As any year comes to a close, journalists usually write year-enders on significant political, economic, social, cultural, health, environmental and such issues. I thought about one such year-ender on matters Nagaland for my last Assam Tribune 2023 Column but I decided against it for several reasons. The main reason is the comma, yes the comma (,). This comma has been niggling inside me for a very long time and I thought the end of the year is the best time to get it out of my system and start the New Year afresh. Obviously these are very confounding times for old-timers ~ now referred to as senior citizens ~ who still have the habit of reading and writing. Therefore, a misplaced comma is very disturbing because it could change the meaning of a sentence entirely hence the message. Yes, these are also days when no words are minced but all words are also equally minced making messages very ambiguous ~ and not so very cleverly concealing hidden and crouching insults, if that is the purpose.
If today democracy, freedom, liberty, equality and fraternity are coloured differently from what we understood in the old days, punctuation too appear to be re-painted and re-placed. Why the comma before ‘and’? For instance: “tea, milk, and sugar”. In our times, we were taught “tea, milk and sugar”. That’s one instance of a misplaced comma ~ but perhaps there is a new English language that has passed me by. Then again, there is the Queen’s English ~ or is it the King’s English now? ~ American English, Indian English and so many Englishes. We have our own Naga English and Englishes of each of our 18 tribes so maybe I should just ignore the misplaced comma and get on with life. But I can’t ~ not when editing reports, articles and the like every day for an English Daily newspaper ~ because the language reflects on the newspaper and the Editor.
Very long time ago, I was told that before Independence, upper and middle class young people, who aspired for jobs in the then British Government, were advised to read The Statesman if they wished to speak and write correct English. Indubitable, things have changed. Today, one wonders which paper we should advise young people to read to improve their English for whatever jobs they aspire for. As for joining the Government service, apparently mastery over the official language is not a consideration. The media too play an important role in making or breaking a language. I can’t speak for other languages but as far as English is concerned, besides the print media, the electronic media too need to ‘edit’ their language. Oh, how things have changed.
Decades ago, press releases and statements issued by our retired Government servants were a joy to read because of their perfect language, spelling and punctuation ~ albeit old-fashioned. What a difference reading such matter by students unions at that time and even now. Interestingly, we also get press releases and statement, even articles, by people/associations with excellent English however it is difficult to understand exactly what they are trying to say. Sometimes, the medium eclipses the message. Or it may be a case of some of us Editors having a limited level of mastery over the language. Also, understandably, straight shooting in a clear and concise language is a hard act to follow. Then again, there are people particularly politicians and public leaders, who delight in concealing behind ambiguity. They say one thing, write another, mean something else and finally ask us to apologise for making their error ~ enough to drive any Editor up the wall. Thankfully, some of us Editors are not in the popularity contest or chicken-livered.
In 2018, we had a small literary get-together of the Assam and Nagaland Chapters of the Northeast Writers’ Forum at Dimapur. Mitra Phukan and Late Srutimal Deori travelled together by the Satabdi from Guwahati to Dimapur and on reaching my home, it was the comma that was the main topic of discussion. Apparently, on boarding the train, Late Srutimala was inspired to write a poem after which she showed it to Mitra Baideu and asked the latter about a comma. They told me that throughout the journey, about six hours, they discoursed on the appropriateness of the comma, and the meaning thereof, in a particular sentence. That is the dedication of poets, that is the commitment of writers to writing correct and clear language and that is the indication of mastery over language. It is not only the comma but other punctuation marks too that can completely change the meaning of a sentence and the message of the writing. Besides the incorrectly used punctuation marks, the other grouse one has is the incorrectly used apostrophe ‘s’ in singular and plural words. Why “five MLA’s went to Titabor’? It’s “five MLAs went to Titabor”. Then, there is ‘from’ in place of ‘of”? For instance: “Grandma died from Zion Hospital” ~ it’s “Grandma died at Zion Hospital”.
Misplaced punctuation not only reflects on the mastery over the language, or the lack, but also reflects on English language teachers. A friend, who is the Head of English Department in a renown deemed university here, would often lament that she has to teach grammar, spelling and punctuation to her English Honours and Masters students. And I would console her: “At least you are a teacher. I am not even a teacher but I have to correct grammar, spelling and punctuation every day.” Not much of a consolation here I concede but we are stuck with people whose English teachers seem to be drawing salary undeservedly. A degree is all very fine but it really doesn’t say anything about proficiency, not to mention mastery, over a language. But our Governments, while employing English and other language teachers, doesn’t seem to be bothered about that ~ not to mention grammar, spelling and punctuation ~ perhaps, because our Governments lack proficiency, not to mention mastery, over these ‘small’ matters so evident in governance itself? I wish our Governments would realize that a comma can make all the difference in the world ~ as much as efficient governance would make all the difference in our lives.
One will avoid speaking of pronouncements because it’s a regional thing and one doesn’t want to be accused of racism. The point is: if we hear and/or read our own language being massacred, we cringe so it’s the same with any language that we speak and write in. Politicians and sundry cultural leaders insist on mother-tongue in schools and urge youngsters to learn and speak in their mother-tongue besides Hindi but what are they doing to ensure that these languages are taught correctly? Nagaland politicians, sundry public and cultural leaders and bureaucrats urge youngsters to practice and promote our cultures, traditions and languages in events in which they are chief guests but that’s all ~ but our youngsters ‘practice’ their smartphones and ‘promote’ social media. Meanwhile, the comma is sentenced to wrong places ~ much like the imperfect and anachronistic old-timer that I am.
(The Columnist, a journalist and poet, is Founding Editor, Nagaland Page. Published in the December 25, 2023 issue of Assam Tribune)