The Abuse of English…

I get mails from my readers asking for help, assistance, advice, and even money. In the last case, which is mainly from students from the African countries who want to buy computers, I will send a polite reply informing them that while I sympathize with them, I am not in a position to help them. But some of these students are very persistent and they will keep on sending requests for money. In such cases I send them e-mail ID of Bill Gates or Gates-Melinda Foundation and tell them to ask them for money.

But I digress, what I wanted to comment was about the language. The communication skills of many of students, as judged from the mails that I receive, are very poor. Often I have to deduce and assume what they are trying to convey. The grammar, usage, and the sentence construction are all wrong. “Jesus wept” is famous as it is the shortest verse in the Bible and there are many other shorter sentences in English. But when reading the e-mails, I get a feeling that many students are trying to create their own shortest sentences. Most letters start with “Myself [name]. Studying [course name]. Your book [book name] very interesting and useful. Myself doing project [project topic]. Send all material you have.

I don’t mind helping students with their projects, but I don’t react to commands very well and when I get such commands like “Send all material you have,” I ignore them. I delete them. Recently I got a letter from a B.Tech Computer Science student asking me to do a project for him. According to his mail, the project has great business potential and if I do the project for him, he will give it to me after he completes his degree so that I can make money by selling it!

When I was working in Pond’s, we had a supervisor who always used to make us laugh with his wrong choice of words. Once we were discussing about organizing a cricket match between the managers and the supervisors. Finally we decided to conduct the match on a Sunday at a school playground nearby. Then suddenly our man, let’s call him Bobby, jumps up and tells our GM “But sir, there won’t be any fun!”
GM: Why Bobby? What is the problem?
Bobby: It is a Sunday, Sir.
GM: Why that is a problem?
Bobby: There won’t be any spectacles!’

Our man had confused spectators with spectacles and we had a good laugh.

Our GM had a stenographer. One day we heard our boss shouting at his steno. We were surprised, as the stenographer was a very efficient person. We inquired the reason. In a letter introducing our company he had made a mistake. It was a simple typo, but the meaning got changed completely. The letter started with the sentence “We are one of India’s premier companies engaged in the shoe business.” Our man left the ‘o’ in the word shoe and the first sentence became “We are one of India’s premier companies engaged in she business.” It was letter that went to many companies abroad asking them to outsource their work as labour was cheaper here. No wonder the usually calm and composed GM lost his temper.

Another incident that comes to mind is the use of the word tuskers instead of tusks. A friend of mine, he holds a Masters degree in English literature, wrote me a letter after visiting the Salarjung Museum in Hyderabad. “The Nizam is hanging between two tuskers and it is a wonderful sight!” What he meant was “the portrait of the Nizam that is mounted on two elephant tusks is a wonderful sight!”

We had a peon in our college. I know that variants of this story will be in most colleges and I feel sorry for the poor peons and attendants who are the main characters of these stories. In my version, this particular gentleman was stationed outside the principal’s office, to admit or refuse admission to people who wanted to meet the principal. One day a professor went to him and asked “Is the principal in?” But the principal had just gone out. So our guy replied “No, he just passed away!

On another occasion he was lecturing a group of first year students about the history of our college. Since he was there for many years, he pointed at the photos of the past principals that were hung on walls of the visiting room outside the principal’s office and told interesting anecdotes about each one of them. Then he pointed to the principal’s room and said “One day, he will also hang there!

Like peons, there will always be some teachers in every college who often bear the brunt of many jokes. In our college one such person was a junior lecturer named Richard. His nickname was Shakespeare Richard. Here are some of the jokes that are attributed to him. The first one is true as I was present in the class when he told the following:

In the center of October, I will be an examination for you. Eight questions will be asking and five questions will be answering. Study good, otherwise who is suffering? I amo you aro?” What he meant was “In the middle of October, there will be an examination. There will be eight questions out of which you will have to answer five. Study well. Otherwise who is going to suffer; I or you?” [The last part can be appreciated only by a person who knows Malayalam as “I amo you arro” was his translation of “Njano Neeyo.”]

Here are some of the other gems attributed to Shakespeare Richard. The correct versions are given in brackets:

  • Tomorrow India close. [Tomorrow is all India bandh.]
  • I have fulfilled my tank. [I have completely filled the petrol tank.]
  • Write it in your brief. [Write briefly.]
  • Open the window. Let the airforce/atmosphere/climate come in. [Open the window and let the breeze in.]

One day Sir Richard had the first period for us. He arrived promptly at 8 o’clock. We arrived by around 8:30. He was furious. He shouted at us “I 45Km away. You 100 meters. I here at 8. You here at 8:30. You 8, I 8. You late, I late. You no, I no.” With that he stomped angrily out of the room.

What he wanted to say was “I come from a place that is 45Km away. You have only 100 meters to walk (from the hostel). I am here at 8AM, but you come only by 8:30. So now onwards if you come by 8, I will also come by 8. If you are late, I will also come late. If you don’t want to come, then I also will not come.”

A variant of this story is told about a cocoa planter from central Travancore who wanted to sell his produce to Cadbury India Ltd. At that time, Cadbury didn’t have collection centers in Kerala, as it has now. So our planter friend went to Madras to meet the Regional Manager of Cadbury India Ltd. When he finally met the man there was a slight problem. The RM didn’t know Malayalam and our man knew very little English. But he managed to seal a deal with the little English he knew.

I am still in awe at the ingenuity of our planter friend. What he said to the Cadbury man is as follows: “I Kerala, you Cadbury. I cocoa, you money. Yes money, yes cocoa. No money, no cocoa. Yes, yes? No, no?” He sold the cocoa seeds.

If you didn’t understand what the Cadbury guy understood, here is it in plain English “I am from Kerala. You are from Cadbury (I Kerala, you Cadbury). I have cocoa to sell. You have money to buy (I cocoa, you money). If you are willing to pay (Yes money), I am willing to sell (yes cocoa). If you don’t have money, I won’t sell it you (No money, no cocoa). Do we have an agreement (Yes, yes? No, no?).

No wonder Amitab Bachen said in Namak Halaal “Lo kallo baat ! Arre babuji aisi English aave that I can leave Angrej behind!! You see sir, I can talk English, I can walk English, I can laugh English because English is a very funny language.


  1. TME said,

    April 8, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Extremely funny and relaxing post. I was laughing out loud while reading…:))

  2. Maya said,

    April 8, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    Nice one Alexis. Excellent post. A humorous post from you in quite some time. It is nice to see that you are back in form and I am releived as I think your post reflects your state of mind.

  3. Rahul said,

    April 8, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    Alexis, you made me laugh so hard that I was in tears. Yes, we also had teachers who were the subjects of such jokes. But there were some original ones. Do write more…

  4. Vipin said,

    April 9, 2011 at 2:46 am

    hahaha… that was really funny. Nice to see a humourous post and I do agree with Maya that the post reflects the state of mind. 🙂

    We had teachers famous for their dialogues like “you three both get out” & “dont pour the acid but pouuuuuurrrrrrr”.

  5. kajan said,

    April 9, 2011 at 4:38 am

    Loved out loud a few times. Good one.

    I don’t think it’s only in English. I have seen signboards in other languages, where the spelling errors change the meaning of the sentence… just like your ‘shoe/she’ story.

  6. kajan said,

    April 9, 2011 at 7:35 am

    Aaah… please add me to your list:-). Just came to see comments and look what I see. LOL!

    I meant to type ‘Laughed out loud a few times!”

  7. ROJI JACOB said,

    April 9, 2011 at 10:00 am

    On a different note on the same subject, the SMS lingo culture that is pervasive in all modes of communication for the youth is spoiling their English.

  8. Paresh said,

    April 10, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    It is really funny. 🙂 We can control if the person is sincerely trying to communicate. But, the humor comes out when the person abuses language while trying to impress others, that too in a group. 😛

  9. Bindu said,

    April 11, 2011 at 10:40 am

    ROFL!! Just loved the Sir Richard ones 🙂

    My son is teaching me English now. When I told him something was nice, this was his response, “Amma, ‘nice’ is such a dead word. You should use adjectives that excatly convery what you feel”!!!! His English teacher is exceptionally good 🙂

  10. Alexis Leon said,

    April 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    TME: Thank you…

    Maya: Thanks Maya. Yes you are right regarding the state of mind 🙂

    Rahul: Thanks Rahul. Will do…

    Vipin: Thanks Vipin…

    Kajan: Thanks Kajan. And what you said is very true. It is not just English.

    Roji: Roji, I have never used SMS, but have seen the text, but it is like reading an encrypted message and each group has its own code words and symbols.

    Paresh: Very true Paresh.

    Bindu:”You should use adjectives that correctly convey what you feel” I have heard that in creative writing classes and books. But from a school kid, it is a good fortune that he has such a good English teacher.