Of harmless and harmful

SAMPLE 1: “The drug (which) according to report is manufactured in Bangladesh and was their only hope of saving his life; his family members sort the help of Nigerians overseas…It is so sad that some people can be so harmless even to the sick.”(Very painful: Ajimobi was duped N50 million…Opera News Hub, 27 June, 2020)

We start the analysis by questioning the appropriateness of the word harmless in the following context: “It is so sad that some people can be so harmless even to the sick.” What can be ‘so sad’ about a person being ‘harmless even to the sick’? Relying on his own logic, will the writer be happy if people are harmful to the sick? I am sure the writer will be so ashamed of his own logic when confronted with it that he would repudiate it. I am willing to concede, however, that the problem is not necessarily with his logic but with his understanding and choice of language.

The writer may wish to know that the bound morpheme -less added to the noun harm means not/without/devoid of harm. The opposite of harmless, then, is harmful. A better word, though by no means a completely happy choice, for that context, is harmful.

Actually, there are four or five words whose resemblance to each other is likely to cause confusion and result in mistaken identity. The words are: harm(less), arm(less), arm(verb), arms(and ammunition), alms. Readers who are familiar with our efforts in this place would recall that these words were discussed and illustrated some time ago. No harm will be caused, I suppose, if we remind ourselves of the discussion.

First,  harm. This word can be used both as a noun and as a verb. We start by illustrating its usage as a noun: 1) Too much sugar does a lot of harm to the human body. 2) Too many military interventions have done much harm to the Nigerian nation. 3) The nurse claimed that she meant no harm when she accidentally gave the patient an overdose of the drug. 4) By the age of sixty, eating beef can do more harm than good to the body. 5) Long hours of work has done  great harm to his health. 6) If you do not stop drinking and philandering, you will definitely come to harm.

Now the verb form of harm: 1)  The doctor said the patient had harmed himself by too much drinking and smoking. 2) Although he had planned to take his own life, we were much relieved to find out that he didn’t harm himself. 3) Neighbours attested to the fact that the man who allegedly committed the murder had no reputation up to this time of being able to harm anybody. 4) These sharp objects, if not carefully handled, can harm little children. 5) When factory emissions are not carefully controlled they harm the environment. 6) Beyond being raped and traumatized, the lady was not physically harmed.

The adjective forms are harmful and harmless: 1) A workshop is in progress on the harmful effects of smoking and drinking. 2) Eating too starch-based food is harmful to human health. 3) The authorities have said that smuggling is harmful to the economy. 4) Children should be told early in life that pornographic materials are harmful to the mind. 5) Indiscriminate bush burning is harmful to the environment. 6) Dictatorial practices are harmful to our democratic experiment. 7) Once the man was convinced that the young boy was harmless, he allowed him to interact freely with his beautifu but naive daughters. 8) I had thought my comments were altogether harmless until the chairman said he took exception to them. 9) No drug is completely harmless if not used according to prescription.10) People you think are harmless and even loving can do scandalous things behind your back. 11) What may be regarded as harmless jokes can sometimes hurt some people very badly. 12) A practice as harmless as two members of the opposite sex hugging each other can have very serious implications in some cultures.

As we have seen, the word harm is about hurt, injury, damage or trouble. This idea runs through the various forms whose usage we have illustrated above. The adjective harmful is the opposite of harmless.

We now come to the word arm(s) which can be used both as a verb and as a noun. First, we illustrate the usage of the noun form. It is important to note that the noun form, in the sense of fire power, usually occurs in the plural—arms—and often collocates with the word ammunition: 1) The recent civil strife leading to the massacre of hundreds of innocent people has led to the government’s withdrawal of arms and ammunition from the people. 2) It has been alleged that the country is selling arms and ammunition to the warring factions. 3) It is wrong and inhuman to allow children to carry arms and participate in warfare. 4)Terrorists will stop their activities if nobody sells arms to them. 5) As we write, there are factories in Europe and  America that manufacture arms and ammunition every day in spite of the global economic recession.

Now the verb form: 1) It is the duty of the government to arm the police with sophisticated weapons. 2) We are told that powerful politicians are arming the thugs.3) Armed policemen are patrolling the streets. 4) Armed robbers were terrorizing the state.5) He armed himself with the knowledge of current affairs in preparation for the interview. 6) Armed with the facts, he was now ready to face the judicial panel of enquiry.

Obviously, the word arm(s) is about weapons and their use or readiness for their use.

Now arm—a part of the human body or anything similar to it in an object: 1) Children have damaged the arms of the chair. 2) The three arms of government are: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. 3) The lady carried the baby in her arms. 4)One of the thug’s arms was cut off during the riots. 5) God is stretching out his arms to save the lost. 6) It is not very comfortable sitting on an armless chair. 7) During the hot season, I like to wear armless shirts. 8) The arms of the motorcycle are rather short. 9) The soldier lost one of his arms during the civil war. 10) The two arms of our business are headed by two different people.

Finally, we illustrate the usage of the word alms—money, food, materials given to needy people. 1) Some religions prescribe the percentage of a person’s income that should be given out as alms. 2) There are people whose pride will prevent them from accepting alms no matter how difficult their situation may be. 3) Alms-giving is often regarded as a religious obligation. 4)Are there spiritual and emotional benefits associated with giving alms to the poor ? 5) Are beggars the only people who are entitled to receive alms ? 6) Without the people who are in need, there can’t be any opportunity to give alms.

Now let’s read the following sentences: 1) There can’t be any harm in giving alms to people who have no arms or legs for doing so will prevent the desperately needy people from taking up arms against the rest of the harmless members of the society. 2) Armed criminals carry harmful drugs and sell them to harmless citizens and then give the proceeds as alms. 3)Wearing armless shirts, the protesters, armed with stones and sticks, blocked the main entrance to the Governor’s office.

Again, please read the following sentences: 1) How could the police have fired at unarmed citizens? 2) It was foolish of the soldiers to have approached the criminals’ den unarmed. 3) Unarmed militants made themselves available for dialogue. 4) The policeman killed by the thugs was unarmed at the time of the incident. 5) It is unthinkable for a Christian to be spiritually unarmed at any time. 6) Unarmed women and children became easy targets for the militants.

There is yet one other issue to be addressed in this excerpt. But that has to wait till next week.



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