Ask Mint | Clearing the air on usage

Ask Mint | Clearing the air on usage
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First Published: Mon, Aug 18 2008. 12 31 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Aug 18 2008. 08 44 AM IST
Years ago, I had to ask one of my students to leave the room as he kept disturbing the class. Later, he came to me with a letter from a respected senior colleague of mine. It said the boy has promised to behave well in future and “therefore I recommend him for your apology”. My apology? Why should I apologize?
On 4 August, I read a news report that reminded me of that little incident. The report was related to the Hogenakkal issue. It said, “Rajnikanth has cleared that he did not seek apology from anyone in Karnataka.” Here again, apology was wrongly used.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines apology as a “statement of regret for doing something wrong, being impolite or hurting somebody’s feelings”. What Rajni meant was that he did not offer an apology and did not seek pardon. Apology and pardon are two sides of a coin.
The people who “sought an apology” were those among the public who felt offended by his words.
There are two other interesting uses of the word. An apology in its literary meaning is a defence or justification of some belief or practice. R.L. Stevenson wrote an essay titled An Apology for Idlers. Bertrand Russell followed with In praise of Idleness. Both were essays in defence of a life of indolence and ease. Russell wrote, “...I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous.”
The third meaning of apology is often found in casual conversation. “What we got was an apology for a breakfast.” It means a poor specimen of something.
Still with the same word, 2008 saw two historic instances of apology being offered in a grand ceremonial setting. The Australian parliament apologized to the aboriginal people of the continent for the injustice done to them. These are the moving words of the resolution read by the Prime Minister: “To the stolen generations, I say the following: As Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry. I offer you this apology without qualification.”
The second instance comes from Canada. The government of Canada built an educational system for the native population which had a devastating effect on the lives of the children and their families. Children were forcibly removed from their homes. Here are the words of the resolution read in parliament: “...the government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this... The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry.”
The English vocabulary has scores of word pairs that can cause confusion. Here are a few more common examples. (Did you see two meanings in the sentence that I just wrote?)
Militate and mitigate: In reports on US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s meetings, we come across expressions like “coming to terms with institutions that mitigate against people’s sense of alienation”, and “doing something to mitigate against the propaganda that’s out there against us”. Mitigate against makes no sense; mitigate means make mild or lessen or soften. “The finance ministry adopted bold measures to mitigate the effects of inflation.” Militate is often followed by against. It means “to have an influence, especially a negative one, on something”: “His short temper and frequent scuffles with teammates militate against his being included in the team.”
Less and fewer: “He made less runs in the second innings.” Runs are countable things and fewer is to be used here. If you are thinking of a quantity or amount and not a number, you have to use less. “There was less traffic on the bridge.” “There is less pollution in this coastal town.” The rule is sometimes relaxed. You can say “in less than two hours” rather than fewer than. “The season lasted less than five weeks” (not fewer than, since we are not counting the weeks, but referring to a period of time).
Every handbook for writers includes imply and infer in its list of confusing words. To imply means to suggest something without actually making an explicit statement. “He implied that there was something shady in the company’s transactions.” To infer means to draw a conclusion by reasoning from evidence. “From the tone of his voice, they could infer that he was angry.”
To end with an example from Beijing: enormous and enormity. A reporter from Beijing interviewing Abhinav Bindra referred to the enormity of his achievement. Enormity is not a happy choice here; it has a negative meaning today. You can speak of the enormity of a crime or the enormity of human rights violations during the conflict. Careful writers should avoid using enormity to denote the idea of hugeness. They can use the regular form enormousness or synonyms such as magnitude, immensity and awesomeness.
To read all of VR Narayanaswami’s earlier columns, go to
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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First Published: Mon, Aug 18 2008. 12 31 AM IST