I’m here at home late at night and have no examples at hand, but I can tell you with confidence that there is one great difference between Indian English and American English. Well, there are several, but it’s a little one that dominates my attention: when we choose to use the definite article “the” and the indefinite articles “a” and “an.”
For several years now, I have read stories in the Indian press and stumbled when I expected a “the,” “a” or “an” and didn’t get one. Other times, they have come up when I least expected. I don’t know why this is, though I suspect that linguists from all over the world have studied the situation at one time or another.
Day three in Bangalore and I’m already worried that I’ll accomplish nothing by the time I leave. Rather, I’ll accomplish lots of things, but it won’t be enough. Any newsroom is a world to itself, and the people in it have a million motivations and differences, and when you’re working with all of them, only individual contact and contact in small groups will do if you want to share the stuff you know that might benefit them, whether it’s here or somewhere else down the road.
At least I was able to spot a trend. Monday was about speeding up the copy flow from the reporter to the editor to the public. No, we didn’t solve it, but we spent time on it — that is, I and a small group of other reporters. Tuesday was about unusual obstacles that should have nothing to do with journalism, but which block reporters from doing good journalism. Again, problem not solves, but I did write it down and I’m discovering that I like the idea of dealing with IT people to solve problems that will lead to better journalism.
I arrived for my second day in the Reuters Bangalore bureau and confirmed something that yesterday I only suspected: no matter how many years you spend in journalism, interpreting and explaining the public statements of the companies we cover is a task that demands devotion and muscle.
Part of why I came here was to work on writing. Many Reuters reporters spend their days covering business news, and that means risking absorbing toxic, verbal poisons. The people and companies you cover when you write daily stories about business prefer to make their public statements abstruse and difficult to understand. It lets them fulfill their legal obligation to tell the truth, but in such a fuzzy, ill-defined way, and in such a poorly written way, that they hope the lazy reporter will not bother to simplify their words. The result is a story that says nothing. The result of that is a company that escapes its obligations to be completely honest with the public. The result of that is a less informed public and a poorer world — whether the poor be investors/gamblers or people who have suffered, however minor, from the company’s actions.
My hotel delivers the Economic Times and the Times of India to my door every day. Both are owned by the Sahu Jain family, and according to Wikipedia, the Times is the mostly widely circulated English-language newspaper in the world. Most people who learn that I’m reading the Times and its Bangalore insert, the tabloid paper-sized Bangalore Mirror, exclaim, “But it’s a tabloid!” They mean it in the sensibility of its news, not its paper size.
I lack context about many things in India, and certainly in Bangalore, and that includes its press. I read what people hand me, whether it’s the Indian Express, the Telegraph, the Times, Mint or a variety of other papers. In the case of the Bangalore Mirror, I find plenty to chew over in the morning. The headlines are a little New York Post/New York Daily News, but there’s a reason people read those papers. More importantly, they’re jumpy and flashy because they often herald good journalism — the kind of stuff that people want to read. No doubt, they likely contribute to the tired “India! Ancient yet vibrant and modern!” PR campaign that has entranced my U.S. media colleagues.
I spent my first day in the Reuters Bangalore newsroom discovering that jet lag does catch up with you after a while. Most of our reporters work from 4pm-1am and 9pm-5am, but I came in at 10:30am to meet some people whom I wouldn’t otherwise see, and to get a start on seeing where things stand so I can make the training mission as interesting as possible.
I met one of our commodities reporters, who works with five other people who, unlike most of our other colleagues, do their job 24 hours a day, five days a week. That includes sending out all those notices about chemical and gas leaks at U.S. oil refineries, the ones where everybody’s happy that the release of poison gases don’t force people to stay in doors and possibly injure or kill them. Talk about yeoman’s work!
I arrived in Bangalore on Saturday morning on British Airways flight B119 from Heathrow. I spent about four days in London last week after arriving there from New York. My stay in Bangalore will end on April 12. In the next two months, I will teach a journalism course that I created to our staff of several hundred reporters, editors, pollsters and newsletter writers in the Reuters Bangalore bureau.
I will post updates on the journalism course on my Reuters blog, for the most part, while leaving personal impressions of this city and of southern India, both of which I visit for the first time, on Tumblr. I will cross-post some entries to both blogs, and all of that will show up on Facebook and Twitter.
The world of the verb in Indo-European languages boasts a vast tracts [TRACT, you fool --ed.] of probability and possibility, promises of the future and echoes of the past, and nuances of time thanks to a variety of tenses. In some news writing, I watch that world tilt on its axis, weighed down by journalists who overuse the “pluperfect” tense, also known as the “past perfect.”
To my grammar-averse readers, the pluperfect tense is the one that takes “had” as a helping verb. It describes an event in the relatively distant past, as opposed to something happening now or that happened recently. It also helps set a timeline of activity in a compact space that already includes a verb describing something more recent.
When I read the phrase “uncertain regulatory environment” in news articles, I sense that I’m living in a climate of loathing. Read enough news about the government or business, and you will encounter the words “environment” and “experience” as extra nouns, riding behind other, better nouns.
Here is a recent example:
“Company X named Chairman Y as its chief executive officer after asking Z to leave the top post as it rejigs its business to deal with an uncertain regulatory environment.”
PR purple prose positioned throughout. Highlighted, as usual. (If you wonder why The Washington Post Co is building such things for Facebook, remember that Post chief Don Graham is a Facebook board member and an early investor. In the interests of full disclosure, he is my former boss.)
Washington, DC—January 18, 2011—The Washington Post Company announced today the launch of SocialCode [www.socialcode.com; www.facebook.com/socialcode], a full‐service agency focused on helping brands leverage the most advanced advertising and marketing techniques on Facebook®.
My colleagues Abhiram and Jochelle sent this to me today, offering it as another candidate for PR purple prose. Yes, I did spot purple prose in here. But a larger question looms over this press release: why the thematic locus on the hairball, that disgusting, wet package of hair that cats like to vomit onto your floor and your furniture after they’ve been tongue-bathing themselves for a while? They’re a good argument against walking around in your bare feet at night in the dark.
Someone presumably familiar with the creeping horror of hairballs then thought: that would be an awesome idea for a press release. If I squint just perversely enough, I think I get it.