"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 2014

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Q and A on Grammar, Fixed Expressions, Nigerian English and Briticisms

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi


This edition of my Q and A series answers such questions as the difference between “amount” and “number”; the appropriate ways to say certain English proverbs such as “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” “to be forewarned is to be forearmed”; the difference between “work experience” and “working experience”; capitalization; peculiarly British English expressions like “I was sat”; and so on.

Question:
What is the difference between “number” and “amount”? I am asking this question because I thought I knew the difference until I traveled to America recently and heard people say “amount of people.” Can one say “amount of people”?

Answer:
“Amount of people” is certainly ungrammatical. “Amount” is used for uncountable nouns (such as “the amount of water”) while “number” is used for countable nouns (such as “the number of people”). No grammar rule sanctions the use of “amount” to quantify people. I, too, notice that an awful lot of Americans, especially young Americans, say “amount of people” instead of “number of people.”

I initially thought it was a conscious American English deviation from standard grammar. It turned out that “amount of people” is wrong even by the sometimes rebellious norms of American English. Every single American English style guide I consulted discountenanced the use of “amount” to quantify humans.

It’s a continuing struggle to get my American students to understand why I take off points from their written assignments when they write “amount of people.” So “amount of people” isn’t proper grammar by the standards of any variety of English, including American English.

Question:
Is saying “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop” wrong? If yes, why? A grammar expert here in Nigeria says we have been saying this expression wrong. How about “To be forewarned is to be forearmed”? What’s wrong with it? The same grammar expert says it’s wrong.

Answer:
It is churlish to insist that there is only one way to say these expressions. The available usage evidence does not support such prescriptive insularity. Let’s start with “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”  Although the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs renders the expressions as “an idle brain is the devil’s workshop,” other legitimate variations of the saying found in the corpora of native English speech are: “an idle brain is the devil’s playground,” “an idle brain is the devil’s workshop,” “an idle mind is (the) devil’s workshop,” “the idle body and the idle brain are the shop of the devil,” “idle hands are the devil's workshop,” and “If the devil finds a man idle, he'll set him at work.” It’s an age-old Bible-inspired English proverb that means “People who have nothing worthwhile to think about will usually think of something bad to do.”

My findings show that the proverb has run out of currency in British English because most British people don’t believe there is such a thing as the devil. But all the variations of this expression that I identified above regularly occur in American English since Americans are still, by and large, religious. 

“To be forewarned is to be forearmed” is perfectly acceptable in American English, although the usual form of the expression is “forewarned is forearmed.” British English speakers know the expression only as “forewarned is forearmed.”

Question:
I read a recent column of yours where you said native English speakers don’t say “I request for your permission”; you said they say “I request your permission.” That was eye-opening for me. And I’m an English teacher with an advanced degree in the language. But is there an occasion when it is appropriate to use “request for,” that is, when “request” is used as a noun rather than a verb?

Answer:
Yes, “request” can co-occur with the preposition “for” when “request” functions as a noun. For instance, it is entirely permissible to write or say “I sent in a request for permission to travel to Enugu.” But if “request” changes to a verb, the “for” will normally be dispensed with. Example: “I requested permission to travel to Enugu.”

Question:
There is an issue that needs your input. There was an argument between a professor of English language and a master of the same language in our university, Sokoto State University. The former said there is no rule in English that says when writing the word "university" the letter "u" be capitalized while the latter said once it is used as proper noun the letter "u" must be capitalized. For example: “the Vice-Chancellor of the Sokoto State University is a scholar of international repute....We can therefore say that the "University/university" is blessed. Prof. your input is needed in this intellectual discussion of scholars.

Answer:
"Sokoto State University" is the name of a school. English capitalization rules require that you capitalize the first letter of every word in the name of a school, college, or university. So it should be "Sokoto State University," not Sokoto State university." However, in subsequent references, when "university" is mentioned in isolation to refer to Sokoto State University, “university” need not be capitalized, although some writers would choose to capitalize it to indicate that they aren't talking about a generic university but a specific university. So I would say they’re both correct.

Question:
I am hoping you can help clarify some confusion regarding Nigerian and British English. I also hope this is how readers get in touch with you with questions. The first is, when I tell my 2-year-old, "Go and sit on your potty" or "Come and eat your food," I am curious if it’s peculiarly Nigerian to tell someone to "Go/come AND do something?" I can't help but feel a tad self-conscious when I utter that phrase.

Secondly, I often hear British people say, "She was sat in front of the telly all day" or "I was sat at home since 8 a.m. waiting for the delivery". If I said that in Nigeria, it would be considered grammatically incorrect. It sounds strange to my ears, but no one here bats an eye lid, and in fact, it’s quite common to hear it. Could you shed some light on this please?

Answer:
Native speakers tend to eliminate the "and" in the examples you gave. However, I don't think it's necessarily grammatically wrong to add the "and."

 "I was sat" isn't Standard English; it's dialectal English unique to the UK. I learned that the expression was initially a regionalism found in northern England but that it has now spread to the whole of the UK. So it’s safe to call it a Briticism. Careful writers and speakers avoid it in formal contexts even in Britain.

America also has its own inscrutable regionalisms like "If I would have saw him I would have went there." That is, "If I had seen him I would have gone there." Other regionalisms that enjoy widespread usage in informal English are "ain't," double negatives (e.g. "You don't like nobody" for "you don't like anybody") personal datives (such as saying "I want to get me some food" for "I want to get some food").

Question:
Please I need a clarification by you. Which is the correct one to put on CV: 'work experience' or 'working experience'?

Answer:
Work experience. This is what I wrote about this more than seven years ago:And in our curriculum vitas (what Americans call résumés; in America, unlike in Nigeria and Britain, ‘CV’ is used only to mean the summary of the academic and work history of university teachers) we have a section we call ‘working experience.’ The equivalent of that phrase in American and British English is ‘work experience.’ And this is no nitpicking. When ‘working’ is used as an adjective, it can mean ‘just adequate for practical use’ (example: I am not an IT expert; I just have a working knowledge of the computer). It can also mean ‘adopted on a temporary basis for further work’ (example: This is just a working draft. The final paper will be issued tomorrow). So, to describe your job experience—which you probably accumulated over several years—as a ‘working experience’ is to do a great disservice to yourself in America and Britain. Maybe I am being overdramatic here; they will probably understand that you mean ‘work experience.’ But it doesn't hurt to know the difference.”

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

Still on Emir Sanusi II’s Fake Twitter Handle and AFP’s Editorial Recklessness

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi


My December 20, 2014 column titled “Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II and Vanguard’s Internet-Age Junk Journalism” had an almost instantaneous and dramatic effect. First, the fake Twitter handle (@malsanusilamido) that impersonated Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II and that was used to spread all manner of libelous lies in his name was “suspended” by Twitter on account of my column. Twitter was persuaded by my evidence that the handle had no connection with Kano’s Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II.


Then, on the strength of the suspension of the fake Twitter account, I tweeted to Agence France-Presse (AFP), the French news agency that wrote the original story that Vanguard and a few other papers then republished without verification, to retract the story forthwith. (My Twitter handle is @farooqkperogi in case you want to follow me). I also campaigned for all Nigerians on Twitter to tweet to @AFP and demand that the false story be retracted. Within 24 hours, @AFP was bombarded with a torrent of tweets from Nigerians requesting it to retract its story and apologize to the emir.

On December 21, AFP’s West Africa Bureau Chief Phil Hazlewood (whose Twitter handle is @philhazlewood and whose email address is phillip.hazlewood@afp.com) tweeted this to me: "The story has been retracted. Thanks for your input." When I asked Hazlewood for a link to the retraction, he tweeted: "It's on the wire to subscribers. Whether they then publish it is up to them."

Curiously, up to the time of writing this column, no news organization that published the false AFP story has published the retraction—not even Vanguard that gave the story a lot of prominence. Only the Daily Trust, which never published the original story, published the retraction on December 23, 2014. But why would newspapers decline to publish a retraction to a story that turned out to be entirely false? Isn’t it an elementary ethical code in journalism that news organizations have an obligation to correct inaccuracies that they’d published once the facts become apparent?

Well, it turned out that AFP probably didn’t send the retraction in their news feed to their subscribers. Daily Trust’s acting editor, Nasir Lawal, told me he didn’t find the retraction in AFP’s news feed. (Daily Trust, like most Nigerian newspapers, is subscribed to AFP and other international news agencies). The paper’s Investigations Editor, Nuruddeen Abdallah, also told me his search through AFP’s recent news feed didn’t yield any mention of the retraction. For a moment, it appeared like I had lied about AFP withdrawing its made-up story on the Emir of Kano. So I gave Abdallah Hazlewood’s email address and Twitter handle and asked him to confirm if he indeed tweeted to me that AFP had retracted its story on the emir of Kano. It was after sending an email to Hazlewwod, according to Abdallah, that the retraction was EMAILED to Daily Trust.

This leads me to think AFP was probably too embarrassed to send its retraction to its subscribers worldwide and chose merely to mollify me—and Daily Trust’s Abdullah who took interest in the story at the prompting of his editor—and hope that the rest of the world wouldn’t notice. If that is indeed what happened, it’s scandalous beyond belief. Of course, AFP’s editors and reporters should be embarrassed. They not only defaulted in their surveillance responsibilities by not knowing that the emir has consistently told the Nigerian news media that he has no social media account of any kind, they were also recklessly credulous in trusting an unverified social media account that purports to be that of someone as prominent as the Emir of Kano. If AFP can (incorrectly) ascribe the status of “Nigeria’s second most powerful Islamic leader” to Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II, they should also think him important enough to deserve having a Twitter handle that is verified by Twitter.

So AFP’s reporting not only violates time-honored journalistic ethos, it also betrays an unacceptable disrespect for one of Nigeria’s revered cultural institutions. AFP would dare not be this blithely insouciant if it was the Queen of England or some other European traditional institution that was the subject of a completely fictitious story from their news feed. 


AFP isn’t just another news agency; it’s the world’s oldest news agency. Apart from that, it also defines its editorial philosophy as follows: “to report events, free of all influences or considerations likely to impair the exactitude of its news and under no circumstances to pass under the legal or actual control of an ideological, political or economic group.” In the Emir Sanusi story, AFP certainly betrayed its own editorial philosophy.  

AFP has been in Nigeria long enough to know that prominent emirs in northern Nigeria don’t profess open political partisanship during elections because they’re “fathers of all.” Plus, the acute tensile stress that attended Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II’s ascension to the throne this year would have made his explicit support for General Muhammadu Buhari particularly strange, even foolhardy. 

But that isn’t all: the fake tweet from which AFP wrote its story merely said, “I say help is on the way. Terror must and will be defeated. All it requires is the [sic] good leaders, uncommon courage and unrelenting determination, and victory will be ours.” Nothing in this fake tweet even remotely supports AFP’s wild interpretive stretch that “Sanusi… was presumably referring to the emergence of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari as the candidate of the opposition All Progressives Congress in next year’s presidential election.” 

Can AFP in good conscience defend its hyperbolized editorial extrapolation as being “free of all influences or considerations likely to impair the exactitude of its news and under no circumstances to pass under the legal or actual control of an ideological, political or economic group”? 

As the preponderance of comments on Vanguard’s website shows, this fictitious story, especially the unwarranted inference that it’s a backhanded support for the presidential candidate of the APC, has been coopted into the rhetorical and propaganda armory of People’s Democratic Party’s spin doctors and supporters. That makes the story not “free of… [a]…political…group.”

This is a huge ethical and legal infraction. If Emir Sanusi II chooses to sue AFP, he will win millions in damages against them. AFP needs to do more than hurriedly put together a tepid, egotistical, one-paragraph retraction that it did not, in fact, send to its subscribers. It should do a proper mea culpa. 

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