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Looking for my copy of Wren & Martin

Saturday, 11 July 2009 - 6:47pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Indians of a particular age and above, especially those who went to English-medium or ‘convent’ schools, will no doubt recall Messrs Wren and Martin.

Indians of a particular age and above, especially those who went to English-medium or 'convent' schools, will no doubt recall Messrs Wren and Martin. This deadly duo had produced a doorstopper of a book that was the ultimate reference on all matters concerning English grammar and was knocked into our heads — sometimes literally — by stern teachers who wouldn't stand for metaphors being mixed or conjunctions being tossed about loosely. "Never end a sentence with a preposition" was the golden rule that every student of the language will remember to this day.

Many of us may today have a fond memory of those dreaded days (alliteration?) and may even have a faded copy, its pages falling off the spine, lying around somewhere. Some may have even tried to bravely pass it on as an heirloom to their children. That is a waste of time. Most schools gave up teaching English grammar with the help of the two gentlemen a long time ago. The mandarins who formulate our education policies took one look at the tome, felt it was a throwback to our British Raj legacy, and consigned it to the dustbin.

Wren & Martin had indeed been written as a learning tool for children of British officials in India sometime in the 1930s. Soon it was pressed into service for the natives, no doubt as part of the Macaulay project to create generations of English-speaking Indians. But some years ago it was discarded.

Many teachers and parents feel that this was a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and it has often been said that the single cause of the falling standards of the English language in India is that no one uses Wren & Martin anymore.

That may be debatable, but what is not is the fact that good grammar is at a premium now. Forget the laws of preposition usage, the tendency to make nouns out of verbs and vice-versa (workshopped, problematise), using me instead of I (he is taller than me) or splitting infinitives with abandon has become rampant. W&M as well as Mrs Gomes, your English teacher, wouldn't approve.

As for the spellings, well, the aforementioned worthies would simply have heart attacks. How many rulers were brought down on our knuckles to din into our heads that 'advice' and 'advise' are not the same? Or that rumour, colour, and flavour were all to be spelt with 'our' and not 'or'? For some, these golden rules have become part of our DNA; we stick with them, often challenging the obstinate MS Word program that simply puts a wavy red line under a 'wrong' word.

For MS Word, the lazy writer's guide to spelling and grammar, the world is essentially American, which is one reason why American standards have begun to rule the world. A group of obscure programmers out there in Redmond (or in Bangalore) are the W&M of today.

It's a thought that makes old-fashioned purists splutter and foam at the mouth, but it's a losing battle. Just last week, Bombay University announced that it would not deduct marks if American spellings were used; apparently, this has already been done in Kolkata, of all places.

Does all of this matter? Should we really care if the spellings change, if grammar is thrown out of the window and non-English words creep into the language at an alarming rate? Should we wag our collective fingers at our children for mangling the language in their emails, text messages, and essays? Is there a need to launch a 'Get back good English' campaign (on Facebook and Twitter, naturally)?

Language is not something that stands still. English is dynamic, all the time evolving, freely borrowing from other languages and cultures, constantly updating to remain fresh. New words are added to it every day, many of them the products of street culture.

Slang first moves into popular usage and then into the mainstream. Many Indian words have become part of English (bungalow, pundit) and many more are getting there — prepone is one word waiting in the queue. It all adds to the beauty of the language, allowing it to keep up with the times.

Yet, some fundamental laws, the pillars on which the edifice stands, must not be shaken or demolished so casually. The post-modernists may say that all cultures and expressions are of equal value and there is no such thing as "right" or "wrong", but to break the rules, one must first know the rules. The Modernists of English literature — James Joyce, e e cummings — experimented with the language, but they knew the basics and moved on from there.

What we see around us is plain ignorance.  The language used in emails, texts, blogs, or tweets may be cool, but it cannot replace formal, grammatically correct language. Try writing an entire essay in a university exam in text style and see where it gets you.

Recent generations are poorly equipped in correct English usage. As a journalist, I am reduced to tearing my hair when I read the shoddy copy I get. Didn't they teach you English in school, I often ask? Whether it is because Indian textbooks are being used or because the teaching of the language had to be dumbed down to make it accessible to the lowest common denominator, one doesn't know, but the end result is there for all to see. The rules of grammar don't matter and purists are looking decidedly old-fashioned.

Where are you, Mr Wren and Mr Martin? We need you like never before.

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