"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Q and A on Idioms and Common Nigerian English Usage

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Q and A on Idioms and Common Nigerian English Usage

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

Question:
What is the correct usage of these two words: beautiful and handsome? I watched many American movies and they use beautiful for males. A friend also told me that handsome can be used for a female.

Answer:
We have been taught that “beautiful” is the adjective of choice to describe good-looking women and that “handsome” describes a good-looking man. That’s largely true, but there are occasions when this isn’t necessarily true. For instance, Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged says a woman can be described as “handsome” if she is “fine-looking in a dignified way.” Others say when a woman is described as handsome, reference is being made not to her face, but to her physical proportions.

The Random House Dictionary has this to say on your question: “Beautiful, handsome, lovely, pretty refer to a pleasing appearance. A person or thing that is beautiful has perfection of form, color, etc., or noble and spiritual qualities: a beautiful landscape, a beautiful woman. Handsome often implies stateliness or pleasing proportion and symmetry: a handsome man.  That which is lovely is beautiful but in a warm and endearing way: a lovely smile. Pretty implies a moderate but noticeable beauty, especially in that which is small or of minor importance: a pretty child.”

Beautiful man? Well, it’s not usual to describe a good-looking man as “beautiful,” although I have read women describe extremely handsome men as that. In Standard English usage, however, when a man is described as “beautiful,” reference is usually to his moral character, not his appearance. The title of a recent obituary on a man called Bill O’Donnell is “A Beautiful Man, a Beautiful Life.”

Question:
I was discussing the state of the Nigerian state with a lawyer friend and he corrected me for saying ''orientaional''. The statement went thus: ''Nigerians are suffering from psychological and orientational diseases.'' My friend said the word ''orientation'' should remain as it is, without any ''al''.

Also, The Nigeria Police issued a statement on President Buhari's recent directive regarding recruitment in the Force. It, perhaps erroneously, used the word ''the youths'' to mean the prospective applicants. But since there are women also in the Police I think the word should have been ''the youth.''

Answer:
"Orientational," though not commonly used in conversational English, is a legitimate adjective for the noun "orientation." All the dictionaries on my desk have an entry for it. In fact, in English grammar, there is something called "orientational preposition." You are also right about "youths." As I wrote several times here, when “youth” is pluralized to “youths” it often means “young men.”  When "youth" refers to both sexes it is never pluralized.

Question:
Which of these two sentences is correct?  “You are advised to follow these instructions to the latter” and “You are advised to follow these instructions to the letter.” There was a heated argument where I insisted that the LATTER sentence is correct as opposed to the FORMER. They said I do not understand English at all. Please separate the fight.

Answer:
You are right. The idiom is "to the letter," meaning "in every detail." Latter means the second of two things of persons mentioned. Latter can also mean the last of several things or people mentioned.

Question:
A May 30, 2015 article in the Punch titled “Aisha Buhari closes beauty parlour in Kaduna” has the following lead: “Soft-spoken but extremely eloquent; there are many things that make Aisha Buhari, wife of Nigeria’s new president, thick.” Is the word “thick” used correctly? Is that the right adjective? There was an argument about in an online forum and I thought I should bring it to your attention.

Answer:
“What makes one tick” is an idiom that means the reason or motivation for one’s behavior. The verb is “tick,” not “thick.” In any case, “thick” is an adjective that is now used as a euphemism for “fat.” Eating food high in fat and carbohydrates and not exercising regularly can make people “thick”; it can’t make them “tick”!

Question:
Please help me answer this question in one of your future columns. Why is it 'does not have' and not 'does not has' since “does” refers to the third person?

Answer:
It's because "does" in the sentence is an auxiliary verb, and when verbs appear after an auxiliary verb they are always plural even if the subject of the sentence is singular. That's why we say "he may have," not "he may has"; “it should have,” not "it should has"; "she would have," not "should would has," etc. May, should, would, might, shall, etc. are auxiliary verbs. “Does” can sometimes be an auxiliary verb, such as in the example you cited, but it can also be a main verb. When it is used as a main verb, it obeys subject-verb agreement rules, such as in, “he does have a point.”

Question:
What is the differences between these sentences: "My exam starts in FEW days' time" and "My exam starts in A FEW days' time."

Answer:
Both “a few” and “few” indicate a small number. However, "a few" is used in positive contexts and "few" in negative contexts. "A few people know the importance of grammar" means it's a good thing that some people know the importance of grammar. However, "few people know the importance of grammar" means it's sad that only a small number of people know the importance of grammar. In your example, I would say "my exam starts in a few days' time" not only because the context isn't negative but also because it's more proper.

Question:
I was at a local grocery shop to buy dry cell batteries. When I asked if they sell batteries, the shop owner replied, "We don't do batteries here". I was surprised at her response because I know the shop does not manufacture batteries. What the reasons for switching 'sell' with 'do'?

Answer:
That’s a puzzling response. But “battery” has multiple meanings. First, “batterie,” which sounds like “battery,” is sometimes used as an alternative word for the theatrical dance called the ballet. But since this isn’t a common word, it doesn’t make sense for the shop owner to think you’re asking to see a theatrical dance. Battery can also mean physically hitting somebody (which is often rendered as “assault and battery”) but that’s legal vernacular. In everyday English, people don’t use “battery” to mean beating. Plus, it is odd for anyone to expect that a customer would come to their shop to “do battery.”

When “battery” is mentioned anywhere in the English-speaking world, the first thing that comes to people’s mind is the device that powers electricity in gadgets. It seems to me that the shop owner was just being mischievous. But it’s also possible that “do batteries” is a slang expression for “do drugs” in the place you live, and the shop owner thought you were using the argot of drug dealers to talk to him.

Question:
In your highly informative and eye-opening article titled “Shakespearean Expressions that Sound Illiterate by Today’s Standards” you used the expression “contemporary modern English” a lot. Isn’t that a tautology? Don’t contemporary and modern mean the same thing?

Answer:
It’s not a tautology. “Modern English” is periodized as starting from 1450 to now. That’s a wide stretch of time. So linguists usually further break down the time to early Modern English and contemporary Modern English. Notice that in the article you referred to, the “m” in “Modern” was capitalized because the reference is specific.

Question:
'In the table' or 'on the table' or 'from the table'. Which of these prepositional phrases is the most appropriate to use when reporting research findings?

Answer:
"In the table" is right if reference is to a table in a written work, but "on the table" is the best option for reference to items on a physical table.

Question:
I stay/am at/in port-Harcourt right now. I need possible correct sentences with those prepositions (stay/am, at/in)

Answer:
Use "at" for small towns and "in" for big cities. However, you can use "in" for a small town if you have an emotional connection with it, such as if it is your hometown.

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