"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Q and A on Word Usage and Confusing Expressions

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Q and A on Word Usage and Confusing Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


Should it be “iron clothes” or “press clothes”? What is the difference between “uninterested” and “disinterested” and between “climatic” and “climactic”? Is there a difference between “relatives” and “relations” and between “slippers” and flip-flops”? Why is “clap for him/her” wrong and “clap him/her” right? Find answers to these and other questions in this week’s column.


Question:
Between “iron clothes” and “press clothes” which is more correct? We use these terms interchangeably in Nigeria, but “press clothes” seems to be preferred by not-too-educated people. Any thoughts?

Answer:
Both terms are synonymous. That’s what all the dictionaries I consulted said. The use of either expression is more an indication of preference than of level of education. My own preference is “iron clothes.” That also seems to be the preference of Americans among whom I live. I don’t recall ever hearing an American say they’d “press their clothes.” They tend to prefer “iron” to “press.”

 Out of curiosity, I searched the Web to see if I’ve been missing something. I found a website called “Daily Writing Tips” where an Indian asked to know the difference between “pressing” and “ironing.” There was no consensus among native English speakers about what differences, if any, exist between the two terms. They were all over the place. But two things stood out boldly in their responses. One, “iron clothes” is the choice of most young people. Two, the older generation uses “iron clothes” and “press clothes” interchangeably.

Question:
Is there a difference between uninterested and disinterested? I had always thought they were synonyms but someone I respect said they are different words. I believed him until I read why a native speaker used the words interchangeably in the same write-up. I’ll appreciate your take on these words.

Answer:
Uninterested and disinterested are not synonyms. Uninterested means “not interested” (as in “the students were uninterested in mathematics”) while “disinterested” means impartial, unbiased, not affected by self-interest, etc. (as in “he is a disinterested judge”). Many people, including native English speakers, confuse these two words. Every year, about 90 percent of my students, who are native English speakers, fail my question that tests their knowledge of the difference between these two words.

 I have also read well-regarded writers mix up these words. But no dictionary I know of treats “uninterested” and “disinterested” as synonyms. This could very well happen in the near future since most users of the language, including native speakers, can’t tell the words apart. But, for now, it’s safe to stick to the distinction between the words.

Question:
Someone just shocked me by saying it’s wrong to say “clap for him.” What’s wrong with that expression?

Answer:
Several other people called my attention to a Nigerian lady on Twitter (I can’t recall her handle) who said “clap for him” as a synonym for “applaud” is wrong, and that the correct expression is “clap him.” This isn’t the first time this discussion has come up in Nigerian English grammar circles. Many other people have pointed out that “clap” doesn’t admit of the preposition “of.” They are partly right. All major English dictionaries support them. For instance, Oxford Dictionary defines “clap” as follows: “Strike the palms of (one’s hands) together repeatedly, typically in order to applaud.” It gives the following usage examples to illustrate the definition:

“Then strolled out of the airport with my cousin who was clapping me on my performance.”
“Cars hooted approval, crowds cheered and clapped the heroes.”

“His father Gordon, a former York City star, asked the congregation to stand for a minute to applaud and clap Thomas, and ‘say thank you for knowing him’.”

However, the pragmatics (i.e., actual use) of the expression is different from its dictionary definitions. American English speakers certainly say “clap for.” This is attested to by the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the definitive record of English usage in the United States. I will give a few examples from the Corpus of instances where “clap for” appeared in prestigious publications.

The first example is from a 2012 New York Times article titled “Assad Accepts Cease-Fire; Opponents Are Skeptical.” In the article, this sentence appears: “They bring people on buses to clap for him and say that he killed all the Free Syrian Army…”

Another 1996 New York Times article titled “Name a New Musical Star” contains the following sentence: “And, in the theater, they clap for Ms. Channing, Ms. Andrews and Ms. Burnett as if they'd never seen a star before.

A 1994 San Francisco Chronicle article also contains the following: “The fans began to clap for an Astros rally.”

I found numerous other examples in popular media and well-regarded academic journals where “clap for him/her,” not “clap him/her,” is used in place of applaud. In fact, not only have I never heard any American say “clap him/her,” the Americans I spoke with before writing this column told me “clap him/her” sounds “weird” to them—as it does to most Nigerian English speakers.

Now, does this mean the Twitter grammar lady is wrong? Absolutely no. My checks at the British National Corpus shows that British English speakers prefer “clap him/her” to “clap for him/her.” The corpus bought up only one match for the expression “clap for,” and it appeared during a TV  chat where a host, on March 12, 1992, said: “ah let's all clap for Neil, er, er what's he gon na do go off and have a boxing match?”

So this looks like a dialectal variation.

Question:
What is the difference between relative and relation? It seems to me that native English speakers prefer “relative” to relation. Is “relation” Nigerian English?

Answer:
Both terms are interchangeable. But I realize that when I say “my relations,” my American friends have a hard time understanding me. Americans, especially in the South, almost always say “my relatives.” I guess it’s because “relations” has several other competing meanings, such as sexual intercourse, dealings, act of narration, etc. “Relatives” has no such semantic burden, so it’s easily associated with one’s flesh and blood.

But “relations” is not a uniquely Nigerian English word. Nor is it wrong.

Question:
What is the difference between climatic and climactic?

Answer:
Like “uninterested” and “disinterested,” “climatic” and “climactic” are often confused with each other. But, although they kind of sound alike, they have different meanings. “Climatic” is the adjective related to “climate” (as in “climatic changes will affect the eco system) while “climactic” (notice the “c” after “a”) is the adjective related to “climax,” that is, the highest point of anything, or the decisive moment in a work of fiction, or orgasm.

Question:
What’s the difference between slippers and flip-flops?

Answer:
The simplest way to answer this question for a Nigerian is to say American English speakers use “flip-flops” where Nigerian and British English speakers would say “slippers.” What Americans call “slippers” is completely different from what Nigerians know as slippers. In American English slippers don’t have a string between the big toe and the second toe. See pictures below:
These are called flip-flogs in American English; Nigerian (and British) English speakers know these as slippers

 
What you see above is what Americans call slippers
I just recently learned that Hawaiians (Hawaii is a state in America that is located outside the contiguous United States) use “slippers” the way Nigerian and British English speakers use the word.

Question:
I was conversing with a friend and I said “if to say." He said I was wrong, that I should have said "had it been." Is he correct and why?

Answer:
Yes, your friend is right. "If to say" is Nigerian Pidgin English expression for “if I had” or “had I.” Interestingly, “if to say” has made its way to mainstream Nigerian English. That’s probably why you didn’t recognize it as odd.

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