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More Q and A on a Variety of Grammar Usage Issues

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.       This week, I continue with the backlog of questions I received from readers over the past few weeks. ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
This week, I continue with the backlog of questions I received from readers over the past few weeks.

In one of your Weekly Trust articles, you wrote about “doctorate degrees.” I read somewhere that the expression “doctorate degree” is wrong because it is redundant since a doctorate is already a degree. What do you say about that?

Someone else called my attention to this. There is a difference between a redundant expression and an incorrect expression. As I wrote many times here, English is full of redundant expressions that nonetheless enjoy social prestige. Examples are “come one come all,” “over and over again,” “close proximity,” “over and above,” “free gift,”  “vocabulary words,” etc.

However, the problem with the expression “doctorate degree” isn’t that it is redundant. It is not. After all, nobody objects to the expressions “associate degree,” “bachelor’s degree,” “master’s degree,” etc. The problem some grammarians have with the phrase “doctorate degree” is that “doctorate” is traditionally a noun, not an adjective, and therefore cannot—or should not— modify “degree.” The proper adjective, they insist, is “doctoral.” So “doctorate degree,” according to this grammatical logic, should properly be “doctoral degree.”

However, there is such a thing as an attributive noun, which is noun that functions like an adjective and therefore can modify another noun. Many prestigious universities in Britain and America use “doctorate” as an attributive noun to modify “degree.” It’s synonymous with “Ph.D. degree” which, though superfluous, is perfectly acceptable. I used “doctorate” as an attributive noun in the article you referred to.

Having said that, my advice is that you should prefer “doctoral degree” to “doctorate degree” since no grammarian I know of objects to the expression “doctoral degree.”  In other words, either say “she has a doctorate in English” or say “she has a doctoral degree in English” if you want to avoid controversy.

Is it correct to say “A people deserve the kinds of leaders it gets”? My friend thinks it’s not correct, but I insist it is correct. What do you think?

The correct form of the sentence should be, “A people deserve the kind(s) of leaders they get.” The pronoun “it” can’t refer to humans; it properly refers to non-humans. You probably also want to know if the use of “a people” in the sentence has any effect on the verb “get.” Well, “a people” is a collective plural noun, and the verb that modifies it must be plural as well, hence the verb “get” rather than “gets.” If the subject in the sentence were a singular noun, such as “a nation,” the structure of the sentence would change. It would read something like: “A nation deserves the kind(s) of leaders it gets.”

What is the appropriate response to the expression, “Are You Ok?” A few days ago, as I walked, I missed a step and someone behind me said, “Are you Ok?” I just said “no.” Is that the right answer?

Native speakers understand “are you OK?” not as a question, but as a courteous expression of concern. It’s their equivalent to our “sorry!” So they don’t give a “no” response to that expression. A common response is: “I’m fine. Thank you.” They say this even when they are hurting from their accident. Even after living here for nearly a decade, I still find that really strange. Like you, on many occasions, I am often tempted to say “no, I am not OK!”

 People who are clearly not fine and don’t want to lie in the name of courtesy often say, “I’ll be fine. Thanks.”

 As I said in my previous articles on this subject, many non-native English speakers are often mystified by what strikes them as the cold detachment in the manners and salutations of native speakers of the language. Saying “are you OK?” to someone who is obviously not OK seems a little insensitive. But that’s the rhythm and flow of the language. It’s just like Nigerian languages’ peculiar greetings that are directly translated into English, which make no sense to native speakers of the English language.

A fortnight ago, I had an argument with an American professor who teaches German language at one of the universities where I live. He faulted my use of the phrase “it’s nice meeting you” when seeing someone for the first time. He insisted that the correct expression should be “nice to meet you.”  I 'Googled' the two expressions but my findings weren't convincing. Please educate me.

I have heard both expressions used in America by highly educated people. They are both standard expressions of courtesy when you meet people for the first time. Some usage experts, however, insist that you use “nice to meet you” when you are introduced to people and “nice meeting you” when you depart from them. Others say there is no difference between the two. Still others insist that it's inappropriate to use the progressive tense when you're not talking about an ongoing activity. "Meeting" is progressive tense, so the expression "it's nice meeting you" would certainly fall foul of the rule of this school of thought. I would say "it's nice to meet you" is the less controversial of the two expressions.

Whatever the case, use the expressions only when you physically meet someone--or when you meet them online in a forum, etc. A reader of this column told me a UK lady laughed out loud on the phone when he said “nice to meet you” after she introduced herself to him on the phone. She was certainly rude, but it helps to know that many native speakers would be a little taken aback if you say “nice to meet you” to them over the phone.

The appropriate response to both expressions is either “nice to meet you, too” or “nice meeting you, too.” You can also say “same here.” I’ve also heard people respond by saying “Nice to meet YOU,” with a heavy emphasis on “you.”

Please, I want you to answer two questions. First, is the word “taxi” an English word? Why does the word have such a universal application? Second, practically in all climes and languages, “hello” is used to answer phone calls. What are your thoughts on this?

Taxi is an English word, if by “English word” you mean a word used by native speakers of the language. It’s an American English linguistic export to the rest of the English-speaking (and non-English-speaking) world. But the word traces its origins to Latin by way of the French language. Its original French form was “taximeter cabriolet.” An American by the name of Harry Nathaniel Allen who owned what used to be known as “The New York Taxicab Co.” (which imported America’s first hired transportation from France) shortened “taximeter cabriolet” to taxicab. Over the years, taxicab was shortened to “taxi”—or sometimes “cab.”

“Hello” is the universal first greeting in telephone conversations precisely because it was the first word that Thomas Edison, the American who invented the telephone, shouted into the device in 1877. According to David Crystal in his The Story of English in 100 Words, “hello” competed with many alternatives such as “Ahoy!” “Are you there?” and “Are you ready?” but Edison chose “hello!”

I will like to know which of these two expressions is correct: “be at alert” and “be on alert.”

“Be on alert” is the more correct of the two. There is no logic to it. It’s just the way the language flows.

Let me know which of the following expressions is correct: “Highly Inflammable” or “Highly flammable.” It is often seen on tankers carrying fuel.

Both expressions are correct. Flammable and inflammable mean one and the same thing. You can use one in place of the other. Many people mistake inflammable to be the antonym of flammable. They are wrong. The proper antonym of flammable is “non-flammable.” Other alternatives are “fireproof” and “incombustible.”

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