Q And A On Usage, Articles, And Tenses

Question:

Is the phrase "the reason why" correct? Or should it just be "the reason"? Examples: Should I say "the reason why I left is…" or should it be "the reason I left is …" Thanks!!

Answer:

Both phrases are correct. However, historically, conservative semantic purists in Britain have dismissed "the reason why" as tautologous and redundant since both "reason" and "why" denote causation. That's why they dismiss the expression as "causational overkill." However, "reason why" is considered perfectly correct in contemporary British and American English. All modern dictionaries and usage guides in both the UK and the US accept "the reason why" as a legitimate usage. The objections of conservative grammarians to its usage have been, for all practical purposes, blunted.

For instance, two leading British grammarians, Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, in their celebrated Longman Guide to English Usage, noted that "Only very conservative writers object to ‘the reason why'." In America, almost no grammarian objects to "the reason why." In fact, "The Reason Why" is the title of a 2010 album by an American musical group called Little Big Town. And there is a classic American military history book titled, TheReason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade.

Nevertheless, somewhat similar causational phrases like "the reason was because" and "the reason was due to" are met with strong objection in most usage guides across the Atlantic (that is, in both the UK and North America). So instead of writing "The reason he failed was because he was ill," it is advised that you write, "The reason he failed was that he was ill."

I must add, however, that this objection seems arbitrary and churlish to me. "Reason why" and "reason was because" both exemplify causational overkill. Why one is preferred to the other is beyond me. But as I've said in my previouswritings, grammar, especially English grammar, isn't always governed by logic. It's sometimes just the product of the arbitrary "commandments" of snooty prescriptivist grammarians or the tyranny of popular usage.

Question:

What is the difference between "alright" and "all right"? Or are they different spellings of the same word?

Answer:

In both British English and American English "alright" is considered an uneducated approximation of "all right." For instance, The Associated Press Stylebook, considered the "bible" of American journalism, forbids the use of "alright" in news copy. Many prestigious British English usage guides also object to its use in serious writing.

However, some grammarians (who are, for now, in the minority) argue that "alright" is a legitimate word that is not necessarily an illiterate approximation of "all right." They contend that it is in the category of words like "already," "almost" and "altogether." Just as "already" (as in: "he is already here") is different from "all ready" (as in: "they are all ready to go"), "almost" (as in: "it is almost interesting," meaning it is nearly interesting) from "all most" (as in: "it is all most interesting," meaning all of it is interesting), and "altogether" (as in: "it is altogether different," where "altogether" means "completely") from "all together" (as in: "they sang all together," meaning they sang all at the same time) the two spellings "alright" and "all right" are needed to mark a distinction between "The children are all (i.e., all of them are) right in their answers" and "The answers are alright (i.e., they're OK)."

This makes sense to me. But since "alright" is met with disapproval by most grammarians in all the dominant varieties of the English language, I'd advise that you should avoid it at least in formal writing. I predict, however, that in the next few years "alright" will enjoy the same respectability and acceptance as "almost," "altogether," and "already."

Question:

It truly throws me off when indigenous Africans declare that they "hail from" Washington DC, for instance. "Born in," "hail from"? I need clarification.

Answer:

"Hail from" can denote one of the following: 1. come from, 2. be native of, 3. be born in. That means you don't necessarily have to be born in a place to hail from the place, at least in America. Recent immigrants "hail from" any part of America they are registered to vote. That means, in essence, that it's perfectly legitimate for naturalized African immigrants in, for instance, Washington D.C. to say they "hail from" that city whenever they are in America or are involved in America-specific conversations. Of course, it would be absurd for them to say they hail from Washington D.C. when they are in Africa.

Question:

My question is on the omission of the definite article before some singular common nouns and after 'as', e.g. 1. He is captain. 2. He is king. 3. He is elected as chairman. Are those sentences correct? If yes, why is it that the articles are omitted before the nouns: captain, king, and chairman?

Answer:

Articles are tricky in the English language. That's why I can't do justice to your question in this limited space. I will only say this for now: "captain" and "king" should be preceded by either a definite article (i.e., "the") or an indefinite article (i.e., "a" or "an"). So "he is a captain" would mean he is one of several captains, while "he is the captain" would mean he is the one and only person known by that title in a specific area. Same rule applies to "king." In the third example, the sentence should be "he was elected chairman." Chairman is not preceded by an article here because the sense is non-specific. Also note that I omitted "as" in the sentence. Other examples: "He was elected president." "He was appointed commissioner," etc.

Question:

When I watch American soaps, they seem to not care about tenses. Or maybe it's something beyond me - I don't know. For instance, a typical dialogue goes like this:

"Daughter: 'dad, do you snore ‘cause I do.

Dad: 'yeah you GET that from me'."

Should not the "get" be GOT? Could you clarify this for me, please?

Answer:

Well, it's not true that Americans don't care about tenses. They do. The example of the use of present tense in the dialogue you cited is called the "historical present" in grammar. It's perfectly legitimate even in British English. It functions to make a past event seem more vivid, or to signal continuity between the past and the present. In conversational English, it's particularly used with such "verbs of communication" as "get" (as in: "OK, I get it: you're a genius!"), "forget" (as in: "I forget his name"), "tell" (as in: "your dad tells me you want to talk to me"). Other verbs of communication that are expressed in the historical present in speech are "write" and "say."

I agree with you, though, that Americans tend to use the historical present more often than the British do. The historical present is rarely used in Nigerian English, except by our creative writers who deploy it in their fictional narratives. In the hypothetical dialogue you cited, however, it would also be perfectly legitimate to replace "get" with "got." In fact, in formal contexts, "got" would be especially appropriate.

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