"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 11/10/13

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Q and A on Religious English, Usage and Punctuation

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Is it “Moslem” or “Muslim”? Are the expressions “remain blessed” or “stay blessed” uniquely Nigerian? Can “guys” be used to refer to both men and women? Is “majorly” a legitimate word? You will find answers to these and many other questions in this week’s edition of my Q and A series.

A Muslim friend of mine took offence when I spelled Muslim as Moslem. I told him Moslem is the accepted English spelling and that Muslim is the Arabic rendition. Since I am speaking or writing English I thought I should use the accepted English spelling. Can you help me educate my friend?

Your friend may be a little too thin-skinned for his own good if he takes offense at the mere (mis)spelling of a word, but his objection to the spelling of “Muslim” as “Moslem” has basis in modern English. Most modern dictionaries and style guides now prefer “Muslim” to “Moslem.”  The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, says “Muslim is the preferred spelling for a ‘follower of Islam’….The archaic term Muhammadan (or Mohammedan) …should be avoided.”

The 2013 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, America’s most prestigious journalistic style guide, also writes: “Muslims [is] the preferred term to describe adherents of Islam.” Finally, in their book Longman Guide to English Usage, Professors Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, two of Britain’s most celebrated grammarians, wrote: “The adherents of Islam are now usually referred to as Muslims, rather than the older form Moslems.”

So, in essence, many educated native speakers of the English language no longer spell Muslim as “Moslem.” This change is a response to the preference of Muslims. Related spellings that have changed over the years are Qur’an (instead of the now archaic “Koran”) and Muhammad (instead of “Mohammed” or the older, more archaic “Mahomet”). The changes are also a response to the preferences of Muslims, although many Muslims still spell Muhammad as “Mohammed” even in the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam.

I have a question for your column. "Stay blessed" and "remain blessed," are these Nigerian expressions? What are about "journey mercies"?

“Stay blessed” or “remain blessed” (sometimes incorrectly written as “stay bless” or “remain bless”) are not exactly uniquely Nigerian English expressions, but Nigerians use them way more frequently than native English speakers do. These expressions, which are often used to sign off letters and emails, are scarcely used by the general populations in America and Britain. Only very religious, compulsively churchgoing people in America, and perhaps Britain, use them. The general populations in America and Britain end their emails with expressions like “kind regards,” “best,” “best wishes,” “take care,” etc.

The expression “I wish you journey mercies” is also church lingo in America. The general population says “I wish you a safe trip” or just “have a safe trip.” Before writing this response, I asked a number of Americans if they would understand me if I said “journey mercies” to them. Of the 10 or so people I asked, only one had any clue what the expression meant, and that one person is a churchgoer who said she would never use the expression in everyday settings.

But Nigerians are overtly, some would say overly, religious people, and this reflects in their language use.

I have two questions. First, is there a word like "majorly"? I have been unable to find it in any of the dictionaries available to me. Second, does one move the adoption of the minutes of a meeting or move for the adoption?

Yes, “majorly” is a legitimate word. It means extremely, mainly, chiefly, etc. Examples of the word’s usage in my dictionary are: “majorly successful," "I feel majorly better," "he is majorly interested in butterflies." The reason you don’t find the word in basic dictionaries is that it’s a relatively recent word. It was formed first as a slang term in the US and Canada in the 1980s, but it’s now used and accepted across all the major varieties of English. In fact, Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest-surviving and most prestigious dictionary in the English language, has an entry for the word.

 To answer your second question, one moves a motion for the adoption of the minutes of a meeting.

I’m a student in Nigeria. I often hear my colleagues use “guys” to refer to for both genders. My question is: is the word conventionally accepted for both genders in America?

The straightforward answer is yes. The singular form of the word, that is, “guy,” is an informal term reserved only for a man, as in “He is a really great guy.” But the plural form of the word, that is, “guys,” can be, and is often, used to refer to men alone, women alone, and men and women combined. Women here in America frequently say “let’s get going, guys!” when they address an all-female company. And it is conventional to refer to a mix-gender company as “guys.”

My students and I actually discussed this issue extensively two weeks ago during a class on gendered language in the news media. At least two things came out from the discussion. First, “guys” has not always been used to refer to both men and women; its use as gender-neutral plural is a relatively recent semantic evolution. Second, the use of “guys” to refer to people of either gender first took roots in northern United States before it crossed over to the South. One of my students said her parents told her one of the definitive shibboleths (that is, a manner of speaking that marks people out) of Yankees (as people from the American south call their northern compatriots) was their tendency to use “guys” where southerners would say “you all” (often pronounced “y’all”).

But it’s important to note that in modern informal English, in both America and Britain, it’s now wholly legitimate to use “guys” to refer to either gender. This sense of the word has already been captured even in the Oxford English Dictionary.

What grammatical rules are responsible for the hyphenation or non-hyphenation of some compound nouns /words/expressions such as: backbone, back-breaking, birthmark, birthplace, blood-red, etc.?

Hyphens perform many functions in written English, but for reasons of space and time I will touch on only a few of them.

 First, hyphens are joiners; they help form new words by joining words that are traditionally different into a single word. For example, what used to be “electronic mail” up until the 1980s became “e-mail” in the 1990s, and “email” in most dictionaries in the later part of the 2000s. Similarly, the words “proof” and “read” were hyphenated to form “proof-read.” Now, there is no hyphen in the word: it’s correctly spelled “proofread.”

It helps to note, though, that unlike other punctuation marks, there are no standard, universal rules for hyphenating words. Different style guides have different rules about hyphenation. In general, however, hyphenation is used to avoid ambiguity. For example, the hyphen helps us differentiate between the words “recover” and “re-cover.” While “recover” can mean recoup, recuperate, or get back (as in “he recovered from his illness”), “re-cover” means to cover again (as in, “he re-covered the table after the wind blew the tablecloth away”).

Second, the hyphen is used to avoid what the Associated Press Stylebook calls “duplicated vowels” such as “anti-intellectual” and “pre-empt,” or tripled consonants such as “shell-like.” However, some words with duplicated vowels, such as “cooperate,” are not hyphenated by some style guides.

Third, in forming what grammarians call compound modifiers, hyphens are indispensable. Compound modifiers are two or more words that act like an adjective and appear before a noun. Examples: the good-for-nothing governor of my state, little-known heroes, etc.

On the bodies of tankers carrying fuel in Nigeria, we often see the inscriptions “Highly Inflammable” or “Highly flammable.” Which one is correct?

I’ve answered this question before. Here is what I wrote: “Both expressions are correct. Flammable and inflammable mean one and the same thing. You can use one in place of the other. Many people mistake inflammable to be the antonym of flammable. They are wrong. The proper antonym of flammable is ‘non-flammable.’ Other alternatives are ‘fireproof’ and ‘incombustible.’”

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Politics of Grammar Column


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