Quest & Conquest

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Use & Abuse of English in India: The Need for a Scrupulous Approach to Using English

There is no dearth of people in India who justify the wrong use of English in order to localize or indigenize the language which is today a national legacy left behind by the British. Their principal argument is: If there can be American, Australasian or South African English, then why not our own national brand of English! I am discussing only the lexical and grammatical aspects of English, not its phonological aspect. In any country, influence of native languages and dialects on its English is inevitable. However, I consider it insensitive and irresponsible on our part to legitimise a variety of English that does not conform to the standards of what is now variously known as International English, Global English, World English, Common English, Standard English or General English. Now, who will decide whether or not a particular English usage is appropriate and acceptable? For common people it is not possible to refer to one of the innumerable books written on English grammar every time they have a doubt. For them recourse to the usage approach is far better than trying to grasp the intricacies of English grammar. Thankfully, today we have a number of reliable usage dictionaries; and a quick reference to one of them can clear our doubts instantly. Before proceeding to illustrate and analyse some of the major errors that have crept into our English I must be allowed to start with the premise that any English usage which does not find a place in any of the major British or American usage dictionaries ought to be considered inappropriate and unacceptable. Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Pearson Longman have already brought out their dictionaries of American English. I am not aware of their dictionaries of Indian English. However, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD), Macmillan Dictionary and Collins English Dictionary have all come forward to acknowledge certain examples of English usage which are purely Indian—without passing a judgement whether they are appropriate or inappropriate. Let me cite just a few examples by copying and pasting straight from the online versions of these world-renowned dictionaries:
(Indian English)
the person who is officially responsible for a department, etc
  • the incharge of the district hospital
Neither in British nor American English is there a word called ‘incharge’. Of course the word is ‘charge’ and the phrase is ‘in charge’. Thus the above-mentioned expression from the OALD (He is) the incharge of the district hospital will, in International English, be either He has charge of the district hospital OR He is in charge of the district hospital. We can also say: At the district hospital he is the person in charge. For the sake of further clarity, the above expressions can be converted into their equivalent questions as “Who has charge of the district hospital?”, “Who is in charge of the district hospital?” and “At the district hospital who is the person in charge?” However, “Who is the incharge of the district hospital?” will be peculiarly Indian.
When the context demands, as a teacher of English I try to impress up on my Indian students that it is as important to know that ‘incharge’ is Indian English as to know that ‘incharge’ has no place in International or Global English.
Now the second example from OALD: 

2. revert (
[intransitive] (+ adverb/preposition) (Indian English, rather formal) to reply
Excellent openings—kindly revert with your updated CV.
We request you to kindly revert back if you have any further requirements.
There are indeed other senses in which ‘revert’ is used in Indian as well as General English, but the above usage is peculiar to Indian English. 

3. prepone (
prepone something (Indian English, informal)
to move something to an earlier time than was originally planned.
Macmillan Dictionary also labels ‘prepone’ as an Indian-English word: (
verb [transitive] Indian English to change the date or time of something to an earlier date or time
In Standard English the appropriate word is advance, bring forward, etc.
Indian to report for work after a period of leave or a strike
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition 2009 © Harper Collins Publishers
In Standard English you join a firm/company/department/club/organization, etc and you report for duty. However, as seen above, the usage join duty has been acknowledged to be part of Indian-English lexicon by at least one major dictionary.

Now let me discuss a few English expressions ubiquitous in India, which have not been acknowledged by any of the major dictionaries, and my humble proposition is that they should be discarded by the educated people. To my mind, any foreign learner or speaker of Hindi or Tamil outside India is most welcome to coin a new term or invent a new usage in the language but they cannot expect that their coinage will gain currency and legitimacy among the native speakers of that language in India. By the same token, we Indians cannot take liberties with English and expect that the global English-speaking community will welcome our innovations with open arms. English is not our native linguistic heritage, but an imposed inheritance 'bequeathed' to us by our colonial rulers. To use a cliché, we don’t own English; we have only borrowed it from ‘them’. So, let us use it for our utmost advantage but a little scrupulously. 

Classic examples of abuse of English in India
Please look up the words examination and test in any major usage dictionary to be sure which verbs these two nouns collocate with. Let me give some examples from the world’s most celebrated dictionaries, now available online:
  • to sit an examination in mathematics
Help: Use take/do/sit an examination not write an examination.
  • to take a test
  • (British English) to do a test
· The class are doing/having a spelling test today.
· She had to take/do/sit an aptitude test before she got the job.
· How many pupils are taking the geography exam this term?
· sit/take an examination: Students will sit a two-hour examination at the end of the year.
· do/take/sit a test: You’re going to have to take the test again.
  1. (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English)
· He's already taken the entrance examination.
· At the end of each level, you take an exam.
· Applicants are required to take a written test.
  1. (Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary)
· I took an examination. = (Brit) I did/sat an examination.
· We took/had a test on European capitals. = (Brit) We did a test on European capitals.

It is amusing and intriguing to see while the whole world takes/sits/does an exam/test, Indians appear in or at or for an exam/test. You can pick up the prospectuses of numerous schools, colleges or universities of India and you will see rampant examples of appear in, appear at, appear for exam/test pervading their texts. Look at the following examples taken from the literature published by different ministries of the government of India or their various wings:
i) “A candidate can avail as many as nine chances to appear in public examinations…” (
ii) “Candidates exempted from one or more subjects of internal examination shall be eligible for appearing in external examination and…” (
iii) “Candidates appearing in NET (National Eligibility Test) should clearly specify…” (
iv) “Candidates appearing at the final M.B.B.S. Examination…” (
v) “. Every candidate appearing at the Examination, …” (
vi) “…1000 scholarships will be awarded for each group of students appearing for Class VIII examinations.” (

While we are on the subject of ‘verbs with which examination and test collocate’ it is shocking to note that the expression give exam/test is also commonplace in ordinary conversation among my compatriots. The usage has already been immortalized in various written texts as well as on the Net:
i) “I will briefly guide here about the certifications available and the locations where you can give the exams.” (
ii) “…I am done with my graduation and I want to give my ielts [IELTS] exam.” (
iii) “…do I have to be in that specific country to give the exam?” (
To be sure, it is teachers whose job is to give a test or exam to their students. Let me conclude the analysis of this particular wrong usage by quoting from a UK-based ESL website in which the language expert, in response to a question, clarifies:
“A teacher gives a test, and a student takes a test.” (

Prepositional Errors:
Take a look at the following prepositional errors ubiquitous in Indian English:
  1. Pass/fail exam vs. pass/fail in/at exam:
i) "A new phenomenon is lately being noticed and that is, the students who fail in an examination demand…" (
ii) A candidate who does not appear or fails at one or all the chances of compartment shall be treated to have failed in the examination…” (
iii) “If a student fails in the pre Board examination conducted by the school,…” (
On looking up the words exam and test or by looking up the words pass and fail in any one of the above-mentioned usage dictionaries we discover that either one passes or one fails a test/exam. No preposition is required after pass or fail in the context of a test or examination.
  1. At par with vs. on a par with
“…bring them at par with the rest of the students…”
Correction: “…bring them on a par with the rest of the students…” 


  1. Stress on vs. stress
“Hon’ble Prime Minister stressed on the need for a Second Green Revolution…”
Correction: “Hon’ble Prime Minister stressed the need for a Second Green Revolution…”
  1. Comprise of vs. comprise
“The selection is made by a committee constituted by the ICCW, comprising of representatives …” (
Correction: “…by the ICCW, comprising representatives…”
OR “…by the ICCW, which is comprised of representatives…”

  1. Call as vs. call
“The Garos prefer to call themselves as Achiks and the land they inhabit as the Achik-land.” (
Correction: “The Garos prefer to call themselves Achiks and the land they inhabit the Achik-land.”
  1. Cope up with vs. cope with
“…and also disaster managers to be able to cope up with disasters and…”
“…besides coping up with the traditional forestry…”
Correction: In both the above examples the correct expressions will be “…able to cope
disasters…” and
“…besides coping with the…traditional forestry…”

Beyond Prepositional Errors:
As it turns out, Indian English has notoriously embraced a large number of embarrassing errors. The most unfortunate part is that these errors have percolated into formal written texts as we saw in the various examples cited above. In the year 2004 a major national daily, published from New Delhi, advertised for the post of sub-editor. They mentioned in their advert: “The candidates should have good command over English.” Since I was looking for a job at that time I applied for the post stating in my cover letter: Although my experience of editing is not long enough I seem to have a keen eye for detail and can spot errors. Please forgive me for pointing out that there is a glaring error in your very ad. You should have written “The candidates should have (a) good command of English rather than …over English”. Needless to say, my letter was never acknowledged.
In recent months one can see yet another wrong usage, now reaching epidemic proportions:

“New Delhi: The Lieutenant Governor has to take a call on the issue of government formation in Delhi and the Home Ministry has nothing to do with it...”


It is true that as an informal word ‘call’ means a decision, judgement, or prediction, but one cannot take a call; one can only take a decision. However, the verb ‘make’ collocates with the word ‘call’. Look at the following sentence examples:

that entrepreneurial instinct may account for his ability to make tough calls when profits are at stake (

Concerned vs. Concerned

It is interesting to note how the meaning of the word 'concerned' changes depending on whether it comes before a noun/pronoun or after them in a sentence.

affect / involve
[often passive] concern somebody/something to affect somebody/something; to involve somebody/something
  • The loss was a tragedy for all concerned (= all those affected by it).
  • The individuals concerned have some explaining to do.
The first example sentence means: “The loss was a tragedy for all those who were concerned (affected)”.  The underlined words are hidden and implied in the above dictionary’s example sentence, which is in the passive voice, and the word ‘concerned’ is simply the past participle form of the verb (not noun) ‘concern’.
Similarly, the second example sentence can be rephrased as: “The individuals, who are concerned, have some explaining to do.” Again, the underlined words are hidden and implied in the dictionary’s example sentence in the passive voice, and ‘concerned’ is in its past participle form.  

Now look at the following two extracts taken from the same page of an Indian government’s portal:

First extract: "The grievances received by the Department are forwarded to the concerned Ministries/Departments/State Governments/UTs...This enables the Department to evaluate the effectiveness of the grievance redress machinery of the concerned government agency.

Second extract from the same page: "These problem areas are then subjected to studies and remedial measures are suggested to the department / Organisation concerned."

Now, if you reflect on what is extracted from the Oxford Dictionaries, you would clearly see that in the first example 'concerned' has been wrongly used as an adjective (and in the wrong place). Thankfully, the same writer corrects himself / herself when he/she writes in the very next paragraph: "These problem areas are then subjected to studies, and remedial measures are suggested to the Department/Organisation concerned."

Now the question is: Why are both the expressions in the first extract wrong and what is the shift in meaning when the word ‘concerned’ is used before a noun/pronoun (in which case it is an adjective). In order to grasp its full import, let’s go back to the same Oxford dictionary:

1 worried and feeling concern about something

Concerned parents held a meeting.
Needless to say, we can maintain the semantics of the above sentence by rephrasing it as: The parents who were concerned (about their children) held a meeting.

I often come across job adverts reading: "we are looking for a competent English faculty." It appears as though in Indian English the word faculty has become a synonym for teacher, instructor, trainer, etc. All the teachers in a particular academic department of an institution can together be called faculty, e.g. the science faculty, arts faculty, etc. Someone can be a faculty member rather than a faculty. Please don't confuse 'science faculty' with 'faculty of science' which is department of science. In American English there are sentences with faculty that may sound a little odd to our ears. Look at these two sentences from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Many faculty were present. The school hired more faculty. However, in no case faculty will mean a lone faculty member.

In Indian scholastic parlance, the abbreviations LKG and UKG stand for Lower Kindergarten and Upper Kindergarten respectively. Since Kindergarten is one word, ‘LKG’ and ‘UKG’ cannot simply abbreviate ‘Lower Kindergarten’ and ‘Upper Kindergarten’. However, such errors in the Indian educational landscape have crystallized so deeply in the system that it seems too late to undo the damage. Yet another anomaly in the scholastic terminology in India is the term ‘standard’:
Matriculation standard if passed with…” (
“Students who happen to be among the top 1% in 12th standard at their respective Board Examinations and are…” (
Let alone this peculiar Indian coinage, it is interesting to note that in the other English speaking countries the term ‘class’ is no longer used in the same sense as used in India. Most of them use the term ‘grade’. In Britain, they use Year 1, Year 2, etc while the Americans and the majority of the English speaking world today use ‘grade’. The term class may at times be pretty misleading. Please look at this sentence from the OALD: We were in the same class at school. If you reflect on it, a number of students may be in the same grade but not necessarily in the same class, because in a big school each grade usually has several sections, each of which can be termed a ‘class’. So when the prospectus of a big school boasts: “We don’t have more than 20 students in each class”, they certainly don’t mean 20 students in each grade.

Let us take a couple of other examples of wrong usage in Indian English. What is known in the English speaking world as ‘paper’ (or exam paper or rarely answer paper), our national education board CBSE has coined not less than three terms, viz. ‘answer sheet’, ‘answer script’ and answer-book’. Examples:

“Write the incorrect word and the correction in your answer sheet as given below against the correct blank number.” ( )

“The Board does not have the provision of re-evaluation of answer scripts…” (

“… students will read the question paper only and will not write any answer on the answerbook during this period” (
As is evident from the above-mentioned examples, we are equally arbitrary about the use of preposition for the above words. The first example uses in (rather than on) for answer sheet, the third example uses on (rather than in) for answer-book.
Unfortunately, a large number of compound nouns are wrongly written in India as a two-word phrase. Coursebook, textbook, workbook, copybook, storybook, songbook, yearbook, notebook, copycat, copyright, notepad, watermark, newsletter, storytelling, storyteller, caretaker, dropout, schoolhouse, schoolboy, schoolchild, schoolgirl, girlfriend, boyfriend, schoolwork, schoolyard, schoolmaster, schoolmistress, schoolteacher, teamwork, preschool, paperwork, artwork, woodwork, wristwatch, homework, homesick, handwriting, headmaster, headmistress, housemaster, housemistress, taskmaster, quizmaster, choirmaster, staffroom, classroom, classwork, classmate, daylong, daytime, lunchtime, bedtime, underweight, overweight, wrongdoing, worksheet, workload, printout, handout, blackboard, whiteboard, noticeboard, billboard, pinboard, signboard, midterm, timetable, paperback, bookstall, bookshop, bookshelf, bookmark, bookworm, eyesight, playgroup, playschool, playground, playmate, volleyball, football, basketball, baseball, softball, goodbye, goodnight, stepmother, stepfather, stepbrother, etc are examples of compound nouns that are relevant to school context. These nouns should be written accurately as a one-word compound.

Look at the following chronic errors that have become salient features of Indian English:

i) No decision has been taken till date (Correction: No decision has been taken to date.)
ii) He is good in English. (Correction: He is good at English. There are so many other ways to say this, but one is always good at something rather than good in.)
iii) I am writing a history project report. (Correction: I am doing a history project.) Note: In the context of a school, a subject curriculum often includes project work which may involve a lot of writing work/task but it doesn’t mean that the student is writing a project report; he/she is still doing a project and may be doing the writing part of the project at a given time. It is executives and professionals working for a company or a government department who submit their project reports but as far as students are concerned they do, complete and submit their projects to their teachers. So let our students do a project on pollution rather than write a project report on pollution.
iv) Please send a covering/forwarding letter along with your CV. (Correction: Please send a cover letter…)
v) Please do the needful. (Correction: Please do whatever is necessary / whatever needs to be done.)
vi) I find it hard to cope up. (Correction: I find it hard to cope.)
vii) While introducing: She is Lata, my sister. (Correction: This is Lata, my sister.)
viii) What is your good name? (Correction: May I know your name, please?)
ix) On the phone: I am the principal speaking. (Correction: This is the principal speaking.)
x) The meeting will get over at 5 p.m. (Correction: The meeting will be over / will finish or end at 5 p.m.)
xi) This is not in our syllabus/ curriculum. (Correction: This is not on our syllabus / curriculum. Note: in syllabus/curriculum is essentially American English )
xii) Looking forward to receive your reply… (Correction: I look forward to receiving your reply…)

Apparently the list is endless.
At the time of the commencement of the Indian constitution English was made an official language of the Union of India for a period of 15 years. However, during the last more than six decades English has not only thrived in this country but it also continues to dominate the entire educational, political, bureaucratic and intellectual landscape. English is a major unifying factor for multilingual India where the overwhelming diversity of languages occasionally threatens the very fabric of society and national integration. I want to make a simple point, as long as we are using English, let us be a little scrupulous and use only the standard form of English.

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A consistent learner keen on sharing his learning with fellow humans.