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“Titled” or “Entitled,” “On a Platter of Gold,” “Wide off the Mark”: Grammar Q and A

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi Question: Kindly expound on your consistent use of “title” as a verb (e.g. “my...

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

Kindly expound on your consistent use of “title” as a verb (e.g. “my book is titled…”).

Apparently, many Nigerian English grammarians think “title” can’t be used as verb to mean “give title to a book”; they think only “entitle” can “correctly” give expression to that meaning. I don’t know the source of that misconception. A Nigerian English professor also once pointed out to me that my use of the verb form of “title” to mean “give title to a book” was wrong.

He wrote: “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’.”

Since you also teach English at a Nigerian university, I have decided to republish the response I gave to your colleague on this issue.

“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.’

“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 the 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 a misusage. 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.

I know there are many people in Nigeria who like gold, but could this be the reason why most of our people - educated and otherwise - (in)correctly use the phrase ''on a platter of gold?'' I've trawled my hard-copy dictionaries and even online platforms and couldn't find the phrase; but I was able to find ''on a silver platter.''  What do you say, Prof?

The usual idiom in Standard English is “on a platter” and sometimes “on a silver platter.” It is perhaps the latter rendering of the idiom that inspired Nigerian English speakers to replace “silver” with “gold” since gold is more valuable than silver.

The Nigerian English idiom “on a platter of gold” was most certainly popularized by a popular question in high school government and history exam that read something like: “Nigeria got its independence on a platter of gold. Discuss.” I don’t know if the question still appears in secondary school exams. It most definitely is the source of the Nigerian English rendering of the idiom as “on a platter of gold.”

To give or hand something to somebody on a platter or on a silver platter is to give it to him or her almost effortlessly. It is the same sense the Nigerian English idiom “on a platter of gold” conveys.

My sense is that native English speakers would understand that you mean “on a silver platter” if you say “on a platter of gold,” but it would immediately be apparent that you have limited proficiency in the language. The lexical and grammatical properties of idioms are usually fixed and can’t be changed arbitrarily. Replacing “silver” with “gold” and changing the structure of the idiom may be a good example of linguistic domestication, but it does mark you out as a non-native speaker.

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 British English users also say “write an exam”—like Nigerians do.

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 appears to be 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 it “wide off the mark” or “wide of the mark”?

It’s “wide of the mark,” not “wide off the mark.” “Wide of the mark” is 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.”

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