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Q and A on Sundry Grammar and Usage Concerns

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.   Twitter: @farooqkperogi This week’s Q and A centers on usage and grammar such as the differences betwe...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. 
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

This week’s Q and A centers on usage and grammar such as the differences between “wide off the mark” and “wide of the mark,” between “write an exam” and “take an exam,” between “how do you mean?” and “what do you mean?” and which between “titled” and “entitled” is appropriate when talking about giving title to a book or article. Enjoy.

I have read and found your analysis on "Febuhari" (Sunday Trust, Feb 1, 2015; p. 42) as interesting as your other previous grammatical analyses. However, your last three paragraphs bear one serious misuse by you, and often by many other "educated" Nigerians. The word you used wrongly is "titled". The word "title”, in standard English English, can be used only as a NOUN. When used as a VERB in the past participle form "titled", it means "to give a NOBLE TITLE" to someone or something. It also means "to give someone or something the RIGHT for/to something". If you want to convey the meaning of giving just a name or "title" to a book, article, etc, the past participle VERB you should use appropriately is "entitled", which has the base form of "entitle". I wonder whether this "entitled", repeated three times by you, too falls under your "Errata/accidental typographical errors.

Well you're wrong in thinking that "titled" can only be used to mean "'to give a NOBLE TITLE' to someone or something' and 'to give someone or something the RIGHT for/to something'." That’s a limited, prescriptivist understanding of the meaning and usage of "titled."

Here is what I wrote on the difference between "titled" and "entitled" in an April 14, 2013 Q and A article titled (yes, “titled”!) “Q and A on Miscellaneous Nigerian English Grammar Issues”: “The Associated Press Stylebook, which I, like many journalism professors in the United States, use to teach news reporting and writing, forbids the use of ‘entitled’ to mean give title to a book. The stylebook says the use of ‘entitled’ should be restricted to ‘a right to do or have something’ such as in the sentence ‘She was entitled to the promotion.’ It says ‘titled’ should be used only to convey the sense of giving title to a book, such as ‘I read a book titled Things Fall Apart.’ However, although I penalize my students who write ‘the book is entitled,’ the AP Stylebook’s distinction between ‘entitled’ and ‘titled’ is not universally accepted in usage circles. In British English, for example, ‘entitled’ and ‘titled’ are both acceptable verbs to use to mean ‘give title to a book.’ There are also many respected American writers who use both verbs interchangeably.”

So you’re on the opposite side of the AP Stylebook’s usage dogma. But what does the available linguistic evidence say about your and AP Stylebook’s prescriptivist dogmas? Here is what we know.

Etymologists (people who study the history, development, and sources of words) say the use of "title" as a verb to mean "give title to a book" has been attested since the early 14th century (See, for instance, the Online Etymology Dictionary ). The use of “entitled” to mean “give title to a book” came about 50 years later. So, etymologically, “titled” is older than “entitled.”

How about usage? Well, a search through the British National Corpus, the most definitive record of English usage in the UK, shows that “titled” and “entitled” are used interchangeably by British English speakers. It appears, though, that “titled” is preferred to “entitled” when reference is made to the title of books. Usage evidence from the Corpus of Contemporary American English also shows that “titled” and “entitled” are used interchangeably by American English speakers, with “titled” having a clear edge over “entitled.”

In all the dictionaries I consulted, “give title to a book, article, movie, etc.” is the first, and in some cases the only, meaning of the verb form of “title.” On the other hand, “give title to a book” isn’t the first meaning of “entitle” in all the dictionaries I consulted. The first meaning is often “to give someone the right to do or have something,” as in “He’s entitled to his opinion even if you don’t agree with him.” Or “Being over 65 entitles you to a discount at the movies.”

So the use of “titled” to mean “give title to a book, article, movie, etc.” is not, to use your words, “one serious misuse by you, and often by many other ‘educated’ Nigerians.” As I’ve shown, in American journalistic writing, it’s actually the only acceptable usage. And in Britain it competes with “entitled.” Plus, etymologically, that usage has been around since the early 14th century when English hadn’t come to the shores of Nigeria.

Someone corrected me that "He wrote an exam..." is not correct English. He said it should be "He sat or did exam..." Is this true? He quoted the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary to back up his claim.

One of the first things I noticed when I relocated to the United States over a decade ago was that no one “wrote” an exam or test; they all “took” exams or tests. I wrote about this in one of my early writings. In my desire to blend with my new linguistic environment, I stopped saying “write” an exam. I didn’t realize that Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary disapproves of the expression.

But the pragmatics of “write an exam” is way different from OALD's prescriptive commandment. First, in the British National Corpus, I found matches for "write an exam."  That means some well-regarded British English users also say “write an exam”—like Nigerians do. Similarly, several US and Canadian university websites interchange "take/sit an exam" with "write an exam." See examples from university websites here:;;;

Upon digging deeper, I found that “write an exam” occurs more frequently in Canadian English than it does in any other native English variety. In fact, it’s the default expression there—as it is in Nigerian English. So, although I’ve involuntarily stopped saying “write an exam,” Nigerians who say that are in good company.

Is there any difference between the words “most” and “many” as used in these sentences: “Most people like me”; “Many people like me.”

Yes, there is a difference, and there are two ways to explain the difference. From the perspective of everyday speech “many” can be understood to mean “a large number” while “most” can be understood to mean “the majority.” If, for instance, out of 100 people 20 or 30 people said they like something, we might say “many people like it.” But we can only say “most people like it” if at least 51 out of 100 people like it.

Grammatically, “most” is the superlative of “many” (for countable nouns) and “much” for uncountable nouns.

Is it “wide off the mark” or “wide of the mark”?

It’s “wide of the mark.” It’s a fixed idiomatic expression that means “A long way from an intended target,” as in “most of his shots went wide of the mark. But “off the mark” is another idiom. It means incorrect or inaccurate, as in “the minister’s projections are way off the mark.”

Is the expression “how do you mean?” correct English?

Yes it is. When people say “how do you mean?” they usually mean they want you to clarify or add greater details to what you have said. The Cambridge Dictionary gives the following example: "I think we need to reconsider our position." "How do you mean?" It is different from “what do you mean?” which Cambridge Dictionary says is “used to show that you are annoyed or that you disagree: What do you mean, it was my fault?”

But “what do you mean by…?” can also be used to ask for the meaning of something said by a speaker, and it needn’t be in a context of exasperation.

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