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Q and A on English Plurals, Word Usage, and Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Is it “staff members” or “staffs”? Should you say “the media is biased” or the “media are biased?” Why is...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Is it “staff members” or “staffs”? Should you say “the media is biased” or the “media are biased?” Why is it wrong to describe an African’s skin color as “black”? Is it right to say “sixthly,” “seventhly,” “sixteenthly,” etc.? Is it: “cut your coat according to your size” or “cut your coat according to your cloth”? This week’s Q and A answers these and other questions.

What is the plural of staff? Is it staffs or staff members? I was taught in secondary school that staff has no plural or, more accurately, that the plural of staff is either just “staff” or “staff members.” But I have seen the word “staffs” in many respected books. Can you help?

That’s an interesting question. Like you, all my secondary school English teachers in Nigeria taught me to never use “staffs” as the plural of staff. They said “staff” is a collective noun that does not admit of a plural form. When I started reading American journalism textbooks during my undergraduate education in Nigeria, however, I found expressions like “newsroom staffs” and got confused. I remember thinking: I thought we were never supposed to say “staffs.” Why do American journalism textbooks habitually use “newsroom staffs”?

Since coming to America, I discovered that there is no agreement among native English speakers on whether “staff” should be pluralized with an “s.” Some people discountenance “staffs”; others say it is legitimate. The Oxford English Dictionary, interestingly, is silent on this controversy. It, however, does not identify “staff” as an uncountable noun. That means it would not look on “staffs” with disfavor.

 In the Longman Guide to English Usage, Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, two well-regarded professors of English in the UK, wrote the following about the issue: “The plural of staff meaning any kind of stick is staffs, or sometimes staves. When it means ‘a group of employed people’ it must be staffs” (emphasis mine).

In other words, according to Greenbaum and Whitcut, there is no grammatical basis for the notion that staff cannot be pluralized with a terminal “s” when it’s used in place of “employees.” Other authorities say “staffs” is justified only when reference is being made to several groups of employees. So we can talk of “New Nigerian staff,” “Media Trust staff,” but “New Nigerian and Media Trust staffs.” I am inclined to go with that prescription, but I generally prefer to use terms like “employees” or “workers” in order to avoid the controversy over the appropriate plural form of “staff.” Some American English speakers use “staffers,” especially when they talk of newsroom personnel, to avoid saying “staffs.”

It is worthy of note that while there is no agreement among native speakers of the language on the correct plural form of “staff,” grammarians discountenance the expression “a staff” to refer to a single employee. The preferred expression is “a staff member” or “one of the staff.” 

Is “media” plural or singular? I am a lawyer based in Lagos and my wife is a graduate of English. My wife and I had an argument sometime ago about whether or not “media” is plural. She said “media” is singular and always goes with a singular verb, such as “the media IS biased.” Although she studied English in the university, I said she was wrong. I told her it should be “the media ARE biased.” But she isn’t convinced, so I said we should refer our case to you, the Nigerian judge of English grammar, for adjudication. I know we will get justice.

Thanks for your flattering description of me as the “Nigerian judge of English grammar,” but I am most certainly far from that. Several people are way worthier of that description in Nigeria than I am. Now to your question: you’re right that in proper usage “media” always takes a plural verb, as in “the Nigerian news media ARE biased.” “Media” is the plural of “medium,” so it’s OK to say “that news medium IS biased.” It’s true, however, that many native speakers habitually fail to recognize that “media” is the plural of “medium” and say things like “the media IS fueling this controversy.” So your wife is probably referring to “what is” as opposed to “what ought to be.”

Every semester, I test my students, who are native English speakers, on this question and only about 20 percent get it right. It’s probably time grammarians accept the fact that “media” has evolved into a singular noun, the same way that “agenda” has. In case you didn’t know, semantic purists used to insist that “agenda” should always take a plural verb (as in: the agenda HAVE been changed) because they say “agenda” is the plural of “agendum.” But almost no one says “agendum” these days. So it’s now grammatically permissible to use “agenda” with a singular verb (as in: the agenda HAS been changed).

I’d like to know the distinction between these two words: guaranty and guarantee. And in what context is one more appropriate to be used?

The short answer to your question is that both words can be used interchangeably. Guaranty is "a collateral agreement to answer for the debt of another in case that person defaults." Guarantee is a variant spelling of guaranty. However, guarantee can also mean a whole host of other things. For instance, it can be used as a verb whereas “guaranty” can only be used as a noun. “Guarantee” can also mean "to make certain in the future" (such as saying “I guarantee you that Jonathan won't win the 2015 election”). And so on and so forth.

 Is the word “sixthly” acceptable in English? In President Goodluck Jonathan’s letter to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, he used the word “sixthly.”

Sixthly, seventhly, eighthly, even “twentiethly,” etc. are acceptable usages, although many grammarians object to the addition of "ly" to ordinal numbers (that is, numbers that stand for a place in an ordered sequence such as “first,” “second,” “third,” “fourth,” hundredth, etc.) because ordinal numbers are both adjectives and adverbs. Since ordinal numbers are always already adverbs, the addition of “ly” to them is thought to be superfluous. It’s like saying “the conversation went welly” instead of simply “the conversation went well.”  The word “well,” in the context it’s used in the above sentence, is already an adverb, and adding “ly” to it to make it adverbial is unnecessary.

 Nevertheless, the addition of “ly” to ordinals is pretty widespread even among many careful writers. But some style guides recommend that writers limit the addition of the “ly” suffix to “fourthly.” My own recommendation is that you should be consistent. If you start your list with “firstly” and have hundred things on your list, end with “hundrethly,” as absurd as “hundredthly” sounds and looks. If, however, you started with “first,” never add “ly” to any subsequent ordinal.

What is wrong with describing an African’s complexion as “black”? I once “confused” a native English speaker when I described my Ghanaian friend as “black” as opposed to me who is light-skinned.

Native English speakers use “black” to refer to a racial category (that is, to so-called sub-Saharan Africans and people who are descended from them) and “dark” for skin color. So President Obama is “black” but he is not “dark.” President Robert Mugabe is both “black” and “dark.” Many Nigerians, as your example illustrates, tend to use “black” to describe people’s skin color. That would confuse an average Briton or American. So, next time, describe your friend as “dark-skinned” instead of “black.” Note, though, that it is perfectly OK to describe inanimate things or non-human forms as both “black” and “dark.”

Is it, “cut your coat according to your size” or “cut your coat according to your cloth”?

The standard expression is "cut your coat according to your cloth," which makes logical sense because you could be large and not have enough cloth to cut your coat.

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