"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: “It’s you who are”: Q and A on Contentious Grammar Rules

Sunday, August 20, 2017

“It’s you who are”: Q and A on Contentious Grammar Rules

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

A professor from the English Department at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) said the comma in "Thank you, sir" is optional.  Is there any explanation for this? And does its omission carry any semantic implications?

He is wrong. Well, maybe it’s optional in Nigerian English (which is a problematic claim to make since Nigerian English isn’t formally codified), but it’s not in Standard English. “Thank you” is an example of what is called direct address in grammar, and direct address is ALWAYS set off by a comma. The rule, as a one grammarian put it, is: “Use commas to enclose nouns or pronouns or a noun phrase in direct address.”

To omit a comma in a direct address is sloppy, even uneducated. So it should be, “Happy birthday, son”; “I hate it, man”; “You are welcome, ladies and gentlemen”; “Goodbye, Adam”; and so on. The rule is the same even if the noun or pronoun that is being addressed appears at the beginning or middle of the sentence. Examples: “Sir, thank you for honoring my invitation.” “You, sir, are wonderful.”

Although texting and the fast-paced rhythm of internet communication are causing people, especially teenagers, to dispense with commas, it is still considered unconventional to omit commas in direct address. The major reason the omission of comma in direct address is looked disapprovingly upon by grammarians is that it can seem cause semantic miscues. There is a difference between “I hate her, man” and “I hate her man.” The former is an address directed to a “man” and the latter is not.

I came across this question while planning to test my students on grammar. All my search for the correct answer proved abortive. Here is the question: “It is you who........... (is, are, was) wrong. Kindly help with the answer and the explanation for the answer.

The correct answer is “are,” that is, “It is you who are wrong.” I know this sounds odd and unnatural. But here is why it is the correct answer. If we restate the sentence in its simplest form, it would be, “You are wrong.” “You is wrong” is clearly nonstandard. So is “You was wrong.” (Note that this is perfectly acceptable in a few nonstandard native English varieties such as African-American Vernacular English or Ebonics).

The “who” in the sentence is a relative pronoun whose antecedent is “you,” that is, “who” in the sentence refers to “you.” Now, the correct conjugation verb for the pronoun “you” is “are.” This rule doesn’t change even if “you” is used in a singular sense. That’s why we say, “You ARE a great guy,” not “You IS a great guy.”

It is the same rule with the pronoun “I.” So it is, “It is I who am wrong,” not “It is I who is wrong” because if you break the sentence down to its simplest form, it would be, “I am wrong,” not “I is wrong.”

Note, however, that I am talking here of the conventions of formal grammar. In informal, conversational English even native speakers routinely break this rule. You are unlikely to find an everyday native English speaker say “It is who are wrong” or “It is I who am wrong” unless they want to show off their mastery of “proper” English grammar.

But it’s good to be aware of the formal rule because in exam questions only the codified, formal rule would be considered correct.

Nigerian grammarians condemn 'welcome address' as wrong English and recommend 'an address of welcome' in its place, but my Google search shows that native speakers use the former more than the latter. Which one is correct?

Both expressions are grammatically correct. My own Google search also turned up more hits for “welcome address” than for “address of welcome.” Most of the people around me here in the United States say “welcome address.”

If you’re right that Nigerian grammarians frown upon “welcome address,” they’re probably misled into thinking that a noun can’t modify another noun. I find this sentiment to be widespread in Nigerian grammar circles. But it’s a misguided sentiment.

In a July 16, 2017 response to a question on whether nouns can qualify other nouns, I wrote the following:

“Well, it isn’t only adjectives that qualify nouns. Nouns can also sometimes qualify other nouns. Grammarians call such nouns ‘attributive nouns.’ They are also called ‘noun (pre)modifiers’ or ‘noun adjuncts.’ In the expression ‘paper plate,’ for example, ‘paper,’ which is a noun, qualifies ‘plate,’ another noun. In the expression ‘goat meat,’ goat modifies meat even though both words are nouns.

“All natural languages give users wide expressive latitudes. Some people prefer to use adjectives to modify nouns; others prefer attributive nouns to adjectives. Both are permissible. In some instances, however, stylistic choices are circumscribed by considerations of idiomaticity. By this I mean that some expressions are simply fixed and deviations from the fixed form sound unnatural. For instance, it’s more natural to say ‘finance minister’ than to say ‘financial minister,’ even though ‘finance’ and ‘minister’ are both nouns—and ‘financial minister’ isn’t grammatically wrong, just unidiomatic. But both ‘technological transfer’ and ‘technology transfer’ are acceptable and often used interchangeably, as are ‘agricultural transfer’ and ‘agriculture transfer’.”

My question is on the omission of the definite article before some singular common nouns and after 'as', e.g. 1. He is captain. 2. He is king. 3. He is elected as chairman. Are those sentences correct? If yes, why is it that the articles are omitted before the nouns: captain, king, and chairman?

Articles are tricky in the English language. That’s why I can’t do justice to your question in this limited space.  I will only say this for now:  “captain” and “king” should be preceded by either a definite article (i.e., “the”) or an indefinite article (i.e., “a” or “an”). So “he is a captain” would mean he is one of several captains, while “he is the captain” would mean he is the one and only person known by that title in a specific area. Same rule applies to “king.”

 In the third example, the sentence should be “he was elected chairman.” Chairman is not preceded by an article here because the sense is non-specific. Also note that I omitted “as” in the sentence. Other examples: “He was elected president.” “He was appointed commissioner,” etc.

When I watch American soaps, they seem to not care about tenses. Or maybe it’s something beyond me—I don’t know. For instance, a typical dialogue goes like this: “Daughter: 'dad, do you snore ‘cause I do. Dad: 'yeah you GET that from me'.” Should not the “get” be GOT? Could you clarify this for me, please?


Well, it's not true that Americans don't care about tenses. They do. The example of the use of present tense in the dialogue you cited is called the “historical present” in grammar. It's perfectly legitimate even in British English. It functions to make a past event seem more vivid, or to signal continuity between the past and the present. 
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