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Q and A on Titles, Genericization, and Sundry Grammar Usage Rules

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Want to know what “Prof. Dr.,” used by Western European and some Asian academics, mean, or why it is wron...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Want to know what “Prof. Dr.,” used by Western European and some Asian academics, mean, or why it is wrong to call Nigerian traditional rulers “His Royal Highness”? How about the rules about interchanging “Oh” with “Zero” in calling out telephone numbers? For these and many other grammar usage questions, read the Q and A that follows:

I often see the title “Prof. Dr.” before the names of university teachers in European countries. What does it mean? It sounds rather strange to me.

It’s a practice that is exclusive to some Western European and Asian countries. It’s called stacking of multiple academic titles, which strikes many people in the US and the UK as comical and overly self-important. When “Prof. Dr.” is attached to someone’s name in such countries as Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Malaysia, etc. it means the person is both a Ph.D. and a (full) professor. This differentiates him from someone who reached the pinnacle of his academic career without a Ph.D. and someone who has a Ph.D. but is still climbing the titular ladder in academe.

But it can get even more pompous.  I know people who have been addressed as “Prof. Dr. Dr. Dr. Brown.” It means this man has four doctoral degrees in addition to being a (full) professor.  A person who has four doctorate degrees in addition to being a professor usually prefixes the following titles to his names: “Prof. Dr. mult.” The “mult.” in the titles indicates multiple doctorates. “Prof. M.D.” indicates that someone has a medical doctorate and is also a professor. If “Prof. Dr. Ir.” is prefixed to someone’s name, especially in Belgium and, I think, Germany, it means the person is a (full) professor, has a doctorate, and also has a master’s degree in engineering. And you thought only Nigerians are obsessed with stacking titles!

 “Prof. Dr.” is never used in UK and US universities. In the UK “Prof.” (or Professor) is prefixed to the name of any academic who has attained the highest rank in academia. It’s a lifetime title. In the US, the preferred title for academics who hold a doctorate is “Dr.,” even if they’ve reached the highest attainable professorial rank, as in Dr. Smith is a professor of virology. “Prof.” or “Professor” is often prefixed to the names of people who teach in a US university but don’t have a doctorate, although it’s usual for Americans to use “professor” as a generic term for “university teacher,” which means “Prof.” can be used for just about anybody who teaches in a university, including graduate assistants.

The terms His Highness (HH) and His Royal Highness (HRH) are often used interchangeably in Nigeria. Is this correct? Otherwise kindly explain the difference.

His/Her Highness and His/Her Royal Highness are legitimately interchangeable, although some people say “His/Her Royal Highness” ranks higher than “His/Her Highness.” However, in the United Kingdom, these honorifics are used only for princes and princess, not the sovereign monarch. The King or the Queen of England is addressed as “His Majesty” or “Her Majesty,” not “His Royal Highness” or “Her Royal Highness.”

British people are often confused when Nigerians address their kings as “His Royal Highness” since that form of address is reserved only for for princes and princesses. A British person unfamiliar with the forms of address in Nigerian English would, for instance, think the Emir of Kano is a mere prince if you addressed him as “His Royal Highness, Muhammadu Sanusi II.”

I don’t know why Nigerians call their monarchs “His Royal Highness” instead of “His Majesty” or some other more befitting honorific, but given how the British colonial government discouraged monarchs in their colonies from being called “kings” (see my August 3, 2014 article titled “5 Words Native English Speakers Never Ever Use for Themselves”) it is conceivable that this, too, has roots in colonial politics of racial and cultural differentiation.

We had a short grammar argument on the use of zero while calling out phone numbers on radio. Most people (me included) favour O as an alphabet. But I believe that it will not be wrong when someone prefers to use, for example, “zero eight zero” and not “OH eight OH.” Which is correct? Please I need your help.

Several people have asked this same question and I answered them privately. I think it’s a good idea to make my response public. It is perfectly legitimate in informal, spoken English to interchange "oh" and "zero" when reading telephone numbers even though “O” is a letter and “0” is a number. The Oxford Dictionary of English says “Oh” is an acceptable stand-in for “zero” “in a sequence of numerals, especially when spoken.” Note, though, that the use of "oh" in place of “zero” is mostly American. British speakers tend to prefer “nought,” as in, “nought eight nought.” "Zero" is the more formal alternative to "oh" and “nought” in both Britain and the United States.

In Nigeria, we have a habit of using popular trade names as the preferred names to represent all similar products. For example, all detergents are called Omo, all soft drinks are called Coke, all toothpaste is Macleans, all diapers are called Pampers, etc. Is this practice exclusive to Nigeria? Do such naming habits exist in America and Britain, too?

What you described is called genericization, and it exists everywhere. Genericization occurs when a distinctive brand name becomes so popular that it’s used by the general population as the default name for all brands of the product or service. It’s also called “loss of secondary meaning.” In the United States and the United Kingdom when a product or service achieves a generic status, it often loses its intellectual property rights over its name. That means other products or services can use that name without any legal consequence. That’s why companies fight to prevent the erosion of their trade names. A recent notable example of this is Google, whose name is becoming the generic term for “Internet search engine” and whose name is now being verbified. Google is discouraging dictionaries from giving lexicographic imprimatur to the verb forms “to google,” or “googling,” which are becoming the preferred terms for “searching the Internet” among the general population.

Examples of popular trade names that have been genericized are aspirin, biro, jeep, kerosene, Photoshop, sellotape, Vaseline, Walkman, etc. So, in short, genericization isn’t exclusive to Nigerian English speakers. It’s a worldwide linguistic phenomenon.

Please I have the following questions for you. 1. Will 'legislature' take a plural or singular verb? Personally, I think it's plural. 2. What is the difference between 'less' and 'lesser'? Do they have the same meaning but different usages? 3. Which of these expressions is correct: 'groups of three' and 'groups of threes'?

1. Legislature is a singular noun. Its plural is legislatures.

2. "Less" is the comparative form of "little." The superlative form is "least," as in "little, less, least." it is the opposite of "more," and tends to be used mostly for uncountable nouns, although this norm is increasingly being violated even among native English speakers. "Lesser" started life as an error, as the double comparative of "lesser" (like "worser"), prompting famous English lexicographer Samuel Johnson to call it "a barbarous corruption of less, formed by the vulgar from the habit of terminating comparatives in -er." The Oxford English Dictionary says "lesser" is "now generally poetic or obsolete except in the expression lesser-known." However, I see many native many native speakers use "lesser" to make statements about comparisons that involve size, value, importance, and amount, especially when these are quantifiable.

3. It should be "groups of three."

In the titles of books, which is more appropriate: “guide to” or “guide for”?

Both are correct depending on what you mean. “Guide to” is usually followed by a subject-matter, such as “guide to correct English usage,” “guide to accounting for beginners, etc. "Guide for" is preferred when you mention the potential beneficiaries of the guide, such as "guide for beginners," “a practical guide for doctors,” etc.

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