October 23, 2019
I’ve had a lot of people ask me how my English is so good, especially since coming to the United States. I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I’m so well-informed about world affairs, current affairs, culture, geography, history, food, sports, politics, books, music, languages, and especially journalism.
My answer to all those questions is, “I was born and educated in Pakistan.”
That always evokes a surprise, “Oh!”
But be whatever else it may, that is the truth…well almost; my first language happens to be English. So, I cheated a bit there. My apologies. But there are days when I feel equally comfortable in Punjabi and Urdu, and may I dare add, to some extent, Hindi and Haryanvi. All it requires is a little effort.
My good friend Imran Naeem Ahmad, Editor of JournalismPakistan.com, is invariably asked the same questions. The answer is almost similar. Imran has a better handle on English than many so-called senior Pakistani journalists, fancy and fashionable journalists. The difference is he’s modest.
The difference is also that when Imran was a school student, he paid attention to the teachers, and rather than turn up his nose at ‘angrezi-shezi,’ he decided to put in an extra effort and be good at it. Well, he succeeded.
And by the way, don’t think that just because a person has been educated in the United States or the United Kingdom, that their English has to be good. Far from it. Daily, I come across any number of Americans who cannot spell simple words leave alone string together a coherent sentence or paragraph.
I hear things like, “Did you went?” and “Did you ate?”
And then they have the audacity to insist, “Speak English!”
I have a reply for that. Whenever somebody says that to me, I say: “I wish you could?”.
This brings about a surprising look, and before they can say another word, I say, “You don’t speak English; you speak Americanese.”
That stuns them into silence.
So, guess what…why do you think the English in JournalismPakistan.com happens to be mostly error-free?
Because we don’t get fancy, we keep it simple. It works for us. Imran likes it that way, and so do I.
When a person gets fancy, you are more likely to make a fool of yourself. Fancy words don’t make better English, especially when the context in which the word is used is wrong. When that happens the result could be horrendous. There, I’ve used a word not ordinarily used. But I also know when, how and where to use it.
I’ve had three lousy news editors in my 40 years as a journalist. Two were editors who I worked under, and there was one whose editor I was. The first was very early in my career, but he came up with a five-column headline in bold that proclaimed something or the other, I cannot remember what had been pooh-poohed.
That is slang for an incident, a situation that has been disregarded or ridiculed. There see…you know both those words. They sound better. It remains to this day the worst headline I ever came across.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. Just because the guy happened to be a 25+ year journalist it didn’t mean he was a good one. And here I would like to mention a few names of journalists I’ve admired and respected for their ability to write with simplicity that speaks louder than any fancy writing could.
Find the time to read their writings. You’ll be better for it.
At the forefront would be H.K. Burki. I was and am an absolute fan of his. His analysis of any situation would be insightful and honest. The language would be precise, but at times could be shockingly tongue-in-cheek. He knew how to spin a story.
The second would be the late Tahir Mirza, former Dawn and Khaleej Times editor. In this case, Tahir Sahib had a knack of slowly building a story brick by brick. His writing was a bit on the dry side…but it was also faultless.
The third would be my former colleague, Dawn columnist Mahir Ali. Mahir could sit down and write an editorial in 15 minutes, and it would not only be immaculate but readable as hell. He had a way with words without getting fancy. My advice to any young journalists, read up on Mahir’s columns. Learn something.
To that list, I would like to add that I’m also beginning to like Nadeem Farooq Paracha. He builds a story just the way one should while keeping it simple.
I am now coming back to bad news editors. The second one I have in mind was a lovely person, and so was the third. Both could not be satisfied with straightforward English. While the former would try to force a pun in every headline and often resorted to convoluted and lengthy first paragraphs for almost every story, the second would go overboard with flowery, outdated phrases and words that don’t sit right with today’s language.
Either way, simply awful. Worst of all, there was no way to tell them just how bad they were.
Here I would like to mention two captions for photographs that caught the editor’s attention for all the wrong reasons and guess what…it was the sub-editor in the first case and the news editor in the second who got too far ahead of themselves.
In the first instance, the sub-editor was given a picture of a calf eating grass under a tree. It was not a news picture, to begin with. But since we were short of space, it was given the go-ahead by the night editor. So, the sub-editor decided to get plenty smart. He writes, “A young veal munching grass to keep cool.”
Veal is the meat of a calf, not the animal.
We got plenty of letters the next day wanting to know if it was, indeed, not the author of the caption that needed to be munching on grass or had he?
In the second case, I was provided a photograph of a cat sleeping on the roof of a car. Another picture that should not have been considered but was. Anyway, I wrote a simple caption saying the cat had found comfort on the warm roof of the car or something to that effect.
Along comes the editor and laughs at the simplicity of the caption. He then contrives to come up with a complicated, ungainly rigmarole I did not want on the page I had just taken so much care to put together. Only then the editor of the newspaper, whose English is pretty damn amazing and who just launched a book, comes along and peeks over my shoulder at the page. Then he puts a hand on my shoulder and leans further. “WTF,” he goes, “Did you write that crappy caption…seriously?”
I tried not to reply. But the editor wasn’t having any of it. “I expected better from you,” he admonished me. “That’s f-----g babu English.” He was angry. And then he caught the pained look in my eyes. It finally dawned on him. “Oh,” he said, glancing sheepishly at the news editor standing to a side. “Okay send the page to bed and then come see me in my office.”
When I did, he apologized. I should have known,” said he.
But yes, for all you guys out there, keep it simple. It’s a win-win situation. The fancier you get, the more likely you’ll mess it up.
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