"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 04/22/12

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Q and A on Idioms, Nigerian Expressions, and Punctuations

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

This week I am going to respond to a few of the questions I’ve received from readers over the last few weeks. I hope you find the questions and answers worth your while.

A couple of weeks ago, I texted a friend who travelled earlier in the day. I asked if he “reached home safe and sound.” The next day I received a reply correcting me. He said the sentence should be “I hope you reached home safely and soundly.” He argued that since these words modify the verb “reached,” they should therefore remain adverbs. I honestly didn't trust the guy, but then I don't trust myself either. Help me out.

Your friend's reasoning is both logical and defensible. However, the rules of English usage aren’t always logical and defensible. “Safe and sound” is an idiomatic expression, and one of the characteristics of idioms is that their grammatical forms are often fixed. That quality, as I’ve stated here many times, is called “grammatical fixity.” So, although “I arrived safely and soundly” is grammatical, it isn’t idiomatic. The standard idiom is “safe and sound,” not “safely and soundly.” In other words, you're right and your friend is wrong.

The thing to note about English usage norms is that idiomaticity and grammatical correctness are not always compatible. The English language has several ungrammatical idioms that nonetheless enjoy social prestige. A few examples I can come up with are to “trip the light fantastic” (that is, to dance lightly to music—notice that it is not “fantastically”); “come hell or high water” (which means “no matter what happens,” as in: “come hell or high water I must see my mother this year”); “no-go” (i.e., not functioning properly, as in: “my car’s air conditioning was no-go”); “it’s me” (instead of the more grammatical “it’s I”); “hard-earned income” (instead of the more grammatical but unidiomatic “hardly earned income”), “no-go area,” “long time no see”; and “look-see” (that is, a quick glance or survey).

Kindly tell us one or two things about the place of newly invented words in Nigeria like “invite” used in the context: “Have you received my invite?” What about “wake-keep”? I was used to hearing “Wake-keeping for the deceased will hold on....” All of a sudden, what one hears and reads now is “wake-keep for the deceased will hold on ....”

The use of “invite” as a noun isn’t uniquely Nigerian.  Although in Standard English “invite” is used primarily as a verb (as in: I will invite you to my party), over the last few years, it has come to be used as a colloquial expression for “invitation” in American English. For instance, when Gmail started in the early 2000s as an “invite-only” email service provider, it gave every account holder the privilege to give away 50 “invites” to family members, friends, and colleagues. Since then, “invite” as a noun has become something of an Internet lingo. It’s now often used in place of “invitation.”  I think it’s safe to say that the use of “invite” as a substitute for “invitation” has percolated into International English and may gain the same kind of social acceptance and prestige as “quote,” which is both a verb and a noun (that is, a synonym for “quotation”). But I will advise you to avoid using “invite” as a noun in formal contexts—at least for now.

“Wake-keeping” and “wake-keep” are peculiarly Nigerian (and Ghanaian) English expressions.  So it makes no difference whether “wake-keep” has replaced “wake-keeping.” Both terms are nonstandard. The vigil held over a dead body the night before its burial, which is originally an Irish tradition, is simply called a “wake” in America, Britain, and Ireland. Note that native speakers of the English language don't “keep” a wake, or wake-keep; they “hold” a wake for a corpse. Wake is also used as a verb, as in: “we waked Olu Chukwu last night.” Another term for a wake in American English is “visitation.”

Would you please explain to me – whenever you have the time – the rule of using a comma with “and” together? Sometimes I use them together and sometimes I only use “and” without a comma. In the following sentence, did I use the comma appropriately: "He is simply the best that there is, and is the best that there will ever be." You may have written about the usage in the past but I cannot not remember if you did.

There are basically two ways you can use a comma before “and.” The first is to mark off three or more items in a sentence. Example: “There were books, cars, food, and people.” Grammarians call the comma before “and” in the preceding sentence a “serial” or “Oxford” comma. Note, however, that it is not compulsory that a comma be placed before “and” in the above sentence. It’s just a stylistic choice. The Associated Press Stylebook, for instance, discourages the use of the serial comma, but the Oxford University Press style guide insists on its usage. I am personally a fan of the serial comma.

The second use of a comma before “and” is to join two independent clauses in a sentence. An independent clause is a group of words that can stand on its own as a sentence. In your example, you brought together "He is simply the best that there is," with "and the best that there will ever be." If you wanted, you could have written: "He is simply the best that there is. And he is the best that there will ever be."

So a good way to test if a comma and an "and" are used correctly in a sentence is to let the clauses that are conjoined by a comma and an "and" stand on their own. If they can't stand on their own, you shouldn't put comma before the "and". E.g. "John wanted to visit his hometown to see his family but could not afford to be away from his job and lose his work-place benefits." Here we cannot use comma before the "and" in the sentence because “and lose his work-place benefits” can't stand on its own as a sentence.

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