“Reason why,” “all right/alright,” “letterheaded paper”: Q and A on Nigerian English Usage/

Question:

I wrote a letter to my boss and used the word “demand.” He got really angry. When I asked why, he said I sounded “entitled.” What’s wrong with saying you “demand” something? Isn’t it another way, a formal way, to say “ask for”?

Answer:

Your boss was right to feel indignant. “Demand” has an undertone of nagging urgency and petulant entitlement that can cause offense. When you “demand” something, you imply that the other party has no option but to comply or face untoward consequences.  That’s rude, especially if what’s being asked for is not a right. “Request” is a better, more polite formal word to use when you are asking for a favor. Instead of saying, “I demand compensation for the extra hours I spent at work last week,” try “I request compensation for the extra hours I spent at work last week,” or, better yet, “I would appreciate it if you would be kind enough to approve my request for compensation for the extra hours I spent at work last week.”

Your question recalls an eerily similar incident that happened in 2000 in Kaduna at Media Trust, the parent company of this newspaper for which I was a reporter and later news editor. In the aftermath of the devastation and uncertainty that attended the Sharia riots in the city, a few Weekly Trust reporters and non-editorial staff members managed to go to work—at great personal risks. When the upheaval in the city subsided and normalcy returned, the staff members who braved the odds to make it to the office wrote to the management to ask for compensation for showing up at work when no one else did.

In their letter to the Editor-In-Chief, who is one of the most sensitive and proficient users of the English language that I know, the staff members wrote something along the lines of, “we demand that we be compensated for….” That was it. As I recall, the EIC was initially disposed to compensating the staff—even if they didn’t formally request the favor—but he was ticked off by the impertinence that the word “demand” conveyed and spurned their request, playfully calling them “demanders.” I supported him.

Don’t “demand” for a privilege when you can simply request it. My sense is that our proneness to “demand” for, instead of “requesting, things is a holdover from our undergraduate days where youthful hotheadedness caused us to always “demand” for things from the school authorities. I see it all the time in the news releases of NGO activists (most of whom were student union activists) where governments are often given impotent ultimatums and “demanded” to implement policy recommendations. That language has no place in polite society.

 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, particularly in Britain, have dismissed "the reason why" as tautological and redundant since both “reason” and “why” denote causation. People who object to the expression often call it “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 book 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, The Reason 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 previous writings, 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.

For my thoughts on why some tautologies are socially favored and others are socially disfavored, see my two-part series titled, “Between Useless and Useful Tautologies in English (I)” (June 2, 2013 and “Between Useless and Useful Tautologies in English (II)” (June 9, 2013).

Question:

Is “letter-headed paper” Standard English? A faithful reader of your column told me he once read in your column many years ago that it is not. I searched the web to find the column but couldn’t find it. Can you write about it again for the benefit of people who started following your column only recently?

Answer:

Sure. The usual word is “letterhead.” That’s what you find in most dictionaries. It’s often used as a noun, as in, “Print the recommendation on your company’s letterhead.” It is the short form of “letterheading” or “letter heading” (first attested in the 1800s), and it is so called because the name, address, and contact details of companies or people usually appear at the head, i.e., at the top, of the piece of paper.

I have never heard anyone in America say “letter-headed paper.” But I have found references to “letter-headed paper” in many British publications. So it’s obviously not nonstandard. Nor is it unique to Nigerian English speakers.

Interestingly, the adjectivization of letterhead to “letter-headed” (meaning “bearing a letterhead,” as in, “letter-headed paper”) started in American English, specifically in the Chicago Tribune, in the late nineteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. For some reason, most Americans no longer say “letter-headed paper”; only Brits and British English speakers like Nigerians do. But “letterhead” is standard in both British English and American English. I personally prefer “letterhead” to “letter-headed paper.”

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 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 continental 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 there, at least in American English. 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—or when they are outside the United States. But I’d much rather just say, “I am from Washington, DC.” “Hail from” sounds stilted and pretentious.


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