Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Crisp writing

Thanks Mahesh Vijapurkar for forwarding the following for the benefit of young journalists:

Roy Peter Clark, a faculty member at which promotes good journalism and skills required for it, has something to say about crisp writing. He cites an edict by Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia.

This 1935 edict, conscripting (making army duty compulsory) the citizens as follows:

"All men able to carry a spear go to Addis Ababa.
"Every married man will bring his wife to cook and wash for him.
"Every unmarried man will bring any unmarried woman he can find to cook and wash for him.
"Women with babies, the blind, and those too aged to carry a spear are excused.
"Anyone who qualified for battle and is found at home after receiving this order will be hanged."

Clark says they are 73 razor sharp words when even today, legislation often tends to confuse than bring clarity. Precise. To the point. No verbiage.

This kind of writing, Clark says, makes words worth a thousand pictures.

He has a lot more to say by way of great examples. Read the entire post at

Indian English: Usages to be discouraged

Mahesh Vijapurkar has offered the following:

A correct word conveying the correct meaning the writer intended can be found in a dictionary, especially a good dictionary. But there are a few usages popular in Indian English writing that needs to be discouraged.

Here is a small list:

Return back to mean return. The back is redundant.

Fell down for fell. Something can fall upon something else, but it only falls from where that something is.

Revert for return to its original state when it was intended to say I shall come back to you on this.

Also, revert back is used - same error as for return back.

Yesterday evening for last evening.

Hair is found on several parts of the human body and it is referred to in singular to that which is found on the head. Elesewhere, it is hairs.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Raising the hackles

ToI's Pune-story on rate in rape cases has a phrase 'raised the hackles' (of human rights activists)
I found that there was at least one person who was, like me, curious to know the origin of the phrase. The Phrase Finder of responded to the query thus:

hackle: NOUN: 1. Any of the long, slender, often glossy feathers on the neck of a bird, especially a male domestic fowl. 2. hackles The erectile hairs along the back of the neck of an animal, especially of a dog. 3a. A tuft of cock feathers trimming an artificial fishing fly. b. A hackle fly.

Many animals, such as dogs and wolves, instinctively raise their hackles when annoyed, threatened or scared. It's presumably primarily done to make the animal look larger and more menacing itself, plus may I suppose provide some slight greater degree of protection to the neck area. Hence if something raises your hackles or gets your hackles up, it makes you feel aggressively irritated or fearful.

What is a kangaroo court?

Dnyaneshwari asked me the meaning of 'kangaroo court' mentioned in the Times of India's main lead headlined '5 Get death for killing on khap diktat'
I had a vague idea and I could make a guess from the context.
Yet, I checked Here is the meaning:

1. a self-appointed or mob-operated tribunal that disregards or parodies existing principles of law or human rights, esp. one in a frontier area or among criminals in prison.
2.any crudely or irregularly operated court, esp. one so controlled as to render a fair trial impossible.

Diktat, used in the headline, means 1. a harsh, punitive settlement or decree imposed unilaterally on a defeated nation, political party, etc.
2. any decree or authoritative statement: The Board of Education issued a diktat that all employees must report an hour earlier.

spin-doctor, brouhaha

I came across these words I did not understand till I referred to

spin-doctor: In public relations, spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through providing an interpretation of an event or campaign to persuade public opinion in favor or against a certain organization or public figure. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, "spin" often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics.

Politicians are often accused by their opponents of claiming to be honest and seek the truth while using spin tactics to manipulate public opinion.

Because of the frequent association between "spin" and press conferences (especially government press conferences), the room in which these take place is sometimes described as a spin room. A group of people who develop spin may be referred to as "spin doctors" who engage in "spin doctoring" for the person or group that hired them

brouhaha: Excited public interest, discussion, or the like, as the clamor attending some sensational event; hullabaloo
an episode involving excitement, confusion, turmoil, etc., esp. a broil over a minor or ridiculous cause: A brouhaha by the baseball players resulted in three black eyes.

-- Meha Ved

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Wedding and marriage - not one and the same

The other day, a film review in the Times of India said that a character in a Hindi movie, Well done, Abba went to 'marry his daughter' when what the intention was 'to marry off his daughter'. Marrying a daughter amounts to incest. Marrying off is to give away the girl in marriage.

I'd like to use this bloomer to point out the common error of misunderstanding that wedding and marriage are one and the same. Far from it. A wedding is a ceremony where two persons marry each other and the couple enter a state of marriage. People can attend, if invited, a wedding. The couple would attend to their marriage thereafter.

A marriage is a relationship between a husband and a wife, while the wedding is a event involving the bride and the groom after which they are in a state of marriage - wedlock is the old-fashioned word for that. Marriage is also a state of being married.

One comes across invitations for marriages which is incorrect. Sometimes, this creeps into a newspaper. The purpose of inviting should be limited to the ceremonies where the marriage can be blessed.

-Mahesh Vijapurkar

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

suo moto, vis-a-vis, quid pro quo and inter alia

suo moto, vis-a-vis, quid pro quo and inter alia

These words were quoted in a ToI report which asked its readers if it was time to do away with these. explains meanings of these words as follows:
suo moto: on its own motion
vis-a-vis: "with regard to" or "in relation to"
quid pro quo: one thing in return for another; something that is given or taken in return for something else; substitute.
inter alia:among other things

Can we avoid using these latin words/phrases?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Words, but numbers to count

This blog is about English language and its use in the news media. But when we write in any language, numbers are used too. What is the correct use that helps the reader get to the story's details?

Remember that numbers make reading a newspaper difficult. More so when precise numbers are used when even conversations, we tend to use rounded ones.

Do we say 'half' or '50 per cent'? 'A third' or '33 per cent'? Do we say '55 per cent' or 'about half'? We talk of a 'fourth' or a 'quarter'.

So when you use too many numbers in a copy, a story written in best of English affording all the clarity required can become fuzzy with an overload of numbers. The best remedy for that is to avoid numbers unless they are important like saying 'three of a group of ten died in an accident'. It would be silly to say a third of the people died. When the numbers are small, precise is fine.

To say that 54.1 per cent of Mumbai's 1.19 crore people in slums makes less sense to a reader in a hurry - he is yet to have his breakfast, get ready for the day's work - than 'a little over all of Mumbai residents live in slums.' Better still, 'a slum is a home to one out of two Mumbai's residents.'

Read that para two or three times and see the difference it makes.
And somewhere in the copy, for the purpose of record and precision, mention that 54.1 per cent and the 1.19 cr once, but just once. Then the dimension hits the reader.

And just don't throw numbers at people because they can be scared off the story. Use proportions, not percentages only and explain why the numbers are important. What if a third of the parliamentary and assembly seats go to women? You may mention 33 per cent once and then keep saying 'third.' When numbers are put in context and explained, it becomes easy to digest and serves a purpose.

Then there is the decimal point. Business and economic stories need them - hike in GDP by .3 per cent means a whole lot more than we can imagine than a .03 per cent rise in cost of mill you buy. Use the decimal there. Elsewhere, an 'about' before the rounded figure is best.

When you need to write about Rs. 15,40,560 to be paid to someone by someone else, do what the headline writer would: "Rs 15 lakh to be paid..." Somewhere you could use that figure once precisely, at a point where the pace of the story would not slowdown. Elsewhere stick to 'Rs 15.4 lakh.'

Talking of 'lakh', please remember that it is not in plural. Do we talk "ten thousands rupees'? We don't - we say, 'ten thousand rupees.' Likewise, lakh, not lakhs. Remember, India still commonly uses lakh and crore, and not millions and billions. I see no reason why newspapers should use a different terminology.

-Mahesh Vijapurkar

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Good initiative, but it is regressive

Omkar Sapre, Pune's Economic Times, has raised some doubts about this initiative (the blog), and has other grievances:

Dear Thakur Sir,

I like your initiative, but I see this as regressive too. How many years more are we going to ask journos to use the same words and same language that journos used 20 years ago? What was difficult then, has become simple now in terms of the usage of words. People, apart from reading newspapers for news, also read them to improve their language. So I see no harm in using new words, but the real question here is do we have journalists (particularly from among those being churned out of J-Schools in recent times) who are themselves skilled at using the right words. People become a journalist, because they cannot do anything else. The bulk of the people entering journalism courses are the ones who aim to pursue competitive exams, and enrol in journalism courses to brush up their writing skills so can they score in essay papers. Most of them fail in these exams in spite of repeated attempts and are later absorbed in journalism because they have 'diploma in journalism'.

Hardly a handful people become journalists because they are passionate about the professions. Whether our J-Schools are able to recognise or instil this passion in their students is a big question mark. When I applied for MA at the DOCJ, I was already five years into the profession and was committed to work in and work for this profession. But I was rejected admission, god know why, in favour of freshers, which has inflicted a lot of loss on me. Secondly, profession of journalism is so dynamic, that one needs to constantly keep up pace with it and has also drastically changed over the last 10 years. But has our teaching upgraded itself, is something we need to give a thought. During my days at DOCJ, I hardly came across any current journalist passionately coming to teach. It is sad that the department has not been able to use the knowledge former students who have now become professional Everything is easier said than done, so I volunteered myself for this cause and helped out one batch. However the department never called me after that, instead to teach what I taught, they got in a person who is not a journalist and whose raw copies are a nightmare of a sub-editor. First the dept failed in realising my passion to work in journalism, and could also not realise my passion to work for it. So now I have turned my back on the department for good for ever. Whose loss is it?

English is a not a tough language, in fact it is as hard or as easy as any other language or subject. But we need good teachers who can teach this language effectively. Do we have them in numbers they need to be, the answer would invariably be no. Similarly as journalists, most teachers also become teachers because they have nothing else. It's easy to pass or manage a B.Ed. The eligibility of teachers in PMC schools is 12th pass, I read in a advertisement. Even in other schools, the conditions are not that good. Go to the top two colleges in Pune and you will find that the teachers who teach english to BA and MA classes, cannot even speak fluently. If this is the state and such are the teachers, what more can we expect? Students coming out of such teaching and then enrolling at such J-schools, become journalists and then end up molesting the English language. It's an era of Shift+F7 and with students coming out of poor teaching, they are going to misuse it, throwing heavy and misfit words at the readers. With most readers too coming out of such schools and colleges, they find even simple words hard.

So when the disease lies in the heart and brain, we are trying to treat the hand.

Sorry, I may have gone on a different path, but that's what I feel on the entire issue.


PS: I recently got a question from a DOCJ student that whether the state education secretary I was talking to was the secretary of the education minster.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Is it a mix of Queen's English, the American and the Desi?

Here is a thought:

Indian newspapers use the Queen's English or the American? Both are quite different, sometimes in usage, most often in spellings and pronounciation. Slowly, the latter is catching up with our English newspapers.

The newspapers do not mind writing a combination of the two and add the desi version, like "take action" when the intent was "act", "take a decision" when "decide" would suffice. Or the absured use of "return back" and the horrendous "revert" when the latter actually means "return to the original state." The user believes he means "come back to you."

English is not an easy language, more so for the Indians who think in their mother tongues. The idiom and the grammar of the language one thinks in gets transferred to English being written.

The best way is to have a good dictionary handy, like the COBUILD which provides the usage for every word they list, a Thesaurus and Eric Patridge's Usage and Abusage of English. The important thing is to use them.

-Mahesh Vijapurkar

Need simple words, and shorter sentences

A senior administrator, Mr Arvind Kulkarni, and a regular reader of English dailies, wrote:
I have read your blog. It is very useful. Media persons should avoid such bombarding words & should use simple with straight meaning & short sentences. So, that commoner will understand which should be the main purpose.
This is a good beginning on Gudi Padva's auspicious day. Keep it up. I shall read the blog regularly.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Vaidehi Suryavanshi, Master's in Personnel Management, has problems with the following words when she read the daily first time (She seems to have referred to the dictionary for our benefit):
1] FUROR [used for commotion in Parliament over women's reservation bill]- uproar

2] dishevelled [ comment on Amir Khan's look] - uncombed, messy

3] cuss word - use of bad language

4] racial slur - disgrace, insult

5] brazen and malignent nature ---[ used in context of Indo-Pakistan bilateral relations]-- shameless, bold, nasty

6] eponymous character- temperamental (??)

Just state the theme of the story as the lead

Veteran journalist Mahesh Vijapurkar's advice to news writers:

Most news writers write for effect and write in a format. At the time of writing the lead (lede - Americans spell it that way), it becomes a struggle because what they need to say does not fit the format. That conflict leads to loss of valuable time as deadlines draw closer.

When the attempt is at effect, then the content can go for a toss. When format is an objective, then the straightjacket strangulates. The best way, therefore, is to just state the theme of the story as the lead. It can be said in as many or as few words as required and the story flows.

That way, clever points and sentences to grab the readers' attention becomes passe.

Mahesh Vijapurkar

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Writing shorter lead

Do our reporters write a long sentence as the crucial lead of a story? Do they consider other options to write the same details in smaller sentences?

Here is one example from a daily dated March 15, 2010

That there is no let-up in the anti-India campaign of Pakistan’s ISI has been established once again, with the two Mumbai youth allegedly working on a plot to attack Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, offshore installations of the Oil and National Gas Corporation and other targets in the city-fuel storage tanks, a shopping mall and a cloth market.

Should the following be easier to understand because the one-sentence lead has been split into four sentences?

There is no let-up in the anti-India campaign of Pakistan’s ISI. This has been established once again today when two Mumbai youth were found allegedly working on a plot to attack important installations in Mumbai. These included Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, offshore installations of the Oil and National Gas Corporation and other targets in the city-fuel storage tanks, a shopping mall and a cloth market.

Or, will the following be still easier to read and understand?

Two Mumbai youth were today arrested allegedly for plotting to attack important installations in the city. These included Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, offshore installations of the Oil and National Gas Corporation and other targets in the city-fuel storage tanks, a shopping mall and a cloth market.
This has once again established that Pakistan’s ISI has continued its anti-India campaign without any let up.

Professionals have to communicate to the masses

Dear Sir,
You continue to be the guide and source of inspiration. The project you have undertaken is of great significance. The professionals involved in mass communication should never lose sight of their main objective i.e conveying the message to the masses.
Of late,however, we find instead of masses the reporters seem to be addressing
the classes! your blog will definitely help one and all involved in news reporting for print as well as electronic media.

Nasir Mirza
Sr faculty member,
Media Education Research Centre,
University of Kashmir,

Let us not presume the students know the words

Prof Kiron Bansal of Indira Gandhi National Open University responded thus

Dear Sir,

Read your blog with great interest. I am teaching the paper: Foundations of Journalism: Writing for our MA students. I entirely agree with the observation that we should not assume that our students are familiar with such words and expressions. In my recent class I found that the students were not familiar with the expression 'cliche' which came as a surprise since most of them have English medium background.

The blog will be very useful for teachers as well as working journalists.
With regards
Gloria Khamkar, a media teacher currently in UK for training in Broadcasting, responded:

Hello sir,
Interesting project!

Just some thoughts.. I was wondering how would it be realistic to categorise a particular word as a difficult and heavy one? For example, I might find a word difficult one and another reader won't, and vice versa. Also, the Indian graduates who studied in English language as a medium of instruction would find some words easy, but the graduates who studied in the regional language medium won't. The same with the people who do a lot of reading (fiction, non-fiction), their vocabulary is stronger than the ones who do read that much.

She is right and I told her so:

You have valid points. Let us tackle them when we have enough words. i am planning to set up a blog, by this evening, where these points can be debated by the readers and journalists. the idea is that the journalists (particularly reporters) who write such words (as also difficult sentences) should pause before they use such words.
Anyway, I am glad you found the project interesting. Now, the next step is to contribute to the project.

Only to impress the bosses

Ganesh Puranik, a young PR professional from Mumbai, felt:

Interesting Study, I discussed the matter with three journalists (two senior reporters and an Assistant News Editor of three prominent English Dailies) and I concluded that they use such hard words mainly to impress their bosses.

What do they mean please: Ensconce Protégé Pogrom Avant-garde?

Yogesh Joshi, who reports for The Hindustan Times, from Pune has problems with these words. He has a Master's degree in Political Science and a diploma in journalism. If he complains about the difficulty in quickly understanding the following words, the news writers better take note!






These words made me run for the dictionary

Sharvari Joshi, a media person, who writes English news and articles, responded:

Oh yes, these words you have compiled are really heavy.

These could be added to your list too:

Kerfuffle (Just read on Times editorial page a week back)
Raison D'etre (its French but used a lot in newspapers, especially on editorial page)
Sobo (in Mumbai, this word is used a lot in lifestyle supplements, I don't know why they have to short-form South Bombay to make it sound like Soho in NY or London. I could not understand what it was till yesterday)

These words made me run for the dictionary. Will ask others to contribute too and send you the list.

Book Worm's response

I was pleasantly surprised to read response to my appeal:
The very first response was:
The idea sounds good. I will start looking for a right book to help you in your `venture` and will bet back to you on this. Pl. give me some time. Best wishes,

This was from Upendra Dixit.
You guessed it right. He is a book worm and a book seller! His International Book Service is a landmark, close to Lakadi bridge, Deccan Gymkhana of Pune.

Appeal about difficult words

I have been mailing to my friends, seniors and juniors, over the last few days about 'heavy' and 'difficult' words. The message was as follows:

I need your help for a study I am planning to begin.
I am compiling a list of 'heavy' and 'difficult' words which appear in news columns of English newspapers. These words should appear (to you) as difficult for readers who are most likely to be Indian graduates. The readers may need dictionary to understand the meaning.

To give you some examples, I have picked up the following words from newspapers during the last couple of days:

Inferno, Man Friday, Dark Horse, hustings, Trojan Horse, Keep fingers crossed, Juggernaut, hunk, followed suit,incarcerate, conflagration

(The informal method I followed was to ask someone standing close by to tell me the meaning of the word. Many of these words were not known to them.)

How do our newsmen write?

I am a newsman, though not as active as I used to be some time ago. I taught media students, and my younger colleagues, how to write for newspapers and for news agencies. It was not my original 'teaching.' I merely passed on what I had learnt from my gurus, BRP Bhaskar and K P K Kutty in UNI. Earlier my teacher P D alias Balasaheb Abhyankar shaped me when I was his student in the journalism class of University of Pune in 1969-70. I tried to to pick some knowledge and skill from books, and from the writings of veteran scribes.
The effort always was to write simple, brief, direct and easy to understand language for an ordinary Indian. Did I succeed? Most of the times, yes, but not always. I am still learning-- I turned 63 on March 13, 2010- and I am keen to share what I learn.
I would insist on my students and junior colleagues that news should be written in such a manner that the reader should not be required to refer to a dictionary. I often come across words which are difficult for lay readers of Indian newspapers. One recent example was 'Juggernaut.'
It was used in a photo caption IPL Juggernaut Gets Rolling Today
A media student asked me the meaning of this word. I was surprised that she should ask because she has convent background from Hyderabad and is a good reader and writer. I asked her to check from, which said it was an overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path. The origin of the word is from the festival of chariot of Jagannath in Puri of Orissa. (
Is it proper to use the word in the IPL context? It is a different matter. Here, my point is: it is not advisable to presume that your readers know the words. Use if you must, but explain its meaning directly or indirectly in the text of your story.
I decided to set up a blog to discuss Newsman's English because of the Juggernaut!