"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Q and A on Idioms and Common Nigerian English Usage

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Question:
What is the correct usage of these two words: beautiful and handsome? I watched many American movies and they use beautiful for males. A friend also told me that handsome can be used for a female.

Answer:
We have been taught that “beautiful” is the adjective of choice to describe good-looking women and that “handsome” describes a good-looking man. That’s largely true, but there are occasions when this isn’t necessarily true. For instance, Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged says a woman can be described as “handsome” if she is “fine-looking in a dignified way.” Others say when a woman is described as handsome, reference is being made not to her face, but to her physical proportions.

The Random House Dictionary has this to say on your question: “Beautiful, handsome, lovely, pretty refer to a pleasing appearance. A person or thing that is beautiful has perfection of form, color, etc., or noble and spiritual qualities: a beautiful landscape, a beautiful woman. Handsome often implies stateliness or pleasing proportion and symmetry: a handsome man.  That which is lovely is beautiful but in a warm and endearing way: a lovely smile. Pretty implies a moderate but noticeable beauty, especially in that which is small or of minor importance: a pretty child.”

Beautiful man? Well, it’s not usual to describe a good-looking man as “beautiful,” although I have read women describe extremely handsome men as that. In Standard English usage, however, when a man is described as “beautiful,” reference is usually to his moral character, not his appearance. The title of a recent obituary on a man called Bill O’Donnell is “A Beautiful Man, a Beautiful Life.”

Question:
I was discussing the state of the Nigerian state with a lawyer friend and he corrected me for saying ''orientaional''. The statement went thus: ''Nigerians are suffering from psychological and orientational diseases.'' My friend said the word ''orientation'' should remain as it is, without any ''al''.

Also, The Nigeria Police issued a statement on President Buhari's recent directive regarding recruitment in the Force. It, perhaps erroneously, used the word ''the youths'' to mean the prospective applicants. But since there are women also in the Police I think the word should have been ''the youth.''

Answer:
"Orientational," though not commonly used in conversational English, is a legitimate adjective for the noun "orientation." All the dictionaries on my desk have an entry for it. In fact, in English grammar, there is something called "orientational preposition." You are also right about "youths." As I wrote several times here, when “youth” is pluralized to “youths” it often means “young men.”  When "youth" refers to both sexes it is never pluralized.

Question:
Which of these two sentences is correct?  “You are advised to follow these instructions to the latter” and “You are advised to follow these instructions to the letter.” There was a heated argument where I insisted that the LATTER sentence is correct as opposed to the FORMER. They said I do not understand English at all. Please separate the fight.

Answer:
You are right. The idiom is "to the letter," meaning "in every detail." Latter means the second of two things of persons mentioned. Latter can also mean the last of several things or people mentioned.

Question:
A May 30, 2015 article in the Punch titled “Aisha Buhari closes beauty parlour in Kaduna” has the following lead: “Soft-spoken but extremely eloquent; there are many things that make Aisha Buhari, wife of Nigeria’s new president, thick.” Is the word “thick” used correctly? Is that the right adjective? There was an argument about in an online forum and I thought I should bring it to your attention.

Answer:
“What makes one tick” is an idiom that means the reason or motivation for one’s behavior. The verb is “tick,” not “thick.” In any case, “thick” is an adjective that is now used as a euphemism for “fat.” Eating food high in fat and carbohydrates and not exercising regularly can make people “thick”; it can’t make them “tick”!

Question:
Please help me answer this question in one of your future columns. Why is it 'does not have' and not 'does not has' since “does” refers to the third person?

Answer:
It's because "does" in the sentence is an auxiliary verb, and when verbs appear after an auxiliary verb they are always plural even if the subject of the sentence is singular. That's why we say "he may have," not "he may has"; “it should have,” not "it should has"; "she would have," not "should would has," etc. May, should, would, might, shall, etc. are auxiliary verbs. “Does” can sometimes be an auxiliary verb, such as in the example you cited, but it can also be a main verb. When it is used as a main verb, it obeys subject-verb agreement rules, such as in, “he does have a point.”

Question:
What is the differences between these sentences: "My exam starts in FEW days' time" and "My exam starts in A FEW days' time."

Answer:
Both “a few” and “few” indicate a small number. However, "a few" is used in positive contexts and "few" in negative contexts. "A few people know the importance of grammar" means it's a good thing that some people know the importance of grammar. However, "few people know the importance of grammar" means it's sad that only a small number of people know the importance of grammar. In your example, I would say "my exam starts in a few days' time" not only because the context isn't negative but also because it's more proper.

Question:
I was at a local grocery shop to buy dry cell batteries. When I asked if they sell batteries, the shop owner replied, "We don't do batteries here". I was surprised at her response because I know the shop does not manufacture batteries. What the reasons for switching 'sell' with 'do'?

Answer:
That’s a puzzling response. But “battery” has multiple meanings. First, “batterie,” which sounds like “battery,” is sometimes used as an alternative word for the theatrical dance called the ballet. But since this isn’t a common word, it doesn’t make sense for the shop owner to think you’re asking to see a theatrical dance. Battery can also mean physically hitting somebody (which is often rendered as “assault and battery”) but that’s legal vernacular. In everyday English, people don’t use “battery” to mean beating. Plus, it is odd for anyone to expect that a customer would come to their shop to “do battery.”

When “battery” is mentioned anywhere in the English-speaking world, the first thing that comes to people’s mind is the device that powers electricity in gadgets. It seems to me that the shop owner was just being mischievous. But it’s also possible that “do batteries” is a slang expression for “do drugs” in the place you live, and the shop owner thought you were using the argot of drug dealers to talk to him.

Question:
In your highly informative and eye-opening article titled “Shakespearean Expressions that Sound Illiterate by Today’s Standards” you used the expression “contemporary modern English” a lot. Isn’t that a tautology? Don’t contemporary and modern mean the same thing?

Answer:
It’s not a tautology. “Modern English” is periodized as starting from 1450 to now. That’s a wide stretch of time. So linguists usually further break down the time to early Modern English and contemporary Modern English. Notice that in the article you referred to, the “m” in “Modern” was capitalized because the reference is specific.

Question:
'In the table' or 'on the table' or 'from the table'. Which of these prepositional phrases is the most appropriate to use when reporting research findings?

Answer:
"In the table" is right if reference is to a table in a written work, but "on the table" is the best option for reference to items on a physical table.

Question:
I stay/am at/in port-Harcourt right now. I need possible correct sentences with those prepositions (stay/am, at/in)

Answer:
Use "at" for small towns and "in" for big cities. However, you can use "in" for a small town if you have an emotional connection with it, such as if it is your hometown.

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Politics of Grammar Column

Saturday, August 29, 2015

On Fowler’s Fake Doctorate and Integrity Deficit

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

About 20 minutes after presidential spokesman Femi Adesina announced President Buhari’s appointment of William Babatunde Fowler as Executive Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), I wrote a Facebook status update that called attention to Fowler’s bogus honorary doctorate, which went viral and became grist for the mills of several Nigerian news platforms.

But defenders of Mr. Fowler have said that the man is supremely qualified and competent. I have no reason to doubt that. They also say his acceptance of a fake honorary doctorate from a fake university does not detract from his competence and impressive record at the Lagos IRS. I also have no quarrel with that. Still others say he isn’t a fraud but the victim of a well-orchestrated international fraud. Well, I am not sure about that.

First, it helps to know that “Irish International University” is neither a university by any definition of the term nor is it located in Ireland. It never had a physical presence anywhere at any time; all it has is a website, a web of intricately woven but easily detectable fraud.

It has been in the news as a scam operation perpetrated by dodgy Malaysians with UK collaborators. As early as 2005, the Irish ambassador to Malaysia called the attention of Malaysian authorities to the scam that was Irish International University. “They do not offer any courses or conduct any classes in Ireland. I find the name is itself a deception because they are neither Irish nor a university,” the ambassador wrote in a July 24, 2005 letter, according to the New Strait Times. "I think the Malaysian authorities are aware of this and I hope they will take action to prevent people from being deceived into thinking they have qualifications from an Irish university."  

Fowler's "honorary professional doctorate," as he called it in his edited Wikipedia profile, was awarded in June 2007, two clear years after the Irish ambassador warned that Irish International University was a scam.  

Fowler isn't some dewy-eyed rookie; he is a well-educated 60-year-old man. If a university writes to tell me it will award me an honorary doctorate, the first thing I would do is to search the university on the Internet. (Google searches were already mainstream in Nigeria in 2007 when Irish International University “awarded” Fowler its “honorary doctorate”). He would have found the letter the Irish ambassador to Malaysia wrote to the Malaysian government.

Let’s even assume that Fowler didn’t have the presence of mind to Google the “university.” But there are other red flags about the “university.” For instance, why would a university that bills itself "Irish" not operate in Ireland but in the UK? (Fowler accepted his “award” on the campus of a well-known UK university, not in Ireland, although Ireland, where the university is supposed to be located, is a mere 610 kilometers from England). Would it make sense, for example, for a university that calls itself "Ghanaian International University" to award degrees in Nigeria on the campus of, say, the University of Ibadan and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka? Why isn’t an “Irish International University” awarding degrees in Ireland? If that's not a prima facie red flag of a scam, I don’t know what is.

But there is more: The Irish International University invariably demands huge sums of money from people as a precondition for “awarding” them their “honorary doctorates,” according to BBC’s investigations. Fowler got his bachelor's and master's degrees from the US and should know enough to know that legitimate US and UK universities don't demand money from people they confer honorary doctorates on. If his entire educational and work experiences had been limited to Nigeria I would be prepared to cut him a slack because I have been told that many legitimate Nigerian universities demand financial gratification from people before they award them honorary doctorates.

Well, if Fowler didn’t know that Irish International University was a fake university that awarded fake, worthless degrees, he should have known this fact by 2008 after a BBC report exposed it. Sahara Reporters also did a report on the university in the wake of the BBC report, and named Bola Tinubu, Bisi Olatilo, Alistair Soyode, Timi Alaibe, Tunde Fashola, etc. among people who accepted IIU's fake degrees at a ceremony in London. Given Fowler's closeness  to Tinubu and Fashola, it's reasonable to assume that he at least became aware that IIU was a scam—if he wasn't smart enough to see the red flags from the beginning.

 So while I am prepared to be persuaded that it was his gullibility that caused him to accept a fraudulent honorary degree from a non-existent university, it will stretch the credulity of any intelligent person to insist that it was the same gullibility that caused Fowler to continue to flaunt the degree (and even include it in the resume he submitted to the president!) seven years after it has been exposed to be fraudulent.

As I said earlier, if Fowler didn't know IIU was a fake degree in spite of ample evidence to suggest this, then he must be either mentally subnormal or recklessly remiss. If he knew it was fake but went ahead and accepted it— and even swanked it— anyway, his ethical judgment is suspect at best.

What he did isn’t criminal, of course. But things don’t have to be criminal to be condemnable. His action, at the very least, betrayed a grave lapse in ethical judgment. And in a government that stakes the social, political and even symbolic basis of its legitimacy on its intolerance of corruption and its promotion of transparency, it is legitimate to question the moral judgment of a man who is appointed to superintend over the affairs of a crucially important government agency like the FIRS.

I studied the psychology and rhetoric of scams. Award of fake degrees, especially fake doctoral degrees, falls in the category of what I call scams of ego. Perpetrators of scams of ego, such as diploma mills  of which International Irish University  is a prime example, prey on the status anxieties of insecure, ignorant, and fraud-prone people. Fowler seems to fit that bill.

If Fowler was a victim of IIU’s scam, he was a willing victim or, to paraphrase the title of my master’s thesis, he was robbed with his active consent. I won’t be comfortable with that sort of person as my country’s chief’s tax collector. But the choice is ultimately President Buhari’s to make.

Related Articles:
Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke's Fake Doctorate and Professorship
Intellectual 419: Philip Emeagwali and Gabriel Oyibo Compared
Andy Uba and the Epidemic of Fakery in Nigeria
On Bauchi's Fake Lecturer--and What Should be Done
Print-On-Demand Book Scams and Nigerian Universities 
Bait-and-Switch Publishing: New Face of Academic Fraud
Our Image as  a Nation of Scammers I
Our Image as a Nation of Scammers II

Sunday, August 16, 2015

How English is Changing Languages in the World

For several years, English has been known as the language that borrows from almost every language. It borrows vocabulary, lexis, structure, and even idioms from any language it comes in contact with. As a result, the original Anglo-Saxon tongue has been so diluted that people who spoke Old English (that is, English prior to about 1100) and even Middle English (that is, English from about 1100 to 1450) would never make sense of the English we speak today.

In several columns (see, for instance, my series titled “TheAfrican Origins of Common English Words”) and in my recent book titled Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in a Global World, I have pointed out that more than 70 percent of the vocabularies of contemporary English is a hodgepodge of lexical influences from several languages.  English also has several loan translations that violate the natural rhythm and grammar of the language. Expressions such as “long time no see,” “have a look-see,” “a no-go area” are decidedly ungrammatical, but they are idiomatic nonetheless. They are English borrowing from Chinese. Similarly, saying “enjoy” after you give someone a meal, as people now do in restaurants and in airlines, is a conscious mimicry of the French bon appétit.

The examples are legion. But in the article you will read below by The Economist’s Johnson language column, this pattern is reversing: English is now influencing the vocabulary, structure, and idioms of languages across the world, as its influence as the world’s predominant language continues to grow. In a July 16, 2015 article titled “The influence of English,” Johnson talks about how English is influencing German and French. I hope you enjoy it as I did.

"GERMANS joke about their bad English. In Berlin, you can buy fridge magnets with German expressions over-literally translated into English, like “It is me sausage”—a word-for-word rendering of Es ist mir Wurst, or “it’s all the same to me”. “German Quatsch” on Twitter has many more. But educated Germans usually speak English quite well. The reality is that, to a deeper extent than commonly realised, German is changing under constant influence from English.

In “Denglisch”, as with its cousins Franglais and Espanglés, what most people notice is decades of word borrowing: le week-end, das Recycling, el jonrón (“home run”) and the like. Like it or hate it, borrowing of this kind is unlikely to stop; in a press conference yesterday in Berlin, on the possibility of the Greek government issuing IOUs as a kind of parallel currency, the English word “IOUs” was used about as many times as the perfectly good German Schuldscheine, in a press conference conducted entirely in German. (Of course the word “Grexit” was also in the air; the Germans have jokingly coined their own, Graustritt, but do not use it.)

Read the  rest of the article by clicking this link.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Re: Boko Haram, Alex Badeh, Jonathan and the Stolen Trillions

Please enjoy a sample of the reactions that last week’s column generated.

I’ve heard a lot of people advocate that President Buhari should bring you back from America to serve your fatherland given your education, experience and exposure. I disagree, and your article this week is one evidence for my disagreement. Who would have caused us to get as rightly angry as you did with your wonderful piece on what you called “this astonishingly conscienceless heist” of our national resources in the name of fighting Boko Haram? Although you live far away physically, you are near. Paradoxically, the moment President Buhari brings you home, you will be physically near but far from us.  Please continue your good work! As you advised, we will keep asking until we get an answer. Where are the trillions?
Dele Tomori


This was certainly one of your most viral articles. It trended on Faceboook, Twitter, Whatsapp and other social media platforms. After reading your article I went to look for the original Alex Badeh interview and, oh boy, was I angry? I doubt that the man was in his right senses when he granted that interview. As you rightly observed, “It’s the worst form of self-indictment.” English people call courage resulting from drinking too much alcohol “Dutch courage.” I hope Badeh’s revelations were not influenced by “Burukutu courage.” President Buhari has no option but to get to the root of this Olympian theft!
Rasaq Tijani

The opening assumption missed the simple fact that Badeh was talking before he took charge, afterwards, armaments were procured that enable the military to dislodge Boko Haram from not less than 14 local governments just before the elections.

Badeh said that much in his hand over speech when he derided the US on the Leahy Act and thanked "friendly nations that sold weapons to us at the time of our need". We must not be seen isolating statements to drive a political point. It doesn't help the war against terror which is far from over nor does it help the anti-corruption drive because the money we quote as being stolen will not be traced to any person and the public misled into believing that trillions were diverted will be disappointed that Dasuki/Gusau/GEJ are walking free.
Bile Nuhu

Oh! What a tyranny of figures! I knew of "thousands”, then "millions", now "trillions" what next...? I call on all who're arithmetically or mathematically inclined to excuse my ignorance. Please, after an unconscionable theft of trillions, what is the next stage? Can you now see how LUCKY a country can be under the GOOD WATCH of a "GOODLUCK" President? Allah ya isah!!!
Abdullahi Ibrahim
Certainly no one can tell what would have become of us all had the Jonathan cabal continued to ruin (not rule) this country. I pity those helpless soldiers who went and committed suicide in the name of fighting for our country. My solace is in the fact that this potbellied military officer and his ilk will not go unpunished. If not by the Buhari's government then by God Himself. If not here on earth then in the hereafter.
Abubakar Algwallary

Poor Nigeria Army. We blame them for not being brave to combat the terrorists, for running away from fields, for giving out their uniforms to civilians, unknown to us that they were ill-equipped. So where are the trillions spent in the name of defense? Prof. said, we should be asking this question until we get an answer. So I repeat, where are the trillions?
Muzaffar Ibrahim

Amazing revelations indeed. It is absolutely incredible to think that this large sum of money meant to bolster the dwindling security in our dear country disappeared without a single military equipment to show for it. This development really undermines the sacrosanctity of our security system in this country and by extension portends a great danger to good governance. These funds are enough to create millions of employment and provide quality education to millions of our youths. I pray that this administration will work assiduously to recover much of the looted funds and use them wisely to create jobs, provide quality education and better healthcare for the good people of Nigeria who have been deprived of these basic amenities over the years.
Tijjani Abubakar

I am a proud Farooq Fan but this analysis needs work. What has happened to our military is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the blatant looting and raping of Nigeria by the ruling and intellectual elite. You must start from Obasanjo and 1999 to today to understand how he and his hand-picked minions have decimated Nigeria. For many years I have been shouting on the rooftops that all of Nigeria's public institutions have been gutted and razed to the ground by thieves posing as rulers under the direct supervision of the grand criminal of them all, Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo. I have pleaded with Nigerian intellectuals to try to force the rulers du jour to come up with a Marshall Plan to rescue gutted institutions, whossai, all I have gotten is silence from compromised PhDs. They want us to believe that stealing and corruption started with the buffoonery of Goodluck Jonathan. Apparently there are enough clueless people who believe that claptrap.

Here is a bit of history. When Obasanjo ascended power a decade and a half ago, he was deathly afraid of coups. He proceeded to decimate the military structure and under lax supervision, service chiefs became service thieves. The situation we have today is as a direct result of Obasanjo's perfidy. Jonathan, Obasanjo's hand picked man simply continued with glee, the silliness. That is why a crook and millionaire like Badeh would say that the last time the military bought anything was in 2006.
Ikhide Ikheloa


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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Shakespearean Expressions that Sound Illiterate by Today‘s Standards

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.                              
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In my July 19, 2015 article titled “Response to the Critique of my Critique of Buhari’s Inaugural Speech,” I promised to write on expressions Shakespeare used that are now regarded as solecistic by the standards of modern grammar. I am fulfilling that promise this week.

While Shakespeare is often touted as one of the greatest writers that ever wrote in the English language, it helps to realize that there are several conventions of English usage during his time that are unacceptable by today’s norms. I will highlight only a few in this article, using examples from some of Shakespeare’s iconic works.

1 Archaic words. It goes without saying that several of the words Shakespeare used in the 1500s and the 1600s have gone out of circulation. For instance, in Shakespeare’s time, “afeard” meant “afraid.” That’s why in A Midsummer Night's Dream Snout says, “Will not the ladies be afeard of the lion?”).
 “Holp” was the past tense of “help.” In Act 1 Scene 2 of Richard III, Richard says, “Let him thank me that holp to-send him thither.”  (Note that “tither” is now “there” in contemporary Modern English.) Similarly, in Shakespeare’s time, “learn” meant “teach.” That is why, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says, “Learn me how to lose a winning match.” A contemporary Modern English version of this sentence would be, “Teach me how to lose a winning match.”

I give these examples because they curiously survive in Appalachian English, an “inferior,” low-prestige dialect of English that is spoken in some poor, coal-mining parts of the United States in the Appalachian Mountains. I had a student in one of my classes this past summer who spoke Appalachian English. Each time he switched to Appalachian English, he was often unintelligible. Americans who only speak Standard English also find Appalachian English incomprehensible.

2. No difference between subjective and objective pronouns. In contemporary Modern English we fuss over the distinctions between subjective pronouns (such as “I,” “she,”  “he,” “we,” “they,” “who,” etc.) and their objective forms (such as “me,” “her,” “him,”  “us,” “them,” “whom,” etc.). Subjective pronouns are the doers of action in a sentence (such as “I gave him”) and objective pronouns are recipients of the action (such as “It is for ME.”) Following this logic, “you and I” is used as the subject of a sentence (thus, synonymous with “we”) and “you and me” is used as the object of a sentence (thus, synonymous with “us”).

In Shakespeare’s time this distinction didn’t exist. That’s why in The Merry Wives Of Windsor Act 4 Scene 4, a character says, “And he my husband best of all affects.” The “he” in the sentence would be rendered as “him” in today’s Standard English because “my husband” is the recipient, not the doer, of the action in the sentence.

In Othello Act 4 Scene 2, the character Othello says, “Yes, you have seen Cassio and she together.” Today’s Standard English would render the sentence as, “Yes, you have seen Cassio and HER together.” “You” is the subject of the sentence and “Cassio and her” are the objects. Again, in Coriolanus Act II Scene 1 Menenius Agrippa says, “Pray you, who does the wolf love?” In contemporary Modern English, that would be, “Pray you, WHOM does the wolf love?”

 I should add, however, that contemporary Modern English seems to be returning to the usage convention that doesn’t distinguish between subjective pronouns and objective pronouns. The shift hasn’t quite taken place yet—at least not formally—but it’s going in that direction. The objective pronoun “whom,” for instance, is becoming obsolete.  Apparently, the evolution of language isn’t always linear; it is sometimes cyclical.

Another instance of the cyclical evolution of usage convention is the use of “they” and “their” as genderless singular pronouns (e.g. “Everybody should bring THEIR book” or “If a student has questions THEY should ask THEIR teacher”). This practice predates contemporary modern English by at least 600 years. It was the usage norm in Shakespeare’s time. Now people who are ignorant of the history of “they” and “their” as genderless singular pronouns think it’s a modern linguistic barbarism invented to satisfy feminist agitations for gender inclusivity in language.

 Well, the use of the singular “they” and “their” is becoming respectable again in spite of the protests of misguided purists. As the late William “Bill” Safire used to say, "When enough of us are wrong, we're right."

3. Shakespeare’s subjects and verbs don’t always agree. Ignorance of subject-verb agreement rules is one of the most obvious signs of functional illiteracy (in English) in modern times. We’ve been taught that a singular subject (such as “Musa” agrees with a singular verb (such as “has,” “is,” “goes,” etc.) so that a construction like “Musa has to agree that he is responsible for what goes on there” is considered grammatically correct. A reversal such as “Musa have to agree that he are responsible for what go on there” would be considered illiterate by the standards of contemporary Modern English. The reverse is also true: plural subjects (such as “people” or “Musa and his children”) agree with plural verbs (such as “have,” “are,” “go,” etc.

This elementary grammar rule didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time, as you can see in the following dialogue in Richard II:  “These high wild hills and rough uneven ways/ Draws out our miles, and makes them wearisome.” This is classic subject-verb disagreement. “These high wild hills and rough uneven ways” is a plural subject. Therefore, the verb that follows it should be plural as well. But what do we see? Singular verbs (that is, “draws” and “makes”). In contemporary usage, the sentence would be rewritten as, “These high wild hills and rough uneven ways/ Draw out our miles, and make them wearisome.”

Again, in Julius Caesar (Act I Scene III), we come across this sentence: “Three parts of him is ours already,” which would be “Three parts of him ARE ours already” in contemporary English.
Similarly, in Act 3 Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Quince says, “But there is two hard things: that is, to bring the moonlight into a chamber.” In contemporary Modern English, we would say, “But there are two hard things….”

Note, however, that this sort of subject-verb discord survives in contemporary informal spoken English. Native English speakers often say something like, “There’s 10 people in the room.” Note, too, that this usage is acceptable only when “there is” is contracted to “there’s.” Saying “there is 10 people” would be considered illiterate, but “there’s 10 people” is acceptable in spoken English—and in the representation of spoken English in writing.

4. Double negatives. Use of double negatives (such as “I don’t know nothing” or “I don’t like nobody” or “I don’t need no grammar lesson”) is one of the biggest grammatical taboos of contemporary Standard English. We are taught that two negatives cancel each other out to produce a positive, so that “I don’t know nothing” would mean “I know something,” “I don’t like nobody” would mean “I like somebody,”  and  “I don’t need no grammar lesson” would mean “I need a grammar lesson.”

But double negatives were used for emphasis and intensification of meaning, and that tradition survives in nonstandard, low-prestige English varieties (such as Appalachian English, African-American Vernacular English also called Ebonics, Cockney, etc.) and in pop music.

Like other English users of his time, Shakespeare used double negatives for emphasis. In Henry IV Part I, he wrote: “Nor never could the noble Mortimer/Receive so many, and all willingly.” And in Richard III, he wrote: “You may deny that you were not the mean/Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.” If he lived now, he would most certainly have written, “You may deny that you were the mean/ Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.”

5. Double comparatives and double superlatives. As I wrote in my July 19, 2015 article, in modern grammar, it’s taboo to modify an adjective using “more” and the “er” suffix simultaneously, such as “more taller.” That is called the error of double comparatives. It’s also taboo to modify an adjective using “most” and the “est” suffix simultaneously, such as “most tallest.” That’s called the error of double superlatives.

As Kenneth G. Wilson points out in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, “Shakespeare … and other Renaissance writers used double comparison to add vigor, enthusiasm, and emphasis, and so do young children and other unwary speakers of Nonstandard English today, but the eighteenth-century grammarians seem to have prevailed, and one comparison per adjective is all today’s Standard English will allow.”

Apart from the “most unkindest cut of all” that I mentioned in my article of July 19, several examples can be found in other Shakespearean works. For example, in The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote: “And his more braver daughter could control thee.” In Julius Caesar, he wrote: “With the most boldest and best hearts of Rome.”

Concluding thoughts
Language is never static. It’s always in a state of flux. That’s why you can’t always invoke the standards of a bygone era to justify usage in a current era. When I was news editor of the Weekly Trust in 1999 or 2000, we once cast a headline that read: “ABU goes gay for NUGA.” By “gay” we meant “happy and full of fun,” a definition of the word that still exists in dictionaries. But most of our readers justifiably understood the word in its current popular meaning of homosexual, and flooded us with angry calls and emails. We learned a hard lesson: language changes, and how people actually use and understand language is more important than what some dictionary says.


Celebrated English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, remembered for writing the Canterbury Tales, didn’t come to terms with the reality of the perpetually changing property of language when boasted, in the 1300s, that the English language had reached its final form and was incapable of any further improvement. Interestingly, no modern English speaker can understand his boast without the help of an interpreter!

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A Grammatical and Rhetorical Analysis of President Buhari's Inaugural Speech
"Past is Prologue" and Other Presidential Inaugural Turns of Phrase
Politics of Grammar Column

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Boko Haram, Alex Badeh, Jonathan and the Stolen Trillions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi 

I thought I had become inured to the scandal of brazen corruption in Nigeria until I watched the interview former Chief of Defense Staff Alex Badeh granted to Channels TV on August 1. It’s the worst form of self-indictment I’ve ever seen in my life.

Badeh told Channels TV that the last time the Nigerian military bought equipment was 9 years ago, that is, in the twilight of Obasanjo’s second term. “If I go down memory lane, I think the last time any piece of equipment was bought for the Nigerian army was some APCs that were bought in 2006, and how many were they? They were few,” he said, pointing out that the Nigerian military flies “the oldest fighter aeroplanes in the whole world.” The Alpha jets that form the backbone of the military onslaught on Boko Haram, Badeh told Channels TV, were bought in 1981.

If Badeh is right (and I have no reason to think he is wrong since he was Nigeria’s most senior military officer until his sack) that basically means that, from Musa Yar’adua’s administration when the Boko Haram menace started, to the end of the Jonathan presidency when it reached a crescendo, not a single piece of equipment was purchased for the Nigerian military. The military depended on obsolete equipment at best and no equipment at all at worst to fight a determined and sophisticated Boko Haram.

If I didn’t hear this directly from Badeh himself, I would have dismissed it as some wacky conspiracy theory. But it isn’t the revelation by itself that is scandalous; it is the fact that the neglect of the military is coterminous with the extravagant ballooning of the Nigerian military’s budget. In 2010, for instance, government budgeted N836,016,773,836 (which translates to $5.07 billion at 165 naira to a dollar) for the military. In 2011 the amount ballooned to N1,080,894,801,178 ($6.55 billion). In 2012 it increased to N1,154,857,159,110.00 ($6.99 billion). It increased even more in 2013 to N1,178,832,576,309 ($7.14 billion). Last year, it was scaled down a bit to N1,174,897,477,334.00  ($7.12 billion). That’s trillions of naira gone down the begrimed pockets of corrupt government officials in the name of fighting Boko Haram!

My head spun as I looked at the figures. Now, Badeh says in spite of these trillions that the Jonathan government budgeted for the military, “the last time any piece of equipment was bought for the Nigerian army was … in 2006!” So what happened to the trillions of naira? Every Nigerian should be asking this until we get an answer.

After a whopping $32.88 billion in military budget to fight Boko Haram in the last five years, we don’t have a single piece of military equipment to show for it. This simply boggles the mind. It’s beyond scandalous; it’s unacceptably and insanely criminal.

In spite of all that money, hundreds of thousands of our compatriots in northeastern Nigeria have been murdered—and are still being murdered daily— by Boko Haram, and thousands more are internally displaced and writhe in unspeakable hardship. Lives have been disrupted, businesses have collapsed, and thousands have lost even the will to live. Yet one of the men who superintended over the criminal enterprise that was military budget goes on TV, without a tinge of moral compunction, to gloat about the incompetence of the government he was a part of.

I am angry, very angry. This sort of criminal impunity should never go unpunished. We are talking here about the twin evils of unconscionably mindboggling theft and of the heartrending destruction of the life of an entire region of the country. I know President Buhari is aware of the scale and depth of the criminality that characterized the military budgets in the last 6 or so years, but we should still prod him to not only recover the stolen trillions but bring to justice the criminals who masterminded this astonishingly conscienceless heist.

This is all the more unpardonable because from Badeh to former President Jonathan, and all the minions in between, the fact of the Nigerian military’s unpreparedness, which was all too obvious to even a perfunctory observer, was intensely denied. Military officers were court-martialed and sentenced to death for refusing to fight Boko Haram with bare hands. In other words, they were condemned to death for refusing to commit suicide. Fighting a well-armed enemy with bare hands is suicide. Pure and simple. But, in press conferences, Alex Badeh passionately defended the death sentence passed on soldiers who mutinied and ran for their lives. Now he admits that the military he headed had no equipment to fight Boko Haram.

Former President Jonathan also once threatened to withdraw soldiers from Borno State when the state’s governor said Boko Haram was better armed and more motivated than the Nigerian military—a fact Badeh has now admitted. During a February 25, 2014 presidential media chat, Jonathan said, “The statement is a little bit unfortunate because you don’t expect a governor to make that kind of statement and if the governor of Borno State feels that the Nigerian Armed Forces are not useful, he should tell Nigerians. I will pull them out for one month; whether he will stay in that his Government House; just one month, but I will fly back to take over the state.”

When you add all this to the recent revelation by SaharaReporters of a  N1,751,864,867 ($8,853,600) fraud in the Office of the National Security Adviser over purchase  of arms and ammunition to fight Boko Haram, which never made it to Nigeria, all lingering doubts that the Jonathan presidency was a massive criminal enterprise are removed. I don’t know what would have become of Nigeria had Jonathan won another term.
Boko Haram as an Empty Signifier 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Q and A on Nigerian Media English, Usage, and American and British English Punctuations

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Is “believe you me” Standard English? What’s the difference between single and double quotation marks? What’s the difference between “police” and “police officer”? Is it “I take it seriously” or “I take it serious”? Does “correspondence” have a plural form and is “minutes” of a meeting always plural? For answers to these and other questions, read on:

Question:
Is “believe you me” correct English? It doesn’t sound correct to me, but I find it being used by someone I respect. I suspect that it is Nigerian English. Am I right?

Answer:
You are the third person to ask this.  “Believe you me” isn’t by any stretch of the imagination Nigerian English; it’s a Standard English expression known and used in all English varieties. It's the emphatic form of "believe me," and mimics Old English forms such as "Seek ye first the kingdom of God" (Matthew 6:33), "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations" (Matthew 28:19), etc.

When it’s used to ask questions, it often takes an accusatory tone such as in Shakespeare’s As you like it, Act 5, Scene 2, where Phebe says: “If this be so, why blame you me to love you?”

Interestingly, although the syntactic structure of “believe you me” sounds old-fashioned and Germanic, it’s actually a comparatively modern expression. The expression wasn’t in use in Shakespearean times. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its origins to 1926, although some etymologists have found records of its use in American poetry a little earlier than 1926, but it doesn’t go far back to the 16th century when such expressions were conventional.

Michael Quinion, a respected British linguist, summed it up well: “What seems to have happened is that a once-standard phrase that had been lurking in the language for generations suddenly became much more popular and widespread around the 1920s. What we have here is a revitalised fossil, a semi-invented anachronism.”

Question:
Is there a difference between single quotation marks like ‘this’ and double quotation marks like “this”?

Answer:
Yes. British English uses single quotation marks for the main quote and double quotation marks for quotations within a quotation. (Example: ‘I like the way Buhari said “I belong to nobody and belong to everybody”, although I don't know what that means’, Ibrahim said.)

American English, on the other hand, uses double quotation marks for the main quote and single quotation marks for quotations within a quotation. (Example: “I like the way Buhari said ‘I belong to nobody and belong to everybody,’ although I don't know what that means,” Ibrahim said.

Notice that in the first example the comma appears outside of the quotation marks while in the second example the comma appears inside the quotation marks. That’s also a function of the differences between British written English and American written English. British English users write their punctuation marks (full stop, comma, question mark, and exclamation mark) outside quotation marks while American English writers write their punctuation marks (period, comma, question mark, and exclamation mark) inside the quotation marks. (You probably also noticed that I used “full stop” for British English and “period” for American English.)

However, in my over a decade of teaching writing in American universities, I can tell you that many Americans don’t have a conscious awareness of these differences. Several of my students lose points for placing their punctuation marks outside quotation marks. I always say, “That would be acceptable if we were writing British English.”

Question:
I have a question about a news story headline that reads: “SSS operative escapes lynching FOR shooting police.” To me it is correct, but some people said it was wrong; that it should be “SSS operative escapes lynching AFTER shooting police.” Which is the correct one please?

Answer:
Both expression can be correct, depending on the context of their usage. Since I am not familiar with the content of the story I can only guess what it’s about. So let's go.

 The headline with the preposition "for" indicates that the reason the SSS operative escaped lynching was that he shot a police officer, which would mean that he did a good thing, and people let him escape. I doubt that is the meaning the headline seeks to convey, but given the bad image of the police in Nigeria—and even in the United States now—that's not a far-fetched possibility.

The headline with "after" merely tells us a sequence of actions: that an SSS operative shot a police officer, then a mob wanted to lynch him as a result, but somehow he escaped the wrath of the mob. Since you're familiar with the content of the story, you should know which of my explanations fits your headline.

Please note that it is grammatically better to write "police officer" than to write "police" because "police" is a collective noun, such as “crew,” “family,” “team,” etc. No one says, for instance, “SSS operative shoots team," or "SSS operative shoots family," etc. We say "SSS operative shoots team member" or "SSS operative shoots team members," etc. The way the headline stands right now, the impression is created that the entire police force was shot by an SSS operative!

Question:
Is it normal to call a 10-year-old child a SUICIDE bomber?

Answer:
If the child knowingly straps a bombs and kills himself while killing others, yes. But if the child was strapped with a bomb against his wishes, or unknown to him, he can't legitimately be called a suicide bomber. Nigerian newspapers don’t make this distinction. It’s rather far-fetched that a 10-year-old can knowingly be a suicide bomber. We need another expression to capture this disturbing trend.

Question:
Which is better? 1. I take it serious. 2. I take it seriously.

Answer:
In modern English, the distinction between adverbs and adjectives is disappearing, so both expressions are common and often mean the same thing. But if we want to be pedantic, we would say "take it seriously" is the more correct option because "take" is the verb in the sentence that the adverb "seriously" modifies. "Serious" is an adjective, and it can't modify the verb "take"; only adverbs modify verbs.

Nevertheless, if the emphasis is on “I,” “I take it serious” would be a better option, but it would mean that “I was serious when I took it.” I doubt that is the sense you intend to convey.

Question:
 I am an ardent reader of your weekly column in Sunday Trust and I have benefited a lot from your very simple explanations and answers to questions on Nigerian English usage. Kindly help answer the following questions:

1. What is the plural for the word correspondence? My friend told me the word has no plural and I see some Nigerian writers use the word 'correspondences' even in official communication. For example, 'all correspondences are to be forwarded to the office of the secretary'

2. Is it correct to say 'Minutes of meeting' when referring to the records of proceedings taken at a particular meeting? Or do we say 'minute of meeting'? For example, "The minutes of the meeting was adopted by members of the committee" or "The minute of the meeting was adopted by members of the committee"? I am not too sure on when to use 'minute' and when to use 'minutes.'

Answer:
When “correspondence” is used to mean “letters,” it’s usually singular. “Correspondences” is nonstandard because “correspondence” is an uncountable noun. That’s the formal rule in the books. However, over the years, there has been an uptick in the use of “correspondences” as the plural form of “correspondence” in the informal registers of even native English speakers. I expect that in the next 50 years “correspondences” will become mainstream. For now, though, avoid it in formal writing.


The record of what transpired at a meeting is always written as “minutes.” As I wrote in an April 6, 2014 Q and A article, “‘Minutes’ is always a plural noun and always takes a plural verb. It’s in the same category of nouns as ‘shears,’ ‘scissors,’ ‘tweezers,’ ‘trousers,’ etc. which always need a plural verb. For confirmation that ‘minutes’ always takes a plural verb, check the Oxford Dictionaries’ examples of the word’s usage: ‘The only written record ARE the minutes of the meeting taken by Mr Wilson.’ ‘The minutes of the meeting RECORD a two-minute silence, followed by a motion to close.’”

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