritage and has outlived colonisation.

The peculiarity of its usage, whether written or spoken, in India, reflects strong regional impact and therefore one finds many variants of English, without realising them to be so, that may result in problems ranging from the hilarious to the disastrous. A part of the blame for this condition can be attributed to its alien context; yet a larger part rests with the acquisition process, or what can be identified as the teaching-learning process. On close observation, it is also not difficult to realise that most of these are repetitive errors. These may be attributed among other things, to a shared teaching style, a system that has shaped both the teachers and students and a cultural strand, that though not the same has many similarities, if not overlapping areas, a need to excuse/justify errors, nonchalant confidence and fluency being mistaken for correctness, among others.

In the light of the fact that this researcher has spent over two decades in teaching and studying English language use, she has been able to actually identify some of these areas and attempt to train people in identifying these pitfalls, so that they can be worked upon or prevented; areas that can be safely labelled as ‘Common Errors in Grammar’, which this paper covers.

In the highly popular movie ‘My Fair Lady’, adapted from the famous play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, Prof. Higgins, a learned linguist laments ‘the cold blooded murder of the English tongue’, due to the proliferation of dialects, that too from within the heart of Britain. More than a century later in an alien land that ‘inherited’ English as a legacy of colonisation, one can only imagine its plight and the atrocity it can cause to those, who swear by purity or the blunders it can cause leading to merriment on the one hand and extreme disaster on the other.

Consider the real life case of an employee from a famous IT company who wrote to his boss asking for leave saying, “I need leave as I am marrying my daughter”. The obsession with purity apart even if one were to ensure communication forestalling miscommunication that is often the order of the day, it would help identifying the pitfalls, at least so that one can steer clear of them.

In this context it is important to remember that although no more acknowledged as such, at least overtly, English has and will continue to remain a ‘foreign language’. This is because, after all, it is a language that has struck roots and continued to spread and flourish extensively, thanks to the historical manifestation of colonisation. It therefore essentially serves as a second language for most users in India and is often alien to the natural make up of its citizens. Ironically, moreover, it has ceased to be seen as such and therefore the care that one may exercise in approaching/learning a foreign language is cast away, in the acquisition of English.

As a result, in its usage, whether written or spoken, in India, English has gained strong regional flavours and therefore one finds many variants of English, without realising them to be so. A part of the blame for this condition can be attributed to its alien context; yet a larger part rests with the acquisition process, or what can be identified as the teaching-learning process. While it may be too onerous/daunting a task to undertake a complete and drastic change in this, a simple approach, and one which has worked, as it has been tried and tested over time in varied contexts by this researcher/teacher, is to identify and warn people about the common errors that often unwittingly arise, so that being aware of them, they can be cautiously and consciously avoided.

•  Use of the present continuous

Due to its overwhelming presence in the native languages, most often people tend to use the present continuous to denote the future tense. Moreover, relying on traditional grammar and its vocabulary, without realising that language is an evolving system, it is taught at the basic level that the English language has three basic tenses – the past, the present and the future. While it is correct to say that the past and the present function as independent tenses, one should realise that the future tense can only be created by using a modal auxiliary followed by Vo, making it a derived and not a basic tense. Therefore, without consciously realising or out of habit, one commonly hears a direct translation of sentences like ‘Mee tujha ghari aaj sandhyakali yenar aahe’. However, it is incorrect to say ‘I am coming to your house in the evening’. Instead one should rather say, ‘I will come to your house in the evening’ using a modal auxiliary to replace the present continuous. This applies to all actions denoting the future as the possibility of their non occurrence is as much as their occurrence. (The modal auxiliaries include can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, must, ought to, used to and dare to.)


•  Random shifts in tense

Unless one is indicating a definite time change, one should stick to a single tense in a piece of writing. A mistake that is regularly committed is that especially in narrations or long pieces of writing, people shift between the past and the present. However, in English, especially in any writing that is in the form of reporting, it is usually he perfect tense that is used which comprises ‘have + en’ as the verb phrase. For e.g., It had been raining for a really long time, making the roads slippery, resulting in the accidents that have been a regular feature of Mumbai’s highways’.

•  Use of dual time markers

Drawing upon native phrases like ‘Aaj sandhyakali’, people often use phrases like ‘today evening’. English does not however permit the use of dual time markers, rather one of them is replaced by a determiner. Thus, one has to rather use the determiner ‘this’ and say ‘this evening’.

•  Use of ‘have’

When it is used as a main verb, the verb ‘have’ means ‘to possess’ or ‘to eat’. On the other hand, when it used as a primary auxiliary, it goes with the ‘en’ from of the verb to create the perfect tense. While it is thus correct to say ‘I have the book’, if one is carrying it and ‘I have eaten’, if one is offered food, but one wishes not to eat it, it is more proper to say ‘Take a seat’ rather than ‘Have a seat’, as even position of authority are posts occupied and therefore not permanent.

•  Absence of articles/determiners

Since most native languages do not contain articles/determiners, people often miss using them. It is necessary to note that all noun phrases except those, which begin usually with a proper noun, take an article/determiner. For e.g., Rather than saying ‘Flowers in my garden are in bloom’, it is correct to say ‘The flowers in my garden are in bloom’.

•  Absence of subject-verb concord

The subject and verb in a sentence need to be in agreement. In case the noun phrase contains pre-modifiers or post modifiers (words/phrases that appear before/after the main word in a phrase, the verb needs to be in concord/agreement with the head word. For e.g. ‘The grapes in the basket are rotten’ and not ‘The grapes in the basket is rotten’. Moreover, in case of collective nouns, the noun is considered to be singular. For e.g. My hair is black.

•  Modifying spellings according to parts of speech

Many a time, the word changes its spelling from ‘s’ to ‘c’ as in case of words like ‘practise’ and ‘practice’,

when the word use changes from it being a verb to being a noun.

•  Replacing all nouns with pronouns

Sometimes when multiple nouns occur in a sentence, people tend to replace all of them in the succeeding sentences. This should be avoided. For e.g. Ram asked Hanuman to bring Sita along. He told him to bring her along.

•  Use of the double comparative/superlative

While comparing two or more objects, one should avoid using the double comparative/superlative, which is often what people do, believing that it lends additional emphasis to what is being said. For e.g. He is much more better than me or He is the most best teacher from my school rather than simply saying He is much better than me or He is the best teacher from my school.

•  Use of double negation

It is improper to use double negation, unless one consciously uses it to create effect. For e.g. ‘He didn’t tell him not to do it’ makes it ambiguous, resulting in issues in decoding the meaning; one can more easily say “he didn’t stop/prevent him from doing it’. Also ‘I would never not listen to you’ could simply be replaced with ‘I would always listen to you’.

•  Lack of punctuation

Punctuations facilitate both reading and writing, by lending clarity to meaning. At times, the lack of punctuation or improper punctuation can completely change the meaning of a sentence. For e.g. the sentence ‘A woman without her man is nothing’, can be punctuated in two ways – ‘A woman, without her, man is nothing’ or ‘A woman, without her man, is nothing’; and, while the former lays emphasis on the man deriving strength/ identity from a woman the latter shifts the power to the man, making the sentences polar opposites of one another.

•  Use of phrasal verbs

The English language has an exhaustive list of phrasal verbs, i.e. verbs that are necessarily accompanied by a preposition, without which they cease to be complete. Most often there is a tendency to either drop out the preposition or use an inappropriate one. For e.g. ‘She accidentally came across the quote, she had been seeking, for a long time.’ Note the use of come across as a phrasal verb, while in case of ‘seek’ despite it being followed by the preposition ‘for’, the two words do not constitute a phrasal verb. So too, the meaning would completely change, if one were to use ‘come by’ rather than ‘come across’.

Redundant usage like ‘return back’, ‘fully empty’ too, though commonly in use, often to afford emphasis should scrupulously be avoided. These mistakes though common can create faux pas in communication; and has been learnt through almost two decades of being a part of the teaching fraternity they can be ironed out/avoided if one is consciously aware of them – the simple philosophy being that most people would avoid falling into the pit, if they were aware of it.

Though defenders of the current status of English usage in India would argue that the purpose of language is to be understood and except for linguists and ardent practitioners/followers of English in India, others need not insist on its flawless use; a philosophical faith in perfection, an attempt to avoid being embarrassed and the power/opportunities that correct English usage can offer its practitioners should be baits strong enough to quell any hesitation and result in using English as it should be used rather than as it is being used today.



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Authored by:

Dr. Preeti Shirodkar

Associate Professor, Communication and Soft Skills

MET Institute of Management, Mumbai

Tags: MET Institute of Management