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Q and A on Grammar and Usage of Popular Expressions

Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Is it insulting to call an older woman a “lady”? What is wrong with the expression “who is fooling who?”? Is...

Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Is it insulting to call an older woman a “lady”? What is wrong with the expression “who is fooling who?”? Is it ever acceptable to use “more” or “better” without “than” in a sentence? Find answers to these and other questions in this week’s Q and A.

I got extremely busy in the last couple of weeks and lost most of the questions sent to me by readers via my email and Facebook. If you sent a question in the last two or so months, please resend it. My apologies.

I like your column. It helps me a lot. I will please like you to shed light on the use of 'lady' and 'woman'. A few days back, I was at the Postgraduate School of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and the deputy sub-dean was addressed as 'a lady'. She instantly got angry. She protested that a man younger than her should not address her as a ‘lady’; that she should properly be called a ‘woman’.  My understanding is that 'a lady' is equivalent to 'a gentleman' or 'my lord'. We need more light on this socio-linguistic inferential translation.

There is not the slightest hint of condescension or discourtesy in the word “lady” that I know of in any variety of English. If anything, as you rightly observed, “lady” is a term of respect for women who are considered refined and socially superior. In countries where English is spoken as a native language, it’s usual to insult women by saying they’re “not real ladies” or that they are “unladylike.” So it’s ironic that a woman would take offense at being called a “lady.”

 It’s true, though, that in American English “lady” can be used informally to address a woman in a rude, peremptory manner, as in “I am sorry, lady, but you can’t get in because you’re late.” British English speakers deeply resent this usage of the term. I met a British guy here in the United States sometime ago who told me one of his pet peeves about American English is the tendency for Americans to call every woman a lady, even if the woman is some “strumpet.” “Not every woman is a lady, you know,” he said, as if I didn’t know that already. “It takes class, nobility, well-bred manners to be a lady.”

You’re right when you said “lady” is the female equivalent of “gentleman” for polite address. Female judges are also addressed as “My Lady.” The only derogatory expression that is associated with “lady” that I know of is “lady of the night,” which means a prostitute.

But it helps to also know that the lexical ancestor of “lady,” which the Oxford Dictionary of English identified as “hlaefdige,” meant “a woman to whom homage or obedience is due, such as the wife of a lord, also specifically the Virgin Mary….” So “lady” has always been a term of respect for women.

“Woman,” on the other hand, doesn’t have the denotation and connotation of reverence that “lady” has. In general terms “woman” merely means an adult female, but many of its other meanings are unflattering. For instance, in both British and American English “woman” can be used as a rude form of address for a female, such as “don’t be an idiot, woman!” It can also mean a female employed to do housework. Nigerians call such a person “house girl.” American English speakers tend to prefer the term “cleaning lady”—to the annoyance of British English speakers who reserve “lady” strictly for respectable women.

 Also note that “woman of the streets” is the older form of “lady of the night,” the euphemistic expression for a prostitute. I suspect that “lady of the night” started as an American English expression since Americans appear to always want to denude “lady” of its exclusive claims to nobility and high social class.

In summary, the female deputy sub-dean erred in assuming that she was being disrespected on account of being addressed as a “lady.”

Which of these sentences is correct: 1. If I had known, I would have told you. 2. If I would have known, I would have told you.

From a descriptivist perspective, both sentences are correct. But from a prescriptivist perspective, only the first sentence is correct. I won’t bore the reader with a syntactic analysis of the sentences. It suffices to say, however, that the second sentence is chiefly American English. But even in America, it is more typical in southern United States than it is in northeastern United States.

When I first came to the United States, I used to think that only modestly educated people spoke like that, but I have since found out that it’s a national preference.

This is also true of past participles, which have practically died in the American south. People here say “I would have saw him” instead of “I would have seen him.” Or “he should have went there” instead of “he should have gone there.” I can’t get used to it. It still hurts my ears each time I hear people replace the past participle with a past tense.

What is wrong with the expression “who is fooling who?” Someone told me it’s wrong, but I don’t see what’s wrong with it.

You don’t see anything wrong with it because “whom” is gradually on its way out of the English language. But before the current shift, “who” used to be universally considered a subjective pronoun and “whom” an objective pronoun. Subjective pronouns initiate action and usually, but not always, appear at the beginning of a sentence while objective pronouns receive action.

This probably sounds abstract and unhelpful. Maybe these examples will help: “I” is a subjective pronoun; the objective pronoun associated with it is “me.” “He” is a subjective pronoun; the objective pronoun associated with it is “him.” “She” is a subjective pronoun; the objective pronoun associated with it is “her.” “We” is a subjective pronoun; the objective pronoun associated with it is “us.” “They” is a subjective pronoun; the objective pronoun associated with it is “them.”  “Who” is a subjective pronoun; the objective pronoun associated with is “whom.”

Would you say, for instance, something like: “he is fooling he”? Or “they are fooling they”? Of course not. That’s because you’re using two subjective pronouns in the same sentence. In other words, we have two initiators of action with no recipient of the action. If you apply the same logic you’d see that “who is fooling who?” violates this basic subject-object symmetry.  Since “who” is the initiator of an action (i.e., fooling), the recipient of the action should be “whom.” Just like you would say “he is fooling him,” not “he is fooling he.”

However, the notion of “whom” as the objective case of “who” is losing currency in contemporary English usage. That’s why it’s far more common for people to say “who is fooling who” than for them to say “who is fooling whom.” I found nearly 16 million hits for “who is fooling who” on Google and only 2. 6 million hits for “who is fooling whom.” But most grammar experts would say you should use “who is fooling who” in informal contexts and “who is fooling whom” in formal contexts.

Is it ever acceptable to use “more” or “better” without “than” in a sentence? For instance, can I write or say “It’s more common for people to disrespect elders these days?” I have an acquaintance here in Kano who never tires to remind me that I can’t use “more” or better without “than.”

It’s true that comparative forms like “more” and “better” should ideally appear alongside “than” to complete the sense of comparison they convey. Nonetheless, it’s pedantic and churlish to insist that comparative forms must always co-occur with “than.” Modern usage convention doesn’t support that dogmatism. For instance, in the sentence “some more money is needed for the project,” it is unnecessary to add “than.”

But, more importantly, over the years, advertising has dulled our sensitivity to the kinds of explicit comparisons your friend probably has in mind when he expresses discomfort with the use of “more” and “better” without “than.” A lot of the time, the comparison is implied. When a company says it’s “more responsive to the needs of customers” or that it has a “better customer service” it’s an elliptical way to “dis” their competitor who is often known to the target of the ad. But the fact of not directly mentioning the competitor’s name saves the company from potential legal troubles.

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