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Q and A on Idioms, Nigerian English, American English, and British English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi   Question: Someone whose grasp of the English language I respect told me it’...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Someone whose grasp of the English language I respect told me it’s bad English to say “I want to drop here” when coming down from a taxi or a commercial bus. He said “drop” in that context is Pidgin English, and that one can only “drop” from the top of something, not from inside it. Is he correct?

 Your friend is being a little too literal in his understanding of the meaning of “drop.” One of the many meanings of the word is to “leave at a destination” and to “remove from a transport container.” Your friend probably meant to say that native English speakers typically “drop” or, more commonly, “drop off” passengers from their taxis or buses while passengers “get off” from taxis or buses.

In other words, a passenger cannot not drop or drop off from a car or a bus; he is dropped or dropped off by the driver since “drop off” also means “to allow to alight.” Passengers can only “get off” from a taxi or a bus.  In Nigerian English, however, this distinction scarcely exists. Everybody just “drops.”

Is it “make-or-mar” or “make-or-break”? What is the correct idiom?

The usual form of the idiom among native English speakers is “make or break.” But many non-native English speakers, including Nigerians, and especially Nigerian journalists, habitually render it as “make or mar.” Note, though, that “make or mar” isn't grammatically wrong; it's just not a Standard English idiom. I personally like “make or mar” because of its alliterative rhythm.

How come most people say “different than” instead of “different from” and yet the style manuals tell us that the former is incorrect and the latter correct?

Well, “different than” is chiefly American. It’s almost absent in any other national variety of English. The traditional rule is that “than” can only be used with the comparative forms of adjectives (e.g., “better than,” “more than,” “bigger than,” “more beautiful than,” “less than,” “less successful than,” etc.) and with “other” and “rather” (e.g., “other than,” “rather than”).

Since “different” signifies contrast rather than comparison, it is taught that it shouldn't co-occur with “than.” However, the phrase “different than” has become standard in American English and it seems churlish to resist it. But I don't think I can ever bring myself to say "different than." My tongue would fall off!

British speakers also have their own awkward deviation from the rule in the phrase “different to.” My sense is that these deviations from the traditional norm were initially usage errors committed by people at the upper end of the social and cultural scale (I have written about the unabashed elitism of usage rules in many articles) or by a critical mass of people, which gained social prestige over time.

What I've noticed, though, is that the Brits tend to confine their “different to” to informal contexts. But in America “different than” competes with “different from” even in formal contexts. 

 Is it “delivered a baby” or “delivered of a baby”? My wife wrote to her place of work, after giving birth, that she was delivered of a baby in the hospital. “I was delivered of a baby boy last Thursday,” she wrote. The guy who saw the letter cancelled the statement and ranted that it was a mistake. He insisted that it should only read, "I delivered a baby last Thursday". Actually, I feel the guy was wrong to say his statement is the ONLY correct one, and I also thought my wife was right in how she made the statement. Please help me resolve this and reply via email. Thanks so much.

Your question reminds me of a Nigerian language columnist’s take on this issue years back. He said it was wrong to say, “my wife delivered a baby yesterday.” Instead, he said, it should be “my wife was delivered of a baby yesterday.” So this grammar columnist is the very antithesis of your wife’s unsolicited, self-appointed grammar police. But what is the correct expression?

Well, “be delivered of a baby” is a fixed idiom in British English. It means “to give birth to a baby.” This definition is taken straight from the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. And this is the usage example the dictionary gives: “She was delivered of a healthy boy.” That means the expression “I was delivered of a baby last Thursday” that your wife used in her letter is legitimate.

However, “deliver” as a word can also mean “cause to be born,” and the phrase “deliver a baby” also means “to help a woman give birth to a baby.” So it is also perfectly acceptable to write, “I delivered a baby last Thursday.”

Now, according to usage experts in British English, the phrase “be delivered of a baby” is the preferred expression to use in formal contexts, while “deliver a baby” is especially suitable in informal, colloquial contexts. So both expressions are correct. I would add that since your wife was writing a formal letter to her workplace, her choice of expression is particularly appropriate.

Note that American English speakers never say their wives are “delivered of a baby girl.” I have American friends who have had babies or whose wives have had babies, but I’ve never heard any of them use the British English idiom “delivered of a baby.” They just say they (if they are women) or their wives “delivered a baby.” (It’s actually more usual for Americans to say, “My wife had a baby” or "I had a baby" than for them to say, “My wife delivered a baby”).

So the decision to use “delivered of” or “deliver” is dialectal. Since we speak and write British (or what I like to call neo-British) English in Nigeria, you’re right that your wife was right.

Is there a word like “unserious”? Recently, I used the word “unserious” in a discussion on an online forum, and somebody, whom I respect, corrected me. He said there is no such word as “unserious” in English; that it's either I say “not serious” or use another word. Please clarify this for me.

Well, your friend is both right and wrong. He is right because “unserious” is traditionally not a frequently used word in British English, which we speak—or pretend to speak—in Nigeria. That's why it can’t be found in prestigious British English dictionaries. But he is wrong because the word has been an integral part of the lexicon of American English for a long time.

The word is used by well-regarded columnists in prestigious American newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, etc. Famous and well-regarded conservative American philosopher George Will famously called Obama “seriously unserious” in a Newsweek article in 2009.

 Interestingly, as with most English expressions and words that were once exclusively American, “unserious” is spreading to British English. I found many records of its use in the British National Corpus, the most definitive record of contemporary spoken and written British English.

Which is the correct expression between these two: “to be rest assured” or “to rest assured”? I see that many educated Nigerians use the expression “to be rest assured.” But someone said it’s wrong. What can you tell me about this?

The idiom is “to rest assured.” This is how it is rendered in both British and American English and, I imagine, in other native varieties such as Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand English.  However, over the years, Nigerians have distorted the idiom to “to be rest assured.”

It is typical to hear some Nigerians say, “You should be rest assured that I will deliver on my promises.” But it should correctly be, “you should rest assured that I will deliver on my promises.”

The 2002 edition of the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs defines “rest assured” as “to be assured; to be certain.” And it gives the following examples of the idiom’s usage: “Rest assured that you'll receive the best of care. Please rest assured that we will do everything possible to help.”

Similarly, the 2006 edition of the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms defines “rest assured” as “to be certain something will happen,” and gives the following usage example: “I know this fellow well, and you can rest assured he will give you good advice.”

In case you think this an exclusively American English idiom, it is not; it is also found in British English. It’s unclear how the intrusive “be” entered into the Nigerian rendering of the idiom. Since we don’t say “go and BE rest” in Nigerian English, it seems indefensible that we say “you should BE rest assured.”

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