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Midweek Review

‘The’: Its standing in the English language

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by K. A. I. KALYANARATNE
Senior Manager, Publications
Postgraduate Institute of Management
University of Sri Jayewardenepura
Vice President, Hela Havula

 

Taken as a common entity ‘language’, both in its spoken and written form, is the most ingenious instrument the human fraternity has invented thus far. The relevance of this statement becomes pretty obvious if we ponder on how we would be sans the language(s), the main communication-instrument we use to express our thoughts and ideas as well as passing of information. Fortunately, therefore, languages have saved us from being reduced to a ‘dumb’ community.

The second basic feature I wish to bring about is that every language is unique as each contains a set of guidelines and usages based on the sentiments, thinking patterns and acceptances of each community. Having adopted and made use of them for long periods, they have now been accepted as providing the structure for each language. Structure brings about order and clarity to what you say and write (more importantly in writing). This framework could be described as a set of tools and traditions than a set of rules. They, in fact, bring order and discipline to a language. Any looseness of language will result in a gap being created between the speaker/writer and the listener/reader.

What are ‘articles’ in English

In English almost every word is classified into its kind, and these kinds of words are referred to as “parts of speech”, which are eight in number. One of these kinds are the adjectives whose function is to qualify nouns. In grammar article is any one of the three words a, an and the. Nevertheless, many a book of English grammar treats these articles separately mainly due to the vital role they play to determine the level of recognition of the particular noun with which it is linked. A simple example is that ‘an elephant’ or ‘a man’ would differ in emphasis from ‘the elephant’ or ‘the man’. In this context these articles are also referred to as determiners. A and an are termed as indefinite article because they describe nouns in general, while ‘the’ restricts the meaning of a noun to make it more specific.

The Presence/Absence of the Definite Article ‘The’ in Other Languages

Against the backdrop of English, having only one definite article ‘the’, in Spanish one needs to choose from among four definite article, namely, el, la, los and las. Further, in Spanish all nouns, including inanimate things, belong either to masculine or feminine gender. There is no neuter gender. As the nouns of the two genders are further divided into singular and plural one needs to choose both the gender and the number (i.e., singular or plural) in applying the appropriate article out of these four articles.

In the French language definite articles (referred to as articles définis) are le in the masculine singular, la in the feminine singular, l’ for singular nouns that start with a vowel, and les in the plural nouns belonging to both genders. Similar to Spanish there are four different definite articles in German, depending on the gender and number of the noun.

However, language like Sinhala, Tamil and Russian do not have definite or indefinite articles. In these languages definiteness of the noun is denoted by the use of a ‘determiner’ like this, that, those, or these. Or else specialty is indicated by the way an incident is narrated/described.

For example, Cumaratunga Munidasa while narrating the “The Elephantine Disaster” (Ali Uvadura) in the Kiyavana Nuvana, 6th reader, thus describes the background to the said disaster.

“Ma yannata sitha siti kumbura mage sithin aeth viya. Kola atta katata muth

sithata novanneya.”

When rendered into English it would read as “the paddy field I intended to approach got distanced from my mind. The twig of leaves went into my mouth and not to my mind.” Herein, the roles of ‘the’ are performed by the clarity and vividness of the writer’s narration.

‘THE’ is the Commonest Word in English

Now that the has been used for long years in English as a determinant to specify nouns, it is as an indispensable component in its phraseology. We will, therefore, explore the specifics of the subject proper, that is, the use, misuse and non-use of THE in the English language. Many a person errs in its use due either to ignorance, negligence and/or carelessness, little knowing that THE is a determinant that can twist, turn and confuse what is being conveyed. Professor of Modern English Language at the University of Birmingham, and who pioneered work in corpus linguistics, discourse analysis, lexicography, and language teaching, says that “the English word ‘the’ is by far the commonest word in English”. It has been found that out of the total number of words in any English write-up at least 7 per cent will have the article ‘The’. More often, the number exceeds the 7 per cent limit.

 

Most Words are Communicated by Their Co-textual Items

Prof. John Sinclair further sounds another important note on the behaviour of words in sentences when he states that “While it is often thought that words convey meaning, there are many words whose distinct senses are actually communicated by their co-textual items. Since nearby lexical items have a significant semantic influence on each other, units of meaning are not determined by single words, but instead by phrases (Sinclair, 2008; Stubbs, 2009). Herein the definite article THE stands tall as it concretizes the specificity of the meaning a sentence wishes to convey.

Further, apart from THE being one of the important grammatical words of the English language, on its own it does not have any absolute/real meaning. But it strongly sends signals about other words. The words it sends signals about are always nouns. In that sense English is considered more as a materialistic language. The word the is used to help us talk about things (nouns), rather than events. The is used as a signal meaning that the speaker/writer wants the listener/reader to understand whether the thing being spoken of is shared (old) information, or new information, worthy of note. What is said above could be exemplified by these two sentences:

 

The boy was walking down the main street of the town.

A boy was walking down a main street of a town.

 

THE

– An Instance of Deviating from being Specific to General

The general understanding is that while A and AN, referred to as indefinite articles, describe nouns in general, THE restricts the meaning of a noun to make it more specific or definite, thus treating it as the definite article. However, little is known of instances where when speaking of very general terms THE can be used instead of A or An to make a noun less specific. This is one such instances;

“There was a tiger in my garden. The tiger is a ferocious animal.” Although ‘The tiger’ has been used, it doesn’t refer to a particular animal.

A further function of THE is to articulate expressions and make the language more fascinating. Few examples are:

The more the merrier;

The more the better;

The more you have the more you want;

 

A further function of these expressions is to make the saying concise, and make it idiomatic. Preciseness and economy of word-usage are two other virtue of these expressions.

Revelations of a Study of the Use of the Definite Article ‘THE’

Professor Dr. Siromi Fernando, former head of the Department of English, University of Colombo, has made the following revelations of a study undertaken on the use of the definite article ‘the’ in academic essays of twenty-one undergraduates following English as a subject, i.e., persons of a relatively high level of English proficiency. 14 per cent of the undergraduates in the study had no problems with the use of ‘the’ in academic writing. They had good proficiency in Sri Lankan English. The other 86 per cent made 283 errors, although these were much smaller in proportion to instances of correct use, both of definite and indefinite articles. The English of the other 86 per cent ranged from good proficiency, to moderate or lesser levels of good proficiency. The errors found were of two main types, the omission of the definite article, and the incorrect addition of the definite article. The omission is, by far, the more recurrent, totaling about 51 per cent of all errors. However a considerable proportion of errors in incorrect addition, about 22 per cent was also found. It was further found that about 50 per cent of errors were limited to five of the undergraduates, although the other 50 per cent was distributed among the other13 who made errors. The study demonstrated that ignorance of rules pertaining to the use of ‘the’ and lack of correction of written work, or correction without explanation of reasons for errors, contributed to problems regarding the use of ‘the’ in this study.

 

The Omission and Misuse of THE

Such being the versatility of THE in the English language it is sad that a majority of our present-day writers do not pay due attention to this word in their compositions. I consider this lapse as a blind-spot, in the sense that they seem to be oblivious to its value and importance.

Revelations made in the study referred to above is a clear indication that up to the level of the university no concerted effort had been made, especially by teachers, to rectify language deficiencies of their students.

Over and above teaching and teaching methodologies, many newspapers and periodicals are also responsible for the deterioration of the status of language. J. E. Metcalfe in his ‘The Right Way to Improve Your ENGLISH’ (Elliot publications, 1958) says in the item on ‘Articles’ that

I shall conclude my notes on articles by drawing attention to a vulgar practice of the less responsible newspapers and periodicals. This is the inexcusable omission of the definite article the at the beginning of a sentence, clause or phrase, and I pray you not to be misled by this custom into thinking it is good English.”

 

If anyone has not gathered the nuances and fineness of a language a sure way to improve is to indulge in wide and wise reading, and not blind and superficial reading. Ignoring a tool of a language proved as indispensable, for clarity of meaning, is nothing short of sheer ignorance.

 

“We die. That may be the meaning of life.

But we do language.

That may be the measure of our lives.”

Tony Morrison,

American Novelist and Nobel & Pulitzer Prize Winner (1931-2019)

 

 



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Midweek Review

Crossmatch: A moral mirror

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by Santhushya Fernando

Blossoming somewhere between a Chinaman and a Jam Fruit Tree is a Lotus. An unusual place to bloom, but there it is, anyway, Crossmatch. Crossmatch is Carmel Miranda’s debut novel that won the Gratiaen Prize 2020. Here’s what isn’t there in Crossmatch: steamy sex, profanity, harsh political commentary, preaching, flowery similes, structured ‘tools of literary writing’, boring descriptions. Probably uninfected by formal literary training, Miranda writes a provocative story with the acumen of a skillful doctor documenting on a patient’s bedhead ticket with some hardcore suspense thrown in. Crossmatch, for its entire 261 pages is captivating in its heart race potential.

Is she for real?

About 20 pages into Crossmatch, I phoned a senior friend who has spent the better part of his life at the Faculty of Medicine and the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL). “Seriously, you had a colleague called Dr Carmel Miranda? She writes like a hawk observing it all- is this a real name?” He’s was entertained, and replied “Carmel Miranda is for real. She spoke very little, did very much. Never spoke an unnecessary word: serious, committed, all about the patient, precise, not attention seeking, you know, the kind of person you miss when they are not there”. Oh, so I figure. Like Lotus. In Crossmatch.

The plot

Lotus, the protagonist is a third year medical student at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. She’s requested to pay a social visit to a hospitalised patient by her aunt, as all aunts of all medical students do. Like all medical students up to their eyes in real or imaginary stress, Lotus, grudgingly obliges visiting Anil Kumara only to find him dead. Events take Lotus to Lionel, the NHSL mortuary attendant with one glass eye, who convinces her to safe keep the dead boy’s mobile phone wrapped in a newspaper. Something about the numbers in the phone that includes the namesake Lotus Hospital, the NHSL ENT unit number and the contents of the newspaper drives Lotus to dig in deep. She uncovers, quite accidentally, the dangerous underbelly of organ trafficking mafia, poverty, inequality and the heart wrenching plight of the poor in our so called free healthcare system. Was it an accident that killed Anil? If not, who then is the killer? Finally Lotus finds answers and also confronts a devastating personal truth about her umbilical linkage to the Lotus Hospital. Even at the helm of her shatter, Lotus retains her characteristic objectivity and dignity. Throughout Crossmatch Miranda displays a true gift at maintaining the fidelity to her characterisation in personality, lingo, and mannerism.

The moral mirror

If you have read the captivating Gratiaen winner Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, you would know that one need not be a cricket fan to fall in love with that book. Miranda shows similar skill and humility in telling a “medical story” without medical jargon interfering with storytelling. She has labored well to tell a story about the holes of a medical system in effortless lay language. Never does she matronizingly “explain” medical terms down to the reader, weaving it all in, silkily.

Miranda holds a moral mirror on to our conscience with Crossmatch. It’s a grand mirror with one in center in front of which the reader is stands. That mirror is hinged with two mirrors on the side: the moral mirror of medical education and the moral mirror of medical practice. Both the hinged mirrors reflect unto the main mirror creating an ‘n’ number of reflections.

The moral mirror of medical education in Crossmatch touch on teaching via humiliation, linguism, unjust hierarchies, lack of cohesion in medical education, doctors past their medical fitness ‘expiry date’ continuing to practice medicine. But the beauty of Miranda’s moral mirror is that it does not discuss this in a malicious spirit. All is written with astounding tenderness and sensitivity towards human fallibility. It’s a mirror that every teacher must consider standing before.

The more serious moral mirror in Crossmatch is the territory that few would dare to tread: the kidney mafia, organ trafficking, bending the law, exploitation of the poor in kidney transplantation, lack of a transparent registry for organ donation, the legal and moral dilemma of compensation for organ donation. Importantly, this moral mirror in Crossmatch shines blindingly in our eye asking us questions: do you know what it means to be poor? The desolation beneath the label of poor? How many times do the rich donate kidneys to the poor? Is there ever a free lunch at a private hospital?

Our collective crime: poverty

Miranda reflects the moral mirrors on us for the sole purpose of telling her story. Her tender observations about how people live, talk, move, rationalize, love and sacrifice are all for the purpose of storytelling. Her power of observation is consistent across the slums of Wanathamulla to the bungalows down Rosmead place. After reading Crossmatch you cannot afford to be Sri Lankan and be divorced from the collective social crime called poverty that we all contribute to, by commission or omission. For poverty is the one crime that has the direct or indirect consent of society. The crisp humorful language, sharp precise observation, humane narration without judgment- all these make it a good read. Noteworthy is Miranda’s security as a writer who doesn’t feel the need to climb on top of her story.

Perhaps the only anti-climax of Crossmatch is its epilogue. In an uncharacteristic bout of a need to tie up too many ends, Miranda writes an epilogue reminiscent of last minute commentary over movie credits in a Hollywood or Bollywood movie stating how each character ended up happily. The last line of the main novel (prior to epilogue) “But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming “is disappointing and reminiscent more of a line out of a Hallmark card. Miranda could have written a killer last line. The epilogue takes her matter of fact story telling a bit too far and negotiates a mediocre “happily ever after” to a thought provoking , disturbing story meant to induce a bit of reader- insomnia.

Yes, Crossmatch makes us stand in front of a difficult moral mirror.

To Carmel Miranda I say: “You. Go. Girl!!!!”

(Dr Santhushya Fernando is a senior lecturer in Medical Humanities at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo)

 

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Midweek Review

Proposed Plantation University and its economic benefits

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by Dr L M K Tillekeratne
Former Director of the RRI and UNIDO consultant in Rubber Processing

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent address to the nation made an emphatic reference to the establishment of a Plantation University by amalgamating all major crop research institutes, such as Tea Research Institute (TRI), the Rubber Research Institute (RRI), Coconut Research Institute (CRI), Sugarcane Research Institute (SRI). Of these four research institutes, two were established by British rulers over a century ago. The core mandate of the research institutes was to develop the respective agricultural crops, as the plantation crops generated the highest amount of foreign exchange for almost four decades.

With the advent of the free market economy in late 1970s, though the remittances from migrant workers and revenue from the garment industry surpassed the foreign exchange earnings of the plantation sector, the plantation industry continues to play a dominant role in terms of foreign exchange and employment.

Hence, the President’s thinking that the creation of a national university exclusive for the plantation sector is a far-reaching vision that could transform the plantation sector by increasing land productivity and by developing the value-added products manufacture particularly in the case of rubber that the country desperately needed at this juncture. In this context, that the article written by J. A. A. S. Ranasinghe, Productivity Specialist and Management Consultant in a leading English newspaper was a comprehensive analysis of the justification of the creation of a national university for the plantation sector. Such an incisive analysis should have come from a scientist initially.

Dearth of Scientists in the Research Institutes

I whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Ranasinghe on his assertion that research institutes are functioning today in isolation without trained staff to carry out research projects. As he has very correctly identified the dearth of scientists of all the research institutes has hampered the research programmes, and that in turn has led to the deterioration of the productivity of all the sectors during the last two decades. Thus, bringing all the scientists and resources under one umbrella is the need of the hour and that could be accomplished relatively at a short time by establishing an exclusive university for the plantation sector.

The President’s far-reaching vision will be a turning point in producing scientists to run the plantation industry. At a time when most of the other countries in Asia and Africa are increasing their productivity levels of the plantation crops, it is unfortunate that Sri Lanka is far behind in terms of research during last two decades, though its Tea and Rubber research institutes are internationally known.

Downfall of the Rubber Industry

It is sad that in Sri Lanka, the first country in the world to have a rubber plantation established outside Brazil and distributed planting material to other countries mainly in Asia to grow rubber, rubber production has plummeted significantly for the last 25 years. The countries that learnt rubber planting technology from the scientists of Rubber Research Institute of Sri Lanka, such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, have already been able to overtake us both in terms of production and land productivity over the past two decades pushing Sri Lanka down to the 12th place as a NR producer at present. I strongly believe that the situation regarding tea is either the same or even worse.

As Ranasinghe has correctly pointed out in his article, our productivity has fallen to 50% of what we produced a decade ago while countries like Myanmar and Cambodia have been able to double their annual production during this period.

Dearth of Plantation Technologists

It is true that we have agricultural universities producing agriculture graduates. But they do not specifically focus on crops like Tea and Rubber, and cannot undertake the task of increasing productivity by means of applying new technology introduced regularly to overcome issues related to agronomy and tapping. Fresh Agriculture and Science graduates who joined the plantation sector lack the skills and knowledge the plantation industry demands and this mismatch has resulted in a shortage of plantation technologists with required competency levels.

Distinctive Advantages of Plantation University

The agricultural graduates of Sri Lankan universities, however, would be in a very authoritative position in that they can cover a wide variety of other crops better than the graduates getting their agricultural degrees overseas. Agriculture and science graduates should necessarily possess the required field exposure and experience to find gainful employment in plantation sector. Hence, fresh graduates who join the plantation sector will have to work for at least 10 years to be an expert who can identify problems and sort them out on them individually. The industry can ill-afford to wait for such a long period to produce talented plantation expert or qualified scientists, given the dearth of scientists in the country. As Ranasinghe has correctly mentioned, there is a severe shortage of scientists virtually in all departments of research institutes to tackle problems in the industry, which will badly affect the research institutes, if the present system is allowed to continue. More than 50% of the raw rubber and latex end products industry is imported at competitive prices. The coconut production is sufficient for the local consumption and there is no surplus for export in the form of oil or DC.

Exodus of Research Scientists to join Universities

Most of the scientists trained for special mandates in the research institutes have already joined the national universities purely due to better salaries and perks. However, according to the situation existed in early 1960s, those who joined research institutes for developing the agriculture sector were paid higher salaries than those who joined universities, considering their contribution to the development of the economy and the difficult conditions under which they work in remote areas.

Hence, the science graduates’ first choice was research institutions. Today, it is the other way around, and only those who cannot find employment in universities and with low merits join research institutes to get post graduate training utilising the limited number of foreign training scholarships offered to research institutes and get qualified to join universities. Empirical studies have shown that trained researchers with special skills to tackle problems in the plantations have become misfits as academics.

Ad hoc recruitment criteria

The situation that existed prior to the late 1980s was totally different even with regard to recruitment criteria. It is due to the shortage of graduates produced by local universities due to closure of the university education for almost three years, due to the insurrection. There was a severe shortage of special degree holders and hence a decision was taken by the government to allow general degree holders in places where previously only special degree graduates with a class were recruited as research assistants in research institutes. Since then the quality of research produced by the research institutes has suffered.

The distinctive benefit in the President’s proposal is that in the future we might be able to produce graduates capable of tackling problems in the plantation sector with their adequate field exposure and hands on experience during their undergraduate studies.

In addition, there will be a good opportunity for institutions like TRI and RRI with international reputation to attract foreign students for training in Sri lanka thereby earning additional revenue to the country as the UK, India and Malaysia do even without having such recognition. If the proposed national plantation university is properly run, it will be quite possible for them to sustain adequate revenue from foreign students without depending purely on annual Treasury grant. Even now trainees from countries like Myanmar, China, Cambodia, Ethiopia and even from Malaysia have got their research assistants trained at these two crop institutes under international grants.

Contribution to the national economy by way of enhanced production

On a hypothetical basis, if the production of rubber in the country is increased to 135,000 Mt, which was the amount produced years ago, purely by increasing the land productivity, without even increasing the planted area, the country can reap maximum benefits from the fast-increasing rubber prices in the world market. Rubber was selling at around Rs 100 to 150 per kg during the last half a decade. Surprisingly, it has gone up to almost Rs 450 per kg now and the situation is expected to increase further with time to come owing to the demand for NR on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.

If the production is increased to 135,000 Mt, additional revenue the country can enjoy would be (Rs 450 x 50000 x1000) Rs 22.5 billion annually.

We should not lose sight of the fact that due to the shortfall in the supply of rubber, a considerable amount of NR and latex is imported by our rubber products manufacturers for value added products manufacture at a cost of over Rs 30 billion.

If this extra production is used to produce goods such as surgical/examination gloves for which the demand is fast increasing due to Covid-19 spread, the additional revenue country can gain is over 200%. It will be possible to create more employment opportunities as well.

Arduous task for the new Minister

The task before Economic Development Minister is to consider how best to improve the economy in bad state. This objective can be achieved in less than a year by getting the neglected rubber farms into tapping and by using techniques like lightly stimulated low frequency tapping and by utilising proven new techniques like rain guards to minimise crop losses due to rain. The additional cost involvement for these developments is insignificant and the time taken is less than a year.

New planting and replanting are two other ways of increasing the crop; they are costly and take nearly a decade to give a reasonable crop increase. Further, there is no guarantee that the improved rubber prices will remain high until then. However, replanting, and new planting should be continued according to the RDD targets.

Another factor that caused a drop in the rubber production was the removal of the extension services from the research wing and its attachment to the subsidiary function of the Rubber Development Department owing to an illogical decision taken by the then government almost 25 years ago. Today, the RDD is functioning in isolation ignoring the recommendations of the RRI. This has been the main cause for the drop in productivity of rubber farms in Sri Lanka. For example, the population of low yielding clones like PB 86 are still distributed and the clone population in the country is an utter mess.

Undoubtedly, everyone looks forward to the establishment of the plantation university.

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Midweek Review

“Madam” and her Wards

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By Lynn Ockersz

Six anxious, awkward teenage girls,

Are following their “Madam” close at heel,

To the rundown Spa hardly seen in the busy street,

But sought by restless men when darkness sets in,

But in the Isle fabled for its charity,

No one looks askance at this sight,

No one dare asks questions that matter;

Nor is accountability exacted from office holders;

But posers like the following may be asked,

By those who choose to care for the ‘nation’,

Now that Ishalini too has brought things into focus:

Isn’t this an induction into prostitution?

What lured the girls away from school,

And made them walk footloose on the streets?

Would the “Madam” be ever taken to task?

Or would she be allowed to go, with no questions asked,

When a swoop by the uniformed gentry,

Thrusts the girls into a police lockup,

And makes them wilt there sadly,

Though into primal youth they are about to bloom.

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