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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

More Q and A on Grammar

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I have received a steady stream of questions from readers of this column. As is my habit, I’ve responded to almost all of the questions by email and/or through Facebook messages. But I realize that some of the questions and my answers will benefit other followers of this column. I encourage others to send me questions on grammar usage. I will be glad to respond to them. Because language use is such a sensitive subject, I have chosen not to disclose the identities of questioners unless they prefer otherwise. Unfortunately, I can only feature a limited number of questions this week because of the limitation of space.


Dr. Kperogi, you've taken me back to the classroom through your Sunday Trust column. A friend engaged me in a dialogue on a linguistic issue that I could not bring myself to articulate. Is it “birthday” or “birthdate”? Which is more appropriate? Can you properly be said to be celebrating a birthday when it does not correspond with the day you were born? My friend was born on Friday May 22; however, May 22 this year was a Sunday. We want to learn from your wealth of knowledge.


Well, a birthdate, usually written as “birth date” (also called “date of birth,”) is just the day, month, and year you were born. A birthday, on the other hand, which is usually written as one word, (and also called a “natal day”) is an anniversary (or a day of remembrance) of the birth date. Any anniversary, not just a birthday, has to coincide only with the date (i.e., the number), not the day of the week. So if someone was born on May 22, his/her birthday will occur on May 22 every year; it doesn't matter if the subsequent days of the week don't coincide with the original day of the week the person was born. But it gets a little trickier. In popular usage, “birth date,” “birthday” and “natal day” are sometimes used interchangeably. A now rare alternative word is “birthnight” for people who were born at night. Note, too, that “birthday” can be used to denote the day reserved to mark the beginning of something, not just the birth of humans.

Dear Dr. Kperogi, thank you for your educative contributions in The Politics of Grammar column. I am a bit worried, though. You seem to be saying that we should adopt American English rather than UK English, or that we should stop using words which are perfectly all right but are 'weird' because Americans don't use them. Why should that be so?

You didn’t read me right. I have two contradictory impulses when I write about grammar. One impulse is prescriptivist. In this mood, I point out “correct” usage norms and subtly rebuke deviations from standard usage. The second impulse is descriptivist. In this, I merely describe language use and make minimal judgments on correctness or deviations. The column on “weird words” in Nigerian English that you referenced is merely descriptive. I pointed out, for instance, that even though the word “vulcanizer”—and its other forms such as “vulcanizing,” “vulcanize,” etc—is no longer used in contemporary British English from where it came to Nigerian English, it would be senseless to discourage its use in Nigerian English because we have a material need for it.

The British no longer use the word precisely because nobody “vulcanizes” in the UK again. Americans never had it because, from the beginning, auto-mechanics in the country repaired both tires and car parts. Language always mirrors people’s material realities. Reread the article. Nowhere did I ever recommend that readers “should adopt American English rather than UK English.”

I am one of those silent admirers of your many write-ups on grammar. I had this grammar argument with my son yesterday and thought I could get some clarification from you. He had run out of gas and I informed him that “I WOULD bring some gas” to his location. He understood that to mean that I may not come with the gas. According to him, I should say “I WILL bring some gas” to his location. It’s been such a long time since I took grammar lessons at Federal Government College, Ilorin (yes, I went to University of Nigeria Nsuka but had to rely on all the grammar I learnt in high School).

Anyway, my question is, “What is the subtlety between will/would, shall/should, can/could, may/might and also between all these words taken together?”

I’d answered this question when I wrote for a different newspaper. Much of my response will be based on what I had written.

 “Would” basically has four uses/meanings in grammar. Its most obvious grammatical function is that it serves as the past tense of the modal auxiliary verb “will.” So you were wrong to have said “I would bring some gas” since your action hasn’t taken place yet.

But “would” 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 elders).

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.

This was first published in my grammar column in the Sunday Trust of July 31, 2011.

Related Articles:

1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
2. Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
3. Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
4. 10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
5. Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
6. Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
9. American English or British English?
10. Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
12. Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
13. Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
14. On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
15. Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17. Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation


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