To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, November 11, 2011

Language - to illuminate or confound?

Language is supposed to be one of the means of communication.  A vehicle to express thoughts clearly (or, especially in current business and legal settings, only as unclearly as the sender of the communication wants it to be!).  A tool to elucidate things, to explain things, to throw more light on ('illuminate') things than already there...

What, then, would you say if you were to come across something which leaves you more flummoxed than you started with.  Consider this (paragraph-size!) sentence from the front page story 'Army to stop ops if Omar lifts AFSPA?' in today's (Friday 11th Nov. 2011, or 11/11/11 as popularly being peddled) Hindustan Times, Delhi's most-circulated broadsheet:

     "A defiant Oman Abdullah is hoping his strong stand in favour of partially lifting AFSPA, which protects all actions of security personnel from judicial scrutiny, will helps him regain the political capital - and authority - he has lost since his swearing in almost three years ago following a series of violent street agitations, administrative lapses and the controversial death of a party worker last month."

Whew!  Quite a mouthful, wouldn't you say?  If you're a bit lazy-minded while reading this, you may lose track of what happened first and what later, out of the surfeit of incidents thrown into the jumble - AFSPA (imposition or lifting), judicial scrutiny, gaining & regaining of political capital/ authority, swearing in, violent agitations, and so on...  Why do sentences have to be sooooooo long, you wonder, paragraph-size?  Is it an effort to hold on to the reader's attention at least till the end of the sentence/ paragraph (in this day and age of micro-size attention spans, seen in continuous TV channel surfing)?  Or is it to display erudition in being able to craft sentences of such massive size?  Well, at one scale, this may be nothing compared to a 2G case judgement in which, as reported recently, one single 7000-word sentence ran for 24 pages!!

But we digress.  The point was, if the intent of language is to explain and elucidate, what does the last part of the above sentence (starting with "he has lost...") do?  When you start reading this part, you get the impression that the honourable Oman Abdualla was sworn in 3 years back after violent agitations and the like!  Then, the last few words totally confound you for a moment.  How can the death of party worker, only last month, have led to Omar's swearing in three years back?!  Time travel?  Inverted etymology?  Well, to be sure, there are philosophers who argue that space and time are just constructs, and that actually all occurrences across time scale can be imagined to be happening at the same time...

But then, the reality dawns.  It was actually just a couple of missing commas which queered the pitch (think "For want of a nail the shoe was lost...").  Turns out what the report meant to convey was that Omar had lost his political capital and, importantly, authority as well (and was not sworn in) following violent street agitations, et al.  If only, while concentrating on crafting such a long sentence, the 'crafter' had paid due attention to putting a comma before "since his swearing in" and after "three years ago".

Moral of the story: all of us should just take a break and break their sentences after a reasonable length.  And that includes us corporate-types and especially the legals, who revel in crafting similar long and convoluted sentences (whether in reports, legal documents or in emails).  After all, as someone said, the human mind cannot keep its concentration beyond three lines (maybe that's the target!) and tends to switch off.  

That would also save valuable time spent in checking and rechecking grammatical accuracy...