VR Narayanaswami

VR Narayanaswami

Ask Mint | The genius of the English language is the genius of its users

Ask Mint | The genius of the English language is the genius of its users

VR Narayanaswami

In 1978, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary Englishmade the simple comment, “Alright is very common now, but some people think all right is better English." Whatever be your view on this usage, it is safer to stick to “all right"; otherwise some readers might conclude that you have committed an error or that you are not alert.

This headline reminds us of a similar dispute in mid-20th century. It was all about a cigarette advertisement, which carried the slogan, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should". This jingle, ranked eighth best television jingle of the century, took the Winston brand to the top spot in sales. At the same time, the advertisement led to a long debate. The grammar was considered wrong. “Like" and “as" are not interchangeable. The right usage should have been: “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should.The New Yorker called it an obnoxious and ubiquitous couplet, and added that Winston Churchill would have been dreadfully pained by it.

Fowler placed this use of “like" at the top of his list of “illiteracies". Noah Webster concurred, calling it improper and vulgar. But the promoters of the advertisement retorted, “What do you want, good grammar or good taste?" Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961) countered the fury of the grammarians by including this jingle as an example in the informal use of “like". Today, the use of like as a conjunction is very common. This example is from the Encarta dictionary: To ski like she does requires great athletic ability (informal).

“Like" has another common use today. It acts as a filler without adding any meaning. It is a kind of tic, a mannerism, especially in informal interviews. Here are some examples: She has, like, six brothers and sisters. It was, like, 10 in the morning and people were, like, waiting at the bus stop.

Churchill’s name is associated with another well-known example of disputed usage: the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence. According to this rule, it is wrong to say, “What are you looking for?" Or, “...that is the speaker I was listening to." When someone pointed out that Churchill had violated this rule, he said, “This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put." There are several versions of this story, but the point is well taken. Observing the rule can give us an ugly sentence!

Who is to judge whether the English that you use is right or wrong? There is no official body in England that can dictate on this issue. France, on the other hand, has its Academie Francaise, an official body that can decide on and prescribe correct usage. Many English words that Frenchmen use every day have been banned by official decree. They include “le cocktail", “le drive-in", “le fast food" and “le shopping". Recently, the culture ministry banned the use of “email" in official communication; the alternative suggested was “courriel", a form derived from “courrier electronique". English is more democratic: the genius of the language is the genius of the people who use it. When there is disagreement, the people almost always prevail.

The use of “who" is an example. It is quite normal for us to hear people say, “Who are you waiting for?" The grammarian says “who" in this sentence is the object of the preposition “for", and so the correct usage will be: “Whom are you waiting for?" “Whom do you want to meet?" But the general trend today is to avoid “whom" at the beginning of a sentence. There are many people who have virtually dropped “whom" from their vocabulary. You can hear them saying, “Who did you vote for?" “Who do you consider responsible?" You may even hear, “I gave it away", ... “To who?"

The last pair that we can consider is “less" and “fewer". “Less" is used for things you measure, and “fewer" for things you count; the antonym of both is “more", and that confuses speakers. To say “Our team scored less runs in the first innings" is considered wrong. It should be “fewer runs". “Fewer" is the appropriate word in “There were less accidents in April." Questions still remain. If you can pair “much more" and “much less", why can’t you pair “many more" and “many fewer"? Should “none of them" be followed by “is" or “are"? Can the use of “different to" in the UK and “different than" in the US be accepted?

In words made famous by Al Gore and George Bush in the 2000 presidential campaign, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!"

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.

Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com