Precedence and other matters

Sample 1: “In an open letter signed by the secretary of the forum, Frank Osai, Oshiomale was urged to follow precedence and party guidelines that saw Lanre Isa-Onilu replace Bolaji Abdullahi as National Publicity Secretary, to fill the vacant National Secretary, National Vice Chairman North-West and other vacant positions without delay…This is in spite of the fact that not less than four chieftains of the party from the zone had indicated interest in succeeding the Yobe State governor as APC National Secretary.”(APC: growing concerns over vacant NWC positions, The Nation, 22 December, 2019)

The word that interests us is precedence which occurs in the following context: “urged to follow precedence and party guidelines that saw Lanre Isa-Onilu replace Bolaji Abdullahi as National Publicity Secretary…” The context does suggest that the word precedence is intended to mean: a preceding event, action or decision which can serve as the basis for the present decision or action. Is that the meaning of precedence in reality? Not at all. What is the meaning of the word precedence? How is it different from precedent? The point should be made immediately that the word precedence has been selected in confusion with precedent.

To reiterate, the context has given us an idea of what the reporter intends the word precedence to convey: an action or a decision which, by virtue of being a historical example, could be a basis or an inspiration or a source of encouragement for future decisions or actions; if we did it successfully in the past, what possibly could make it a bad action or decision now?

The word required in the context is not precedence but precedent. The two words look alike but they are clearly semantically different. Let’s illustrate the word precedent in sentences: 1)Granting a loan to a person servicing a previous loan will be creating a bad precedent. 2)The government refused to pay the striking workers because, according to it, it would set a precedent that would be difficult to break away from. 3)Citing numerous precedents, the lawyer urged the court to release his client on bail. 4)Even if there is no precedent, the company can set one by paying the hospital bill of its worker who sustained injuries in the course of his duty. 5)Although there is no precedent for releasing the official car to a person going on leave, we will be willing to do it provided you will be willing to cut your leave short as soon as your attention is needed. 6)Without any precedent, the military Head of State just transformed to a civilian president.

As for precedence, it is about priority, order of importance. Now let’s read the following sentences: 1)It is the duty of the Protocol Officer to ensure that dignitaries sit in order precedence. 2)We have come to a time when our higher institutions should give precedence to science and technology.3)It was a show of shame as government officials fight over precdence in public. 4)In our family, education takes precedence over material possessions. 5)In defending his decision to keep the patient in the hospital, the doctor claims that the patient’s health takes precedence over other matters. 6)Political independence of a nation should take precedence over its economic strength even though politics and economy are inseparable.

At any rate, it should be clear that the appropriate word for the context is precedent.

Next, we note the choice of the item less which occurs in the following phrase: “not less than four chieftains of the party.” The appropriateness of the word less is considered in relation to the plural nominal phrase “four chieftains.” It is important to note that the word less is normally used as a quantifier of an uncountable noun and not plural noun. It may be necessary to illustrate the differences among the following words and expressions: little, a little; few, a few; fewer, less; much, many. Of course, discussion of this nature has occupied our attention several times in this place before. These matters are so important that we would never be tired of addressing them from time to time.

The words little and a little are usually used for uncountable or no-count or mass nouns. The expression a little is used when the quantity under consideration is small but manageable or can serve some desirable purpose. Please read the following sentences: 1) Since we have a little oil left, we may manage today and buy a large quantity tomorrow. 2) A little more honesty and transparency could have prevented the crisis. 3) All I need now is a little more information. 4) A little more freedom will not hurt your children. 5) A little sleep will refresh you. 6) After eating some food, I gained a little strength. 7) I am sure you would do better if you spend a little more time on your studies. 8) He was helped by the fact that he had a little self-confidence.

Now compare those example sentences with the following sentences in which the word little (without the indefinite article (a) ) is used: 1) The confusion arose because little information was provided on the matter. 2) He made a mess of the case because he has little intelligence. 3) He couldn’t have passed, seeing he has little understanding of the subject. 4) He remains a mystery; little is known about him. 5) One of the peculiarities of our democracy is that the chief executive of a state or of the federation usually cedes little power to his deputy. 6) With little food in his stomach, how can he sustain the rigour the work requires? 7) Unfortunately, the money that reaches the Local Government Councils is too little to make any significant impact. 8) Little has changed in terms of corruption since he came into power.

When you use the word little in respect of the quantity of a noun, you mean that the quantity in question is insignificant; it can’t serve any useful purpose; it is as good as nothing; your attitude to the amount is negative. In fact, some users have the habit of saying: “little or no; little or nothing.” E.g. Little or no time was available for questions. She has little or no idea of what a married life demands. Little or nothing has been achieved since he assumed power.

Now a few and few. It should be clear that little and a little are used in the context of uncountable nouns. However, few and a few are used for countable nouns. Please note that a few is to countable nouns what a little is to uncountable nouns; few is to countable nouns what little is to uncountable nouns. In other words, once we understand the usage of little and a little (which are meant for uncountable nouns), we simply apply the same principle of usage to few and a few (meant for countable nouns). Please read the following sentences: 1) Few people are interested in the development of the nation; many are interested in ‘grabbing’ whatever they can ‘grab.’ 2) Few nations can look America straight in the eyes and tell it the home truth. 3) Few men are strong enough to regard their wives as equal partners in progress. 4) The reality is that few students major in physics and mathematics. 5) Few farmers have access to the funds that the banks claim are available on request. 6) Until the era of the oil boom, few houses in Nigeria were connected to the national grid. 7) Few teachers these days are prepared to make the sacrifices that teachers made in those days. 8) Few minds are as rich and bright as Wole Soyinka’s.

As in the usage of little (in respect of uncountable nouns), the attitude of the speaker/writer to the subject to which the noun few is applied is negative. Like little, the word few implies that the number in question is insignificant; not satisfactory; not good enough.

Now read, the following sentences: 1) In spite of the heavy rain, a few students came and we were able to hold the lecture. 2) Abacha’s terror machinery notwithstanding, a few newspapers were telling truth consistently. 3) A few of the tenants paid their rents and I was able to raise sufficient fund to refurbish the house. 4) I would advise you to visit the government-owned library; it has a few good books. 5) Since a few students have indicated interest in joining the class, lectures can start in earnest next week. 6) Happily, a few of our universities have met international standards. 7) A few more people have donated to the fund; we can now prepare the budget. 8) The literary production has been enriched by contributions from a few international scholars.

Here the attitude of the speaker/writer to the subject to which the expression a few is applied is positive. The number in each case is not a very large one. But it is such that can be managed with; it can ‘pass’ as it were; it is fairly satisfactory.

This takes us to the difference between fewer and less. Fewer is for countable nouns and less for uncountable nouns. Read the following sentences: 1) Fewer and fewer people are subscribing to the capital market these days. 2) Those who have registered are fewer than those who have not. 3) Fewer and fewer Nigerians are becoming truly literate. 4) Courageous newspaper editors are fewer than the cowardly ones. 5) Fewer and fewer people are living in the rural areas these days. 6) I have come to realize that wise people are fewer in this world than foolish. 7) Those who passed the exam are fewer than those who failed it. 8) Honest policemen, like honest pastors or teachers or accountants or journalists, are becoming fewer and fewer.

The discussion continues next week by God’s grace.

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