Grandma's Tales

October 31, 2006

Grammar 11 – You can’t be rested and assured

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 9:15 pm

And when the tender is floated by India’s largest public sector telecom firm, and is worth billions of dollars, you can be rest assured that the discordant decibel levels will be much louder and shriller. – Outlook, October 23

The discordant note in this well-crafted sentence unfortunately is the phrase “can be rest assured”. I’ve heard people say that, but this is the first time I’ve seen it in print. And I’m wondering how it got past the editor. It just goes to confirm my suspicion that we use words and phrases without really internalising the meaning. Is it possible the writer/editor is just repeating a cliché?

What the writer wants to say is fairly clear. A telecom contract has been awarded by the government. The contract is worth billions of dollars. The group that grabbed the contract will be partying hard while the ones who lost aren’t going to sit back and watch. The writer wants to tell us that the stakes are high and the complaints will be louder than usual. Fine.

The writer could have simply said, “…you can be sure that the discordant decibel levels…etc. Instead he/she goes for a cliché and slips. The phrase he wants is quite simple. He wants to tell the reader to rest (as in “take rest”) feeling assured that the decibel levels of the carping of those left out would be high.

What he should be saying is “you can rest, assured that the discordant decibel level …etc.” It is the same as “you can walk, assured that there are no street dogs” or “you can sleep assured that there are no burglars here“. You can rest assured the decibel levels will be high. It is an expression that means “it is bound to happen”.
The problem is we don’t use a comma to separate the “rest” and “assured”. That is because the word “rest” does the work of the helping verb “be”. Write it this way: Be assured that the decibel levels will be high. Perfect, isn’t it?

The word “rest” in the sentence is a verb. If you choose the “can be” form (passive voice), you need to write “can be rested” just as you would write “can be done”, “can be figured out”, “can be formatted” … But that won’t work here. You can’t say “can be rested assured”, can you? Sorry, “can be rest assured” does not exist. It is “you can rest assured”, no question about that.

Aside: Is there a gene that specialises in attacking mistakes in print? You can rest assured there is. And I have it.


October 28, 2006

Grammar 10 – If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a 100 times!

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 10:38 pm

What is a cliché, asked a young friend.

Look at it this way. If the Indian cricket team said, “We give 100% every time. We take one game at a time. We just go out and play our natural game. We are just happy to be here. We have our backs against the wall. It ain’t over till it’s over…,” you are likely to close your ears and scream, “Stop it! We’ve heard all that before!”

That’s it. A cliché is an idea, phrase or an expression that is overused. It is commonplace, familiar and makes you want to ‘clench your fists and grind your teeth; buy the guy a one-way ticket to hell; tell him to go fly a kite…’ ok, ok, stop shrieking!

A cliché is not just something that lots of people say; it’s something that lots of people say and it conveys some sort of idea or message.

How do we know a phrase ia a cliché? Take this test. If I said, “It’s a one-man ____,” would you be able to complete it? Easily. You’d shout “show” without raising your hand. This expression has a definite meaning, but you’ve heard it a million times. If I said, “This essay should be sent to the forensic lab”, you would never have guessed it. I didn’t till I wrote it just now.

Is it wrong to use clichés? No. Only boring. Some clichés are such good expressions that they are going to be around for a long time. Like this one: Any friend of yours is a friend of mine.

However, one guy said, “A cliché is an analogy (example) characterized by its overuse. It may be true (‘fat as a pig’), no longer true (‘work like a dog’) or difficult to understand (‘right as rain’), but it has been overused to the point that its sole function is to mark its user as a lazy thinker.”

Why not think of new ways to express your thoughts? Find new, modern, culturally apt examples to make your meaning clear. You’ve heard “It sells like hot cakes”. Hot cakes? Do you eat your cakes hot? Why don’t you say, “It sells like kaju barfi on Diwali eve”? Take an old expression and give it a twist, a new ending. Instead of “Laughter is the best medicine, try “Laughter may the best medicine but it is bitter when the joke is on you”. The idea is not to repeat what everyone says.

Here is a list of clichés about clichés:
Clichés: each of them makes something easier, but all of them together make things very complicated
No one owns clichés
Clichés are never new
Clichés sound better in a foreign language
A cliché just describes the feeling or the pretended feeling, it does not change it
There is truth in every cliché
Avoid cliches like the plague

Here is an exercise. Pick at least 10 familiar expressions from the passage. Many are proverbs, but they are clichés too!

Our English Teacher is called Robin

Our English teacher is called is Robin. After all, what’s in a name? He had learned that man cannot live by bread alone. He had married a woman who knew that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. He was fat.

Robin decided it was never too late to learn. He became an English teacher. He remembered his father’s comment: those who can, do; those who cannot, teach. Oh, he thought, there’s no fool like an old fool. He ignored his father, and took up ELT. He had heard that travel broadens the mind. He also found that it emptied the pocket. Never mind, he thought, the love of money is the root of all evil. After all, the best things in life are free! His inner voice said, name one! Robin responded with alacrity- health is better than wealth. Remember, you can’t take it with you when you die. The inner voice continued to torment him.- you haven’t any ‘it’ to take! All that glitters is not gold, Robin retorted. But you haven’t anything that glitters either, continued the voice. Robin didn’t rise to the bait this time.

Robin settled into a semi-comfortable rut. He tried his best- if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. He was a stickler for punctuality: Robin was the early bird that catches the worm. His approach was not shared by the class, in spite of his telling them that early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. Their attitude was: better late than never. Robin’s encouragement of ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ always fell on deaf ears. There are none so deaf as those who will not hear, he thought.

Robin detested noise. Speech classes were anathema to him. ‘Silence is Golden’ he would shout, followed by ‘do as I say, not as I do’. He then explained: a still tongue makes a wise head, while empty vessels make the most sound. ‘Remember’ he said, thinking of grammatical accuracy, ‘least said, soonest mended’. By way of encouragement, he added, ‘ask a silly question, you’ll get a silly answer’.

With group work, Robin was out of depth. He didn’t understand the methodology, though he admitted that there was more than one way to skin a cat. Still, he gave it a try. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. He agreed that practice makes perfect. But practice in what? His students seemed to have adopted the motto ‘ignorance is bliss’. He lectured them to make hay while the sun shines, and strike while the iron is hot. As soon as he left the room, they put this into practice. It was a matter of when the cat is away, the mice will play.

Robin returned to uproar. This increased when he explained that he had forgotten to mark his homework. It never rains but pours, he thought. ‘I know’ he said, ‘take your essays and mark each other’s’. In the ensuing silence he started to congratulate himself. But his inner voice cautioned- don’t count your chickens before they are hatched. But think of the advantage, countered Robin, many hands make light work. Ah, but too many cooks spoil the broth, replied the voice.

The students finished their task, and called out the marks they had given each other. They were all the same! Seeing is believing, Robin muttered. But, after a while, he gave up. It was a matter of once bitten twice shy. He knew: if you want a thing done well, do it yourself. Robin’s students, on the other hand, were complimenting each other- great minds think alike!

Dismissing them, Robin admonished himself- look before you leap next time. Then looking at his watch, he noticed how time flies. He rushed along to the staff room, where birds of a feather flock together. He had difficulty in agreeing with his colleagues that the pen is mightier than the sword. The attitude of spare the rod and spoil the child was beginning to gain favour with him. But his inner voice had the final word. Robin, it advised, know thyself.

What do you think the title of this blog is?

October 27, 2006

Women’s bodies, eh?

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 10:03 pm

A dear friend writes in to say that my blog on splitting “everybody” reminded her of something she wrote 20 years ago. In her hand-written letter (some people still use a pen outside school!), she says, “Your lesson on the uses of the word “body” tempted me to dig up an old headline in TOI which I had made fun of.” She says TOI was gracious enough to publish her letter to them.

The TOI story was about a seminar on “Voluntary women’s organisations and contemporary challenges.” Addressing the seminar, the then MoS for women and child  development “called upon all women’s voluntary organisations to re-orient their functioning to play a more effective role in instilling self-reliance among women”. TOI had headlined it  “Women’s bodies told to change functioning“.

My friend just couldn’t resist a dig at this. She wrote to them: “One does not know what exactly the MoS had in mind. However, one hopes  the committee which designs new bodies for women does not contain any men. One also hopes modern sculptors are excluded…for these artists have a predeliction for a huge hole in the stomach. Are they for a drastic reduction in the intake of food? Or to propogate family planning?

It is not a bad idea to prescribe fire-proof exteriors for young brides and electrified bottoms for air-hostesses. Also, protoplasmic bodies for commuters to squeeze in and out of city buses.

Perhaps the scientists and technocrats on this designing committee would favour appropriate technologies for rural women with a permanent pot on the head and marsupial pouch on the hip.

The urban housewife will be designed with a half-a-dozen arms and a propeller and a computer to handle husband, children, MIL, boss, doorbells and telephones, all simultaneously.

Soon, we are likely to evolve standard sub-systems, designed as modules, so that a large number of combinations can be assembled rapidly, according to our women-power requirements.

While we are at all this, why not have a go at ordering men’s bodies to change functioning too? For instance, they could bear one of the two children permitted per family. Who knows, we Indians might end up designing the ultimate Ardhanari,  combining the Male Chauvinist Pig and the Female Chauvinist Sow.”

Have things changed much today?

October 26, 2006

For your reading pleasure!

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 7:07 pm

This comes as an interlude to the grammar lessons. Even if you have read this before, it’s worth another read. In 1999, Bob Hirschfield wrote an article in the Washington Post about a computer virus. He said it was spreading through the Internet. This is what he said in that news story:

By Bob Hirschfeld, Sunday, May 2, 1999

A new computer virus is spreading throughout the Internet, and it is far more insidious than the recent Chernobyl menace. Named Strunkenwhite after the authors of a classic guide to good writing, it returns e-mail messages that have grammatical or spelling errors. It is deadly accurate in its detection abilities, unlike the dubious spell checkers that come with word processing programs.

The virus is causing something akin to panic throughout corporate America, which has become used to the typos, misspellings, missing words and mangled syntax so acceptable in cyberspace. The CEO of, an Internet startup, said the virus has rendered him helpless. “Each time I tried to send one particular e-mail this morning, I got back this error message: ‘Your dependent clause preceding your independent clause must be set off by commas, but one must not precede the conjunction.’ I threw my laptop across the room.”

A top executive at a telecommunications and long-distance company, 10-10-10-10-10-10-123, said: “This morning, the same damned e-mail kept coming back to me with a pesky notation claiming I needed to use a pronoun’s possessive case before a gerund. With the number of e-mails I crank out each day, who has time for proper grammar? Whoever created this virus should have their programming fingers broken.”

A broker at Begg, Barow and Steel said he couldn’t return to the “bad, old” days when he had to send paper memos in proper English. He speculated that the hacker who created Strunkenwhite was a “disgruntled English major who couldn’t make it on a trading floor. When you’re buying and selling on margin, I don’t think it’s anybody’s business if I write that ‘i meetinged through the morning, then cinched the deal on the cel phone while bareling down the xway.’ “

If Strunkenwhite makes e-mailing impossible, it could mean the end to a communication revolution once hailed as a significant timesaver. A study of 1,254 office workers in Leonia, N.J., found that e-mail increased employees’ productivity by 1.8 hours a day because they took less time to formulate their thoughts. (The same study also found that they lost 2.2 hours of productivity because they were e-mailing so many jokes to their spouses, parents and stockbrokers.)

Strunkenwhite is particularly difficult to detect because it doesn’t come as an e-mail attachment (which requires the recipient to open it before it becomes active). Instead, it is disguised within the text of an e-mail entitled “Congratulations on your pay raise.” The message asks the recipient to “click here to find out about how your raise effects your pension.” The use of “effects” rather than the grammatically correct “affects” appears to be an inside joke from Strunkenwhite’s mischievous creator.

The virus also has left government e-mail systems in disarray. Officials at the Office of Management and Budget can no longer transmit electronic versions of federal regulations because their highly technical language seems to run afoul of trunkenwhite’s dictum that “vigorous writing is concise.” The White House speechwriting office reported that it had received the same message, along with a caution to avoid phrases such as “the truth is. . .” and “in fact. . . .”

Home computer users also are reporting snafus, although an e-mailer who used the word “snafu” said she had come to regret it.

The virus can have an even more devastating impact if it infects an entire network. A cable news operation was forced to shut down its computer system for several hours when it discovered that Strunkenwhite had somehow infiltrated its TelePrompTer software, delaying newscasts and leaving news anchors nearly tongue-tied as they wrestled with proper sentence structure.

There is concern among law enforcement officials that Strunkenwhite is a harbinger of the increasingly sophisticated methods hackers are using to exploit the vulnerability of business’s reliance on computers. “This is one of the most complex and invasive examples of computer code we have ever encountered. We just can’t imagine what kind of devious mind would want to tamper with e-mails to create this burden on communications,” said an FBI agent who insisted on speaking via the telephone out of concern that trying to e-mail his comments could leave him tied up for hours.

Meanwhile, bookstores and online booksellers reported a surge in orders for Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.”

What do you make of this?

October 24, 2006

Cut out to be the boss

Filed under: Society — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 8:57 pm

When the girl at the hairdresser’s asked, “Would you mind if a guy cut your hair?” I had to think. This would be a first, but why not? “Why are you calling a “guy”?” I asked the girls. “He is the best,” they said. For making a customer feel important, there isn’t a better spiel than that. I smiled, and agreed. I was curious.

Murugan walked in. A short, dark, clean-looking young man, who couldn’t be more than 25. He seemed to hesitate a bit, but busied himself with preparations. He asked questions and gave suggestions, all in Tamil peppered with English words. After a minute or two, I thought, “What is he waiting for?” before I realised he was actually cutting my hair. I heard the faint hiss of the scissors but felt nothing at all. This guy is cerainly an expert!

It was time for the interview. With him. “Are you from Chennai?” He said he was from Puducherry. Why did he choose this job? “My father,” he said. “He owned a barber’s shop in Puducherry. I would spend time before and after school at the shop. I learned by watching.” Did he complete his education? No. “I dropped out after class IX. I wasn’t good at studies.” So why didn’t he take over dad’s shop? “It wasn’t doing well. He had to close it down.”

His brother got a job as a mechanic in Chennai. Murugan followed him. He began by working at small, wayside barber’s outfits as a helper, then came to know Green Trends was scouting for boys like him. He applied, got trained and here he was. “I have more than 15 years’ experience,” he said evenly.

During these years he married, sired two kids and lives in a portion of his brother’s house in central Chennai. “Two kids!” I gasped. “I’m twenty-nine,” he said, a tinge of annoyance in his voice.

Then I had to ask. “Aren’t you sorry you didn’t complete your education?” He sighed. “Yes, yes. You know why?” I could guess. “I have put my kids in an English medium school. And I can’t help them with their home-work.” The wife, she can’t help? “Which educated girl would marry me? My wife is a school drop out too.” So they go for tuitions? “NO, no, no. I can’t afford it. But you know, my wife’s sister is a B.Com. She comes in the evenings to help the kids with their work.”

Is the pay good? “Yes,” he said. “I have a two-wheeler. Ok, bought on EMIs. But I’m saving hard. Will soon open a parlour of my own. I have learned the ropes here.”

Murugan’s tale is typical of Tamil Nadu. No matter what your trade is, there are ops for training and jobs. Get a toehold, work hard, climb up, save and start something of your own. Upward mobility with which the government has nothing to do. But make sure the kids go to an “English medium” school. There can be no compromise on that. The future lies in English.

The haircut looked great. Murugan signalled to one of the girls, who brought a card. On it were dotted lines for “preferred hair-dresser”. “I’ll write “Murugan” here and please bring it with you the next time,” he said.

“Will you get a bonus?” I asked.

“It’s good for business,” is all he would say.

October 23, 2006

Oh, to be young!

Filed under: Society — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 11:52 pm

Thanks, Basab, for those kind words. Sons-in-law usually introduce their MIL with, “You know, hum, this is my mother-in, you know, my wife’s mother, here for a stay,” and turn their heads away. Yours is a beautiful one.

Basab’s intro has kindled a thought that was simmering under the surface. People who are looking for good feature writers and copy editors in English place advertisements with the condition that the applicants need to be “young”. I saw such ads in both and the Reader’s Digest. A lot of writing awards/scholarships also have such specifications. I am not sure what the logic behind this is. Are we to conclude that only the young (what age group, they don’t say) write well or edit copy to their satisfaction? Or is it just that these guys want to encourage young talent?
The constitution may not recognise this as discrimination, but I have this feeling there is something wrong in asking for only young people to apply. This is not a job where fitness is a criterion, right? How fit do you need to be to write a feature? If they are looking for people with merit, I’m willing to bet they will find that merit among the “older” section of the population. At least we were all taught where to place the apostrophe and capital letters.

Do check out the article, “Clauses and commas make a comeback”. It appeared in the Washington Post.  It’s a longish one. I do hope you can find the time to read it.

October 20, 2006

Grammar 9 – Splitting headache

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 9:13 pm

Just in case you thought “body” always meant a lifeless human – it doesn’t. In different contexts, it can mean [a] a well, alive and breathing human part (Our body is a collection of various systems), [b] an association (airport workers’ body) [3] a mass of water (a large body of water )… It’s only when you say “no body” that you have an unpleasant picture.

October 19, 2006

Grammar 8 – Splitting headache

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 11:59 pm

I found this mail in my inbox.

hi every body,                    my new mail ID -  xxx  pl use this mail from now it self.   

Even reply also. Xyz
When I see words split and broken at will like this, I have visions of the writer, 
tomahawk in hand, doing a war dance on the severed bodies of words. As he flips, 
flops and hops, he tramples over every body strewn on the ground.
"Everybody" as you may have understood by now is just one word. In "everybody", 
the "o" has a short sound. The word means "all".
"Every body" on the other hand, means "every one of the lifeless bodies". When 
you say "Hi every body", just what do you mean? These words can only be used to 
address a morgue. 
So it is "somebody", anybody", "nobody" when you talk of people who are alive.
English has a lot of words that have been formed by putting together words with 
meanings of their own. The newly minted word usually has a meaning that has 
nothing to do with the two original words. For example, "hard" means 
"rough/difficult". "Ship" means "a sea-going vessel". Put "hard" and "ship" together, 
you get "hardship" meaning "difficulties". "Ship" here stands for "the quality of" as 
in "leadership, gamesmanship, scholarship (please, there is no captainship, it's 
captaincy). When you write "hard ship", what do you expect it to mean? A ship 
that is not easy to break? It certainly doesn’t mean “difficulties”. 
It is the same with "itself". "It self" does not make sense at all. So gather itself, 
myself, yourself, herself, himself and airport around you and take good care of 
them. You don't want them splitting into two, amoeba fashion. Let's not start a 
word-breeding farm. 
While one group of murderous guys whoop around in battle gear, another group is 
on a healing mission. “Words of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but the 
emphasis!” is their mantra. They stitch up words that should be written as two and 
get these strange bedfellows – inspite (in spite of), atleast (at least), infact (in fact),
allover (all over) and usherin (usher in). Try saying these words in their combined 
form. They lose their sting. “Infact” and “in fact” do not give you the same sense 
at all. 
The next time you use a longish word made of two distinct, meaningful parts, 
you might want to get expert opinion (dictionary) on their looks. Do they mean 
what they are supposed to mean?

October 17, 2006

Boy wonder

Filed under: Society — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 10:07 pm

This mail came from the US routed through a couple of people. It’s an amazing story, one that’s truly heart-warming. Do enjoy the YouTube clippings that follow the message.

Dearest family and friends,
As many of you might know, our son Aditya (now 2.5 years old) has taken a liking to playing tabla since age 2. The highlight of his life (and ours) to date took place in July when he had the privilege of performing for Pandit Jasraj, who received his performance with great love and encouragement. We’re not sure where he gets this from, but under the guidance of his grandfather and his uncle Shivraj, he’s managing to play several taals on the tabla.

We’ve uploaded about 8 clips to YouTube to make it easy for family and friends to share in our discovery and joy.

Please check out the links below and feel free to share them with anyone who would enjoy them.

First a disclaimer: I’ve used the phrase “child prodigy” in the description for these clips, with hesitation and humility. However, given that Aditya is a 2.5-year-old playing tabla, the phrase may be merely technically accurate.

(Please refer to the wikipedia for an interesting diversion – link

We just returned from India with a new tabla for Aditya and are in the process of finding him a teacher. We are grateful for your ashirwaad and encouragement as Aditya continues to explore music. If you have any guidance for us in this unusual situation,
please do share it with us!

8 links to YouTube are below.
Best wishes,
Tej (Kaustubh) and Aishwarya

teentaal, including madhuban mein radhika naachen
Roopak – tere mere milan ki
Sitarkhani – Lagi Lagan with Falu and Aditya Phatak
Khalbali with tabla
Baoji Maine – Aditya Phatak accompanies Falu
taal kerva – o duniya ke rakhwale
ektaal and tabla sounds
jo bhaje hari ko sada – bhajni/teentaal

October 16, 2006

How sacred is your To:field space

Filed under: Consumer caution,Society — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 9:27 pm

My Dollar Store, which has three branches in Chennai sent me a Diwali promo mail. Nothing really wrong with that. I get such mails from stores and organisations and think of it as information. The content of this e-mail was fine. It listed the new goodies that they were stocking for Diwali. What was not fine was the To: field. It had more than 155 e-mail IDs apart from mine.
Yes, we do get e-mails sent to groups. These are generally from friends and they carry jokes, messages and occasionally, a chain mail (Pass it on to 5 people and you’ll get blessed). Did a store ever send you mail with the To:field clogged with IDs? Of nearly 160 individuals and stores? I didn’t think that was right. I just had to protest. I wrote:


Dear Sir,
I am shocked to see the e-mail IDs of 150+ people in your To: field. Here is concentrated information. These are 150-odd people who buy stuff sold at your store. It tells me a lot about the buying habits of these people. You sure know what that means. What will stop one or more of them, me included, from selling this info to similar stores so they can go ahead and unleash a blitz of spam mails?
I don’t know how you got all these people to leave their e-mails with you. In my case it was done in good faith. I wanted info on Nature Valley bars and you said you would let me know about it in an e-mail. At that time I didn’t think you would put it in your mail list and parade it with the IDs of 150 others.
To me this is a breach of faith. But thanks for teaching me a lesson. I should have known. I was the one who wrote about loss of privacy (
Privacy at peril? – Metro Plus) and warned everyone against leaving their IDs with people they do not know.
Geeta Padmanabhan.

To their credit, the store sent a reply within a few hours.

Fri, 13 Oct 2006 14:47:17

Subject:My Dollar Store  

Dear Sir,
Sorry for that bulk email to: addresses. This was our first and last mistake. Anyway thanks for your advice, we would definately (sic) see that this will never be repeated.
Store Manager
My DollarStore.

What would your reaction be in a situation like this? Ok, let me ask: would you be tempted to sell the ID information? This may be a small example. But we do get to hear more and more stories of confidential information, and more alarmingly, intellectual property, being sold.
Even as I wrote down my mail ID at the Dollar Store, I noticed a lot of mobile numbers along with names of customers. Why would you leave your mobile number with a store? I’m not sure this is a good idea. As a cell phone owner, you certainly know the consequences of doing this.



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