Activate thy Verbs!

whats-your-verbHappy 2010 to all! This is my 13th year in America, and I recall fondly that when I first moved here, I arrived with a formidable fluency in the Queen’s English peppered with occasional indulgences in the flavors of Ind-lish. Although I didn’t end my sentences with only for emphasis and knew that prepone was (then) a figment of the Indian imagination (or creativity), I did have to be forewarned not to ask for a rubber when I wanted to erase something, or for gum when I wanted to adhere one thing to another.

In graduate school, while working as a teaching assistant (for a design studio in architecture), I reluctantly switched to elevator from lift, lobby from foyer, handrail from balustrade, base from skirting, aluminum from aluminium (argghhh). Besides building elements, words in other arenas were replaced too; take travel for instance, in which aeroplane became airplane, bogey became car, boot became trunk. Additionally, I grew tired of Microsoft Word red-lining my spellings, so I began swapping ‘s’ for ‘z’ in words like ‘memorize’ and dropping the ‘u’ from ‘color,’ ‘neighbor,’ ‘behavior,’ ‘humor,’ and so on, (though I stubbornly stuck to ‘ue’ endings in words like ‘dialogue.’) And before I knew it, the word-swapping and spelling changes were accompanied by a rapidly cultivating twang, albeit reserved for the classroom and other on-campus interactions, promptly and fluidly switching to a proppah Indian accent when surrounded by brown friends or on the phone with family or friends back in India. Soon, I didn’t even have to think about it; it worked naturally and unconsciously, this strange, two-timing tongue, shifting gears according to company as easily as changing clothes in scenes of Bollywood movies. (The only time my tongue acted super-confused was in mixed company: which way should my rs roll?)

Upon moving to Seattle and beginning to work for a corporate design firm I discovered that my language needed to undergo further evolution. While my colleagues frequently marveled at my wonderful English, some amazed and puzzled that an Indian should “speak so good,” (“You don’t even have an accent!”) I began feeling seriously handicapped at various meetings. Some of the things being said sounded like incomprehensible babble to me. After about 9 months of struggling in such meetings, I was finally illuminated by an awakening – I realized that Corporate America primarily played baseball all day. While touching base in meetings, we discussed which possibilities were in the ballpark, encouraged each other to step up to the plate, strategized about going to bat, reported getting to first base, and celebrated scoring a home run. On top of being enriched by this baseball lingo, over the course of 8 years I seemed to also slow down my speech substantially, as well as acquire a bunch of empty punctuations in the form of like, actually, basically, you know, I mean, and a host of uhhs and uhms. (I didn’t discover this until I cringed in pain watching a video recording of one of my presentations.) Perhaps this was a result of frequent “feedback” in my early years of work, that my command over the English language was “intimidating,” and “alienated” others. Apparently, to know what you want to say and how you want to say it, and then to say it efficiently and articulately amount to snobbery and arrogance.

If this seemed like complete acculturation, more was yet to come. In the course of dating a mid-Westerner for nearly 3 years, I woke up one day speaking strangely about everyday actions. I discovered suddenly that I no longer take the bus, I hop on it. I also hop or jump in the shower instead of simply taking one. I crawl in bed, I toss old bills, I run to the grocery store, I hitch a ride, I punch a button, I shoot for a time, I beat traffic, I grab a latte, I whip up lunch, I stick something in the oven, I skip a meal, I hit the gym, I drop weight (thankfully!), I shove things in a bag, and I throw clothes in the washer. If “throw” sounds somewhat violent, consider that it is also rather versatile, because I can throw meat on the grill, and throw on a pair of jeans, and throw an extra pair of shoes in the trunk. But when I might actually like to throw something, I chuck it instead. Aghast and dismayed, I exclaimed, “Oh no! I have forgotten to use proper verbs!” At which JW quipped, “Oh, those were boring old verbs. To really do things you must activate your verbs!”

Oh, and we don’t date; we simply hang. Yep, I believe my Americanization is now complete.

P.S. In a secret and desperate bid to preserve some of my English, I am holding on to my modifiers for dear life. I continue to say I’m doing well (not good) and that someone’s really smart (not real smart), and I still remind others to drive carefully (not careful). Gerunds, however, I have completely given up on; they are officially an extinct species.

P.P.S. On a related but different note, check out this tremendously perspective shifting book by Patti Digh, titled
Life Is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful, and Live Intentionally

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta


  1. Khushi

    Fantastic post. I loved it. Once I came to the US, I wanted to develop an American accent 🙂 but despite my efforts it never happened. I still call the trunk a ‘dicky’ lol.But what you said about corporate America – I lived that, and was bored for years.

  2. Amrita

    Tell me about it. I still cringe when I hear ‘throw’ being used the way you describe it though over the years I have started physically throwing things into their intended destination with great stress relieving effect. Try it with your washing machine and wok. Delightful piece of writing.

  3. Meg

    This is a wonderful exploration of the American language. Your descriptions of language in the workplace had me both laughing and in awe of its accuracy. As a born and bred American though, you missed one area which is a huge pet peeve of mine. Along with the sports analogies, the American workplace likes creating its own language by adding ‘-ize’ or ‘-ing’ to turn nouns into verbs and adding ‘-tion’ or ‘-ism’ to turn verbs into nouns.

  4. Tana

    Thanks all, for the fun and enthusiastic responses. Meg, great reminder. Since it was a design firm I worked in, we said “ideation” all day. How could I forget how much I winced? And then winced some more when I saw it show up in dictionaries, and said it myself 🙂 Amrita, I’ll have to try throwing the woks sometime – I have three of different sizes, so it should be spectacular.

  5. Anonymous

    Hey how about ‘wrap your head around’. I have not been able to wrap my head around that one.

  6. Tana

    Aha! Now this is turning into a great repository. I might have to write it all into a new and updated essay! Thanks!

  7. very funny indeed!!! I remember very early in my US life, I arrived late to work one day and announced that “I had been stopped by a cop for jumping a signal”..needless to say I was greeted by some very amused looks and “you jumped what?” was later explained to me that jumping something or someone has an entirely different connotation. I learnt that I should say “I ran a red light” instead, now how does one run a light, I do not know..running an errand I can get used to!
    Also, I must admit that I only found out about “prepone” not being an actual word after getting some confused looks from co-workers!! Loved ur baseball analogies, u’re right, the corporate world seems to be big on the sport!

  8. Tana

    Yes, unfortunately you cannot jump or do someone, at least not at the workplace. LOL. Thanks Neelam!

  9. rajvi

    What a wonderful post. I just had a conversation with someone at work about how I had to change the way I spelled certain words – check not cheque, color not colour. Chips are Fries and Crisps – chips.

  10. Tana

    Oh thanks for writing, Rajvi. I’ve got so used to the missing u in color, behavior … that when I see these words spelled with a u they almost look wrong to me!

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