Monday, October 8, 2007

What to do when the OED fails you

This was actually intended to be an email for my colleagues on the India Today desk. But once I started writing, I realised it could be a good way to update my long-neglected blog and, more selfishly, establish my copyediting credentials online.

........Hi, just wanted to tell you guys about an online tool I use while editing, one that could be useful to you too.

I often have doubts about the usage of particular words. For eg.

-Is it “an outcry against the government’s actions” OR “an outcry over the government’s actions”?

-Is it “the letter was full of vitriol against the Musharaff government” OR “the letter was full of vitriol for the Musharaff government”?

- Is it “the committee comprises of five MLAs” OR is it “the committee comprises five MLAs”?

Which usage is correct? Are both acceptable? Is one expression more widely used than the other?

While we can use the dictionary to check the meaning or the spelling of a word, what tool can we use–apart from our own sense of the language- to answer such questions?

One possible solution is to use online tools called concordancers. These are, crudely put, linguistic search engines used by lexicographers, people who prepare dictionaries1. What it does is give you examples of the expression you search for from actual text in British and American publications. While not actually meant for the public, I have found it very useful while editing copy.

There are three concordancers on the web I have found useful. The one I use most is the Cobuild concordance sampler developed by the dictionary-makers Collins. Another that I use often is the British National Corpus (BNC) created by, among others, Longman and Chambers. The third concordancer that I use is Webcorp2 but I find that the first two usually get the job done.

Now, how do you use it? Let’s take Cobuild first. To search for the expression outcry over, type in outcry+over in the first search-box on the page. A pop-up window will open showing a few sentences where the expression is used. Type in outcry+against in the search-box, and you will get another set of sentences for the expression outcry against. From examining the results, you will see that there are more examples for outcry+over compared to outcry+against. While the former expression is more widely used, the latter is used as well and is not necessarily incorrect. (Don’t use concordancers expecting to get definite answers, often the results have to be interpreted correctly too.)

As with all search engines, there is a complex language to learn if you want to use it in depth, but it’s best to ignore most of it and stick to the ‘+’ search operator used in the example above.

The ‘+’ search operator can be used in another way. For example, suppose you need to check whether “the rest of the MPs jumped on to the bandwagon” is right or “the rest of the MPs jumped on the bandwagon”. What you do is type in jumped+4bandwagon. What this will do is search for all instances where the word jumped is followed in four words by bandwagon. From the set of results, you will see that 'jumped on the bandwagon' is the predominant usage.

To get an alternate set of results, I rely on the BNC. Here, to search for instances of the expression outcry against, you type in outcry*against (Note the alternative operators used). To search for instances of the word jumped followed in four words by bandwagon, you use jumped*bandwagon/4

You can also use the concordancer in other ways. For example, if you want to know which of ‘jumped/leaped/ hopped on the bandwagon’ is more widely used, just search against bandwagon in Cobuild. You will see that jumped is more widely used compared to the other two in the sample presented.

To learn more about using Cobuild, and concordancers in general, check this tutorial here

To learn more about using the BNC, check this article here (registration required)

1-From what I understand, lexicographers have gone beyond concordancers that present what is called a KWIC (Key Word In Context) layout to using Word sketch engines (such as the one here), but in my view, these sketch engine results take out too much detail, and are too functional to be used by anyone other than lexicographers.

2-Earlier, I just used to use Google to check concordances. I used to put a double quote around the phrase outcry over and outcry against, and see which expression gets more results. But it could be the case that the incorrect expression is used online more and so gives more hits. One way to control for this would be to restrict the search to websites of professionally-edited publications, something that Webcorp does well. It looks at only the websites of mainstream newspapers in the UK and US and the search can even be restricted to just the websites of UK broadsheets like Times and Daily Telegraph, a good idea given that we follow British usage in India.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Glasgow bomb maadi

I am sure we have all read and heard enough about the Glasgow airport attack and the Indian connection, but I couldn’t let this news story go without expressing my opinion on it.

A south Indian did it?
The fact that the driver of the jeep was a South Indian muslim intrigued me. I was under the impression that south Indian muslims were more integrated with society compared to Muslims elsewhere in the country, who felt more persecuted and ostracised. I believed that in south India, religious or caste identities were subordinate to regional ones, a person was a Kannadiga first, Muslim or Vokkaliga or Mangalorean Catholic second. You saw the environment in South India getting communalised only in response to events elsewhere in the country. Does the fact that Kafeel Ahmed came to harbour such feelings of exclusion indicate that South India is more fragmented than I believed? Either way, I have realised I am more than guilty of buying into the idea of South Indian exceptionalism. This incident will serve the healthy function of keeping that in check.

PhD Jihadi
The Glasgow attack is similar to Sept 11 in the kind of highly educated terrorists involved. Kafeel Ahmed had done his engineering in India with a master's degree from Queen’s university in Northern Ireland. But this fact shouldn’t be of surprise to anyone. Sept 11 had already done much to change the public stereotype of the terrorist from a Kaleshnikov-waving Mujahideen to the modern, educated Muslim who is seemingly an active participant in Western society.

Laila and Majnu
I do have to make a point about one aspect of the media coverage. Kafeel’s cousin, Mohammed Haneef and his detention in Australia has become a human interest piece, the storyline being that of a husband being kept away from his wife and children by a cruel government in a far away land. What I don’t appreciate about this is that if it turns out that he did have some intentional involvement with the attack, I would feel cheated for having sympathised with him during his detention. I don’t especially care for people who could have had a hand in plotting to take away other’s lives. But the investigations are still on, and it could turn out that he is innocent. So until we know for sure, wouldn’t a better approach for the media be to avoid humanising him?
It seems that Kafeel was a loner who ate up whatever was dealt out at various fundamentalist websites. One video that was found on his computer was that of a Chechen militant being beheaded by the Russian military. Muslims have always believed in a universal brotherhood (which it seems is called ‘ummah’ and not ‘qaum’ which stands for nation) and the internet plays a role in sustaining that solidarity. By allowing twisted, fundamentalist minds from Algeria to Indonesia to peddle their wares, the internet makes it easier for ostracised Muslims to make the transition into disgruntled agents, without ever having to step out for a visit to their local Imam.

Infosys training Al Qaeda?
Given that part of my background is in business journalism, I had to point out one particular story. This is about Kafeel being part of a Bangalore-based aviation firm Infotech, which handles outsourced work from Boeing and other US companies. An article in NYT raised up memories of Sept 11 by implicitly suggesting that high-end outsourcing by aircraft manufacturers like Boeing could be a security risk. But the article never explained how the technical knowledge gained during Kafeel's stay could lead to planes becoming less safer. And if in any case it were possible, there isn’t much that Kafeel wouldn’t have already known given his education in aerospace engineering. I haven’t really been convinced that there are security implications for western countries when it comes to high-end outsourcing.

*'Glasgow bomb maadi' roughly translates to 'please bomb Glasgow' in Kannada

Thursday, July 5, 2007

So what should this blog be about anyway?

Hi, glad to see you here on my blog. If you weren't one of my special invitees, don't know how you managed to land up here, but welcome anyway!

Have felt the need for an online presence for some time now. The decision to use the blog format was an easy one, as it helps me express my views on issues that i don't get to write on as part of my job.

Am still in the stages of deciding what exactly the blog will contain.

One idea that's been swirling around in my head for some time now is to start a blog that runs along the lines of most political blogs out there - point out 2-3 interesting articles daily that come out in the Indian press and provide short commentary for each of them.

Another idea was to start an Indian version of or its 'mutant' cousin . But my problem with these sites is that they are little more than 'linkdumps', useful pointers to where interesting content resides on the web but with hardly any commentary. Also, coming to a more practical issue, updating these sites daily will need a hyperactive surfing habit, something which I am not really too keen to encourage.

One idea that especially appeals to me is to write a 600 word mini-essay every day where counter-intuitive thinking would be in vogue. This will be a venue where nothing is sacred and no thought will be left unexplored. So would I be trying to be intentionally controversial here? If I were to be completely honest with myself, I guess I would be, but I'll make sure that any opinion expressed is reasonably argued. The daily entry may or may not take off on a story in the news, and could just as easily come out of some random idea in my head.

Now all this is fine, but what scares me is that my interest in this blog will fizzle out after some time. So I think for the time being, I'll keep my ambitions low, just use this blog as an annotated linkdump for the first two months so as to get the hang of writing daily in a blog, and then move onto one of my loftier plans. Yeah, that should be a more sensible way of going about it. (Self-congratulation is a cheap way to build up one's confidence, but I'll take it!)