Thu | Feb 22, 2018

Letter of the Day | A matter of language

Published:Friday | January 5, 2018 | 12:00 AM


For the better part of two decades, I have asked students: What do the letters 'N.B.' stand for? Or, What does 'N.B.' mean? These are two different questions, but almost invariably I get the same response: 'note briefly'. The students insist that this is what they were taught in high school. I have been told this so often that I believe there is a modicum of truth in the matter. Frankly, Mr Editor, I have had it.

Why should students simply accept what the teacher says? Why don't they check for themselves? I like when a 'Beginning French' student points out an error I have on the board. That shows that the student is following. Sometimes the student sees the error just as I am about to correct it. Sometimes the student thinks that there is an error and I have

the opportunity to explain. That is what learning is about.

Let's get back to 'N.B'. Why should people conclude that it is an English abbreviation? Languages borrow from each other. We use a number of expressions that are not English: post mortem, a.m./p.m., RSVP, dÈj‡ vu. 'N.B.' stands for 'nota bene' (Latin) which means 'note well'.

Can you imagine my shock at hearing a pastor say in a sermon that 'A.D.' stands for 'after death'? He said so not once, but twice.

OK, 'B.C.' is 'before Christ' so 'A.D.' means 'After Death'. Logical, isn't it? Well, language is not as simple as that. However, I would have thought that someone in this pastor's age group would have used Angus Maciver's First Aid in English at the primary level. 'A.D.' stands for 'Anno Domini' (Latin) which means 'in the year of the Lord' (more often translated in the year of our Lord).

As I am on the matter of language, let me deal with a frequent error. This has to do with the confusion between amount and number. Many politicians and executives are guilty of this error.

Number is used with countable nouns, whereas amount is used for uncountable nouns. Let us stop speaking about the amount of students/teachers, spectators, roads, books, schools, cars. We may speak of the amount of rain, rice, sugar, crime.

I trust readers will find the points raised useful.

Norman W. M. Thompson

Department of Humanities

Northern Caribbean University