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Face the fact, and stop misteaching grammar

By Pharaoh Ochichi | October 24th 2015

NAIROBI: A fallacy is a false idea that undermines a sound argument. There are a number of fallacies but the common ones are faulty generalisations, false authority, red herring, straw man, and attacking the arguer instead of the argument. Columnist Philip Ochieng took issue with some of my views last week and caused some confusion.  It’s important, therefore, to clear the air .

First, a brief background. The other day Ochieng claimed that the verb ‘prioritise’ was non-existent. On September 12, 2015, he also said the word ‘than’ could only be a conjunction — never a preposition. I felt that it would be irresponsible to fail to correct these factual errors, because the media have a social obligation to serve the society. Unfortunately, my response triggered a harsh response characterised by several inaccuracies.

For example, he claimed that I said “It is very good English to say: I am older than him and that the word ‘than’ is a preposition tout court”. The last words in bold are French meaning ‘that is all’ (nothing more). But  this isn’t what I said. My exact words are: “In a sentence whether to use ‘I’ or ‘me’ is determined by informality or formality; it is also influenced by the meaning conveyed. If ‘me’ is used, then ‘than’ that precedes it is in the category of prepositions. If ‘I’ is employed, then the word ‘than’ falls into the class of conjunctions. For example, Patrick is taller than I. In informal situations, the sentence takes a pronoun in objective (accusative) form, ie ‘me’. Thus ‘Patrick is taller than me’ is acceptable in informal situation”. Many authorities back this; for example, the Oxford English Dictionary provides the example: ‘John is taller than me’.

Interestingly, Ochieng admits in his latest write-up that Collins says the word ‘than’ is both a conjunction and a preposition. Remember, initially he had said and tried to justify “Why the word ‘than’ is not a preposition” (headline of his article). This time round he also says: “Unfortunately, however, the dictionary fails to provide an example of how it serves as a preposition.” Here is what the very dictionary says and the examples it gives: “In formal English ‘than’ is usually regarded as a conjunction: She likes him more than I (like him); she likes him more than (she likes) me. However in ordinary speech and writing ‘than’ is usually treated as a preposition and is followed by the object form of the pronoun: My brother is younger than me.” Is this not what I said sometime back, although my sources were different?

It’s a pity that the grammarian goes to extent of even insulting me, saying I am incapable of differentiating between the words “compare to” and “compare with”. The fact is there is no difference in many dictionaries: the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Collins English Dictionary, and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. To illustrate, they provide the examples: “This road is quite busy compared to/with ours; Instant coffee just doesn’t compare with freshly ground coffee; Children seem to learn more interesting things compared to/with when we were at school ....”

About calling me young, implying that I’m naïve, I wonder what one can say; let Sophocles speak. In Sophocles, King Creon asks his son, Haimon: “You consider it a right for a man of my years and experience to go to school to a boy?” Haimon responds: “It is not a right if am wrong. But if I am young, and right, what does my age matter”. The son is vindicated.

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