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Q and A on Expressions, Usage, and Pronunciation

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Is it “minutes of the meeting WERE read” or “minutes of the meeting WAS read”? What is the difference betw...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Is it “minutes of the meeting WERE read” or “minutes of the meeting WAS read”? What is the difference between a “carpet” and a “rug”? Do you lick, suck or eat oranges and soup? How should “INEC” be pronounced? Can an online-only news platform be called a “newspaper”? Find answers to these and many other questions in this week’s Q & A. Enjoy.

Please, which form of this proverb is the correct one: 'All that glitters is not gold' or 'Not all that glitters is gold’?

The modern, standard rendering of the expression is “All that glitters is not gold.” However, as the Phrase Finder website notes, this popular version of the expression contains a little corruption. The original expression, which was popularized, but by no means invented, by Shakespeare in his Merchant of Venice was, “All that glisters is not gold.” Some pedants still insist that this original Shakespearean version is the only acceptable form of the expression, but “glister” is archaic; its modern English equivalent is “glitter.”

Having said that, it is worthy of note that there are many contemporary expressions in the English language that preserve archaic forms. Examples are "Today me, tomorrow thee," "To thine own self be true" (which is actually a Shakespearean expression), “to and fro,” etc. It’s interesting that the archaism in the expression you asked about has been replaced with a modern version.

I always read your column in the Sunday Trust and learn a lot from it. This time I have a question: Do you say “the minutes of the meeting WAS read?” Or should it be “the minutes of the meeting WERE read?” I would appreciate it if you can help with the right answer.

Several people have asked me this same question. I answered the questioners privately. However, given the frequency with which people ask this question, I think it’s a good idea to answer it publicly.

It should correctly be "the minutes WERE read." Here is why.  "Minutes" is always a plural noun and always takes a plural verb. It’s in the same category of nouns as “shears,” “scissors,” “tweezers,” “trousers,” etc. which always need a plural verb.

For confirmation that “minutes” always takes a plural verb, check the Oxford Dictionaries’ examples of the word’s usage: “The only written record ARE the minutes of the meeting taken by Mr Wilson.” “The minutes of the meeting RECORD a two-minute silence, followed by a motion to close.”

My friends and I read your really helpful response to the question on the appropriateness of the term “carpet crossing,” but we had  a disagreement about the difference between a rug and a carpet. Can a rug and a carpet be used interchangeably? Or are they different?

They are different. A carpet covers the entire floor while a rug is a floor mat or a small carpet, such as the one Muslims use for prayers. In his Nigerian English: An Introduction, Professor David Jowitt wrote about the tendency for Nigerians to use “rug” in place of “carpet.” He said rug is “frequently used in Nigeria as [Standard British English] fitted carpet, i.e., carpet with measurements coinciding exactly with the length and breadth of a room. In Nigeria the word can also be used a verb, and one may hear people talk of having a room ‘rugged’….In [Standard British English] a rug in the same context means a floor-mat smaller in size than a carpet but generally of thicker pile, often placed on top of a carpet and chosen to contrast with the carpet in the colour design.”

In separate lectures by Johns Hopkins and Harvard Public Health professors, these guys kept on saying things like ‘there’s two sets’, ‘there’s several levels of…’, why? Why not ‘there are two sets’ and ‘there are several levels of....’?

I wrote about this in a March 11, 2010 column titled "Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English" (See error number 2). You're right that it's a concord error. However, the error has been normalized in informal conversational English. I have found out that even in British spoken English it is now perfectly acceptable to say “There’s many levels…,” etc. The Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges that it is acceptable in informal spoken English. But almost no one writes like that unless they want to mimic spoken English.

I am a faithful reader of your Politics of Grammar column in Sunday Trust and your Notes from Atlanta column in Weekly Trust. I have a question about the correct way to pronounce abbreviation like the INEC [Independent National Electoral Commission]. The INEC chairman pronounces the word differently from journalists. What I want to know is: is it allowed for acronyms to be pronounced any way it suits people? Thanks for your Sunday classes.

The controversy about the correct way to pronounce the acronym INEC is as old as the organization itself. A majority of Nigerians pronounce it as /ai-neck/, but INEC chairmen and Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) broadcasters tend to pronounce it as /i-neck/. Both pronunciations are defensible.

However, people who pronounce it as /ai-neck/ are on firmer phonological grounds. Generally speaking, in English pronunciation, the letter “i” is pronounced as /ai/ when it is immediately followed by a consonant and a vowel (that is, a, e, i, o, u). Examples are “ire,” “irate,” “mine,” “pipe,” “dime,” “kite,” etc. That is why Americans pronounce Iraq and Iran as /ai-raq/ and /ai-ran/. There are, of course, some exceptions to this rule. But pronouncing INEC as /ai-neck/ seems to me to be more in line with the phonologic rules of the English language than /e-neck/. Most acronyms that begin with the letter “i” tend to be pronounced as /ai/. A good example is ICAN (Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria), which is pronounced /ai-kan/.

Do you “suck,” “lick,” or “eat” oranges and soup?

Native English speakers “eat” oranges and soup. I know this sounds weird to Nigerian ears. In Nigerian English people “lick” soup and “suck” oranges. Someone suggested that this is a result of Nigerians directly translating their native languages into English. But that’s not entirely accurate. In my native Baatonu language, we “eat” oranges. I know that to be true of many major Nigerian languages. I agree, though, that the idea of “licking” or “drinking” soup is a direct translation from many Nigerian languages. But that is also because Nigerians understand “soup” differently from the way native English speakers do. That’s a topic for another day.

I had a heated debate with a colleague of mine who claims that a newspaper must be printed on newsprint and published daily or weekly to be called a newspaper. He said news media like Premium Times are not newspapers and cannot be called newspapers; that they can only be called online news media. I, on the other hand, argued that modern definition of newspaper should not include the word "printed" because there are such things as online newspapers, web newspaper or e-newspaper that don't have printed versions. Interestingly, he used your name as reference to support his argument. He claimed you support his arguments. Kindly clarify for me if news media out fits like Premium Times can be referred to as newspapers.

The meaning of the notion of a "newspaper" has evolved. It can now legitimately be used to refer to an online-only publication that has the characteristics of a traditional newspaper, which are periodicity (i.e., published at regular, routine intervals), publicity (i.e., available to a broad segment of the population), universality (i.e., topics of report are of broad interest), currency, etc. So, yes, you’re right that Premium Times and even Sahara Reporters can legitimately be called online newspapers.

 I never at any time wrote or said that newspapers must be printed to be called newspapers. I only recall telling a group of Daily Trust reporters and editors during a recent visit to Nigeria that Nigerian newspapers habitually use broadcast language in their news reports, such as writing “hear him,” “in his words,” etc.

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