"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Q and A on Prepositions and Nigerian Media English

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Q and A on Prepositions and Nigerian Media English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

This week, I continue the Q and A I started last week.
Sometime back, I had an argument with one of my friends on how to use “at” and “in.” Can you tell us the difference between them?

Both “at” and “in” are prepositions that we use to indicate location. Generally, it is understood in usage circles that “at” is used when we are talking about a point, that is, a precise location, while “in” is used when we are talking about an area, that is, a geographic area with an extensive boundary. So, for instance, we would say “I’m at the Abuja City Gate” because it’s a precise location, but we would say “I’m in Abuja” because “Abuja” is a huge expanse of land with an extensive boundary.

Following this logic, grammarians generally agree that a small town is a point and a big city is an area. Therefore, the preposition of choice when we talk about a small town is “at” (e.g., “his wife lives at Kenu”) while the preferred preposition to refer to cities is “in” (e.g. “I live and work in Lagos”). However, it is perfectly legitimate to use “in” to refer to a village if you have a sentimental attachment to it. Only people who have no emotional connection with a small town use “at” to refer to it.

But it gets even trickier. When we talk of any place (including big cities) as a point on a map, the only acceptable preposition is “at.” Example: “Dana Airline crashed at Lagos on its way to Abuja.”

There are also dialectal differences in the use of “at” and “in” especially in reference to educational institutions. In British English, it is customary to say “at school,” “at college,” etc while American English prefers “in school,” “in college,” etc.

“At” has also emerged as the preferred preposition when companies talk about themselves self-referentially. Examples: “We at Sunday Trust question the notion that…,” “At Union Bank, our goal is…” etc. 

But it’s good to note that “in” used to be the preferred preposition in companies’ self-referential statements. The change to “at” is a relatively recent usage shift.

I want some explanation on this issue: The word “welcome” is an irregular verb but I see that both the BBC and CNN sometimes use it as if it were a regular verb.

“Welcome" is a regular verb. Its present tense is "welcome," its past tense is "welcomed," and its participle is "welcomed." But when "welcome" is used as an adjective (that is, when it means "giving pleasure or satisfaction or received with pleasure or freely granted", as in: "your suggestions are welcome"), it does not have a "d" at the end. That is, it would be wrong to write "your suggestions are welcomed." So CNN and BBC are right to use "welcome" as a regular verb.

What is the proper way to call a car with two doors or four doors, because people in Nigeria call cars with two doors “one-door-cars.” 

I, too, have always wondered why Nigerians refer to two-door cars as “one-door” cars. As far as I know, in no other variety of English is a two-door car called a “one-door” car. So I would say the proper way to call a car with two doors is a two-door car. A four-door-car is also, well, a four-door-car.

I have a friend in my office who so loves your write-ups that he now even spends his last kobo to buy Sunday Trust because of your columns. He instructed me to relay this to you because there was a point of argument between us when we read Hannatu Musawa's column in Leadership titled "Is it nothing to you? In the last paragraph of the article, she wrote: "is it nothing to you, because it’s something to me". He needed clarifications on the conventional/nonconventional uses of "You and I" to which I promptly gave him a copy of your article titled "Top 10 Useless, Outdated English Grammar rules." But he still needs elaborations especially concerning that specific quotation of Hannatu.

I also want to ask you about the proper ways to use “in” and “on.” There was this article titled "Salihijo on our minds" which appeared both in the Weekly Trust and on the back page of Leadership. I wonder if it’s grammatically correct to say "on our minds." Should it be "in our minds"?

Hannatu's use of "me" in the sentence you quoted is correct. As I wrote in previous articles, the trick to knowing how to use the pronouns correctly is to first know that pronouns are usually categorized into "subjective" pronouns and "objective" pronouns. Subjective pronouns always function as the subject (that is, main doer of action) in a sentence. Examples: I, we, they, he, she. "Objective" pronouns, on the other hand, always function as the object (that is, recipient of action) in a sentence. Examples: me, us, them, him, her.

So if you look at a sentence and can determine its subject and object, you can pretty much tell when "I" and "me" are used wrongly. Look at this sentence, for instance: “He said the bag was for you and I.” That sentence is wrong because "he" is already the subject of the sentence. The "I" in the sentence should be "me" because "me" is the recipient of an action, that is, it is the object of the sentence. If that explanation isn’t helpful, always remember that “you and me” is almost always interchangeable with “us” while “you and I” is almost always interchangeable with “we.”

"On my mind" and "in my mind" are both correct depending on the context. "On my mind" is correctly used in the example you quoted. It means something is bothering you. "In my mind" means that something resides in your imagination. E.g. "I have a picture in my mind of an idyllic village in the deserts of the Sahara.”

Is it grammatically correct to say “if he were here?” What of “if he was here”?

I wrote about this in a previous article. Here is what I said: “There is still a fierce battle among grammarians about the appropriateness of these phrases. In grammar, “if I were” is referred to as being in the “subjunctive mood.” The subjective verb represents the form of a verb used to represent an act or a state that has not happened and has no likelihood of happening but that has nevertheless been imagined. For instance, when Beyonce sang “If I were a boy,” she clearly implied that she was actually not a boy nor could she be one, but imagined herself as one nonetheless. Semantic purists insist that on occasions such as this, “if I were” is the only acceptable expression.

“But the subjunctive verb, which was prevalent in Middle English (i.e. from about 1100 to 1450), is now obsolete. It’s only in the expression “if I were” that it has endured in modern English. Increasingly, however, people, especially young people in both Britain and America, are replacing “if I were” with “if I was,” although “if I was” used to be considered uneducated English. (For recent notable examples of the use of “if I was” in popular hit songs, refer to Far East Movement’s “If I was you” and Liza Minnelli’s “If there was love”). It is inevitable that “if I were” will ultimately die and be replaced with “If I was.” But, for now, my advice is this: use “if I were” in formal contexts and “if I was” in informal contexts.

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