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Q and A on English Usage in Politics, Elections, Ethnic Descriptions, and Dialectal Variation

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi What is the difference between a “president-elect” and an “elected president”? I...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

What is the difference between a “president-elect” and an “elected president”? Is it correct to say someone has “conceded defeat” or “conceded victory”? What do you call the husband of a female governor or president? Yoruba people call themselves a “race”? Is that correct? Is it “elder brother” or “older brother”? For answers to these and other questions, read on:

I read your “Common election-related grammatical errors Nigerian journalists and politicians make” in the Sunday Trust of 12 April 2014 and loved it. I have another politics-related grammar question. What is the difference between a president-elect and an elected president? Is president-elect, in fact, Standard English?

“President-elect” is a Standard English expression. It means someone who has won election as president but has not yet been sworn in, such as General Muhammadu Buhari. An elected president, on the other hand, is someone who has been elected, not appointed, a president. Goodluck Jonathan, Barack Obama, etc. are elected presidents. The late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was a president, but he was not an elected president. Several other countries in the world that practice parliamentary democracy have presidents who are not elected and who are merely symbolic heads of governments.

Because Nigeria’s First Republic president was not elected and therefore lacked substantive powers, it became necessary to prefix the adjective “executive” before “president” in the Second Republic to show that the president was an elected president with substantive, executive powers, not a ceremonial figurehead. I should add that “executive president” isn’t a uniquely Nigerian English coinage, but “executive governor” is.

Thank you for all your enlightening articles. I just read your piece titled "Common election- related grammatical errors Nigerian journalists and Politicians make." Since President Jonathan conceded to General Buhari, Nigerians have been talking and writing about “conceding defeat.” Some have written about “conceding victory.” Which of the two versions of the statement is correct?

Concede means to acknowledge defeat, so "concede defeat" is, in fact, unnecessarily repetitive, although it is understandable. But “concede victory” makes no sense at all.

If the wife of a president or a governor is called a First Lady what do you call the husband of a female president or governor?

Americans formally call the husband of a female governor the “First Gentleman.” They also informally call him the “First Dude.” The husband of former Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska was often called the “First Dude” in the media. He, too, said he preferred the term to “First Gentleman,” and that he would have liked to be called the “First Dude” if his wife had won election as vice president to John McCain in 2008. (“Dude” is an informal American English term for “man.”)

Since America has never had a female president, there is no precedent for a “First Gentleman” in the White House. That could change in 2016 if Hillary Clinton becomes America’s first female president.

It is entirely possible that Bill Clinton would choose to be called something other than “First Gentleman.” In 2007, while speaking with people from the UK, he joked that he could be called the “First Laddie.” (In UK English, laddie means a male child, and is often used as a form of address, as in “come here, laddie). “Lad,” of course, is an informal term for man or boy in all varieties of English, and the UK “laddie” is derived from it.

You’ve consistently made a great case for why “tribe” is an inappropriate term for non-Western ethnicities. I have stopped using the word since I first read it in your column some 6 years ago. My question is, what do you have to say about the practice of Yoruba people referring to their ethnic group as a “race”? Is that accurate? Aren’t Yoruba people a subset of the larger black race?

Although modern popular usage privileges the notion of race as the differentiation of people based on color and geographic location (as in “black Negroids,” “white Caucasians,” “red” “yellow” or “brown” Mongoloids,” etc.) there is no law in the language that says “race” must be understood that way. A race is merely a group of people who share a similar genetic stock. While it is certainly a stretch to call Yoruba people a “race” since their differentiation from the other ethnicities in Nigeria is relatively recent, I would rather have people call themselves a race than call themselves a tribe. It’s for the same reason that parents would rather their children fancy themselves as princes, princesses, queens, and kings than call themselves “nigga,” “bitch,” etc. Tribe means a group of primitive people. Race has no such connotation. So, yes, I support any Nigerian ethnic group that labels itself a “race.”

Is it “elder brother” or “older brother”? Or are both correct?

They are both correct and can be used interchangeably. However, I’ve noticed that Americans hardly ever say “elder brother” or “elder sister.” They almost always say “older brother” or “older sister.” I asked a couple of my American friends why they prefer “older” to “elder” when they refer to the hierarchies of age among their siblings, and they said “elder” sounds to them a little too formal and stilted. They said “older” sounds warmer and more informal. But “elder” is clearly preferred to “older” in British and Nigerian English.

Note, though, that all dictionaries agree that there is no difference between “elder” and “older,” except that “elder” is mostly used attributively, that is, it is often be used before a noun (as in, “elder brother,” “elder sister,” etc. but NOT “he is elder than me”) whereas “older” can be used predicatively, as in, “he is older.” Elder can also be used as a noun, such as in the sentence, “he is the elder of the two brothers.”

My friend and I had an argument. We went to visit a friend who lives in a storey building. We were going to the third floor, but she insisted it was the second floor because even though there were four floors, it is not called a four-storey building because there are three stories plus the ground floor. She said a one-storey building has two floors yet it’s called a one-storey building.

Both of you are correct depending on the variety of English you’re speaking. In British English your friend is right. But you’re right if we use the standards of American English. Americans call the British English “ground floor” the “first floor.”

 This issue has led to a lot of confusion between American and British English speakers. An Indian friend of mine told me he missed several meetings and was late for many others because he couldn’t relate to the American idea of counting floors in tall buildings. Being Indian, he spoke British English where the ground floor isn’t regarded as the first floor. So he said his American employers would ask that they should get together at, say, the third floor for an official meeting. In British English, that would be the second floor since Brits don’t count the first floor. He would wait endlessly and no one would show up. He would have been fired, he said, if his American employers had not been persuaded by his explanation that he was the victim of a communication breakdown activated by the dialectal variation between British and American English.

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