• Tuesday, March 05, 2024
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The grammar of “names” in English

Grammaticality versus acceptability: The nexus

Naming is a universal experience which has been with humankind from the start of the world. It is a phenomenon that transcends the physical to the celestial, as religious people believe that God Himself named a number of His creatures after creation.

Names and naming are informed by different opinions among people of different cultures. While many African cultures prioritise meaning, implication and surrounding circumstances in choosing names, Europeans and Americans simply choose whatever appeals to them as names.

This explains why most African names given to human beings tend to have propositional content even when they are just words. The Yoruba name “Oluwaseyifunmi”, for instance, will translate to “God has done this for me” in English; a choice of name which does not only carry a sentential meaning, but also must have been informed by the circumstances surrounding the birth of the child.

While this brief introduction is essential, the crux of this piece is not the philosophy of names and naming, but the rules that guide how names are expressed and written in the English language, plus the complexity with names.

First, note that the name of a person, place, or thing is the word or group of words that is used to identify them. This means that all of those individual words constitute your name, not your names, as illustrated below:

The name of the great Afrobeat king is Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti (standard).

The names of the great Afrobeat king are Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti (nonstandard)

Note, however, that the emphasis could be on each name, and that may warrant the plural construction, as seen in the sentence below:

The child has been christened; his names are David, Oluwafemi, and Babalola.

Deserving clarification, also, are the different labels of names. It should be mentioned that the first name is the name that was given to you when you were born; it precedes your family name. Unless when required in any other order, you must write your first name before your other names. The names some people have between their first names and their surnames are called their middle names.

The middle name is not obligatory. Some people do not have it, whereas some who have it do not use it in their documents. Note that, sometimes, the first and middle names are both called first names. That said, your surname is the name you share with other members of your family.

It is called the last name in American English and the second name in British English. The surname is also called the family name. It should be written lastly, as the name implies. For instance, this writer’s surname is Bamgbose, his first name is Ganiu and his middle name is Abisoye. This should be aptly represented as:

Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (standard)

Bamgbose Ganiu Abisoye (nonstandard)

Abisoye Bamgbose Ganiu (nonstandard)

If, for organisational preference, the surname has to be written before the first names, it should be separated from the other names with a comma, as evidenced below:

Bamgbose, Ganiu Abisoye (standard)

Furthermore, if only one name has to be used with a title, then it has to be the surname. We do not use a title and first names. By extension, the use of only a title to refer to, or call someone, either shows ridicule or familiarity. Whichever way, it is not permissible in formal contexts of language use.

Dr Ganiu Bamgbose (standard)

Dr Bamgbose (standard)

Dr Ganiu (nonstandard).

Dr (informal)

Notwithstanding that, in some contexts, people could be called by their titles, especially professional titles such as engineer:

Call the engineer, and tell him the chairman is around.

Moving on, the pluralisation of a family name deserves attention, too. When one refers to a family, one should add only an “-s”, not the apostrophe and an “s”. Hence:

Season’s greetings from the Bamgboses (standard).

Season’s greetings from the Bamgbose’s (nonstandard).

Read also: The 2023 Nigerian presidential election: A grammar review

This is because the apostrophe suggests possession rather than reference to blood-related people. Possession-wise, though, once should write:

The Bamgboses’ (not, Bamgbose’s) mansion costs five hundred thousand pounds (standard).

Note that some family names could also attract “-es”, especially when the names end in -s or -z:

The Davises are wishing you well (standard).

The Lopezes frequent Nigeria (standard).

A note of caution must be sounded at this juncture. Do not change the surnames that end in “-y” to “-ies” for plural reference:

The Kennedys love my family (standard).

The Kennedies love my family (nonstandard).

The maiden name which applies to women only should likewise be clarified. A married woman’s maiden name is her parents’ surname which she had used before she got married and adopted her husband’s surname. Another kind of name is the nickname. A nickname is an informal name for someone or something, as in:

Dr Ganiu Bamgbose’s nickname is Dr GAB.

Finally, née is another word used in relation to names. You use née after a married woman’s name and before you mention the surname she had used before she got married:

Mrs Dayo Taiwo (née Lawal) is a very kind person.

In conclusion, names and naming constitute an aspect of language use and are deserving of clarifications, especially in the English language which enjoys a robust lexicon. This piece, therefore, keeps you in the know on the grammar of names in English.