“English Graduate” or “Graduate of English,” Ngugi’s Grammar, “Iconoclastic Oba,” and Other Usage Q and A/

Question:

I am a Kenyan and a regular reader of your Facebook page as well as your blogs. I'd like you to answer my query in your Question and Answer Column and if you must not, please answer me by email.

Reading through Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong'o's short story, 'A Meeting in the Dark', I came across the following sentence: 'Indeed they were all there- all except she whom he wanted'.

I thought that 'except' in this context is a preposition and therefore it should be followed by the objective 'her' and not the subjective 'she'? That is to say that, according to me, the pronoun should be the subject of the sentence and not the other way round.

In any case, is it not the object of the verb 'wanted'?

Answer:

You are correct, in my opinion. "Except" is both a preposition and a conjunction. It's a preposition if it's followed immediately by either a noun or a pronoun, and it's a conjunction if it's followed by a clause or an adverbial phrase. In the example you quoted, "except" is followed by "she," which is a pronoun. That means "except" functions as a preposition in the sentence.

Now, in grammar, when a preposition precedes a pronoun, the pronoun is always in the objective case, such as "her," "him," "them," "whom," "us," "me,"etc. Based on this, you're right that the "she" in the sentence should have been "her," more so that "whom" is correctly in the objective case.

But I can see why the sentence is little tricky. “They” is a subjective pronoun, with which “she” shares positional similarities, that is, the sentence could as well have read: “They were all there. Only she wasn’t there.” That would justify leaving “she” in the subjective case in the sentence. I am not sure many grammarians will quibble over the correctness of the placement of “she” in Ngugi’s sentence.

I certainly won't judge Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong'o. I think he has earned the right to break the rules of English grammar any way he likes, more so that he makes no pretenses about his antipathy toward the English language!

Question:

What is the difference between “English literature” and “literature in English” and between “English graduate” and “graduate of English”?

Answer:

In everyday usage, there is no difference. But certain specialist like to insist that “English literature” is literature originally written in English about England and, by extension, all English-speaking countries, including postcolonial English-speaking countries like Nigeria. “Literature in English,” on the other hand, is literature about non-English-speaking countries, originally written in languages other than English, but translated into English.

As you can see, this is a problematic distinction. Where does one place, for instance, literature originally written in, say, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, etc. about Britain, or in Yoruba (such as D.O. Fagunwa’s Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀, which Wole Soyinka translated as The Forest of A Thousand Daemons) about Nigeria, or in Spanish about the US, or in French about Canada, or in Hindi about India, etc. but later translated into English? Maybe it’s “literature in English” since the language of such literature wasn’t originally written in English. But it’s about places that are part of the “English-speaking” world. That’s a definitional ambiguity.

Other people narrowly define “English literature” as literature exclusively about England, and “literature in English” as all other literature written in English. I don’t agree with that distinction.

An “English graduate” and a “graduate of English” mean the same thing. But some pedants insist that since English isn’t just a language but also a demonym (to refer to someone from England), an “English graduate” could be understood to mean a graduate from England, who might not have even studied English—similar to saying a “Scottish graduate,” “an Irish graduate,” “a Welsh graduate,” “a Hausa graduate,” etc.

So it is thought that “a graduate of English” eliminates ambiguity between the language and the demonym. This sounds logical but, in reality, no one assumes that “an English graduate” means anything other than someone who studied English. If reference to England is desired, people just say “a graduate from England.” Wherever “graduate” and “English” appear in the same sentence, people automatically associate it with the study of the language.

Question:

Former Edo State governor Adams Oshiomhole once got in trouble with Edo people for characterizing the late Oba of Benin as “iconoclastic.” Why is “iconoclastic” a bad word? Or is it?

Answer:

The former governor’s critics were being a little too literal. It is true that the original meaning of “iconoclasm” isn’t particularly flattering. It means the destruction of icons (or images), often for religious reasons. For instance, Islam forbids visual representations of the prophet of Islam, which causes some Muslims to destroy all images that purport to represent him. Christianity also had its own period of iconoclasm inspired by the biblical injunction against worshiping "graven images."

So an iconoclast is one who practices iconoclasm. I can see how Bini people might that offensive.

Over the years, however, iconoclasm’s meaning has mutated from the literal to the metaphoric realm. It now means upending established traditions. Now, generally, it is used with a tone of approval to mean shaking up old, decaying conventions in order to inaugurate freshness and vitality. So an iconoclastic person is a radical reformist, an agent of positive change. The word is almost never used in a negative sense in modern usage.

I am not sure I would describe any traditional ruler as being “iconoclastic,” though. That’s way too generous. Oshiomhole’s problem wasn’t that he was insulting to the Oba. He was not. He was rather exaggeratedly kind to a symbol of stagnant tradition and convention. In other words, he used the wrong word.

Question:

I would like to know the actual "concord and verb agreement" that must go with this sentence: “May God grant him paradise” Or should it be, “May God grants him paradise.”

Answer:

It should be, “May God grant him paradise.” Here is why. “May” is a modal verb, and modal verbs (other examples are “must,” “will,” “would,” “shall,” “should,” “may,” “might,” “can,” “could,” and “might”) don’t follow subject-verb agreement rules.

Question:

In our lesson plan at school, the school wrote "Key Vocabulary Words." I am of the opinion that vocabulary simply means word. Isn’t “vocabulary word” a tautology? This has really generated a lot of controversy in my school. What's your view on this?

Answer:

It’s entirely logical to characterize “vocabulary words” as tautological. But remember that a usage isn’t wrong simply because it is tautological. Tautologies were never considered bad in English until the 17th century when grammarians began to frown at and demonize them. That’s why there are a lot of tautologies in Shakespeare’s works. (Read my August 9, 2015 column titled “Shakespearean Expressions that Sound Illiterate by Today‘s Standards.”)

In spite of all the efforts of 17th century English grammarians, there are still many tautologies in English that are idiomatic and acceptable. Examples are “close proximity,” “over and over again,” “reason why,” etc.

I admit that “vocabulary word” does sound tautological, but it is usual and standard, especially among native English speakers. I, too, don’t like the sound of it and would never use it, but it is socially acceptable.


Reactions

Join the conversation through disqus comments or via our forum. Click on any of the tabs below to select your desired option. Please engage decently.

  • Disqus Comments
  • Facebook
  • Forum Discussion