"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: February 2013

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Q and A on Nigerian and American English Expressions—and More

Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


In this week’s edition of my Q and A series, you will find answers to questions on the grammatical correctness of the name of Nigeria’s newest political party, the proper plural form of the noun “faithful” (is it “faithfuls” or just “the faithful”?), and the differences between “rub minds” and “meeting of the minds.”  Enjoy.

Question:
I read your column religiously every week. Today I come to you with a question. I am sure you've heard of the opposition alliance APC. I have read and heard several versions of this acronym:  All Progressive Congress, All Progressives Congress, and All Progressives' Congress. I was wondering which of the three versions is actually grammatically correct. And does an acronym have to be grammatically correct?

Answer:
Of the three names you mentioned, only "All Progressives Congress" is clearly grammatically incorrect. “All Progressive Congress” is correct (note that there is no “s” at the end of “progressive”) because "all" and "progressive" serve as modifiers of "congress"—on the model of such expressions as "all-male party," "all-female company," etc. The problem, though, is that there is no hyphen between "all" and "progressive." 

There should be because both words together function as what grammarians call a compound modifier. But hyphens are difficult to observe, and it is clumsy to have them in the name of a political party—or any organization. "All Progressives' Congress" is also correct—it is actually the best of the three—because it shows a simple case of possession. The apostrophe at the end of "progressives" (note the plural) indicates that the "congress" is owned by, or is for, people who identify with the political philosophy of progressivism.

Yes, it helps for acronyms to be grammatically correct, but names of organizations can flout the rules of grammar. There are many examples of that even in countries where English is a native language. The general usage guide is that you should respect the names that companies and organizations choose to be known by even if, in your judgment, the names violate the rules of grammar.

Question:
You once wrote that “faithfuls” is not the plural of the noun “faithful,” that is, a group of people who belong to a religion or a political party. But someone argued with me the other day that “faithfuls” is indeed the acceptable plural of “faithful.” He said he found “faithfuls” in an online dictionary. What can you say about that?

Answer:
The standard plural for “faithful” when it is used as a noun to mean staunch followers of or believers in a faith, ideology, or creed, is “the faithful,” not “faithfuls.” It should be “millions of the Christian faithful,” “millions of the Muslim faithful,” “thousands of the party faithful at the PDP convention,” etc. I have never heard any educated native English speaker say “faithfuls.” In fact, there appears a wiggly red underline beneath the word when you type it on Microsoft Word, indicating that it’s not recognized as an English word. Plus, the world’s most prestigious English dictionary—the Oxford English Dictionary—says the plural of “faithful” is “the faithful.” It does not list “faithfuls” as an alternative plural form for “faithful.”

I am aware that the online edition of Merriam-Webster Dictionary says that when “faithful” is used outside religious contexts, it can be pluralized to “faithfuls.” It gives the expression “party faithfuls” as an example. That means while it does not recognize the pluralization of “faithful” in reference to religions as legitimate, it tolerates its pluralization elsewhere.

However, when I searched the British National Corpus, the definitive record of contemporary spoken and written British English, I found only two records for “party faithfuls,” but found thousands of records for “the party faithful.” The Corpus of Contemporary American English— which has been described as “the first large, genre-balanced corpus of any language, which has been designed and constructed from the ground up as a ‘monitor corpus’, and which can be used to accurately track and study recent changes in the language”— did not return a single record for “party faithfuls,” but had thousands of matches for “the party faithful.

What this tells me is that “faithfuls” as a plural of “faithful” is rare, non-standard in British English and completely absent in American English. I would never advise you to use “faithfuls” in careful writing or in polite company. It would make you sound illiterate.

Question:
Which of the following is acceptable in Standard English: "to robb minds" or "to meet minds," as in “we want to robb minds in order to reach a conclusion” or “we want to meet minds...”

Answer:
You probably meant to write "rub minds" instead of "robb minds." (To rob, of course, is to steal. I would hope that the world does not degenerate to the stage that people’s minds can literally be robbed! It would make plagiarism lame. Why steal someone’s ideas when you can steal the whole mind that produced the idea?)

On a serious note, I wrote about the expression “rub minds” many times in previous articles. Some language columnists in Nigeria have said it is a peculiarly Nigerian English expression. That’s not entirely accurate.  It’s actually an archaic or rarely used American English expression for "brainstorm," that is, solving a problem by thinking hard about it.

Although it’s clearly an American English expression, there is no record for “rub minds” in the Corpus of Contemporary American English or, for that matter, in the Corpus of Historical American English, which contains an impressive record of spoken and written American English from 1810 to 2009. However, I found an April 4, 1999 New York Times article with the title “The Fledglings Rub Minds With Some High Fliers.”

That means although Nigerian English—and Ghanaian English, Nigerian English’s closest cousin—uses the expression “rub minds” more liberally than any other variety of English in the world, it’s not a Nigerian English invention. Nevertheless, my sense is that you’re unlikely to be understood by young Americans if you say you want to “rub minds” with them on an issue. I have never heard the expression in conversational English here. It is entirely meaningless in British English.

"Meeting of the minds" is another American English idiom that is used more commonly in formal and legal contexts than it is in conversational English. It means "mutual agreement." It does not mean sharing ideas or solutions in the sense that Nigerian English speakers use “rub minds.” The 2002 edition of McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs defines it as “the establishment of agreement; complete agreement.” And here are the examples it gives of how the expression is used:  “After a lot of discussion we finally reached a meeting of the minds.”  “We struggled to bring about a meeting of the minds on the issues.”

A recent example I found of the use of the expression by a notable US news organization is the Christian Science Monitor’s January 20, 2011 headline that reads: “Can Obama, Congress meet minds to revamp No Child Left Behind?” It’s basically the same as “Can Obama, Congress agree to revamp No Child Left Behind?”

The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms (2003) has a slightly different rendering of the meaning of the expression. It defines it as “a situation in which people find that they have similar ideas and opinions” (p. 266). The following is the dictionary’s example of how to use the expression: “There was a true meeting of minds between the two leaders during the six-hour talk.”

I have read many Nigerian grammar columnists who advised that people should prefer “meeting of the minds” to “rub minds.” Well, the two expressions are completely different and can’t be interchanged.  

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
55. The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words
56. Idioms, Mistranslation, and Abati's Double Standards 
57. Native English Speakers' Struggles with Grammar 
58. Q and A on Nigerian English and Usage Rules
59. Of Yoruba, Arabic, and Origins of Nigerian Languages
60. Language Families in Nigeria
61. Are There Native English Speakers in Nigeria? 
62. The English Nigerian Children Speak (I)
63. The English Nigerian Children Speak (II)
64. Reader Comments and My Responses to "The English Nigerian Children Speak" 
65. Q and A on American English Grammar and General Usage
66. Q and A on Prepositions and Nigerian Media English 
67. Americanisms Popularized by American Presidential Politics (I) 
67. Americanisms Popularized by American Presidential Politics (II)
68. Top 10 Peculiar Salutations in Nigerian English (I)
69. Top 10 Peculiar Salutations in Nigerian English (II)
70. Q and A on English Salutation, Punctuation and Other Usage Problems
71. More Q and A on a Variety of Grammar Usage Issues 
72. Top 10 Outdated and/or Made-up Words in Nigerian English 
73. Q and A on Outdated Nigerian English Words and Expressions  
74. 20 Obsolete English Words that Should Make a Comeback
75. Q and A About Jargon and Confusing Expressions
76. President Goodluck Jonathan's Grammatical Boo-boos
77. How Political Elite Influence English Grammar and Vocabulary 
78. Use and Misuse of "Penultimate" in Nigerian and Native English 


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Re: Insults Africans and African Americans Hurl at Each Other

What became obvious from the responses I got from last week’s column is that I merely scratched the surface of a deep issue. The constraints of space prevented me from writing more things than I’d conceived for the article. For instance, as one responder commented below, I didn’t mention that “jungle bunny” isn’t an exclusively African-American slur against Africans; it’s rather a white American putdown for all black people. I also didn’t mention that African immigrants sometimes jocularly call each other “Akata” to underscore the fact that they’ve been in America for too long.

Additionally, as you will see below, what I thought was a mere lighthearted piece on the name-calling between two estranged racial cousins is the subject of research by semioticians. A University of Ibadan stylistics professor has been investigating the use of intra- and inter-group ethnic slurs in Nigeria since the late 1990s. I can’t wait to read his book when it’s finally done.

 Ethnic slurs aren’t always ill-natured. Sometimes they serve humorous purposes. The English language, for instance, is full of expressions that stereotype other European ethnic groups. Phrases such as “French kiss,” “excuse my French” (used when someone says something nasty or obscene), “Dutch courage” (for alcohol-induced bravery)” “Dutch treat” (for a dinner where everyone pays for himself), etc. signal intentionally deprecatory but harmless inter-group humor.

Nevertheless, as indicated in last week’s article, mutual tension isn’t the only feature of the relationship between African immigrants in America and African Americans. Next week, I will write a profile of an African-American woman who lived in Nigeria for nearly four decades and became a Nigerian citizen. She recently returned to America, along with her Nigerian husband, after retiring from the Nigerian civil service. Now, she is often mistaken for an African, for an “outsider,” in the country of her birth. I spoke with her extensively over the last few weeks and can’t wait to share her story with my readers. See you next week.

Loved it! I wrote something along the same lines in the past. I'm glad that great minds are at last thinking alike. The expression, "jungle bunny" is not an African American invention. This is a blanket term Whites used on anyone who was Black.

I have some other ones for you: bubu(s), monkey chasers, and I would like to add that Eddie Murphy created a HUGE insult against the generic African womanhood when he invented a character called, “zebra bitch” (he thought if he went to Africa and found an "innocent" he would be free of losing half of his wealth via divorce). If we could stop being so mean to each other maybe we could actually bridge a portion of the chasm between Africans and African Americans.
Thank you again,
La Vonda R. Staples, Missouri, USA

Nice article. Glad to have you as kindred spirit. I have been doing research on intra- and inter-group derogatory labeling since 1999, approaching the inquiry from the angle of cultural semiotics, and have found this domain of scholarship really fascinating. It is also a risky field especially because some would rather view a researcher in my position as somebody who tries to make a name through bringing up a subject matter that ought to be suppressed, by so doing rousing prejudice, advertising it, and deepening divides. Anyway, one way of catering for the critique that one is trying to make a career at the expense of co-existence is to intervene and use the analysis of those labels to make statements about the engineering of inter-group relations and peace-building. You may consider writing a second installment of your lovely essay to reflect your critical intervention.
Dr. Obododimma Oha, Department of English, University of Ibadan
Beyonce and Jay Z in Nigeria
It’s funny, but goes to show how intelligent and curious your daughter is. I am still laughing trying to imagine what was going on in her innocent mind then. But, anyway, we`ve learnt a thing or two in case we get over there and someone tries to use the word on us. I think I will also not take it lightly like your daughter.
Aisha Nana Mohammed, Minna

Never heard the expression "The booty scratcher." It is an eye-opener. Insightful info about the origins of the word "Akata." I used to belong to a Yahoo group where the term caused a ruckus between members, some of whom considered it very derogatory to the African American. Even though we may not all be aware of our slave ancestry, is there a term that is more pejorative to any black person than the N word? At this point, I do not think that there's a label anyone can attach to another person which should worry them. As the English say, a rose will still smell as sweet, no matter what they call it.
Duchess Samira Edi, London

Got a couple of rap dictionaries at home – da slang is on the move and evolving so fast - methinks that you've left out a whole lot that you'll probably include in the follow-up on both the written and the spoken word?
Cornelius Hamelberg, Sweden

The bane of we Africans/African Americans is hatred, bitterness and disunity among ourselves.
Sola Aiyetan, Moscow, Russia

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why Use of “They” as Singular Pronoun Isn’t Bad Grammar

Over the last few years, the pronoun “they” (and its other inflections such as “their” and “them”) has replaced “he” or “he or she” as the preferred pronoun, at least in conversational English, when referring back to a singular antecedent. For instance, instead of saying or writing “Everybody should bring his or her book,” most people now say or write “Everybody should bring THEIR book.” Many grammarians have denounced this usage as inexcusably careless and illegitimate. They say it’s an unacceptable slaughter of proper grammar on the altar of (feminist) political correctness. In fact, the Associated Press Stylebook, the bible of American journalism, forbids the use of “they” as a generic, singular pronoun.

 Well, in a beautifully written and hugely insightful January 16, 2013 article in the language blog of the Economist, I learned that the use of “they” as a singular pronoun actually has deep roots that go back to several centuries. Please enjoy this brilliant article originally titled “Singular ‘they’: everyone has their own opinion” and learn about the history and evolution of the pronoun “they.” 



FREDDIE DEBOER, a graduate student and blogger, has just summed up his class project examining the use of singular they. It will be hard going for most readers, using as it does terms like "anaphor" and "c-command" that aren't part of ordinary school and university grammar-teaching. After his technical analysis of the few cases where singular they is allowed (as in "every student aced their project"), he sums up for the lay reader:

Using "their" for singular antecedents is one that I think people need to just give up on. As I've argued, it only occurs in a very limited set of circumstances, and those circumstances [are very] unlikely to produce confusion about what is meant. We all know what is intended in such a statement, to the point that most of us don't even notice it in spoken conversation. And as we lack a satisfying alternative, the usage is likely to persist. That's not to say that you shouldn't understand what the "rule" is, if only to be able to satisfy those gatekeepers that police it. (Don't use it in your resume, don't use it in your grade school application.) But this is an example of a gate that's not worth defending anymore.

It's a nice piece of work, but it's useful to revisit the old question of singular they, and go deeper into two of Mr deBoer's arguments, one of which he makes explicitly, and one of which he waves away.
First, the argument he waves away:

When dealing with scolds, it's nice to be able to point out that "they" was used as a singular pronoun for centuries before anybody said that you couldn't. But we shouldn't be tempted to take that as dispositive when we are trying to avoid exactly that kind of rigidity.

He's right that no single argument is dispositive. Tradition alone must contend with the modern vox populi and with logic when we ask "what's correct?" But many who oppose singular they do so precisely on historical grounds. Such people argue that singular they is a product either of sloppy modern grammar teaching or of political correctness (that is, the desire to avoid "Every student aced his project").

If singular they has deep historical precedent, then it is dispositive on the sub-question of what is traditionally correct. In this case, liberal descriptivists and conservative prescriptivists can sing a happy song in harmony. Descriptivists note that nearly everyone uses singular they, at least in speech. Prescriptivists can relax in the knowledge that Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James translators, Swift, Byron, Austen, Goldsmith, Thackeray, Shaw, Herbert Spencer and others used it. In collecting these examples, the "Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage" notes that these are not "lapses" by the greats. They are the regular pattern, many centuries old. The "prohibition" of singular they is only two centuries old. This simply should not be a controversy.


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
55. The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words
56. Idioms, Mistranslation, and Abati's Double Standards 
57. Native English Speakers' Struggles with Grammar 
58. Q and A on Nigerian English and Usage Rules
59. Of Yoruba, Arabic, and Origins of Nigerian Languages
60. Language Families in Nigeria
61. Are There Native English Speakers in Nigeria? 
62. The English Nigerian Children Speak (I)
63. The English Nigerian Children Speak (II)
64. Reader Comments and My Responses to "The English Nigerian Children Speak" 
65. Q and A on American English Grammar and General Usage
66. Q and A on Prepositions and Nigerian Media English 
67. Americanisms Popularized by American Presidential Politics (I) 
67. Americanisms Popularized by American Presidential Politics (II)
68. Top 10 Peculiar Salutations in Nigerian English (I)
69. Top 10 Peculiar Salutations in Nigerian English (II)
70. Q and A on English Salutation, Punctuation and Other Usage Problems
71. More Q and A on a Variety of Grammar Usage Issues 
72. Top 10 Outdated and/or Made-up Words in Nigerian English 
73. Q and A on Outdated Nigerian English Words and Expressions  
74. 20 Obsolete English Words that Should Make a Comeback
75. Q and A About Jargon and Confusing Expressions
76. President Goodluck Jonathan's Grammatical Boo-boos
77. How Political Elite Influence English Grammar and Vocabulary 
78. Use and Misuse of "Penultimate" in Nigerian and Native English 



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