Grandma\’s Tales

September 28, 2006

Grammar 1 – Don’t tell me!

Filed under: Language — Rajesh @ 12:29 am

Basab Pradhan, in his blog on Business English wonders why people answer a phone call with this new expression “Tell me”. He wrote:

“Tell me is a literal translation of Bolo in Hindi or something equivalent in other Indian languages. This is a uniquely Indian phrase. Good English would require Tell me to have an object at the end of it. Like Tell me why or Tell me something.”
Here is my take on this.
Grammatically, “Tell me” is on a sound base.

Verbs take on an object in a particular context so that their intended meaning becomes clear. Ex: I bought. The obvious question here is, “bought what”? The sentence is incomplete. To complete it, the writer adds an object, say, “a book”.
So it is the verb, the basic verb (give, buy, sing, see) that takes on an object.
How do you know whether the verb has an object or not? Pick the verb and ask: what or whom. “What” is for inanimate objects and “whom” is for animate objects.
Ex: I bought the baby a doll.
“a doll” answers “what” and is known as direct object.
“the baby” answers “whom” and is known as indirect object.

“Tell” is the verb and “me” (whom?) is the object.

“Tell me” here is short for, “Tell me what you want”. So “what you want” is the second object Basab is looking for.
“Tell me” is informal and is used in speech. Look at this example.
A: Sir, please tell me what went wrong.
B: No, YOU tell me! (that’s correct, isn’t it?)
The phrase “Tell me” is the flavour of the season. Earlier it used to be “work out” in various combinations. “Let’s work it out”, “It’s not working out”, “It won’t work out”, “Let’s work out something”.

Another example is “Enjoy!” This again is used in speech. In writing it has to be “enjoy yourself”, “he enjoyed himself”, “enjoy this”, etc.
Someone imports a phrase and begins using it and it catches like wildfire.
Yes, the phrase “tell me” is unique. In our frenetic pace of work, we have learned to come to the point. We no longer start the conversation with the polite, leisurely, “How are you?” (I hear the Japanese and the Chinese do this too.) This amounts to a cultural shift. Also, if you are working on a project and are consulting someone constantly on your mobile, saying “How are you” every time sounds silly.
The complete sentence here is, “Tell me what you want”. The last three words sound rude to us. We still can’t bring ourselves to utter them. So as politely as the pitch of our voice will allow us, we say, “Tell me”.

Now try this: “What do you want? TELL ME!”

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