Sex

About the time I was in college, there was this joke that used to do the rounds. It seems there was this one student, who when filling out some academic form, had in the column called ‘Sex’, written ‘Occasionally.’

As much as we found it funny back then, today, I wonder if that person would have even mistakenly answered with an ‘Occasionally’, had the column been called something more grammatically correct. In a country, where the word ‘Sex’ is already taboo, it is all the more imperative that we get this right.

Time and again, we are required to fill out forms. Although questions might differ depending on what we are filling out a form for, some questions such as name, address, contact details, etc. are fairly constant. Then, then is also another one, which is a constant, ‘Sex’ or ‘Gender’.

Obviously, the use of the word ‘Sex’ is incorrect. Government guidelines in the United Kingdom suggest that, barring usage in a medical context, the use of the word ‘Sex’ should be avoided when asking a person’s gender. The preferred word is ‘Gender’.

Americans find nothing wrong in using the word ‘Sex’, when asking a person’s gender and accuse the Brits of being prudes, who do not use it because they find it to be taboo. Grammatically speaking, I would side with the Brits.

‘Sex’ means ‘either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.’ ‘Gender’ on the contrary means ‘either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones.

So the right word to use is ‘Gender’, unless the context is medical, in which case, using the word ‘Sex’ is perfectly fine.

Replace

What is the problem with Indian English I am asked. What is wrong if we speak it with pride and expect the world to accept it as a legitimate dialect? Finally, the English speaking population of our country is larger than the population of some countries where English is spoken as the first language. Join me this month as we explore the reasons and look at an example of how we complicate things.

Language is about communicating, about being understood, but moreover, it is about connecting with people. Indian English is perfectly all right when two Indians are speaking. We couldn’t care less how things are said as long as I get what you are saying. We are like that only, no? 🙂

But hey, we are supposedly living in a globalized world of ever shrinking borders. We aren’t always going to run into Indians and that is where neutral English, that is free of all Indianisms, becomes extremely important. The world over, British or American English is easier to understand. Firstly, because Indian English is not taught globally and hence people might not always understand us, worse still, they might misunderstand us. Secondly, and most importantly, native speakers of English have an extremely easy way to say complex things that Indians usually only further complicate.

Let us look at this example from my gym that shows how we complicate things. It was all the more striking because I had seen the exact same message being conveyed in a gym in London way more easily. A sign at my gym in Pune reads, ‘Please keep all weights and other equipment back in their proper places after use.’ What I read in a certain gym in London was, ‘Please replace all equipment after use.’

Now, we do not seem to realise that the weights we lift are also ‘equipment.’ So using both ‘weight’ and ‘equipment’ is totally unnecessary. Secondly, Indians have a very different understanding of the verb ‘replace.’ The Brits have no such issues. They know that apart from a host of other meanings, the verb ‘replace’ can also be used to mean ‘to put back in its proper place.’

Keep it simple, keep it crisp!

Eat your soup

How can you eat something that you always thought was drinkable or drink something that you always thought was edible. Intriguing, isn’t it. Well, languages are funny and unreasonable, at times. That is perhaps why the Bengalis eat their tea and water. Let us find out this month what the English are up to when it comes to eating stuff that is seemingly drinkable.

I am referring to the use of the verb-noun collocation ‘eat’ and ‘soup’. Yes, the English eat their soup. They don’t drink it, but actually eat it. The logic is simple, if one is using a spoon and/or a dish when consuming the soup, then one is eating the soup, much like one would eat gravy or ketchup and not drink them.

Although there could be odd instances when one would use the verb-noun collocation ‘drink’ and ‘soup’, especially when soups are more liquid in nature (not thick) or when using a mug to consume soups, the generally acceptable usage is to ‘eat’ soup.

One of my friend(s) is/are

This month I am going to give you a lowdown on one of the most common mistakes non-native speakers of English tend to make. It is understandably confusing but very easy to correct and remember once you understand the logic.

‘One of my friend is a …’ or ‘One of my friend lives in …’ I am sure we have all heard such sentences before. What is wrong about these sentences is that the noun ‘friend’ is not plural. Like I said earlier, it is understandably confusing to some of us because the presence of the word ‘One’ makes us want to use the noun ‘friend’ in the singular.

However, if you look closely, you will see that the implied meaning of the phrase is ‘one of the many friends I have is a …’ or ‘one of the many friends I have lives in …’ and hence the noun that follows the structure ‘One of + possessive pronoun (my, your, his, her, their, our, its)’ will always be plural.

The correct way to say this will therefore be ‘One of my friends is a …’ or ‘One of my friends lives in …’

And yes, the verb that follows such a construction will always be conjugated depending on the subject used, in this case ‘one.’ It would be a mistake to conjugate the verb depending on the noun used, in this case ‘friends’.

So you will always say ‘One of my friends is’ AND NOT ‘One of my friends are

Can not

Do not follow rules and you risk making grammatical mistakes. But sometimes, you follow what seems to be the rule, only to realize that it was more of an exception and not so much of the rule you thought you were following. That is the problem with the English language, isn’t it? More exceptions than rules like the haters love to say.

Point in case being, we write ‘would not’ and ‘could not’ and even ‘will not’ but when it comes to ‘can’ there suddenly seems to be break in the pattern or a break in the rule if you will.

‘Cannot’ unlike the others seems to be written as one word, unless the ‘not’ forms part of another construction such as ‘War can not only jeopardise relations between nations but also make them poorer.’

Both sources, Oxford and Webster, suggest that although both ways of writing are correct, ‘cannot’ is more the common way.

So here’s what you can do. Use ‘cannot’ unless the ‘not’ forms part of another construction like in the example above.

A says ॲ, E says अे, I says ..

It is not uncommon for Westerners to refer to me as ‘सॅनदीप नलकर.’ Initially, I always wondered why that might be the case, when, surprisingly, no one in India has ever “mispronounced” my name. I have always been called ‘संदीप नूलकर’ In India and I have always had one standard way in which I spelt it – Sandeep Nulkar.

So why do Westerners get it wrong? Well, blame it on the skewed ides of pronunciation our ancestors had, I say. We Indians seem to have got English spellings of our names so wrong that we have made it very easy for Westerners to mispronounce them.

This is what Westerners learn – A says ॲ, E says अे, I says इ, O says ऑ and U says अ. On this backdrop, if you look at how ancestral influence has meant I have spelt my name, you will see why Westerners have called me ‘सॅनदीप नलकर.’ Since they have been taught that A says ॲ and U says अ, they pronounce ‘San’ as ‘सॅन’ and ‘Nul’ as ‘नल.’

So, if I want them to pronounce my name correctly, I should spell it as ‘Sundeep Noolkar.’ Have you been spelling your name correctly? It might be too late for us to change the spellings of our names, but, we might want to consider using a phonetically more correct spelling of names, when we name our newborns.

The thing about studies

“I am sorry I will not be able to join you guys for the movie. Siddharth has exams. I need to take his studies.” You can get away making a statement like this, practically anywhere in India. Not an eyebrow will be raised, no one would find anything unusual about what you said and whether or not this is how it is said, your message would have been conveyed.

Well, firstly, this sentence (I need to take his studies) is not grammatically correct and secondly, this is not how it is said. This can easily be another example of our mother tongue influencing the kind of English we speak. I am sure every Indian language has a typical way in which something like this is said, like in Marathi we say “अभ्यास (studies) घेणे (take).”

However, in English, studies cannot be given or taken. So the correct way to say this in English would be, “I am sorry I will not be able to join you guys for the movie. Siddharth has exams. I need to help him with his studies / I need to help him study.”

Let’s discuss about what to order for

We all know how confused we Indians can be when it comes to the use of prepositions while writing or speaking English. For most Indians, ‘on’ and ‘above’ could be mutually replaceable prepositions and so could be ‘below’ and ‘under’.

It is no wonder then that we end up using the wrong one every now and then, use none when one is needed or then use one when none is actually needed. The prepositions, that we are going to know more about this month, fall under this last category – using one when none is actually needed.

Quite a few would raise their hands if I were to ask how many of us have heard or said something like, “We will meet and discuss about this in person” or “I have ordered for a pizza.” A large number of us would either not find anything fundamentally wrong with these sentences or then actually be convinced that this is how it is said.

The reality, however, is different. Neither does ‘discuss’ need the preposition ‘about’, nor does ‘order’ need the preposition ‘for’. ‘Discuss’ and ‘order’ are transitive verbs. Transitive verbs are action verbs with a direct object. They do not need prepositions.

For example,

Ronaldinho kicked (transitive verb) the ball (direct object).

There is no need for a preposition here and hence we do not say, “Ronaldinho kicked to the ball.”

The urge to use ‘about’ after ‘discuss’ probably comes from the fact that ‘about’ is used after similar action verbs such as ‘talk’, ‘debate’ or ‘have a conversation’. But these are intransitive verbs.

So the correct way to speak is:

“We will meet and then discuss this in person.”

or

“I have ordered a pizza.”

I am going to leave you with a seemingly-confusing, fun sentence I came across:

“Keller Fay finds that people discuss about a dozen brands each day.”

Although here it does seem like the preposition ‘about’ has been used after the verb ‘discuss’, in reality, that is only because in this case ‘about’ has not been used as a preposition, but as an adverb that means ‘approximately.’ You will get the meaning if you read the sentence this way:

“On average, Keller Fay finds that people discuss (about or approximately a dozen) brands each day.”

You can go, you can even come back

Indian languages are a work of art. No, I mean, really! How many languages would allow you to actually use two verbs meaning opposite things and still make sense. Confused? Look at the Hindi “ज़रा बाहर होके आता हूँ” or the Marathi “जरा बाहेर जाऊन येतो” for example. Both sentences use multiple verbs, one in the sense of ‘going’ and the other in the sense of ‘coming’.

So what’s the problem? Well, none whatsoever as long as you stick to speaking an Indian language that allows you such a usage. The problem however arises when this influence carries over to the English we speak.

Very often, I have heard people say, “I will go out and come back in twenty minutes.” A certain Indian can also be found on TripAdvisor asking if “he can go there and come back the same day.” Yes, as you guessed it, this is the influence of your “ज़रा बाहर होके आता हूँ” or “जरा बाहेर जाऊन येतो” now playing out in the kind of English we speak.

Clearly, this isn’t the right way to say this in English. These sentences would be better constructed as “I am going to the bakery. I will be back in twenty minutes” or “Will Nainital be a day’s trip?”

Dead serious

It is easy to attribute some Indianisms to the interference of our mother tongues and some others simply to our creative minds. However, it is sometimes difficult to understand how certain Indianisms might have originated. Some mistakes have become such an integral part of mainstream discourse that we do not, in the least, suspect that we could be using words incorrectly.

Take for instance the word ‘serious’. It looks like a fairly simple and harmless word and we surely do use it right in most cases. But then, there are times when logic suddenly chooses to desert us and we use the word ‘serious’ to describe someone’s medical condition. Now I am sure we have all heard people talk about how someone in their family is ‘serious’ and has therefore had to be hospitalised.

So here a little grammatical lowdown on the topic. A person can surely be serious, dead serious if you will, but that will in no way mean that the person is ill (or even dead :-)). It would only mean that the person is not joking or that the person is acting or speaking sincerely and in earnest.

When we say ‘someone is serious and has been hospitalised’, what we actually mean is that the condition of that person is serious. Some lazy bloke, one fine day, simply decided to drop the word ‘condition’ and then people probably just started referring to the person as serious instead of referring to the situation as serious.

In most places outside India and to most non-Indians globally, saying someone is serious will not convey the intended meaning. The right way to say it would therefore be, “My uncle was brought to the hospital in a serious condition” or then “My Uncle has been hospitalised and his condition is very serious.”