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Q and A on Nigerian Media English, Usage, and American and British English Punctuations

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperog i Is “believe you me” Standard English? What’s the difference between single and ...

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

Is “believe you me” Standard English? What’s the difference between single and double quotation marks? What’s the difference between “police” and “police officer”? Is it “I take it seriously” or “I take it serious”? Does “correspondence” have a plural form and is “minutes” of a meeting always plural? For answers to these and other questions, read on:

Is “believe you me” correct English? It doesn’t sound correct to me, but I find it being used by someone I respect. I suspect that it is Nigerian English. Am I right?

You are the third person to ask this.  “Believe you me” isn’t by any stretch of the imagination Nigerian English; it’s a Standard English expression known and used in all English varieties. It's the emphatic form of "believe me," and mimics Old English forms such as "Seek ye first the kingdom of God" (Matthew 6:33), "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations" (Matthew 28:19), etc.

When it’s used to ask questions, it often takes an accusatory tone such as in Shakespeare’s As you like it, Act 5, Scene 2, where Phebe says: “If this be so, why blame you me to love you?”

Interestingly, although the syntactic structure of “believe you me” sounds old-fashioned and Germanic, it’s actually a comparatively modern expression. The expression wasn’t in use in Shakespearean times. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its origins to 1926, although some etymologists have found records of its use in American poetry a little earlier than 1926, but it doesn’t go far back to the 16th century when such expressions were conventional.

Michael Quinion, a respected British linguist, summed it up well: “What seems to have happened is that a once-standard phrase that had been lurking in the language for generations suddenly became much more popular and widespread around the 1920s. What we have here is a revitalised fossil, a semi-invented anachronism.”

Is there a difference between single quotation marks like ‘this’ and double quotation marks like “this”?

Yes. British English uses single quotation marks for the main quote and double quotation marks for quotations within a quotation. (Example: ‘I like the way Buhari said “I belong to nobody and belong to everybody”, although I don't know what that means’, Ibrahim said.)

American English, on the other hand, uses double quotation marks for the main quote and single quotation marks for quotations within a quotation. (Example: “I like the way Buhari said ‘I belong to nobody and belong to everybody,’ although I don't know what that means,” Ibrahim said.

Notice that in the first example the comma appears outside of the quotation marks while in the second example the comma appears inside the quotation marks. That’s also a function of the differences between British written English and American written English. British English users write their punctuation marks (full stop, comma, question mark, and exclamation mark) outside quotation marks while American English writers write their punctuation marks (period, comma, question mark, and exclamation mark) inside the quotation marks. (You probably also noticed that I used “full stop” for British English and “period” for American English.)

However, in my over a decade of teaching writing in American universities, I can tell you that many Americans don’t have a conscious awareness of these differences. Several of my students lose points for placing their punctuation marks outside quotation marks. I always say, “That would be acceptable if we were writing British English.”

I have a question about a news story headline that reads: “SSS operative escapes lynching FOR shooting police.” To me it is correct, but some people said it was wrong; that it should be “SSS operative escapes lynching AFTER shooting police.” Which is the correct one please?

Both expression can be correct, depending on the context of their usage. Since I am not familiar with the content of the story I can only guess what it’s about. So let's go.

 The headline with the preposition "for" indicates that the reason the SSS operative escaped lynching was that he shot a police officer, which would mean that he did a good thing, and people let him escape. I doubt that is the meaning the headline seeks to convey, but given the bad image of the police in Nigeria—and even in the United States now—that's not a far-fetched possibility.

The headline with "after" merely tells us a sequence of actions: that an SSS operative shot a police officer, then a mob wanted to lynch him as a result, but somehow he escaped the wrath of the mob. Since you're familiar with the content of the story, you should know which of my explanations fits your headline.

Please note that it is grammatically better to write "police officer" than to write "police" because "police" is a collective noun, such as “crew,” “family,” “team,” etc. No one says, for instance, “SSS operative shoots team," or "SSS operative shoots family," etc. We say "SSS operative shoots team member" or "SSS operative shoots team members," etc. The way the headline stands right now, the impression is created that the entire police force was shot by an SSS operative!

Is it normal to call a 10-year-old child a SUICIDE bomber?

If the child knowingly straps a bombs and kills himself while killing others, yes. But if the child was strapped with a bomb against his wishes, or unknown to him, he can't legitimately be called a suicide bomber. Nigerian newspapers don’t make this distinction. It’s rather far-fetched that a 10-year-old can knowingly be a suicide bomber. We need another expression to capture this disturbing trend.

Which is better? 1. I take it serious. 2. I take it seriously.

In modern English, the distinction between adverbs and adjectives is disappearing, so both expressions are common and often mean the same thing. But if we want to be pedantic, we would say "take it seriously" is the more correct option because "take" is the verb in the sentence that the adverb "seriously" modifies. "Serious" is an adjective, and it can't modify the verb "take"; only adverbs modify verbs.

Nevertheless, if the emphasis is on “I,” “I take it serious” would be a better option, but it would mean that “I was serious when I took it.” I doubt that is the sense you intend to convey.

 I am an ardent reader of your weekly column in Sunday Trust and I have benefited a lot from your very simple explanations and answers to questions on Nigerian English usage. Kindly help answer the following questions:

1. What is the plural for the word correspondence? My friend told me the word has no plural and I see some Nigerian writers use the word 'correspondences' even in official communication. For example, 'all correspondences are to be forwarded to the office of the secretary'

2. Is it correct to say 'Minutes of meeting' when referring to the records of proceedings taken at a particular meeting? Or do we say 'minute of meeting'? For example, "The minutes of the meeting was adopted by members of the committee" or "The minute of the meeting was adopted by members of the committee"? I am not too sure on when to use 'minute' and when to use 'minutes.'

When “correspondence” is used to mean “letters,” it’s usually singular. “Correspondences” is nonstandard because “correspondence” is an uncountable noun. That’s the formal rule in the books. However, over the years, there has been an uptick in the use of “correspondences” as the plural form of “correspondence” in the informal registers of even native English speakers. I expect that in the next 50 years “correspondences” will become mainstream. For now, though, avoid it in formal writing.

The record of what transpired at a meeting is always written as “minutes.” As I wrote in an April 6, 2014 Q and A article, “‘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.’”

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