"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Q and A about Common Grammatical Problems

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Q and A about Common Grammatical Problems

By Farooq Kperogi

When I started a new Q & A segment for this column last week, I didn’t imagine that it would catch on this fast. Since the segment appeared last week, I have received a torrent of queries from readers.

Given that I’ve received more questions than I can accommodate in the kind of tiny little segment I had last week, I’ve decided to devote this week’s entire column to readers’ questions. All questions that have not been answered this week will receive attention in subsequent weeks. Keep the questions coming and I will be glad to respond to them.

Question:
It's always a pleasure reading your articles on grammar. I have a question for you. You can send your response to me directly and post it on your Q & A page, but I wish to remain anonymous. I'm a little confused over the use of “would.”  It has never been confusing for me to use it as a past tense of “will,” but in a number of cases I'm unsure about its usage.

Answer:
Thanks for your compliments. “Would” basically has four uses/meanings in grammar. You’ve already pointed out its most obvious grammatical function, that is, that it serves as the past tense of the modal auxiliary verb “will.”

But it has three other common uses. First, it can be used to express polite request even if the request is in the present, as in “would you (be kind enough to) give me that cup?” A less polite version of this request would be “give me that cup” or “will you give me that cup?” Note that “could,” like “would,” can also be used to express polite request, as in: “could I have the phone number please?”  (This is analogous, in some ways, to how some African languages—like Yoruba, for example—use the second-person plural pronoun, which does not exist in modern English, to signal respect to an elder).

Notice, however, that Nigerians tend to misuse “could” in such sentences as “could you remember…” where “can you remember” would be the correct form.

Second, “would” is also used to express a conditional future, that is, an action that has not taken place but that might take place. E.g., “I would slap him if he talked to me like that!” Here, he hasn't talked to you “like that,” and you haven't slapped him. The sentence only implies that should he talk to you like that, you would slap him. In grammar, we say “would” is functioning here as a conditional modal verb. Note that all the verbs in the sentence (i.e., “would” and “talked”) are in the past tense; it would be wrong if the verb “to talk” were in the present tense in the sentence. That is, it would be wrong to say, “I would slap him if he TALKS to me like that” since the “talking” hasn't taken place.

Third, “would” is used to indicate an action that happened habitually in the past. Example: “when I was a kid, my mom would take me to the movie theater every weekend.” Here, the action has obviously been completed in the past. It would be bad form to use “would” if the action continues, that is, if your mom still takes you to the movie theater every weekend.

Question:
When I watch American soaps, they seem to care less about tenses. Or may be it’s something beyond me, I don’t know. For instance, a typical dialogue goes like this: “Daughter: 'dad, do you snore ‘cause I do. Dad: 'yeah you GET that from me'.” Should not the “get” be GOT? Could you clarify this for me please?

Answer:
Well, it's not true that Americans don't care about tenses. They do. The example of the use of present tense in the dialogue you cited is called the “historical present” in grammar. It's perfectly legitimate even in British English. It's intended to make a past event more vivid, or to signal continuity between the past and the present. In conversational English, it's particularly used with such “verbs of communication” as “get” (as in, “OK, I get it: you’re a genius!”), “forget” (as in, “I forget his name”), “tell” (as in, “your dad tells me you want to talk to me”). Other verbs of communication that are expressed in the historical present in speech are “write” and “say.”

 I agree with you, though, that Americans tend to use the historical present more often than the British. Of course, the historical present is rarely used in Nigerian English, except by our creative writers who deploy it in their fictional narratives. In the hypothetical dialogue you cited, however, it would be perfectly legitimate to replace “get” with “got.” In fact, in formal contexts, “got” would be especially appropriate.

Question:
What’s the difference between “customer” and “client”? Or are the words interchangeable?

Answer:
 At one level, “customer and “client” can mean the same thing. But careful writers and people who show sensitivity to grammatical propriety often observe the finer semantic nuances that exist between the words, as I will show shortly.

The American Heritage Dictionary, one of the English-speaking world’s most respected dictionaries, says both “customer” and “client” can denote “one that buys goods or services.” But the Dictionary nonetheless goes further and identifies five other definitions for “client” that it does not associate with “customer.” For instance, it says a client is: “the party for which professional services are rendered, as by an attorney.” (Attorney is the preferred word for “lawyer” in American English).

 It also says a client is “one that depends on the protection of another.” So, to put it crudely, a client is a “customer” with whom you have a protective, continuing, often service-oriented, business association.

 You may never know your customers because they are usually transitory, informal, and professionally unaffiliated with you, but your clients have a more or less permanent professional relationship with you and, therefore, their trust and comfort must be constantly won and re-won. They are consciously courted and sustained.

 In general, customers purchase goods and services and disperse—and may never come back. Clients, on the other hand, do more than that; they often seek professional advice and knowledge from businesses. So lawyers, medical doctors, designers, etc tend to have clients rather than customers. Newspaper vendors, market women, etc, on the hand, tend to have customers rather than clients.


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