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Q and A on English Salutations, Punctuation, and Other Usage Problems

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Many people think I have ignored their questions. No, I haven’t. I promise to answer all the grammar q...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Many people think I have ignored their questions. No, I haven’t. I promise to answer all the grammar queries I’ve received in the order in which they were received. Just be patient.

What is the appropriate response to the greeting “how do you do?” I am a student at an expensive and prestigious private secondary school in Kano. Our English teacher punished the whole class because nobody knew that the appropriate response to “how do you do?” is “how do you do?” Is the teacher correct? The response seems incorrect to me. It looks like answering a question with a question.

Your teacher is correct. The conventionally acceptable response to the greeting “how do you do?” is “how do you do?” Your confusion arises, I think, from assuming that the salutation is a question. It is not. It’s a fixed expression for salutation—like saying “good morning.” When someone says “good morning” to us, we are not expected to affirm or deny the “goodness” of the morning. We simply say “good morning” in response. Or we could say “Good morning. How are you?”

“How do you do?” is a chiefly British English expression. But it has gone out of circulation in contemporary British English. The expression was never popular in American English at any time. But someone pointed out that the American expression “howdy” is the shortened form of “how do you do?” It needs to be pointed out, though, that in American English “how-do-you-do” can also mean “an awkward situation.”

Native speakers now use expressions like “hello,” “hi,” “how are you doing?” etc. in place of “how do you do?”

Bottom line: your teacher is correct, but avoid the expression because it’s archaic. It would make you sound quaint and stilted in native-speaker environments. My sense is also that the expression is not popular in contemporary Nigerian English.

I think one of the best things Media Trust has done to its readers is to get you to write this column. Your column alone is worth more than the price of Sunday Trust. Now my question: When I was in secondary school, I recall my English teacher telling us that there is a difference between “few” and “a few.” I don’t recall what the difference is and my search on the Internet didn’t help. Can you help?

Both “few” and “a few” are used to signify insignificant quantities or numbers. They are both used only in relation to countable nouns. But, traditionally, “few” is often used with a tone of disapproval or regret while “a few” is often used with a tone of approval or joy. In other words, you use “few” when you don’t like the people or things you refer to, and use “a few” when you think approvingly of the people or things you talk about.

 Examples: “The police caught few criminals at the hotel yesterday.” In this example, our attitude toward the criminals is disapproving, so we used “few criminals.” But look at the next example: “A few of our compatriots abroad make us proud.” In the preceding example, we make two important points: that the people who make us proud abroad are not many, but we think highly of them.

Other examples: “I have few books in my personal library.” Here, we indicate that we are sad that we don’t have enough books in our personal library. But when we say “I have a few books in my personal library,” we mean that we are happy with our collection of books, although the collection isn’t as large as we would have wanted.

Given the above distinction, it would be semantically awkward to say “a few criminals,” unless, of course, you have approving thoughts of criminals. It would also be inappropriate to say “few of our compatriots make us proud,” except you think making your nation proud is a bad thing. It would, of course, be very appropriate to say “few of our compatriots abroad bring us shame.”

What I said about “few” and “a few” also apply to “little” and “a little,” except that while “few/a few” refer to countable nouns, “little/ a little” refer to uncountable nouns.

Please, I want you to explain to me the proper way to use a semicolon. It has been confusing me.

A semicolon (;) has at least three uses.  Its first use is that it helps separate items in a list that contains commas. Example: Nigeria’s notable newspapers are Guardian, published in Lagos; Nigerian Tribune, published in Ibadan; Daily Trust, published in Abuja; and Daily Champion, published in Lagos. In this list, we have four items. Because each item contains a comma, it would be clumsy to mark off the list with commas; we would have a superfluity of commas.

See another example: In attendance were Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, president of the federation; Alhaji Namadi Sambo, vice president of the federation; Senator David Mark, Senate President; and Aminu Tambuwal, Speaker of the House of Representatives.

A semicolon is also used to bring together two independent but closely related thoughts. Examples: “To some people, it’s meat; to others, it’s poison.” “He is not only intelligent; he is also humble.” In these examples, a full stop (what Americans call a “period”) would also have been appropriate, as in: “To some people, it’s meat. To others, it’s poison.” “He is not only intelligent. He is also humble.”

 In other words, one of the differences between a semicolon and a full stop is that while the next letter after a full stop is always capitalized, the next letter after a semicolon is never capitalized unless it’s a proper noun. The other difference is that a semicolon creates more intimate connections between two related thoughts than a full stop does.

Finally, the semicolon is used to indicate linkage between two clauses that are conjoined by a transitional word. Examples of transitional words that are typically used in semicolons are “however” and “therefore.” Example:  “The man is a kindhearted person; however, his aggressiveness makes him come across like a mean-spirited person.” A comma would be inappropriate before “however,” but a full stop would be appropriate.

I’m a regular reader and a fan of your column in Sunday Trust. I'm a bit confused about the appropriate use of full stop in abbreviations. Should the last dot come in front or at the back of the last letter?

The full stop should appear after all the letters of an initial. Examples:  "p.m.," "a.m.," etc. However, some acronyms and initialisms admit of no full stops. Examples: AIDS, UN, NATO, etc. Wherever you are required to put full stops in initials put them after every alphabet. In my news writing classes, I’m notorious for taking off points from students who miss even one full stop. For example, I penalize students who write “a.m” instead of “a.m.”

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  1. Prof, pls try n publish two books; one on covering all d topics u v treated in ur sunday column n d oda, a compendium of ur comments on issues of concern in nigeria. Ibrahim jimoh

  2. Great post! Helpful points. Awesome as ever.

  3. Bravo! I was asking myself why there was a halt in this educative column. The last article I read, was that of 24th November 2012. Suddenly I came across this piece! Thanks alot.


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