"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 04/06/14

Sunday, April 6, 2014

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 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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Re: Malaysian Airline Tragedy and Closing of the Nigerian Mind

I have decided to take a break this week and share these thoughtful responses to my article with readers. Enjoy.

Your column hits at the Nigerian reality. Gbam! I was involved in a car crash near Gusau a few years back when one 'kabu kabu' leapt his car into the highway from a gas station...leg out leg in. We thought someone was just standing beside his car, but he was pushing to start his car with one leg out! And the car started and jumped into my lane like a frog. We swerved off the road and ended in a dangerous somersault. That's when I witnessed the magic of airbags; we just removed our seat belts and came out. Now the trouble: kith and kin asked that I be careful with my 'enemies.’ How? I wondered. I don't have enemies. ‘It is our prayers, if not, they'd have succeeded in finishing you off’; ‘you'll not understand, it is 'spiritual’; One sister went: ‘my mind was not at rest...I should have told you not to make that trip.’

 I asked them to explain to me the connection between my 'enemies' and the car-pusher that jumped into my lane. They couldn't. They just wished me a bigger car, so that my 'enemies' will be 'shamed'. Well, because the car was insured, it was immediately indemnified and I got paid, and I got another car within 3 months. Some of them went on traducing 'my enemies' on my behalf...and singing how God has replenished me with another car.

Another one: A 'man of god' came visiting my house at about lunch time. Noticing he was really famished, I quickly served him a cup of tea before lunch was ready. After filling up with the sumptuous lunch, he launched into a prayer, wishing punishment for my 'enemies' and those that will 'stop my promotion in office'. Well after his prayer, I called him and told him not to bother praying in that manner anymore: I have no enemies, no one can stop my promotion, only I can threaten my own promotion if I decide to be lazy; if anyone does, I'll simply protest and get whatever promotion I deserve. Then my 'man of god' apologizes and says:  ‘Ah, oga your own na oyinbo style. That's why. If na civil service, you for understand.’
Philip Ikita, UK

I just want to briefly point out that Malaysians are not without their own idiosyncrasies.  Several days following the missing airline, the government contracted a well-known 'bomoh' or herbalist to locate it. He was allowed into the airport to conduct his 'investigation'. Needless to say, the result was hilarious and has been parodied all over YouTube. So, sometimes when people are desperate they revert to religion and superstitions.
Mama ToMosh, Malaysia

Well written sir. Nigerians are so religious to the point of forgetting their responsibilities. The Gallop International Millennium Survey found that 86 percent of Americans believe in God.
Abolaji Sharafadeen Adekunle, Australia

Spot on, Prof. Nigerians have a capacity for material but not mental sophistication. From superstition to the tendency to seek absolution by peddling conspiracy theories. When a young woman can't find a husband because her bad manners and temperament drives all suitors away, it is blamed on her step mother, when an extended family unit is full of under-achievers, it is blamed on rival families and when youth who have been denied opportunities take to militancy, it is blamed on a conspiracy by the South. Conspiracy theories are convenient because they free us from blame or responsibility. The mother of the unmarriageable young woman avoids the responsibility for the poor upbringing of her daughter as long as the blame is placed on the step-mother, the family of under-achievers can avoid having to face the true causes of its under-achievement if the blame is directed at rival families while northerners can avoid facing up to the fact that they have wasted the lives of their youth if a southern conspiracy is blamed for problems in the north. Conspiracies exist but they often don't succeed until we allow them. The blame lies not in the conspiracy but in the allowing.
Raji Bello, Abuja

Thank you Prof for this brilliant summation. I can't help but wonder if this 'infancy of human reasoning' that is pervasive among Nigerians is not genetic. I have always held that as much as we try to dismiss Watson's opinion regarding racial disparity in intelligence, the Nigerian example lends credence to his assertion.
Mustapha Abubakar, London

These terms— “prescientific mindset,” “anti-scientific attitudes,” and “infancy of human reasoning”—ring a very loud bell in my mind, and truly that’s how we are. You were right when you said “there is no doubt that unthinking obsession with supernaturalism and metaphysical claptrap is Nigeria’s, nay Africa’s, biggest stumbling-block to progress.” May the almighty Allah have mercy on those in MH370.
Muhammad Sulaiman, Malysia

You called these things (superstition, sorcery, witchcraft, among others) by their English names. What it means is that they exist even among the more developed nations of the world. Who gave them the English names? Nigerians? As a Muslim, I do not believe in the power of these things, but we can't deny their existence among mankind. The evil of witchcraft and sorcery is even mentioned in the Holy Qur'an.
Abdulsalam Yakubu , Lokoja

Religious zealotry is the root cause of all this ignorance, this uncritical and anti-scientific mindset, as you have rightly pointed out. I thought you would say something on the much-talked-about T.B Joshua’s ‘failure’ to foretell this tragedy and the other that happened during the NIS employment scam. I however found the two ministers’ mischief to bamboozle Nigerians via this means very, very astonishing. If highly educated people like the university don believe this crap, then who will not?

Muhsin Ibrahim, India

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