Of more English in our media

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 12 July 2022, 09:50 PM
Updated : 12 July 2022, 09:50 PM

A few days ago, a sentence in a report in an English language newspaper drew my attention as it must have of many others who consider themselves sticklers for good grammatical English. It was about a claim made by an organisation relating to a certain issue. And then someone, obviously not agreeing with the claim, was reported as having 'denied the claim.' The reporter obviously did not use the proper term here. Neither did the man at the news desk do what needed to be done. The proper expression should have been 'refuted the claim.' You deny reports, not claims.

There ought to be regular review sessions at our English language newspapers, a particular objective behind such sessions being a thorough study and analysis of the language used in their reports. Editors will be doing a great job through soliciting the expertise of English language experts, preferably from the universities and colleges and also from among superannuated journalists, in imparting proper journalistic English to those manning their reporting and editorial departments.

Consider this: many of us use the term 'take a loan' from a bank or financial institution. The correct term will be 'take out a loan'. And then there has always been the problem with the word 'flourish'. There have been headlines over the years demonstrating an improper use of the word. Observe this sentence: 'Minister's call to flourish talent.' You cannot flourish talent, for 'flourish' is an intransitive verb and therefore cannot take a direct object. The proper structure of that headline should have been 'Minister's call to let talent flourish.'

We realise that English is a foreign language and not every aspect of it may be within our grasp. But where it is a language employed in the media, there must be no room for any lapses in its application. Consider how easily and unthinkingly we commit errors day after day. An official of the Directorate General of Health Services is quoted thus: "He said they will take measures to handle the situation." Who are 'they' here? The DGHS is a single department, which means that the pronoun 'it' and not 'they' ought to have been in the report. It is an error which is repeated on a fairly regular basis.

A rather inscrutable term in English is to be detected in a sentence such as 'the officer-in-charge of the thana has been closed following the incident.' Closed? How does one close a person? Was the policeman suspended or made an OSD? Huge room for confusion is conveyed by the word, an issue the government must take measures to clarify. If you close an officer, you might at some time 'reopen' him. How would that sound? 

Move on to the use of the term 'people'. When we speak of people, we speak in general terms of men, women and children around us or in society. When it is 'the people' we use in our sentences, we refer to the nation, to those who constitute the state. You might tell your office superior you need to take off early because 'people are waiting for me at home.' Change 'people' to 'the people' and you will in effect be informing that gentleman you have approached with your request that the nation is waiting for you at home!

All too often, when someone of prominence dies in Bangladesh and elsewhere, newspapers are wont to inform readers that 'special prayers were held for the deceased'. Prayers are not held; they are offered. I do not hold prayers at my parents' graves; I offer prayers for the salvation of their souls. And here is another instance of English going awry: 'Visiting the market, it was found that soybean was sold at high prices.' Who is visiting the market? The sentence ought to begin thus: 'On a visit to the market, this correspondent found that soybean was being sold at a high price.' 

While you are on the subject, consider this formulation: 'While addressing as chief guest at a meeting . . .' Such English flies in the face of grammatical rules. Who was the individual in this case addressing? The subject has not been followed by the object. The problem with the falling standard of English, and not just in the media, is that it sometimes leaves proper grammarians wondering if the English they were brought up in is not getting haywire before all this onslaught of wrong English. 

You always look forward to meeting your friends, but there are people who remain ignorant of such a proper formulation. They tend to 'look forward to meet' their friends. That's an unpardonable sin, as terrible as the report which quotes a minister as saying that the next general election will be held 'timely'. Why did the reporter or the news desk not remember that the appropriate language here should have been 'on time'?

These days some media outlets, in referring to senior civil servants, would have readers know that A is 'secretary to the ministry of …' In a number of offices, public as well as private, there are of course 'secretaries to the managing director or chairman.' Those secretaries do not fall in the category of secretaries at the top rungs of the administration. Therefore, A is not 'secretary to' but 'secretary of the ministry of …' The President of the Republic is not the 'head of the state' but 'head of state.' Likewise, the Prime Minister is the 'head of government.' Note the winnowing out of 'the' here.

On a western television channel the other day, its news anchor had the channel's 'criminal reporter' brought in to speak of some crime committed somewhere. How can the reporter be criminal? One is surprised the man was not referred to as a 'crime reporter'.

In our media, especially in the English-based ones, there are the loaded wordswhich require to be scaled back, indeed avoided as far as possible. All too often, we refer to important personalities, living or dead, as legends. Now the word 'legend' carries considerable weight and not everyone can be a legend. People can be prominent or well-known, but 'legend' should be employed sparingly. 

'Kingbodonti' is the term employed in Bengalis for any number of poets, novelists, journalists and politicians. And thus does the term, in both Bengali and English, lose significance. We need to be careful in paying tributes to a living individual as a famous person. B is not a famous auteur but an acclaimed one; C is not a famous poet but a reputed one. Exaggeration in a demonstration of devotion to individuals is often tantamount to unbridled flattery.

And the obituaries we write for the newspapers? They are essentially news reports of death, far removed from what obituaries ought to be. Obituaries, by the way, are not sets of fulsome praise for those who have passed on but dispassionate examinations of their lives and careers, warts and all. Where an obituary gives us the wheat but leaves out the chaff, it does not remain an obituary any longer. An obituary does not praise or denigrate the dead but recalls him or her in all the dimensions of his or her life and career.

Finally, why must we ignore 'the' at times when it becomes an absolute necessity? Many of us cheerfully inform readers that 'Awami League led the struggle for independence.' The word 'the' should be appended to 'AwamiLeague', indeed to every political party. If we can go for 'the Democrats' and 'the Republicans' in the United States and for 'the Congress' and 'the BJP' in India, why must we be miserly in giving 'the' to our homegrown political organisations?

And here's something else. A statement like 'the students could not reach the examination hall for the traffic jam' is confusing. Was the traffic jam in the examination hall and the students were trying to meet it? That would give the interpretation of the sentence a definite absurdity. The proper sentence? 'The students could not reach the examination hall owing to/because of the traffic jam.'

Faux pas in the media often leads to roaring laughter. Some reports have appeared with the clear statement that 'the demonstrators lied down in the middle of the road to protest the government's measures.' Where did the word 'lay' go? Which reminds us of the old incident where a news reporter would have us know that 'in protest the opposition stood on its legs' in parliament. Why was the opposition not on its feet?

We rest our case.  

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher