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     Volume 4 Issue 62 | September 9, 2005 |

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Slice of Life

The ABC of English

Richa Jha

Of all my confessional statements, this one is the hardest to regurgitate. It rankles me from within, it churns out my innards, it makes me squirm like a half-squashed worm, but Truth must be told. So here it is: I don't know English. Much as I have to swallow my pride admitting it in public, friends, I don't know English, the language.

Finite-infinite verbs give me the creep, predicates and complements are pretentious rogues all out to rob me of my peace of mind. Everything has a rule in English, but abundant exceptions float around. Every word is governed by one principle or the other, but there are just as many that flout them with aplomb. There are times when I wonder if English isn't grammatically one of the most inconsistent languages ever developed.

Having grown up in an environment where English was everywhere, I did not have to wage mental battles against the strict guidelines governing it. Words, sentences, form, and correctness crept into the subconscious well before I knew what they meant. So I had it easy. But my heart reaches out to any one out there trying to pick up this language from scratch. You know not yet what you're stepping into!

The only grammar I 'know', definition and all, is noun, pronoun, verb, and some adjective. And that too, thanks to Miss Quadra, my Grade 2 teacher, who made sure each of us knew it better than we knew our names. Drag an 'adverb' into the conversation, you'll see me turn pale. Add a 'participle' to it, and I'll be dead!

The grammar bible Wren & Martin, which I diligently carted to and back from the school, remained without a crease at the binding. Every year, without fail, I would replace its brown papered outer covering, and pretend I couldn't live without it. My parents believed me. So did all my English teachers.

The only time I 'studied' English Language in all its regal pomposity was when taking my post-graduation papers. Being a mandatory paper in the course, I found it impossible to wriggle out of it. I wrote to the VC saying Gerunds and Antecedents had no place in the heart of a person who had sold her soul to Literature, but it failed to evoke any response. I even offered to take up two tough papers instead of that one, but, perhaps, my plea wasn't convincing enough! So there I was, stuck with a subject I could barely stand (or understand).Try as the Professor did, he could not get me round to attending his lectures, but that paper had to be cleared. A quick-fix solution was there. The only time in my life when I opened a 'kunji' (a guidebook containing every possible examination question) was two days before this Language paper, and put it to good use swallowing every word of it only to vomit it out in the examination hall, and then to expel it out of my mind like a bad dream.

But the past, as they say, can never be buried. Who would have known then that the ugly apparition would rear its head again and push me into the cauldrons of self-doubt. Years rolled by, and one day, I found myself staring into the answer script of a prospective student at this school where I teach. The question asked him to mark out the homonyms, to which he had given some answers that made little sense to me. I had heard of antonyms and synonyms, but that's about the outer perimeters of my proficiency in the language jargon. Give me anything more evolved, and I'll make a fool of myself. Which I did, anyway. In all earnestness, I trundled up to the person who had prepared that paper and pointed out the 'typing error' to her. Puzzled, she pressed on there was nothing wrong with it. I kept on insisting there is no such thing as homonyms in grammar, but anyway, the incremental damage done by putting your foot in the mouth more than once is only that much.

I am glad I was not sent into a junior grade to take up the grammar-intensive Language classes. Young children are artless, and restless. They would have lost no time in pointing out that I was wasting my time and theirs pretending to be Miss Know-all. But then, the flip side is that at least I would have known where I stood in their eyes!

As things stand now, my students from the senior grades are suspiciously patient when it comes to my having to explain a specific grammatical error to them. I can tell them 'how' it is wrong, but the 'why's' confound me the same way today as they did in the past. I can tell them how it can be corrected, but ask me the damned rule of grammar which governs it, and you'll see my confidence vaporise. These are trying times for me, having to deal with a bunch of inquisitive children five days a week, who are only too happy to derail my lectures in class with these 'out-of-syllabus' questions. Somehow, I have a sneaking feeling, that for want of a better source of entertainment in class, they derive dollops of delight seeing me fumble for an explanation of the Incongruous Extraordinaire! Trust me, it happens far too often; often enough to force me to nip down to the library after every class and rummage the stored knowledge there.

And often enough to push me into furnishing a self-expose (the 'e' with an accent!), before anyone else sneaks it out in public. If only I had paid more attention in class. Twenty years ago.

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