"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 12/28/14

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.”

Related Articles:


LinkedIn

There was an error in this gadget

NewsShow

There was an error in this gadget