Staff, breath and breadth

SAMPLE 1: “Even the names that are synonymous with South Africa, I could see that there were over 150 staffs that could not get to perform their duties because of the act.”(Over 5,000 jobs lost in Lagos reprisal attacks—Sanwo-Olu, Sunday Vanguard, 8 September, 2019)

I draw readers’ attention to the nounstaffs which occurs in the following context: “there were over 150 staffs that could not get to perform their duties.” Note the plural nature of that word. The word usually creates confusion. It will be necessary, therefore, to pay some attention to it.

Please read the following sentences: 1) Thestaff is the single most important force in any establishment. 2) The staff were drawn from various companies in the metropolis. 3) Our staff is an even mix of both male and female workers. 4) All staff are expected to submit their files before the end of the day. 5) All members of staff are trained from time to time. 6) The company has a highly skilled staff. 7) The staff strength has increased by ten. 8) Half of the staff were laid off.

However, when the reference is to the workers in several establishments, then it is proper to add –s to staff. Now consider the following sentences: 1) There is a forum where all the staffs of the various companies in the conglomerate meet. 2) Should the staffs of the companies belonging to the government and those belonging to private entrepreneurs be placed under the same salary scheme? 3) Representatives of staffs from private and public companies are meeting next month. 4) This consulting firm trains staffs of both government and private companies. 5) The staffs of the companies in the rubber industry will be interacting very soon.

The word staffs in each of those sentences refers to bodies or groups of workers in two or more establishments.

The word can also be used in the verb form. Let’s consider the following sentences: 1) The Department is staffed by highly intelligent and experienced people. 2) It is a well-staffed school, with about seven mathematics teachers and ten chemistry teachers. 3) The major problem of that firm is that of staffing. 4) The unit is staffed exclusively by medical doctors. 5) Of course the kitchen should be staffed by trained caterers. 6) Do you think hospitals are staffed by only doctors and nurses?

The word staff shares certain features with the word personnel.We have said repeatedly that a single person cannot and should not be referred to as a personnel. As a collective noun, the word personnel can neither be pluralized nor modified with the word a orone. Usage examples: 1) The memo is meant for the attention of all technical personnel. 2) The vehicles are to convey only medical personnel. 3) The organization has a tradition of training and re-training its personnel. 4) All qualified personnel are to register in the Personnel Department. 5) Only senior personnel are entitled to annual leave with pay. 6) Military personnel are kept in a separate section of the estate.

Please note that the noun personnel cannot become plural by the addition of a final –s.

This leads us to a crucial question: Can the noun be pluralized by the addition of s? Yes and no. Yes, if we are thinking of staffs of different establishments, but no if we are thinking of the staffof a single establishment.  The following sentences, for example, are deficient: 1) The school’s *staffs are committed to their duties.  2) The company’s *staffs are loyal to the chairman. 3) All the *staffs in this unit are to come for the one-week workshop. 4) The chairman would like to address all *staffs of the company tomorrow. 5) The workshop is meant for all the *staffs of this school. 6) The *staffs in our Department have not received their salaries.

It is grammatically improper to have the word staff in a form carrying a final s as it does in each of those sentences.


Sample 2: “While the two housemates may be walking a thin line between eviction and staying in the house to achieve their dream of winning the ultimate prize, only 6 of the remaining housemates will be holding their breathes as they face actual eviction…”(BBNaija Season 4: How Tacha, Mercy Court Summary Eviction, Sunday Vanguard, 1 September, 2019)

Let’s note the word breathes as used in the following context: “housemates will be holding their breathes as they face actual eviction.”The slot occupied by the form breathes actually belongs to a noun. What is the word class of the form breathes? Is it a noun or a verb? At once it looks like the third person singular form of the verb breathe and like the plural form of the noun breath, a plural form that does not exist in the English lexicon.

However, the question is: Is breathe a noun? It is definitely not. It is in fact a verb. We have drawn attention repeatedly in this place to the interaction between orthography and grammar, and especially the unpredictable character of the English spelling system. In English, a single letter is often enough to differentiate two words and the classes of the same word.

That is the case with breathe and breath, the former being the verb-form and the latter the noun form. Now read the following sentences: 1) When a man cannot breathe, it may be assumed that he is already in the valley of the shadow of death. 2) Tapping on the patient’s chest, the doctor asked him to breathe in and out gently three times. 3) He ran into the room, breathing heavily. 4) Is it always the case that an asthma patient cannot breathe without the help of an inhaler? 5 Vibrant and visionary, the new manager has been able to breathe a new life into the company. 6) Having left the polluted zone, we can now breathe freely.

Readers should please note the final –e in the verb breathe. Please note, in addition, that the letter –e does not feature in the –ing form of the verb: breathing. Now read the following sentences: 1) The dangerous chemical is leaking, and we may have to hold our breath for some seconds as we pass through the premises. 2) Please save your breath; I am beyond persuasion in this matter. 3) God breathed into man the breath of life and he became a living soul. 4) Decaying teeth produce bad breath. 5) He held his breath briefly and then continued his speech. 6) Difficult breath is often a symptom of unhealthy lungs.

Having noted and illustrated the difference between the verbbreathe and the noun breath, it becomes important for us to also note the difference between breadth and breath, both of which are nouns.

Now the usage of the word breadth is illustrated as follows: 1) We need to take an accurate measurement of the length and breadth of the cloth. 2) The breadth of this land is slightly shorter than that of the previous one. 3) The area of an object can be got by multiplying its length by its breadth. 4) Is it always the case that the length of an object is longer than its breadth? 5) The length of the land is ok, but it would appear that the breadth has been tampered with. 6) The bed measures seven feet in length and four feet in breadth.

100 speaking mistakes you’re most likely making as an English as a second language speaker (II)

ANSWERING when there is an either/or question

Incorrect: “Either you go home or stay here.” “Yes.”

Correct: “Either you go home or stay here.” (Select one choice)


Subject/verb agreement

Incorrect: One of the planes are late. Each of the cars are fast.

Correct: One of the planes is late. Each of the cars is fast.


Plurals and Their Correct Verbs

Incorrect: The wages is little. The scissors are broken. The police is coming. Correct: The wages are little. The scissors is broken. The police are coming.


Misplaced verb as modifier (If you put the modifier in a different place in the sentence, it means something different.)

Incorrect: Josh threatened to divorce her often. (This is not what you intend to say.)

Correct: Josh often threatened to divorce her.


  1. Misplaced noun as modifier

Incorrect: We gave the flowers to the customer in the refrigerator.

Correct: We gave the flowers in the refrigerator to the customer.


Misplaced adverbs (Be careful where the adverb is placed in the sentence as it has a different meaning.)

Incorrect: She almost washed all of the dishes. He offered to paint the fence last night. (This is not what you intend to say.)

Correct: She washed almost all of the dishes. Last night, he offered to paint the fence.


Omission of second part of comparison

Incorrect: Carla ranks Mary higher than Betty.

Correct: Carla ranks Mary higher than she ranks Betty.


Any other

Incorrect: Alaska is bigger than any state in the United States.

Correct: Alaska is bigger than any other state in the United States.


Parallel verb phrases

Incorrect: She was late for work and fired by her boss.

Correct: She was late for work and was fired by her boss.


Old friend/long time

Incorrect: She was my old friend. (You may have known her for a long time, but she might be offended if you use the word “old” as it implies age.)

Correct: She was a friend who I have known for a long time.

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