"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 12/30/12

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Q and A on Punctuations, Usage, and Peculiar Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


I am devoting this week’s column to some of the questions and comments I’ve received from my readers. Enjoy.

Question:
The beauty of reading your column is that you give clarity to some of our long-held assumptions and things we take for granted in the English language. Most of us are creatures of habit who stick with the familiar even when it is wrong. I never knew that the word "taxi" is an Americanism which has gained global acceptance, just like that ubiquitous English word "Weekend," which defies translation. I thought Americans preferred "Cab" to "Taxi."

I'll take this opportunity to ask one of my own: what are the rules of grammar regarding punctuation marks when we use quotation marks? Is it appropriate to put them inside the quote like this: "I am confused." Or they are meant to be after the quote like this: "help needed here"? You see, the more one learns, the more one realizes the depth of one's own ignorance.

Answer:
First, thanks for your kind words. Americans use both "taxi" and "cab." From my informal observation, it appears to me that the American south prefers "taxi" while the north prefers "cab." But “taxi,” “cab,” and “taxicab” are all widely used all over the country.

 Now to your question on punctuations in quotation marks. In British English, the rule is that all punctuations (that is, comma, question mark, full stop or period, exclamation mark) should be placed OUTSIDE quotation marks. American English has the exact opposite rule: punctuations should be placed INSIDE quotation marks. I was taught to observe the British English rule. The truth, though, is that most people just mix up the British and American conventions. I think, from a practical standpoint, it is way more cumbersome to insert punctuations inside quotation marks than it is to place them outside.

 Many of my American news writing students tend to follow the British rule out of ignorance of the rules of American English—and because it requires an effort to place a comma, question mark, exclamation mark, period (i.e., full stop) inside quotation marks. Now I'm put in the uncomfortable situation of penalizing them for obeying the British rule—the rule I learned in Nigeria. Also note that while the British prefer single quotation marks, Americans prefer double quotation marks. George Bernard Shaw was right when he said “America and England are two countries DIVIDED by a COMMON language” (emphasis mine)!

Question:
Is the expression “see reason” Nigerian English? It sounds like the translation of one of our native languages.

Answer:
No, “see reason” is not exclusive to Nigerian English, and I can’t think of any Nigerian language it’s a translation of. It’s a standard idiomatic expression in all varieties of English. Dictionary.com defines it as “adopt a sensible course of action, let oneself be persuaded, as in At ninety Grandma finally saw reason and gave up driving her car.” The site located the origin of the expression to William Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV (1:2). That means the expression has been in the English language since at least the 1600s.

Question:
What is the difference between “that” and “who”? For instance, should it be “the people THAT came here are my relatives” or “the people WHO came here are my relatives”?

Answer:
Grammarians have not settled the argument about whether or not there is a difference between “that” and “who.” But there is an age-old, superstitious grammatical rule that says people should use “who” only when they refer to humans and restrict the use of “that” to refer to non-humans and inanimate objects. If we follow that rule, your first sentence would be wrong and your second sentence would be correct. This rule would have us say “the man WHO came here yesterday is my best friend” and the “the dog THAT barked at you in my house is a German shepherd.”

I call the rule superstitious because many authorities, such as the American Heritage Dictionary, one of the English world’s most prestigious dictionaries, say the insistence on restricting “who” to humans and “that” to non-humans has no basis in the grammatical conventions of the English language. This is what the American Heritage Dictionary says about it: “It is entirely acceptable to write either the man THAT wanted to talk to you, or the man WHO wanted to talk to you.”

Before you think the blurring of the distinction between “that” and “who” is peculiarly American, note that many grammarians have found evidence of the use of “that” to refer to humans in the writings of such canonical English authors as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. So the use of “that” to refer to humans has a long history.

I should also point out that the Associated Press Stylebook, which is considered the bible of American journalism and which I use to teach news reporting and writing here in America, insists that “who” be used only for humans and “that” for inanimate objects. So it’s not a settled matter.

My advice, as always, is that you should avoid any usage that is controversial. That means, although there is no grammatical basis for the distinction between “that” and “who,” it is safer to observe the hoary rule that says “who” is used only to refer to humans and “that” is used only for non-humans and inanimate objects than to flout it.

Question:
I'd like you to educate Nigerians on the meaning, origin and significance of Boxing Day. Certain bodies in Nigeria organise boxing tournaments to commemorate the day and this year is no exception with Lagos State, the self-proclaimed Centre of Excellence, set to have a Governor Fashola Cup on that day.

Answer:
Your question provoked a chuckle and reminded me of the time that I, too, thought “Boxing Day” was a day reserved for boxing, that is, the game in which muscular men punch each other without mercy. But Boxing Day is a secular European, mostly British, tradition that is observed a day after Christmas when gifts are “boxed” and given to the needy.

Note that “box” has two meanings. Its first and most obvious meaning is to “hit with the fist.” The second meaning is “put into a box,” as in: “box the gift.” The “boxing” in “Boxing Day” refers to the second meaning of “box,” that is, to put something, usually a gift, into a box.

But it isn’t only Nigerians who associate Boxing Day with pugilism. Many of my American friends I spoke with before writing this column also thought Boxing Day was a day reserved for pugilistic entertainment. Americans, as you probably know, don’t celebrate Boxing Day. It’s interesting that although Boxing Day has been observed in Nigeria since the country’s founding, most people don’t know the day’s historic and cultural meaning.

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