“Work­ing Ex­pe­ri­ence”“Re­quest for”: Q and A on Gram­mar, Us­age, Ex­pres­sions

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This edi­tion of my Q and A se­ries an­swers such ques­tions as the dif­fer­ence be­tween “amount” and “num­ber”; the ap­pro­pri­ate ways to say cer­tain English proverbs such as “an idle mind is the devil’s work­shop,” “to be fore­warned is to be fore­armed”; the dif­fer­ence be­tween “work ex­pe­ri­ence” and “work­ing ex­pe­ri­ence”; cap­i­tal­iza­tion; pe­cu­liarly Bri­tish English ex­pres­sions like “I was sat”; and so on. Ques­tion: Please I need a clar­i­fi­ca­tion by you. Which is the cor­rect one to put on CV: ‘work ex­pe­ri­ence’ or ‘work­ing ex­pe­ri­ence’? An­swer: Work ex­pe­ri­ence. This is what I wrote about it sev­eral years ago: “And in our cur­ricu­lum vi­tas (what Amer­i­cans call ré­sumés; in Amer­ica, un­like in Nige­ria and Bri­tain, ‘CV’ is used only to mean the sum­mary of the aca­demic and work his­tory of univer­sity teach­ers) we have a sec­tion we call ‘work­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.’ The equiv­a­lent of that phrase in Amer­i­can and Bri­tish English is ‘work ex­pe­ri­ence.’ And this is no nit­pick­ing. When ‘work­ing’ is used as an ad­jec­tive, it can mean ‘just ad­e­quate for prac­ti­cal use’ (ex­am­ple: I am not an IT ex­pert; I just have a work­ing knowl­edge of the com­puter). It can also mean ‘adopted on a tem­po­rary ba­sis for fur­ther work’ (ex­am­ple: This is just a work­ing draft. The fi­nal pa­per will be is­sued to­mor­row). So, to de­scribe your job ex­pe­ri­ence-which you prob­a­bly ac­cu­mu­lated over sev­eral years-as a ‘work­ing ex­pe­ri­ence’ is to do a great dis­ser­vice to your­self in Amer­ica and Bri­tain. Maybe I am be­ing over­dra­matic here; they will prob­a­bly un­der­stand that you mean ‘work ex­pe­ri­ence.’ But it doesn’t hurt to know the dif­fer­ence.” Ques­tion: What is the dif­fer­ence be­tween “num­ber” and “amount”? I am ask­ing this ques­tion be­cause I thought I knew the dif­fer­ence un­til I trav­eled to Amer­ica re­cently and heard peo­ple say “amount of peo­ple.” Can one say “amount of peo­ple”? An­swer: “Amount of peo­ple” is cer­tainly un­gram­mat­i­cal. “Amount” is used for un­count­able nouns (such as wa­ter, as in, “the amount of wa­ter”) while “num­ber” is used for count­able nouns (such as peo­ple, as in, “the num­ber of peo­ple”). No gram­mar rule sanc­tions the use of “amount” to quan­tify peo­ple. I, too, no­tice that an aw­ful lot of Amer­i­cans, es­pe­cially young Amer­i­cans, say “amount of peo­ple” in­stead of “num­ber of peo­ple.”

I ini­tially thought it was a con­scious Amer­i­can English de­vi­a­tion from stan­dard gram­mar. It turned out that “amount of peo­ple” is wrong even by the some­times re­bel­lious norms of Amer­i­can English. Ev­ery sin­gle Amer­i­can English style guide I’ve con­sulted dis­coun­te­nanced the use of “amount” to quan­tify hu­mans.

It’s a con­tin­u­ing strug­gle to get my Amer­i­can stu­dents to un­der­stand why I take off points from their writ­ten as­sign­ments when they write “amount of peo­ple.” So “amount of peo­ple” isn’t proper gram­mar by the stan­dards of any va­ri­ety of English, in­clud­ing Amer­i­can English. It seems cer­tain, though, that in the near fu­ture, it would be ac­cept­able in Amer­i­can English. As the late New York Times lan­guage colum­nist Wil­liam Safire used to say, “When enough peo­ple are wrong, they’re right.” Ques­tion: Is say­ing, “an idle mind is the devil’s work­shop” wrong? If yes, why? A gram­mar ex­pert here in Nige­ria says we have been say­ing this ex­pres­sion wrong. How about “To be fore­warned is to be fore­armed”? What’s wrong with it? The same gram­mar ex­pert says it’s wrong. An­swer: It is churl­ish to in­sist that there is only one way to say these ex­pres­sions. The avail­able us­age ev­i­dence does not sup­port such pre­scrip­tive in­su­lar­ity. Let’s start with “an idle mind is the devil’s work­shop.” Al­though the McGraw-Hill Dic­tio­nary of Amer­i­can Idioms and Phrasal Verbs ren­ders the ex­pres­sions as, “an idle brain is the devil’s work­shop,” other le­git­i­mate vari­a­tions of the say­ing found in the cor­pora of na­tive English speech are: “an idle brain is the devil’s play­ground,” “an idle brain is the devil’s work­shop,” “an idle mind is (the) devil’s work­shop,” “the idle body and the idle brain are the shop of the devil,” “idle hands are the devil’s work­shop,” and “If the devil finds a man idle, he’ll set him at work.” It’s an age-old Bible-in­spired English proverb that means, “Peo­ple who have noth­ing worth­while to think about will usu­ally think of some­thing bad to do.”

My find­ings show that the proverb has run out of cur­rency in Bri­tish English be­cause most Bri­tish peo­ple don’t be­lieve there is such a thing as the devil. But all the vari­a­tions of this ex­pres­sion that I iden­ti­fied above reg­u­larly oc­cur in Amer­i­can English since Amer­i­cans are still, by and large, re­li­gious.

“To be fore­warned is to be fore­armed” is per­fectly ac­cept­able in Amer­i­can English, al­though the usual form of the ex­pres­sion is “fore­warned is fore­armed.” In other words, Bri­tish English speak­ers know the ex­pres­sion only as “fore­warned is fore­armed.” Ques­tion: I read a col­umn of yours where you said na­tive English speak­ers don’t say “I re­quest for your per­mis­sion”; you said they say “I re­quest your per­mis­sion.” That was eye-open­ing for me. And I’m an English teacher with an ad­vanced de­gree in the lan­guage. But is there an oc­ca­sion when it is ap­pro­pri­ate to use “re­quest for,” that is, when “re­quest” is used as a noun rather than a verb? An­swer: Yes, “re­quest” can co-oc­cur with the prepo­si­tion “for” when “re­quest” func­tions as a noun. For in­stance, it is en­tirely per­mis­si­ble to write or say, “I sent in a re­quest for per­mis­sion to travel to Enugu.” But if “re­quest” changes to a verb, the “for” will nor­mally be dis­pensed with. Ex­am­ple: “I re­quested per­mis­sion to travel to Enugu.” Ques­tion: There is an is­sue that needs your in­put. There was an ar­gu­ment be­tween a pro­fes­sor of English lan­guage and a master of the same lan­guage in our univer­sity. The for­mer said there is no rule in English that says when writ­ing the word “univer­sity” the let­ter “u” be cap­i­tal­ized while the lat­ter said once it is used as proper noun the let­ter “u” must be cap­i­tal­ized. For ex­am­ple: “the Vice-Chan­cel­lor of the Sokoto State Univer­sity is a scholar of in­ter­na­tional re­pute .... We can there­fore say that the “Univer­sity/univer­sity” is blessed. Prof. your in­put is needed in this in­tel­lec­tual dis­cus­sion of schol­ars. An­swer: “Sokoto State Univer­sity” is the name of a school. English cap­i­tal­iza­tion rules re­quire that you cap­i­tal­ize the first let­ter of ev­ery word in the name of a school, col­lege, or univer­sity. So it should be “Sokoto State Univer­sity,” not Sokoto State univer­sity.” How­ever, in sub­se­quent ref­er­ences, when “univer­sity” is men­tioned in iso­la­tion to re­fer to Sokoto State Univer­sity, “univer­sity” need not be cap­i­tal­ized, al­though some writ­ers would choose to cap­i­tal­ize it to in­di­cate that they aren’t talk­ing about a generic univer­sity but about a spe­cific univer­sity. So I would say they’re both cor­rect. Ques­tion: I am hop­ing you can help clar­ify some con­fu­sion re­gard­ing Nige­rian and Bri­tish English. I also hope this is how read­ers get in touch with you with ques­tions. The first is, when I tell my 2-yearold, “Go and sit on your potty” or “Come and eat your food,” I am cu­ri­ous if it’s pe­cu­liarly Nige­rian to tell some­one to “Go/come AND do some­thing?” I can’t help but feel a tad self-con­scious when I ut­ter that phrase.

Sec­ondly, I of­ten hear Bri­tish peo­ple say, “She was sat in front of the telly all day” or “I was sat at home since 8 a.m. wait­ing for the de­liv­ery”. If I said that in Nige­ria, it would be con­sid­ered gram­mat­i­cally in­cor­rect. It sounds strange to my ears, but no one here bats an eye lid, and in fact, it’s quite com­mon to hear it. Could you shed some light on this please? An­swer: Na­tive speak­ers tend to elim­i­nate the “and” in the ex­am­ples you gave. How­ever, I don’t think it’s nec­es­sar­ily gram­mat­i­cally wrong to add the “and.”

“I was sat” isn’t Stan­dard English; it’s di­alec­tal English unique to the UK. I learned that the ex­pres­sion was ini­tially a re­gion­al­ism found in north­ern Eng­land but that it has now spread to the whole of the UK. So it’s safe to call it a Brit­i­cism. Care­ful writ­ers and speak­ers avoid it in for­mal con­texts even in Bri­tain.

Amer­ica also has its own in­scrutable re­gion­alisms like, “If I would have saw him I would have went there.” That is, “If I had seen him I would have gone there.” Other re­gion­alisms that en­joy wide­spread us­age in in­for­mal English are “ain’t,” dou­ble neg­a­tives (e.g. “You don’t like no­body” for “you don’t like any­body”) per­sonal da­tives (such as say­ing “I want to get me some food” for “I want to get some food”).

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