Grandma's Tales

November 30, 2006

Grammar 16 – Misplaced Modifiers 2

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 10:06 pm

Anonymous stopped by to leave the following sentences as his footprints. Thanks Anonymous, these are great examples and have a desi ring.

1>”Since I have to go to my village to sell my land along with my wife, please sanction me one-week leave.”
2>”Since I’ve to go to the cremation ground at 10 o-clock and I may not return, please grant me half day casual leave”
3>”As I am studying in this school I am suffering from headache. I request you to leave me today”
Comment by Anonymous — November 30, 2006

These sentences remind me of the time I was teaching regular school.  As a class teacher (English teachers are doomed to be class teachers no matter which part of the country they teach in), managing late comers was one of the things I had to do every morning.

The punishment I doled out was a simple one. I would give them a piece of paper and ask them to write a note of apology stating why they were late. Once this was done, they could join the class. This worked extremely well. For me. If the reasons were “innovative”, the language in which they were wrapped pointed the direction my English lessons should take.

“I lost my bus” wrote a 11-year-old. “Because of the late bus driver” wrote another. “Home-work didn’t finish”, “Missing bus”, “too many traffic”, were others.

A boy in Class 11, from a royal family he said,  had the best set of excuses. He had to, because he was late every single day. If the school bell rang at 8 am for others, for him it  always chimed 15 minutes later. After a week or so, I began to look forward to his notes. He wrote flawless English.

“The cook overslept,” he wrote once.
“Is your mother in town?” I asked him. “Yes,” he said.
“Wasn’t she up to see that you left for school in time?”
“She also overslept. So I had to wait for breakfast.”
“You couldn’t fix something for yourself?”
“Me? Even my mother doesn’t enter the kitchen.”

The last I heard of him, he was into playing polo and was part owner of a men’s clothing store. I’m sure he hired someone to open the store every morning.


November 29, 2006

Grammar – 16 What is that again? Misplaced modifiers

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 10:13 pm

If you had been watching NDTV today, you couldn’t have missed this piece of news. Bharti Yadav, a key witness in the Nitish Katara case came, spoke in camera and left. It appeared again and again in the scroll box at the bottom of the screen even as other bits of news were being telecast. And one of the sentences that carried the news went like this:

Bharti Yadav left the court with her face covered in a Maruti Zen.

I swear I’m not making this up. I can also assure you this is not an isolated error. I come across such sentences routinely everywhere – in newspapers, novels, announcements. You do know what is wrong here, don’t you? The phrase “in a Maruti Zen”, which adds information to the verb “left” is in the wrong place. It is a “misplaced modifier”.

A modifier is a word or phrase that acts like a value add-on to a noun or a verb. It modifies a noun or a verb. So, logically, it should be placed closest to the noun or verb it talks about.

Here, “left the court” needs to stay as it is. You cannot split it to park our “Maruti Zen” near “left”. That is because “the court” is the object that completes the sense of the verb. It answers the question, “left what?” So the parking space for “in a Maruti Zen” is next to the “the court” parking meter. To set right the absurdity of Bharti Yadav wrapping her face in a Maruti Zen, we need to rejig the sentence to read:

Bharti Yadav left the court in a Maruti Zen, with her face covered.

Better still, With her face covered, Bharti Yadav left the court in a Maruti Zen. Either way, our car stays close to Bharti Yadav as a whole, not to her face alone.

I can hear some of you keying in furiously: Why can’t I just place a comma after “face” in the original sentence? That would read:

Bharti Yadav left the court with her face covered, in a Maruti Zen. Still absurd. That’s because you’re asking your reader to solve a puzzle instead of getting to the news. What happened in a Maruti Zen? Oh, BY left in it! How much time do you have to read the scroll box ? Should I get the news or should I be playing games?

Verdict (alas, not in the Katara case) : Write your sentences in a way that can be understood without trouble. Or you’ll lose your reader.

Ben’s body was found by a janitor in the Emerald Tower who heard the shot.

I found this gem in Compelling Evidence by Steve Martini. To me such a sentence in a novel is inexcusable. The author had time enough to edit the draft, didn’t he?

Of course the author wants to maintain the suspense till the end. Who killed Ben? (Don’t know.)
Was the body in the Emerald Tower? (Don’t know. The sentence says the janitor was in the Emerald Tower, not the body, ha, ha!)
Who heard the shot? (the Emerald Tower, ha ha!)

Is this the suspense in the story? Confusing sentences? Are we unravelling the sentences or the plot? Ok, let’s do away with this unintended and quite unnecessary mix-up.

Ben’s body was found in the Emerald Tower by a janitor who heard the shot. Fine. Remember the rule: Modifying words and phrases are placed closest to the nouns and verbs they modify. Read this and you will know what I mean. This sentence was picked up from the Classified Ads section of a newspaper.

For sale, piano, the property of a musician, with carved legs.
And this headline: Not a time to rejoice for asthmatics. Why would you rejoice for asthmatics? Cruel. Change to Not a time for asthmatics to rejoice. The story was about firing crackers during Diwali.

Now for the quiz. How would you recast these sentences to make sense?

[1] He visited the battlefield where Napoleon was defeated in his holidays.
[2] I spent the last three days of my holidays in a chair with a swollen leg.
[3] A young man wrote these verses who has long since been dead for his own amusement.
[4] The cop said that the prisoner, seizing a brick full of rage, knocked down the lawyer.
[5] In thirty-seven wrecks only five lives were fortunately lost. (change for making the news a little less horrifying)
[6] He was very fond of her; he thought of marrying her more than once.

Happy jigging!

November 27, 2006

Munnabhai and Gandhigiri

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 10:28 pm

I finally got to watch Lageraho Munnabhai. The DVD had good picture quality but kept freezing from time to time, so as a movie experience it wasn’t much. But the movie has its points. It proves, if proof were needed, it’s the supporting cast that gives a movie – especially one that is anecdotal – its edge.

Years ago, I attended a theatre workshop in Calcutta (that’s what it was then) conducted by Shombu Mitra. I’ve forgotten the details but a couple of things he said about characterisation stuck with me. “It’s not the appearance, the costume or the props that makes you see a character as a king. It’s the way his subject walks in, bows and speaks with reverence that establishes his authority.”

It’s the same with Munnabhai. We knew, more or less, what Sanjay and Arshad were going to do. They would be predictably good. But this movie is not about the lead actors. It’s about the small incidents that get resolved through Gandhigiri. It’s about these sub-plots that, like side dishes for a plate of rice, add flavour and give strength to the narrative. They give substance to the theme and prove the filmmaker’s argument that Gandhigiri works.

And wisely, the director lavishes care on the actors doing cameo roles in the mini plots. Take the spitting incident for instance. The guy with a bucket and towel starts by showing helpless anger, which turns to revulsion at what he’s bidden to do. He sports a phoney smile every time he cleans up after the big guy and finally, when the turnaround occurs displays genuine happiness. Voila! What a performance!

So is it with the guy who’s forced to confess to dad that he’s lost a lot of money. And Lucky, except when he tends to go a bit overboard is superb too. These are the people who make it all so believable. Yes, they did that. Or why did people try those methods in their attempts for justice?

Will Gandhigiri work? I asked my husband, an ex government officer. He laughed so much I thought he might have an attack or something. “But it worked for that pensioner who starts stripping!” I said when he stopped to catch his breath. He laughed again, but finally conceded, “Yeah, it might, mind you, just might, in one in a thousand cases. Even here, it has to be one-on-one and the guy who’s applying Gandhigiri should be a monument of patience.” He paused and asked with narrowed eyes, “Are you planning to try it on me?”

Coincidentally, I also watched Catch Me If You Can this week-end. In this movie, DiCaprio, a teenager, passes himself off as an airline pilot, a Harvard-educated doctor and finally as a lawyer. He does it all with his wits (and an extra-ordinary eye for detail) alone; there’s no side-kick to organise things for him. The first two covers are blown, but the third one manages to stay tight. DiCaprio retains his lawyer identity. How, how? The obsessed FBI agent Hanratty (Tom Hanks) wants to know. He promises the boy that he would find out somehow. He doesn’t. You would never guess the answer. Hanratty is the chaser, the admirer and in the end, the Father figure the boy so desperately needs.

Again, will Gandhigiri work? Just read this:

Justin Wurth, 18, Duane Barry, 19, and Tyler Pearce, 19, have been accused of breaking into a small US church just before midnight Nov. 12. Police said they stole money and electronic equipment, smashed windows and computer monitors and sprayed a fire extinguisher in the church gym. The youngsters are accused of taking away several hundred dollars worth of gift cards, Xboxes and controllers, a DVD and a VCR players.

Members of the church have decided to punish the three teenagers with love. They are putting together “love baskets” full of electronic items for each one of the suspects. “We’ve also made mistakes,” said the pastor. “But god forgives us.”

Will this gesture help to keep the kids off crime? Make a guess.


November 25, 2006

Grammar – 15 Did you take this homophone quiz?

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 11:21 pm

Here it comes. See if you can put in the right/write (?) words.

[1] Wait till I see him. I’ll give him a ________ of my mind! (peace, piece)

[2] ________ a misconception about this. (There’s, Theirs)

[3] Not on a diet? Good. _____ a lot of cream on the strawberries. (Pore, Pour)

[4]  I’m going out, ________ you want to come or not. (weather, whether)

[5]  Do you know him? He’s the famous ________ Mahesh Dattani! (playright, playwrite, playwright)

[6] He started his business with a small _______ shop selling envelopes and paper. (stationery, stationary)

[7] The new breed of comedians _______ in comparison to the ones we watched 20 years ago. (pales, pails)

[8]  Please accept it sir. ____________ of the house! (Compliments, Complements)

[9] Just a couple of hundreds? At that price, it’s a _______! (steel, steal)

[10] The bus stopped with a screech, when the driver applied the ________. (break, brake)

[11] Don’t _____ now. I think you  know him. (stair, stare)

[12]  Would you litter the place if it ______ your backyard? (were, where)

[13] As time _____ people forgot the small grave.  (past, passed)

[14]  I’m afraid you’ll have to wait. I haven’t ______ finished yet. (quiet, quite)

[15] Cheat in business and you _____ your reputation. (loose, lose)

Done? Now read this poem by Donni Bridson. Expresses our sentiments very well.

My brain won’t work, it gets words wrong,
But who can blame it anyway
When check and cheque are said the same,
But written with a different name?
And too, two, to and their, there, they’re
And in and inn and pair and pear.
Whether the weather is right or write,
If I see or sea with my site or sight.
How can we expect our students to learn
When we sew or sow and turn and tern?
I would, or wood, change the words if I could
To make more sense, or is it cents?
The bells were tolled, or were they told?
The shoes were soled, or where they sold?
Chips and place, your plaice, or mine?
The English language is divine!
The words we ewes, the hair I died,
Or the hare dyed, I sighed or side?
Even teechers sumthymes get it wrong!
I hope ewe like my little song.

November 24, 2006

My cellphone is sozzled!

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 10:06 pm

Not strictly. I don’t own one. But read me out. I was getting off the transit bus at the airport when a guy’s cellphone decided it needed to cool off. It peeped out of his trouser pocket, spotted this pool of dirty water on the tarmac and dived straight into it. I told the guy where he should look for his mobile if he wanted to make a call. And was he horrified? He hesitated a bit, realised his mobile was more precious than clean fingers and picked it up.

I asked my husband what he would do if his mobile ever fell in the drink – “drink” of course could be a puddle, a filled bathtub, a glass of beer, the sea or simply the WC. “It won’t” he said firmly. “What if?” I insisted. He said he would throw it away. Not everyone would, I thought, and began my research. And this is what I found in Yahoo Tech. A writer wrote:

The Cell Freak has all the collected wisdom on the topic, including some advice I’d never heard, like soaking the phone in 95% alcohol to dissolve all the water trapped inside. I’ve personally had good luck with low level heat for wet phones and laptops: A few hours on the lowest setting inside an oven (150 degrees or thereabouts) can dry out a gadget and make it good as new. Remember to remove the battery from any device you attempt to salvage.

Suggestions from readers came fast and thick.

[1] I saved a phone after an ocean immersion by resoaking it in distilled water to displace the salt. It should displace the minerals in regular water also. I put it on the dash of the car for a few sunny (not hot) days and when the battery was put back in it worked fine.

[2] A friend of mine told me that body temperature would be the perfect temp to dry out my soggy phone. I tried it… he was right 🙂 Phone was usable again in less than 4 hours! Recovery time may vary with amount of time spent in the drink…

[3] I removed the battery and took the outside casing off and used the blow drier on it (lowest setting of course), put it back together. Good as new.

[4] I’ve run my pager through the washing machine numerous times, and have had good luck reviving it by removing the battery and leaving it in the sun on the dash of my truck.

[5] After my cell took a dip in the toilet …(I was cleaning the toilet, when out of my pj’s pocket my cell fell in)… I immediately took it out, towel dried the took my hair dryer (on the lowest heat) and dried out where the battery goes and where one plugs the charger …crazy, yeah, but it worked and I saved my cellphone.

[6] Put my phone through the washing machine. Shook it out. Put it in the glovebox during for about a week. Charged it up, and it has worked for the past 2 years.

[7] Years ago my cell took a dip in the swimming pool. I took it completely apart, wiped excess water off with a paper towel, then let it air dry for a couple hours. Put the battery back in and it worked great for a couple more years.

[8] (Going, going, gone!) If the circuit got fried as a result of the initial soaking then any remedies are moot. You could then use it as a paperweight and reminder.

[9] Be smart and keep the phone dry because the odds of saving a phone after it gets wet are pretty low. If any of these ideas help then count yourself lucky.

[10] Try placing wet electronics in a bag of dry rice. The rice will absorb any moisture in the bag.

[11] Any suggestions on how to recover a phone that was immersed in engine oil???

[12] I had an incident where my phone went into a glass of chocolate milk. Someone else tried to fix it but didn’t know what to do so it didn’t make it.

I’m quite sure you have all had times when you had to pick up your mobile from places where it wasn’t supposed to go. What have your remedies been?

November 22, 2006

What is your humour quotient?

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 7:05 am

Well, it was waiting to happen.

You go out and get their everyday jobs, and like the proverbial camel occupy the CEO seats in their firms, buy up or start up businesses, and employ them in your firms in India and abroad. All within a short period of a decade or so.  How do the Brits and Americans cope? They strike back with humour. They poke us with fun and do we have enough fodder for them? Our colourful contradictions are good for reels of side-splitting clippings to last a millennium! YouTube is now their biggest ally. First came the traffic pictures. And now this. You must admit they are hilarious! Watch with an open mind, though.


November 21, 2006

Grammar – 15 Speak aloud! You’re allowed!

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 9:48 pm

In his remarks on citizen journalism, Will Femia of “Clicked” wrote:

Reporters always interview eye witnesses and principle players in a news story. Why is a first hand account less reliable if the reporter isn’t standing there with a notepad in hand?

Who are “principle players” in a news story? I wouldn’t know. If the players in the news story stand by certain principles (beliefs or rules by which one lives) the phrase should be “principled players”. But a reporter covering a story, say an accident, cannot wait to find out if the players in the story are “principled”. Not with competition breathing down his front-at-the-back baseball cap. So does the writer mean “principal” and got the spelling wrong? Likely. Since “principal” means “main” or “chief”. As an adjective, it’s usually used before a noun (the principal character). As a noun, it means the head of an educational institution or money.
This is a common slip-up and is listed under “homophone errors”. Homophones are words that sound alike but differ in spelling and meaning. There are also homonyms and homographs but those are for another day.

Why does this happen? Simply because we tend to shorten or slur words and phrases when we speak. The “principal” in “Hush! The Principal (the main person) is here!” sounds very similar to “principle” in “On principle I won’t let him go scot-free“. You have been listening to the words for a while and you think they are spelt the same. Sigh! One of the problems of translating what you think into writing!

One resourceful teacher (is there any other kind?) told her students who insisted on mixing up these two words: “Children, take the last three letters of the word “Principal”, you get “pal”, right? Think of the Principal as your pal and when you have to write “Principal” you’ll know how to spell it.” The kids might have had a tough time thinking of the Principal as their pal, but the very thought of it might have helped them remember the correct way to spell the word.

Homonym errors quash the unreasonable plea, “Why should kids be penalised for wrong spelling?” The answer is: the pizza is more than I can eat and The pizza is more then I can eat are not the same at all, though the difference is just one measly letter.

Look at these sentences.
Mr. XYZ ordered the civic official to immediately bale out water from the Ambattur and Tambaram depots. [bale out (generally)- make emergency parachute jump from aircraft. If the writer meant “scoop out water”, he should go in for “bail out”.]


Another word that gives you a bumpy ride (write?) is “pore”. “Pore” as a verb means “to be absorbed in studying”. I pored over several books on the subject before writing the answer.

But we don’t want to “pore over” books. We want to “pour over books” and we keep “pour what over (cause something to flow)” books a secret. We take a similar stumble with the words “cite, site, sight”.

Check before you write: beech or beach? Board or bored? Break or brake? Grateful or greatful? Bye, by or bye? Chord or cord? Compliment of complement?


Watch out for the quiz.




November 20, 2006

How long is a short story?

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 1:07 am

Friend Rajesh wants to know the basic components of a short story. Lists may vary, but a lot of people I respect and writers I admire seem to agree on a few points. Let’s look at them.

The major one is what triggers a short story in your mind. Imagine you are at a busy railway station. You watch people milling around. There! That guy with a large parcel in hand, rushing off toward the platform, where is he going? How come he only has a shoulder bag for luggage? Is he going to see someone off? Is he travelling to the next town? What is in the parcel, a gift? Something dangerous? Who is it for?

Now, there you have the beginning of a plot. A plot that has a conflict. In the story above, you could build the suspense, by focusing on the parcel. “As he boarded the train, the man near the door put out his hand to take the parcel. “No!” he (our man) shouted. “I’ll carry it myself.” The conflict, the suspense, the what-will-happen-next quality is what will get the readers to engage with your story.

A plot does not mean a description. A plain description of a place or a person will end up as a plain paragraph.

There is something you need to avoid completely, kill the temptation for. Do not state the obvious. “He walked down the platform, went to the door, climbed the steps, held the grab rail and got into the train.” Yawn!

Next, you need characters. Are you going to write about a person, an animal, or a group of people (particular or general)? Is your character(s) realistic? Fully developed? Are they people to whom readers can relate? Do they have discernible personalities? My teacher once suggested a character cluster. In bubbles around the word “character”, we were asked to scribble brief descriptions of looks, work, relationship history, family, mannerism, beliefs … of each character. Know your characters well. Then it’s easier to get them to do what you want.

Try giving your character a flaw. Also a motivation for his action.

Next, where does your story take place? You could place it in a familiar setting (Churchgate station, Juhu beach). But make sure you get your facts right. You don’t want someone saying, “Hey, a mountain near the XYZseashore? Must have grown since I visited it last week!”

You could also create a setting. The finest example is of course, RK Narayan’s Malgudi. Read his books to see that town come alive with its landmarks and the “so believable!” characters. When a class put up an exhibition of Narayan’s works, they made a diorama of this village. Every visitor was asked, “Where is Malgudi?”. The kids did this with a straight face. Most people said it was in Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. When we told them it was fictional, their uniform reaction was, “But it’s so real!”

The ending: Have you read O’ Henry’s stories (The Cop and the Anthem)? James Herriot’s? Somerset Maugham’s? Have you read the story The Monkey’s Paw? Saki (HH Munroe)’s The Open Window? The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell? The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin? Stories of Anton Chekov? A J Cronin?  Thurber?

The list is long. There are people who swear by Isaac Asimov, who wrote all those sci-fi stories. The point is, a short story could be woven around any uncomplicated theme. It (often) has rising action, crisis, climax and finally, resolution. And a sting in the tail, an unexpected ending.

There are also open-ended stories. These are very effective since the reader is invited to form his own conclusion. Do read Rabindranath Tagore’s stories. Try also The Lady or the Tiger? by Frank Stockton.

davidbdale, who writes all those wonderful stories, uses exactly 299 words to compose a short story. You can see two major strengths in his stories: one is insight (the considered thought, the depth of understanding of his theme, a fresh way to look at a subject … call it what you want). The other is his choice of words and phrases. It makes his writing concise (language), “pared own to essentials”.

But then, as we have seen, you can write a short story in six words or less. In those stories, most of us tend to give the ending away!

November 16, 2006

SMSish – 2

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 7:15 pm

Mmm… students in the United Kingdom are now (or will soon be) permitted to write their answers in sms lingo. I don’t know if there is a standard way to shorten words. I don’t know if all the teachers are familiar with this form of written expression. (They too send messages in this language? Horror!) But the students have a lot to cheer about. No one is going to mark the papers for wrong spelling.

Mr. Harish Trivedi, Professor at Delhi University points out in TOI that students will now begin Hamlet’s speech with “2 b r nt 2 b” and Macbeth’s famous lines will go down as “2maro, 2maro, 2maro”.

More interesting are Mr. Prathap Sutan’s arguments why sms lingo should be allowed as the language of exams.
[1] Imagine this question. “Who is the Queen of UK”? The first answer is Britney Spears, which, as you can see, is written in plain English. The second one is, Qn lizbth da 2nd. The sms-ese is the right answer. Shouldn’t you accept it?

[2] Sms-ese is an art form. It is distilled information. It does away with all pretence (like Capital letters, proper nouns, restricted use of numbers in prose, etc. I guess).

[3] When you allow sms-ese, you encourage students to chisel out extra material and become sculptors of thought. They will think about (among other things) precision in writing.

[4] Students will learn to be expressive, find fluidity of usage, and think in English.

[5] This is linguistic renaissance. The students are the authors of this change.  Developers of a brand new language. We can all now kick out the dictionaries.

He finally asks teachers to see the brilliance in sms-ese “evn az u sav tym corecn ans paperz”.

Well, my old argument stands. The new language that will emerge will still need an understanding of English pronunciation and spelling to be universally understood and  used.

November 14, 2006

How short is a “short story”?

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 9:23 pm

Long ago, when I was in college, one of the teachers told us this story about Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist and short story writer. I never found out if it was true. It didn’t matter. It was a great short story by itself.

Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a complete story in six words. He did. Many feel it is the best prose he ever wrote. Now, this is debatable, but read the story.

“For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Great, isn’t it?

Some people say it was written to settle a bar bet. Others say it was a personal challenge directed at other famous authors. But it proves that it is possible to create a short story with just six words. You choose the right words, and leave the rest to the imagination of the reader. And that is excellent writing.

In my office, an employee wrote against the “marital status” column:  Still married.
That is a short story in just two words! She beat Hemingway! (I think) asked readers to compose (or contribute) “six-word” short stories. Here are a few from among those that flooded the pages.

[1] Lucky, yes, but my twin wasn’t.
[2] I loved; I lost; I’m sorry.
[3] In Gore Vidal’s book “The City & The Pillar” he writes in the opening chapter: “He was home. He was lost.”
[4] For sale: halves of a bed.
[5] That’s how winter came that year.
She loved again. I never did.
Our love survived time, not cancer.
Life’s end: Sadly recalling opportunities lost. (Are sad ones easier to write?)
[7] Reminds me of something I once read – I forget where. The shortest sci-fi story ever:”The last man on Earth sits in his house. There is a knock at the door.”
[8] Switched lifestyle from planet to satellite.
[9]  Adam, apples are delicious! “Uh oh.”
[10] Downloaded it, learned truth, gave up.
[11] It wasn’t her fault. Not entirely.
The audience applauded, as he wept.
[12] Oh no, I think I’m lost.
[13] Time passed, lives changed, I withdrew.

Interesting, aren’t they?

Why don’t you try your hand at this? Write in your very own six-word (7-word, 8-word …) stories here!  I’m sure it will be fun.

Here is my favourite. It is not strictly Hemingway-ian, but great, nevertheless.

A college class was asked to write a story in as few words as possible. And the story had to have three elements in it –  sex, religion and mystery. This is the work that got top marks.

“Good God, I’m pregnant! Wonder who did it.”


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