Taking back a word

Months into the first stint of my Colombo assignment, I noticed something. My copy sounded distinctly better whenever I quoted Sri Lankan Tamil leader R. Sampanthan. Curious, I started paying closer attention to his comments and speeches. What was it about his words that enhanced my reports? Was it the passionate case he made for the political rights of Tamils? Or his lawyerly tendency to build up an argument, laying out history and facts clearly? Or his rich vocabulary?

All of the above, it seemed to me, but there was something more. I wondered if it was his style of speaking in complete sentences. You could even hear the punctuation in his pauses. Be it an extempore speech or a casual chat, his lines sounded remarkably well rounded, as if he were reading off a teleprompter invisible to the rest of us. His sentences, I noticed, tended to be complete not just in syntax but also in meaning.

It took me back to a writing tip that the late editor of Ananda Vikatan, S. Balasubramanian, gave a bunch of us student reporters interning at the magazine more than 15 years ago. “Make sure that your reader never has to reread a line to be sure of its meaning. Strive for that degree of clarity,” he said. It also reminded me of the many times my desk colleagues would ask me while editing my report, “Could we split this sentence? It’s a bit confusing.”

I realise that when Mr. Sampanthan, now 85, speaks, he never clutters one line with more than one idea.

It is not just him. I remember being similarly awed when I interviewed veteran trade unionist Bala Thampoe in 2013, a year before he passed away. He was 91 then. Apart from his clipped accent, and tendency to raise his voice as if he were speaking to a large group of workers, his pithy sentences stood out. Again, they were very accessible and, notably, complete. Not once did he go back and forth. The words were precise and considered. Each line delivered a specific idea or thought, taking the listener one step closer to the intended, larger point being made.

I don’t know if it is a skill that their generation especially valued. Growing up and working in the era of typewriters, they must have had to first conceive an idea, stringing words in their heads, before typing them out. The backspace key could not perform what it does today. Taking back a word wasn’t as easy.(The Hindu)

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