"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 03/29/15

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Q and A on Grammar, Usage, Politics, Election, and Nigerian English

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

Why is saying “the climate is not conducive for growing crops” nonstandard English? Is it “permanent voter cards” or “permanent voter's ('s) cards”? Is it "vote Buhari" or "vote for Buhari"? Why is the expression “one-million-man” march grammatically correct? Shouldn’t it be “one-million-men march”? Why is “gubernatorial” not written as “governatorial”? Should “naira” be written in capital letters or small letters? Is “stalite,” the informal word for returning students in Nigerian universities, a real English world? For answers to these questions, read on:

Question:
I am an ardent reader of your grammar column in Sunday Trust. In one of your articles, you indicated that 'conducive' ALWAYS has to be followed by 'to'. I would like to ask if there are instances where it is acceptable to follow the word with 'for' as in: The climate is not conducive for growing crops. Is it also acceptable to use 'conducive' immediately before a noun as in: “a conducive work environment?”

Answer:
Well, in the variety of English spoken in Britain, America, Canada, etc., “conducive for” is an unlikely collocation. A native English speaker would never say that. Similarly, “a conducive work environment” isn’t idiomatic in Standard English. You would never find a native English say that. The first sentence would be rendered as “The climate is conducive to growing crops.” The second sentence would be reworded to “the environment is conducive to work.” “Conducive” always co-occurs with “to” in Standard English.

But the fact that the usage isn’t standard in native varieties of English is no reason to stop using it in Nigeria. Language use, over time, inevitably changes from environment to environment. The use of “conducive” as an attributive adjective (such as in the phrase “conducive environment”) and along with “for” (such as in the phrase “conducive for studies”) is, for all practical purposes, now “standard” in Nigerian English usage. But it helps to be aware that the usages don’t occur in that form in native varieties of English.

Question:
Is the word "Naira" really a Hausa word? When and where should it begin with a small/capital letter?

Answer:
Not being a native Hausa speaker, I don't know if "naira" is a Hausa word. I hope native Hausa speakers reading this will weigh in. But names of national currencies are often written in small letters unless they begin a sentence. They are not considered proper nouns. So it's naira, dollar, pound, euro, etc.

Question:
Is it 'permanent voter cards' or 'permanent voter's ('s) cards’?

Answer:
It should be “permanent voter cards.” “Voter card” is a fixed phrase. It’s the name for the card used to vote. Its plural would be “voter cards.” “Permanent” merely modifies it, so it should be “permanent voter cards.”

Question:
Is it "vote Buhari" or "vote for Buhari"?

Answer:
You vote for someone but vote something, so it's "vote for Buhari" but "vote APC." In other words, use the preposition “for” when you mention the name of a person, but exclude it when you mention the name of a political party. The same rule applies when you reverse the sentence: “vote against Jonathan”; “don’t vote PDP.”

Question:
When I was in 100 level, as a new student in the university, older students in the university referred to me as a "fresher'' while they referred to themselves as "stalites." Are the words “stalite" and “fresher” correct? I am confused. I have never seen the words in the dictionary, yet they are commonly used on Nigerian university campuses. If the words aren’t standard, what do native English speakers call new and old university students?

Answer:
“Stalite” is not a real English word; it's a creatively humorous Nigerian university student coinage. It is formed from "stale," a legitimate English word that means “lacking freshness.” The word is used mostly to describe food that is no longer fresh, as in “This food is stale; it was obviously cooked a few days ago.” Nigerian university students extended this meaning of “stale” to humorously refer to old students.

“Fresher” is a chiefly British English word for a first-year undergraduate. The preferred American English term is “freshman,” and it’s used for both men and women. Note, though, that the term “fresher” isn’t as widely used in British universities as “freshman” is in American universities. I have met British university undergraduates who can’t relate to the word “fresher.”

There is no single word for old students in American and British universities. In the United States, however, there are specific names for undergraduates at various levels of study. First-year students, as I said earlier, are called “freshmen.” Second-year students are called “sophomores.” Third-year students are called “juniors.” And final-year students are called “seniors.” British universities have no equivalent terms.

Question:
I came across this headline in the Daily Trust: “APC holds 'one million man' match on Saturday." I thought it should be 'one million men'. Is 'one million man' grammatically correct?

Answer:
Yes, it is, but it should have been hyphenated like this: “one-million-man march.” In grammar such constructions are called compound modifiers. Compound modifiers are groups of words that function like an attributive adjective and often come before the nouns they modify. In the Daily Trust headline you cited, “one-million-man” modifies “march.”

In compound modifiers, nouns are never pluralized under any circumstance. For instance, while it is correct to say “Muhammad Isa is 73 years old,” it would be wrong to say “Muhammad Isa is a 73-years-old man.” That should correctly be “Muhammad Isa is a 73-year-old man,” because “73-year-old” is a compound word that modifies “man.” Note that there are hyphens between “73,” “year,” and “old.” The hyphens are critical to the construction of compound modifiers since a group of words is being reduced to a single word.

 More examples are “a 6-foot-tall man,” not “a 6-feet-tall man,” but “a man who is 6 feet tall” is correct; “a 4-man committee,” not “a 4-men committee,” but “a committee of 4 men” is correct; “a 100-page document,” not “a 100-pages document,” but “a document with 100 pages” is correct.

Question:
In reading a writer’s published opinion in an online magazine, he opened his article with this jaw-dropping statement: “My jaw dropped to the floor reading…” I suspect there is a grammatical mistake in his usage of the idiom jaw drop. Am I wrong?

Answer:
I have never used the expression that way myself, but all the records I checked say it’s a perfectly permissible usage. You’re right that the standard idiom is “jaw drop,” as in “my jaw dropped when I was told he was my real biological father.” “Jaw drop” means greatly surprised. “Jaw dropped to the floor” is a colloquial, hyperbolized version of the same idiom.

Question:
I need an explanation on why “gubernatorial” is not written as “governatorial.” Is it an American or British spelling?

Answer:
It’s because the word is derived from the Latin “gubernator,” which means governor. Gubernator is a derivative of “gubernāre,” which is Latin for “govern.” Interestingly, “governor,” which was spelled “govenour” when it first appeared in English from between 1100 and 1450, was directly inspired by the French “gouvreneur,” which is itself derived from the Latin “gubernator.” But in forming the adjective for “governor,” English chose to form it from the word’s Latin roots rather than from its modern English form. “Governatorial” is a non-existent word, but “governorship” does exist and is synonymous with “gubernatorial.”


The Random House Dictionary says gubernatorial started as an Americanism between 1725 and 1735, but it is now widely used across all varieties of English.

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