Sunday, December 2, 2012

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 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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Re: My Last Encounter with Saraki

As the responses below show, my last week’s tribute to the late Abubakar Olusola Saraki elicited a mixture of praise and disappointment. While some people loved it, others thought I hushed up the man’s shortcomings.  Well, I didn’t set out to write a disinterested personality profile of the late Saraki; my object was to reminisce about my first-hand meeting with him as a way to remind us of an element of his personality that contributed to his wild popularity in Kwara State.  

Thank you. Our countrymen, regrettably, often forget the art of grace at solemn moments like this. From the outside looking in, one saw the Saraki mystique gradually collapse, essentially through bar-room gossip. Your article brought us back to how we, non-Kwarans, were introduced to the legend by Kwara people themselves, before the deadly PHD [Pull Him Down] virus took root in Nigerian politics. Whatever Kwarans decide to do to the memory of this great Nigerian, the Oloye can rest assured that his place in the history books, as a bridge-builder between the so-called North and South, is written and indelible.
Ogbuagu Anikwe, Abuja

Truly, Saraki was commendable knowing full well that there is no human being without shortcomings. May Allah grant him Aljanah Firdaus. He has played his part and others should continue from there. Your tribute was a master piece.
Abdullahi Kabir, Ilorin

I read the column about your last encounter with Saraki. I was impressed and I feel touched in my heart about the late legend. As a person from Kwara north, specifically Kaiama, my perception that we have been marginalised by the Saraki's reduced after reading your piece.  The fact is that no one is perfect except God. May Allah grant him eternal rest and forgive him his shortcomings.
Nurudeen Idris, Kaiama, Kwara State

I enjoyed your column. In your last interview with Dr Saraki in Abuja you asked him about the rumour in Ilorin that he had designs to make his first son as the next governor of Kwara State. The allegation was made by (the late Kwara State Governor) Mohammed Lawal’s political loyalists, but Saraki denied the allegation. Shortly after d interview, Saraki called you and asked whether you had published the interview and you said no. He finally asked you not to publish it. The reason was that some good people of Ilorin met him and said they wanted his first son, Dr Bukola Saraki, to aspire for the post of governor in the state and there was nothing he could do but agree with them. The rumour he had denied became reality.

 I believe you are aware of the 2011 governorship election in Kwara State where the same Dr Saraki designed his daughter, Gbemi, as the next governor of the state. Is it the same good people of Ilorin who brought such a decision to him again? That is what I don’t understand.
Muhammed Yusuf, Abuja

I’m somehow disappointed in your piece today. It’s full of one-wheel-narration, which actually disequate Saraki’s outer personality. Anyway, Africans believe to be preserving culture that upholds such doctrines as ``PRAISE THE DESEASED, OR KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. `` Allah ya jikan sa.
Ibrahim Aliyu Maisango, Media Rights Agenda, Kano

Upon hearing of his transition, I swung into a state of mixed feelings on what kind of personality he might have been, with a leading suspicion that he might have been a good person. Eventually, the calibre of personalities and the condolence messages that followed his death reinforced my positive thoughts about him. I am pleased we are extolling a genuine virtue in a man.
Abdulmalik Mustapha Abbamaina, Maiduguri

Glowing tributes! I have heard a lot about the Kwara strongman, both good and bad, as is common with most leaders, but one thing that cannot be taken away from him is the great impact he had in Kwara politics and Nigeria at large. May Almighty Allah forgive his shortcomings and grant him Al-janat Firdausi. Amen.
Aisha Nana Mohammed, Minna

One thing that cannot be taken from the late Oloye is generosity. May Allah reward him with Aljanat Firdaus. Ameen.
Aminu Isa, Lokoja

This is a beautifully-written tribute. I enjoyed your recounting of your encounters with him. I especially enjoyed the beauty of your language, which is one of the reasons I never fail to read you. Saraki was certainly a phenomenon. He was generous and cared about people. That much is clear from the hold he had on Kwara politics. I don’t think your people followed him in every election from the Second Republic to now because they were stupid. I am inclined to think that it was because they thought he cared about them and had their best interest at heart. Few politicians in Nigerian commanded that much trust in their people for such a long time. 

However, in your beautiful eulogy, you failed to point out that by wanting his daughter to succeed his son as governor, he squandered the goodwill he built for years.  He may not have plotted his son’s emergence as governor of Kwara State, as you told us, but he was clearly in the forefront of wanting his daughter to be governor. That was an insult on the people of your state who trusted and believed in him. I thought you would have brought out that fact. To be fair to you, though, you said he had many “foibles.” I guess you didn’t want to stray from the African tradition of never speaking ill of the dead.
Sabi’u Umar, Kano 

Related Article:
My Last Encounter with Saraki