Monday, August 29, 2011

The Pink Gorilla & How To Use 'Since'

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(Note: The purpose of this post isn't to proclaim mastery over the English language. It isn't my first language and I will be the first to admit that I'm far from perfect at it. But the idea here is to help fix an error which I see recurring too often.)

I recently moved to Bangalore. The newspapers I read here are Times of India and Bangalore Mirror and I often find myself wincing when I spot a 'for' and 'since' error. And it's been happening so often, I've made peace with it — which I shouldn't. Making peace with editorial errors is a sin for editors, a threat to our existence. Dinosaurs can't get cozy with asteroids, lions can't be friends with zebras, and editors can't accept bad grammar.

See for yourself.

Exhibit 1: Erroneous uses of 'since' in Mirror. It's a shockingly long list.

Exhibit 2: The absence of the same on Guardian and NYT.

Why Guardian and NYT? While writing, I often have doubts over the arrangement of words. I cross-check those sites to ascertain if I'm wrong or right. And my experience says those guys get it right more often than us. English, after all, is their first language.

After encountering these errors as frequently as I do, I'm compelled to write this post.

Part of the reason for these errors is the Indianisation of English. The literal translation of the Hindi phrase "picchle paanch din se" would be "from the last five days." The correct translation, of course, would be "for the last five days". But for, since and from have become interchangeable in our everyday usage. So face, meet palm.

Language is shaped by consensus. It constantly moves from its acceptable standard towards the more error-prone version widely embraced by common people. But until an error becomes the acceptable standard, I will choose to call it an error, even if it is a widely understood localisation.

How can we avoid these errors? Here's a small checklist.

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For

'For' is used where the length of time is defined in exact or inexact terms.

For 10 hours.
For 10 days.
For 10 years.
For the longest time.
For ages.
For 50 overs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Since

Since is used when we define a point in time, exact or inexact.

Since 1998.
Since last week.
Since yesterday.
Since last summer.
Since whenever.
Since the World Cup final.

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Since and for are often used in place of 'because'.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Here's an illustration to guide you.




Think of a length of time (years between 1998 and 2002) as the distance between Delhi and Mumbai (1400 kilometers) covered by a train journey. The use cases emerging from this illustration are as follows.

For

For four years, I've not seen a pink gorilla.
For 1400 kilometers, I've not seen a pink gorilla.

Since

Since 1998, I have not seen a pink gorilla.
Since I left Mumbai, I have not seen a pink gorilla.

Here's a PDF you can download and print for reference.


The Pink Gorilla and the Mumbai Rajdhani Express

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Fragility

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Laurie Jupiter: (trying to convince her super-hero ex-lover to save humanity from a nuclear holocaust) You have to stop this. Everyone will die.

Dr. Manhattan: And the universe will not even notice.

Watchmen (2009)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Earth-quakes & Human Reaction

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In continuation of yesterday's theme, here's Seth Godin pithy take on what our reaction to earth-shaking events says about us:

1. The first thing that happens after we encounter an earthquake is to wonder if anyone else felt it. The need for group validation is widespread and happens for events that don't involve earthquakes as well.

If those in the tribe feel something, we're likely to as well. That's why people look around before they stand up to offer an ovation at the end of a concert. Why should it matter if any of these strangers felt the way you did about the event? Because it does. A lot. Social proof matters.

2. Organizations are busy evacuating buildings, even national monuments. Even though experience indicates that the most dangerous thing you can do is have tens of thousands of people run down the stairs, cram into the elevators and stand in the streets, we do it anyway. Why? Because people like to do something. Action, even ineffective action, is something societies seek out during times of uncertainty.

Is it just me or is this actually a good description for what's happening in India right now?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dirty Window

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Released in 2003, Metallica's St. Anger was their biggest commercial failure in years. The sounds were intense. It creates an intense mood and there's no escaping it through the length of the album.

Yet, there are parts of it that I keep going back to. Like Hammet's brilliant solo in Invisible Kid around 0:44. Or All Within My Hands, where Hetfield's vocals waver between steady purposefulness and demonic full-throatedness.

I was listening to Dirty Window today and, for the first time, the lyrics made sense to me.

I see my reflection in the window
This window clean inside, dirty on the out
I'm looking different than me
This house is clean babe!
This house is clean

Am I who I think I am?
Am I who I think I am?
Oh, Am I who I think I am?
I look out my window and see it's gone wrong
My court is in session and now I slam my gavel down!

I'm judge and I'm jury and I'm executioner too
I'm judge and I'm jury and I'm executioner too

Projector, Protector, Rejector, Infector
Projector, Rejector, Infector
Injector, Defector, Rejector

I drink from the cup of denial
I'm judging the world from my throne
I drink from the cup of denial
I'm judging the world from my throne


It fits well with the political mood in India at the moment. Maybe this was the song's intended context. Some of us are protesting on the streets against the crippling corruption thrust upon us by the state. But we have given little thought to our personal deviations.

We seek instant solutions, not the nuances of our constitution. And we have little patience for moderate views on the subject of corruption. This is an extraordinary time for India where sides are been chosen like never before.

My own over-the-top response to this impatience — especially on Team Anna's part — was this image.



Let me explain my stand with a simple metaphor.

When people get sick, they go to a doctor. They get treatment but also seek precautionary advice about diet, hygiene, exercise, etc to avoid falling sick again.

The philosophy of the JLP Bill is that if one is sick (read: corrupt), seek treatment but forget about the precautions.

This way, corruption may be spotted, but its root causes will remain. Ultimately, the JLP will align with India's massive bureaucracy and make corruption worse. I hope this doesn't happen in my lifetime. I don't want to be around to say I told you so.