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Q and A on Grammar

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. I continue to receive lots of smart and thoughtful questions from readers. What follows is my response to s...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I continue to receive lots of smart and thoughtful questions from readers. What follows is my response to some of these questions. I will answer others in subsequent weeks. Enjoy.

Someone whose grasp of the English language I respect told me it’s bad English to say “I want to drop here” when coming down from a taxi or a commercial bus. He said “drop” in that context is Pidgin English, and that one can only “drop” from the top of something, not from inside it. Is he correct?

Your friend is being a little too literal in his understanding of the meaning of “drop.” One of the many meanings of the word is to “leave at a destination” and to “remove from a transport container.” What your friend probably wanted to say is that in native-speaker environments drivers typically “drop” or, more commonly, “drop off” passengers from their taxis or buses while passengers “get off” from taxis or buses. In other words, a passenger cannot not drop or drop off from a car or a bus; he is dropped or dropped off by the driver since “drop off” also means “to allow to alight.” Passengers can only “get off” from a taxi or a bus. In Nigerian English, however, this distinction scarcely exists. Everybody just “drops.”

Is it “make-or-mar” or “make-or-break”? What is the correct idiom?

The correct form of the idiom is “make or break.” But many non-native English speakers, including Nigerians, and especially Nigerian journalists, habitually write “make or mar.” Note, though, that “make or mar” isn't grammatically wrong; it's just not a Standard English idiom.

How come most people say “different than” instead of “different from” and yet the style manuals tell us that the former is incorrect and the latter correct?

Well, “different than” is chiefly American. It’s almost absent in any other national variety of English. The traditional rule is that “than” can only be used with the comparative forms of adjectives (e.g., “better than,” “more than,” “bigger than,” “more beautiful than,” “less than,” “less successful than,” etc) and with “other” and “rather” (e.g., “other than,” “rather than”). Since “different” signifies contrast rather than comparison, it is taught that it shouldn't co-occur with “than.”

However, the phrase “different than” has become standard in American English and it seems churlish to resist it. But I don't think I can ever bring myself to say "different than." My tongue would fall off!

British speakers also have their own awkward deviation from the rule in the phrase “different to.”

My sense is that these deviations from the traditional norm were initially usage errors committed by people at the upper end of the social and cultural scale (recall my point about the unabashed elitism of usage rules?) or by a critical mass of people, which gained social prestige over time. What I've noticed, though, is that the Brits tend confine their “different to” to informal contexts. But in America “different than” competes with “different from” even in formal contexts.

I have two questions. First, what can you say about some journalists here in Nigeria [who are fond of saying] "my names are…" when introducing themselves? Second, what is the grammatical rule for using “attach herewith” when writing formal letters?

The phrase “my names are…” is unquestionably nonstandard by the conventions of modern English. Contemporary native English speakers don’t introduce themselves that way. My preliminary investigation shows that, that form of conversational self-reference occurs chiefly in Nigerian and Kenyan English. This may indicate that it’s an old-fashioned British English form that has survived in some of Britain’s former colonies.

In modern English, though, most grammarians agree that “name” in the sense in which you used it is a language unit and refers both to one’s first name alone and to one’s first, (middle) and last names combined. So the socially normative and grammatically acceptable way to introduce yourself is to either say “my name is Danjuma” or “my name is Danjuma Olu Okoro.” The fact of the addition of “Olu” and “Okoro” to “Danjuma” doesn’t require that you inflect “name” for number, that is, it doesn't require you to pluralize "name" to "names." So it is wrong to say “my names are ….”

Now to your second question: “Herewith” has two common meanings/uses. The first is that it functions as a synonym for “hereby,” as in: “I herewith declare you the winner of the election.” Many grammarians, however, dismiss this use of “herewith” as pretentious. Others say it's archaic.

 “Herewith” is also commonly used to mean “enclosed with this correspondence [i.e., letter].” This usage is now extended to email. So it’s common to read, “I attach herewith a scanned copy of the document.” Notice that if you replace “attach herewith” with “enclosed with this correspondence,” the meaning remains unchanged. There are no particular rules for using “attach herewith” in this sense, except to remember that it can almost always be interchanged with the phrase “enclosed with this correspondence.”

I am a regular reader of your Sunday Trust column. Please I want to know more ways to improve my English vocabulary. Thank you every much.

Thanks for being a regular reader of my column. That's nice to know. The best way to improve your vocabulary is to read well-written novels and have a good dictionary by your side. Also read good newspaper columnists and look up any unfamiliar words you come across as you read them. Get a notebook where you write unfamiliar words and their meanings. Then go over your notebook once in a while. When I was in secondary school, I improved my vocabulary by studying the dictionary alone. I had a notebook where I wrote words that interested me and noted their parts of speech and usage advice.

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6. Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
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10. Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
12. Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
13. Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
14. On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
15. Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17. Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation

1 comment

  1. pls Farouk Is it gramamatically correct for some one to say IF he were here not if he was here. pls i need you to explain this if possible.


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