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Sunday, September 17, 2017

“Police is your friend,” “fire for fire”: Q and A on Nigerian English Errors

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

Question:
Is it “congratulate for” or “congratulate on”? In other words, should it be, “I congratulate you for your achievement” or “I congratulate you on your achievement”? A friend told me only “congratulate on” is correct, but I have come across “congratulate for” in many respectable places.


Answer:
It used to be said that “congratulate” only collocates with “on.” That’s no longer true. All modern dictionaries and usage guides now say “congratulate” collocates with both “on” and “for” depending on the meaning you want to convey.

When you want to send good wishes or expressions of joy to someone on the occasion of a personal milestone in their life, such as marriage, birth of a child, promotion at work, etc. “on” is the usual preposition that collocates with “congratulate.” Examples: I congratulate you on your marriage. I congratulate you on the birth of your child.

However, when you want to acknowledge an achievement or praise someone for a great effort, use of “congratulate for” is permissible. Example: I congratulate you for paying workers’ salaries promptly.

The distinctions aren’t terribly clear-cut, I know, but the bottom line is that both prepositions collocate with “congratulate.”

Question:
Governor Rauf Aregbesola changed the name of his state from “Osun State” to “State of Osun.” Is this change justified from a grammatical point of view?

Answer:
The short answer is no. But the governor is probably aping American naming conventions. In the United States, states are officially called “state of…” For instance, I live in the “State of Georgia,” not “Georgia State.” I used to live in the “State of Louisiana,” not “Louisiana State.”

Here, the name precedes “state,” such as Georgia State, Louisiana State, Alabama State, etc. only when reference is made to state universities. Thus, Georgia State is the short form of Georgia State University, Mississippi State is the short form of Mississippi State University, Alabama State is the short form of Alabama State University, etc.

Note that there are no federal universities in the United States. Universities are either owned by state governments or by private individuals/organizations. State universities that are located in state capitals are typically called by the name of the state in combination with “state” and “university.” (There are a few exceptions, though). For example, the State of Georgia has two big universities: the University of Georgia and Georgia State University. The University of Georgia is located in a small town called Athens, but Georgia State University is located in Atlanta, the state capital, which explains why it is called “Georgia State.” Louisiana State University is located in Baton Rouge, the state capital, while the University of Louisiana is located in the city of Lafayette. Both are owned by the State of Louisiana.

So, in the interest of clarity, “state of …” is understood to refer to states and “… State” (e.g. Minnesota State) is understood to refer to state universities located in the state capital.

I don’t see the justification for calling Osun State the “State of Osun” since “Osun State” is unlikely to be mistaken for anything.

Question:
Is it, “Police is your friend” or “Police are your friend”?

Answer:
The grammatically correct expression is “police are your friend,” NOT “police is your friend.” It is also “police are coming,” NOT “police is coming.” “Police” is a collective noun—like “people,” “cattle, etc.—and always takes a plural verb. Just like you can’t say “people is your friend,” or “people is coming,” you also can’t say “police is your friend” or “police is coming.”

There are many ways to singularize “police.” You can say “policeman,” “policewoman,” or “police officer.” You can also say, “The police department is your friend.”

Question:
Please point me to where you wrote about the expression “fire for fire.” I am the editor of a newspaper in Lagos and a reporter of mine told me you pointed out in one of your “Politics of Grammar” articles that “fire for fire” is Nigerian English. My search through the archives of Daily Trust didn’t bring up the article. If you can republish it, I and many people in our newsroom will benefit.

Answer:
The usual idiom is "(fight) fire with fire." So the preposition is “with,” not “for.” The phrase basically means to use the same tactics and strategies your opponent is using to fight you. If the opponent uses violence use violence, too. If he uses treachery, use treachery, too.

 Shakespeare first used this expression in his play titled King John. He wrote:
“Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;
Threaten the threatener and outface the brow
Of bragging horror”

“Fight” was later inserted into the expression (first in American English and now in all varieties of English) to have “fight fire with fire.” Nigeria’s former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, distorted this Shakespearean expression to “fire for fire” in his infamous “Operation Fire for Fire” campaign, and “fire for fire” has now become a stock expression in Nigerian English.

Question:
If the sons and daughters of my siblings are my nephews and nieces respectively, how do I refer to the children (male or female) of my cousins?

Answer:
Your question anticipated an article I am working on. It’s about native English familial terminologies that are absent in Nigerian English. I will only give a short answer to your question for now. My forthcoming article will elaborate it.

The children of your first cousin are technically called your "first cousins once removed," but you can also informally call them your nephews (if they are male) and your nieces (if they are female).

Question:
Sometime back, I had an argument with one of my friends on how to use “at” and “in.” Can you tell us the difference between them?

Answer:
Both “at” and “in” are prepositions that we use to indicate location. Generally, it is understood in usage circles that “at” is used when we are talking about a point, that is, a precise location, while “in” is used when we are talking about an area, that is, a geographic area with an extensive boundary. So, for instance, we would say “I’m at the Abuja City Gate” because it’s a precise location, but we would say “I’m in Abuja” because “Abuja” is a huge expanse of land with an extensive boundary.

Following this logic, grammarians generally agree that a small town is a point and a big city is an area. Therefore, the preposition of choice when we talk about a small town is “at” (e.g., “his wife lives at Kenu”) while the preferred preposition to refer to cities is “in” (e.g. “I live and work in Lagos”). However, it is perfectly legitimate to use “in” to refer to a village if you have a sentimental attachment to it. Only people who have no emotional connection with a small town use “at” to refer to it.

But it gets even trickier. When we talk of any place (including big cities) as a point on a map, the only acceptable preposition is “at.” Example: “Dana Airline crashed at Lagos on its way to Abuja.”

There are also dialectal differences in the use of “at” and “in,” especially in reference to educational institutions. In British English, it is customary to say “at school,” “at college,” etc. while American English prefers “in school,” “in college,” etc.

“At” has also emerged as the preferred preposition when companies talk about themselves self-referentially. Examples: “We at Daily Trust question the notion that…,” “At Union Bank, our goal is…” etc. 

But it’s good to note that “in” used to be the preferred preposition in companies’ self-referential statements. The change to “at” is a relatively recent usage shift.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Buhari’s Obsessive Compulsive Runawayism

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

President Buhari is held prisoner by what appears to be an obsessive impulse to desert Nigeria when the going gets tough. On at least two occasions, he has publicly confessed to feeling the urge to abandon his mandate in midstream.

The first time he gave public expression to this runawayist emotion was in November 2016 when he addressed senior management staff members and “Senior Executive Course 38” graduates of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies who paid him a visit at the Presidential Villa. “Actually, I felt like absconding because 27 out of 36 states in Nigeria cannot pay salaries and we know they have no other source than to depend on salaries to pay rent and do other things,” he said.

He expressed his latest urge for runawayism when he met with traditional rulers in the Presidential Villa on September 11. “We are lucky this year that last year and this year the rainy season is good,” he said. “If it were not good, I must confide in you that I was considering which country to run to. But God answered the prayers of many Nigerians.”

The president might very well have been joking. He is, after all, famous for his inventive sense of humor, including creatively self-deprecating humor. But it is also true that human beings ventilate uncomfortable truths through humor. In fact, an English proverb says, “Many a true word is spoken in jest.” So it’s fair game to interrogate the president’s predilection for wanting to abandon the nation in moments of strife and uncertainty.

This is particularly troubling seeing that the president, in reality, appears to be more comfortable outside Nigeria than he is inside it. This is a president who will leave Nigeria for anywhere at the drop of a hat. He spent most of 2015 and 2016 traveling the world (for no justifiable reason, in retrospect) and a good bit of this year on “medical vacation” in London. So when he said (or, if you will, joked) that he felt like “absconding” after the enormity of the task he was elected to do stared him in the face, he wasn’t being faithful to the facts. He actually did abscond. How else would anyone characterize failing to appoint ministers six months after being sworn in—and leaving most governing councils of government agencies unfilled more than two years after— while aimlessly traveling the world?

And when he said he was “considering which country to run to” if the rains weren’t forthcoming, he also forgot that he actually did “run to” another country for more than one hundred days for a different reason. He went to London to get UK doctors’ second opinion on his already treated ear infection and, thereafter, to treat an undisclosed ailment—exposing Nigeria, in the process, to one of the worst possible international embarrassments any nation could face.

Given the president’s penchant for runawayism, it’s hard to tell if his long stays in London were indeed medically warranted or if he was just “absconding” or choosing to “run to” other people’s country because he couldn’t take the heat of governing. Plus, the president’s health has now become an effective national emotional blackmail tool: he “absconds” for days on end without communication with the people who voted him into power, allows morbidly ill-natured rumors about him to fester, then causes photos of him to be posted on social media, which inflames more ghoulish speculations, and then a stream of extortionately costly but pointless visits by government officials to London ensues, and, of course, the nation will be whipped into a frenzy of prayers for the convalescence of the president. When the president returns, poor, mentally low-wattage citizens, who are the victims of his government by “abscondment,” gyrate wildly in futile, impotent exultation. This melodrama anesthetizes the citizens and helps to conceal or excuse the president’s incompetence for a while, and life goes on.

This is particularly interesting because more than three decades ago, Buhari famously said, “This generation and indeed future generations of Nigerians have no other country they can call their own. We must stay here and salvage it together.”

Apparently, he never believed a word of what he said because in February 2016, the president told Nigerians in the UK that he had been using his UK doctors “since 1978 when I was in Petroleum.” You can’t “stay and salvage” your country, especially as a high-ranking government official or a president, by perpetually disdaining your “country's best hospital for medical care in Britain,” as the Los Angeles Times of February 20, 2017 said of Buhari.

Given what we now know of President Buhari, it’s evident that his 1980s patriotic proclamation was just hollow sloganeering. Recall that on April 27, 2016, the president also said, “While this administration will not deny anyone of his or her fundamental human rights, we will certainly not encourage expending Nigerian hard earned resources on any government official seeking medical care abroad, when such can be handled in Nigeria.”

Less than one month after this “patriotic” declaration, Buhari went to London, not to treat his ear infection (because, according to a news release signed by Femi Adesina, it had already been “treated” in Nigeria), but to have UK doctors examine his already “treated” ear “purely out of precaution.” Can you beat that quantum of hypocrisy and insensitivity?

What does it say about President Buhari’s interest in, and preparedness for, leading Nigeria that he loves to make glib remarks about wanting to run away from the country he actively sought to rule four times in a row? What sort of leader tells (or jokes to) his followers that he almost ran away—and actually does run away— when the country he is mandated to rule gets hot?

Buhari won election precisely because the country was in a terrible shape and people thought he truly meant it when he said he would turn things around if he was given the chance to rule again. If the country wasn’t as bad as it was in 2015, he wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in hell of defeating an incumbent. That was why he lost against Obasanjo in 2003, against the late Yar’adua in 2007, and against Jonathan in 2011.

To have expected that he wouldn’t contend with the depth of the rot he interminably whines about betrays a sad, embarrassing, and disquieting naivety that shows that he isn’t worthy of his mandate. He was elected to solve problems, not just to enjoy the perks, power, and privileges of the presidency.

Does the president, perhaps, imagine that the presidency is some sort of a retirement gift to him? Or that he is doing the nation a favor by agreeing to be a president—a weak, bumbling, divisive, ineffective president?

Sunday, September 3, 2017

When and How to Use “in” and “on” in Some Fixed Expressions

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

Several readers have asked me to give them some guidance on when it is proper to use the locational prepositions “in” and “on” in certain fixed expressions. They asked to know the difference between “in bed” and “on the bed,” between “in the train” and “on the train,” between “in the street” and “on the street,” between “in the bus” and “on the bus,” between "on the airplane" and "in the airplane," etc. This week’s column answers these questions.



1. “In bed” versus “on the bed.”  “In bed” is the conventional expression in Standard English to indicate that one is sleeping or is about to sleep, as in, “By 8:30 p.m. all the children should be in bed.”  The expression can also mean sexual activity, as in, “He is good in bed.”  “On the bed,” on the other hand, merely indicates one’s location in relation to a bed. For instance, someone can sit “on the bed” or “lie on the bed,” which merely indicates the person’s position on the bed. It doesn’t convey the sense that the person is sleeping or is about to sleep.

 In sum, use “in bed” for sleeping and sexual activity and “on the bed” to convey the sense of being on top of the blankets of a bed— with no intention to sleep.

2. “In the street” versus “on the street.” The difference between “in the street” and “on the street” isn’t as straightforward as that between “in bed” and “on the bed.” Many native speakers interchange the expressions. But here is what the sensitive user of the language needs to know.

“In the street” is an older, more established expression than “on the street” when reference is to the roads and public places of a village, town, or city in the abstract sense, as in, “I like to go for a walk in the street every weekend.” In this example, “street” isn’t specific to any identifiable public road. “On the street” tends to be appropriate for occasions when the specific location of a street is important, as in, “we live on the same street.” Here, the street is identifiable and known.

The truth, though, is that in modern usage, both expressions can be, and often are, used in place of the other. My own preference is “in the street.”  

How about the idiom “man in the street” to represent the hypothetical everyday person who is a non-expert? Should it be “man on the street”? Well, both expressions are now usually interchanged in popular usage, and there is no reason to chafe at this. In fact, many prestigious dictionaries acknowledge the interchangeability of the expressions. It helps to know, though, that “man in the street” is the older form of the expression, and current usage still prefers it to “man on the street.”  A search on Google brought nearly 1.5 billion hits for “man in the street” but only 547 million hits for “man on the street.” 

However, evidence from the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows strong regional and dialectal variations in the use of these expressions.  “Man in the street” enjoys more popularity and acceptance than “man on the street” in British English. I found only 5 hits for “man on the street” in the British National Corpus. Of the five hits, only one usage is idiomatic. The only other idiomatic usage puts it in quotation marks and makes it clear that it’s an American usage (“I wish a prominent member of the American print media would present an open unbiased, informative ‘Man on the street’ issue, such as you did.”) The three other uses refer to a man on a specific street.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English shows a preference for “man on the street” but not by the wide margin we saw between “man in the street” and “man on the street” in the British National Corpus. It seems safe to say that “man on the street” first appeared in American English, and hasn’t quite become popular yet in British English.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says the first recorded use of “man in the street” to mean the ordinary person dates back to 1831. “Man on the street,” on the hand, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary says, dates back only to 1926.

It is also important to note that “on the streets” (note the plural) means being homeless (as in, “if you don’t pay your rent you will be on the streets”) or working as a prostitute (as in, “The government should devise policies to protect the girls on the streets in our cities”).

“In the street” (note that there is no plural) can also mean “without a job, unemployed,” especially in American English, as in, “After she lost her job at the ministry she was on the street for three years.” The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary says this idiom is attested from the “first half of 1900s.”

3. “On the train” versus “in the train.” When you’re traveling by means of a train, you say you’re “on the train.” That’s the fixed, conventional expression to use in all native varieties of English. Being “in the train” indicates your position in relation to the train (that is, that you’re inside it), not the fact of your traveling by it. 

Note that this is different from the idiomatic expression “in the train of,” which is synonymous with “in the wake of,” as in, “many people were rendered homeless in the train of the massive flood.” Also note that “in train” is another fixed phrase that means “well-organized” or “in progress,” as in, “The report of the recently concluded national conference is in train.”

In short, in transportational contexts “on the train” is the preferred expression. 

4. “On the bus” versus “in the bus.” The usage rules here are similar to the preceding one. It should be “on the bus” when you use the expression in a transportational context. “In the bus” is never appropriate when used in relation to transport. It may be used to show position such as being inside the bus.

You also you get “on an airplane,” not “in an airplane.” The same rule applies to bicycle. You ride “on a bicycle.”

5. “In the car” versus “on the car.” Here the rule is reversed. You are “in a car” if you’re traveling by car. When you’re “on a car” it means you’re on top of it. You also get “in a taxi,” not “on a taxi.”

A good way to help the reader remember when it’s appropriate to use “in” or “on” in relation to a means of transportation is to note the prepositions we use to get out of the means of transportation. You get “out” of a car. So you get “in” it. You get “off” a train. So you get “on” it. We say “in and out” but “on and off.”

Some Thoughts on Prepositions                        
If this column isn’t very helpful in its differentiation of “on” and “in,” it’s because English prepositions are notoriously tricky and can’t seem arbitrary. You can’t master their usage by holding on to a universal syntactic logic. You just need to learn their usage through reading good books and articles or by listening to the speech patterns of native speakers. 

In some cases, prepositional usage can be fluid, permissive, and inflected by dialectal choices (such as is the case with “in the street” and “on the street”), but in other contexts their usage is fixed in meaning and context (such as in the use of “on” or “in” in relation to transportational activities).

Saturday, September 2, 2017

JAMB’s Mediocre Cutoff: An Unconventional View

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

The Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) recently reduced the cutoff for its standardized admissions test for entry into Nigerian universities from the 40th percentile to the 30th percentile, and everyone is getting hot under the collar.

While I share the philosophical anxieties of people who say JAMB’s reduced cutoff (which is basically a failing grade by every national educational standard) rewards mediocrity, I disagree that UTME scores are sufficient predictors of success in undergraduate education. In other words, a lower cutoff isn’t necessarily indicative of a lower standard of education. As I will show shortly, there is absolutely no relationship between quality of undergraduate of education and scores in standardized admissions tests. In any case, JAMB says its cutoff is only a recommendation, which universities are at liberty to pass up.

Study after study in the United States and elsewhere has shown that standardized tests—such as the Unified Tertiary Matriculations Examination (UTME), equivalent to America’s SAT (Scholarship Aptitude Test) and ACT (American College Testing)—are not accurate indicators of academic preparedness for undergraduate education.

A large-scale 2014 study in the US, for instance, found that high school grades (equivalent in some sense to our WAEC or NECO exam results, assuming they are legitimately earned and not the product of cheating) are better predictors of success in undergraduate education than standardized college entrance tests, such as the SAT and ACT. “The study -- involving 123,000 students at 33 colleges and universities of varying types -- found that high school grades do predict student success,” Inside Higher Ed, one of America’s preeminent news sources for higher education reported on February 19, 2014. “And this extends to those who do better or worse than expected on standardized exams. So those students with low high school grades but high test scores generally receive low college grades, while those with high grades in high school, but low test scores, generally receive high grades in college.”

This finding isn’t unique to the United States. Several other studies elsewhere have affirmed that standardized tests for entry into schools aren’t always accurate gauges of academic achievement and aptitude. They are usually merely a measure of performance on the test itself, or of aptitude in test-taking, and nothing more.

That is why nearly 1,000 universities and colleges in the United States don’t require SAT and ACT scores for university admission. In the UK, only a small number of universities require subject-specific standardized admissions tests, usually for courses such as mathematics, English literature, law, and medicine. Most universities accept results from “A” level exams and school leaving certificate exams.

I am not by any means advocating the discontinuance of the UTME, although nothing would be lost if it’s discontinued. Nor am I suggesting that there is no link whatsoever between performance in the UTME and academic preparation. Of course, many smart people do well in standardized tests, including the UTME, but many other smart people don’t. It’s unfair to, as we do in Nigeria, institute the UTME as the only valid criterion for admission into higher education institutions. In other words, no one should lose a place in university solely because they performed poorly in the UTME, especially if they have excellent WAEC/NECO result. That’s my understanding of the spirit of the new JAMB cutoff.

I know of scores of people who did poorly in UTME (which used to be called UME) but graduated with high honors and went ahead to succeed in the “real world.” And that’s what really matters in the end.

Admission into universities should be judged by a composite of criteria of which UTME scores should just be one. WAEC or NECO results, essays, letters of recommendations from former teachers, and UTME scores should be equally weighted in admission decisions. A candidate who, for instance, has 8 A1s, a thoughtful, well-written admission essay, great recommendations from former teachers but a weak UTME score should be put on a par with a candidate who has a stellar UTME score, a mediocre but acceptable WAEC or NECO result, great recommendations from former teachers, and an insightful, well-written admission essay. And so on.

My point is that the current system for admitting students into universities in Nigeria is broken and is in desperate need of some radical reform.  It’s a system that suppresses talents, denaturalizes genuine educational pursuit, and overemphasizes the importance of a lone standardized, possibly defective, test.

I am aware that the Ministry of Education has recently countenanced the re-introduction of so-called post-UTME tests. But it’s an extortionate scam. Everyone knows this. You can’t revalidate one standardized test with another arbitrary standardized test. There is nowhere in the world that happens. As many people have pointed out, the post-UTME exams are little more than opportunities for universities to swindle students and parents. Insist that universities remit all the money they make from the tests to federal coffers, and I bet you that they would stop the tests.

If universities are truly interested in winnowing qualified candidates from a long list of applicants, they should start the process of constituting admission committees composed of both lecturers and staff from the registrar’s offices of higher ed. institutions. The committees, which should be recomposed every admission cycle, should draw up criteria for admitting students.

A good starting point is to consider recommendation letters and admission essays, maybe even interviews for courses that require it, in addition to WAEC/NECO results and UTME scores. Each criterion should be weighted.

I know this seems cumbersome and time-consuming. And, given our almost compulsive propensity for fraud in Nigeria, there is a potential that admission committees could become rackets to rip off parents and students. But this is already happening. The admission formula recommended by JAMB (which reserves quotas for merit, catchment area, educationally less developed states, and university discretion) is hardly followed.

What are the chances that admission committees would work or, worse, that insisting on a composite of criteria for admission won’t open the floodgates to all sorts of chicanery?

These are legitimate concerns, but the current system that stymies promising students who do poorly in UTME tests, even if they do well in their school leaving certificate exams, is worse than my recommendation.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Garba Shehu, Presidential Villa Rodents and Bad PR

By Farooq A. Kperogi, PhD.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

People who know that presidential spokesman Malam Garba Shehu was my undergraduate journalism teacher never fail to email, call, or text me each time his media interventions on behalf of the president ignite a PR storm—such as now. I guess it’s because I’ve stated many times here that he was my most influential journalism teacher.

Malam Garba is being severely roasted and chewed up by everyone—Buhari supporters and critics alike— for saying the president is working from home because “rodents have caused a lot of damage to the furniture and the air conditioning units” in his office.

One particularly saucy email I received on Wednesday said, “Someone as intelligent as the person you’ve portrayed in your columns shouldn’t tell a lie this dumb.” That’s a little too harsh, but I understand the sentiment that informed this angst.

There is no doubt that Malam Garba is one of Nigeria’s finest journalists and reputation managers. You need to know him in his pre-Buhari days to appreciate this.  Armed with a BA from Bayero University, Kano, and an MA from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, he rose through the ranks and became everything that anybody would ever want to become in Nigerian journalism.

He was Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of a newspaper, president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, an adjunct journalism instructor who trained generations of journalists and journalism professors in Nigeria and abroad, and so on. He also famously managed former Vice President Atiku Abubakar’s media relations with the polish, sophistication, and confident panache of a consummate, accomplished communicator.

So what happened? Why has his performance as spokesman of President Buhari been such a damp squib, as the British would put it?

Before I offer my opinion, I want to make it clear that, as a personal philosophy and in order not to compromise my independence, I usually keep my distance from friends and acquaintances who have been thrust into positions of political power. So I haven’t been in touch with Malam Garba since he became President Buhari’s spokesperson. I imagine that my disappointment with the Buhari administration, which is evidenced in my stinging censures of the government, must be a source of worry to him.

To his credit, the only times he ever communicated with me since becoming the president’s spokesman was, first, to acknowledge my congratulatory message to him and, second, to ask me to connect him with Dr. Bennet Omalu, the celebrated Nigerian-born American forensic pathologist, about whom I wrote in my December 26, 2015 column titled,“Bennet Omalu: A Nigerian-American Hero Nigerians at Home Don’t Know About.”

So this column is informed only by my intuition about what I think is going on. There are at least two reasons why current presidential media communication, overseen by Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, has been remarkably subpar so far.

First, it’s obvious that both Adesina and Shehu don’t have a robust, direct access to the president. Directives don’t seem to always come directly from the president to his media aides. It’s usually, it would appear, from the president to a tortuous labyrinth of surrogates before it gets to the media team. Most of the times, it’s actually influential people connected—or thought to be connected—to the president who dictate what the presidential media team says to the public.

 I recall an incident in late 2015 that left me in no doubt that the president’s media team members don’t enjoy the respect usually accorded to presidential spokespeople. I was having an argument with someone close to the Buhari presidency over something, and he suddenly said, “I will tell the president’s media team to issue a statement to clarify this.” A few hours later, a statement was issued expressing the exact sentiments of my interlocutor who isn’t even officially a part of the government. That blew me away.

So, basically, the presidential spokespeople are mere errand boys of Buhari’s shadowy surrogates and a motley crowd of official, semi-official, and unofficial power brokers who pull the levers of power in the presidency.

No public relations person, however smart he might be, can function optimally in the kind of politically toxic and factious environment that the Buhari presidency exemplifies. Communication scholars teach their students that public relations is a “management function.” That’s why most American PR practitioners insist that they have untrammeled access to the CEO of any organization they are a part of. In the Buhari presidency, PR isn’t a “management function.”

When PR people have no direct, unhindered access to their principal and are left to divine the motives of their principal’s actions and inactions, you can’t avoid the kinds of irremediable PR cataclysms we’ve been witnessing these past two years. Recall how Femi Adesina exulted in giddy, child-like excitement when he received a call from President Buhari from London in February 2017. There is no clearer evidence of the vast disconnect between the president and his media team than that incident.

It’s clear that President Buhari has nothing but disdain for the Nigerian news media—and, of course, the Nigerian public—which is instantiated by the fact that he would rather speak to foreign media organizations than speak to Nigerian journalists. Even when he was healthy and vibrant, he had only one presidential media chat—the worst record since 1999.

So when the president’s spokespeople are pressured to explain his policies, they are often caught flat-footed, or forced to regurgitate the asinine, unprofessional prevarications of the dolts who surround the president. I won’t be surprised if the presidential rodent explanation was whispered to Malam Garba by some low-IQ presidential surrogate.

I say this because I know Garba Shehu. He is infinitely more intelligent than his current performance suggests. This is no instinctual defense of a former teacher by his adoring former student. Anyone who knows me would tell you I am not given to such fawning sentimentality.

The second reason Buhari’s media team is floundering is that the very foundation of the government it seeks project positively is wobbly at best. It is founded on lies and deceit, as I’ve pointed out here several times. There has been no more unprepared, disorganized, and duplicitous government in Nigeria’s recent memory than this. This fact changes everything. You can’t defend an edifice of lies with truth; the edifice would crumble and crush you. Lies attract more lies and require still more lies to sustain them.

A president who won’t lay bare what ails him, who won’t come clean on the tens of billions of naira of our national patrimony he is expending to take care of his health in a foreign land while thousands of people who voted him into office die of preventable diseases every day, who uses his health to blackmail the nation into tolerating and even celebrating his incompetence, and who evinces stone-cold disrespect for everyday people can’t be defended with anything other than fetid lies.

If I had a choice in the matter, I would have advised Malam Garba to resign to salvage what remains of his hard-earned reputation, but I also recognize that it’s easier said than done.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

“It’s you who are”: Q and A on Contentious Grammar Rules

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

Question:
A professor from the English Department at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) said the comma in "Thank you, sir" is optional.  Is there any explanation for this? And does its omission carry any semantic implications?

Answer:
He is wrong. Well, maybe it’s optional in Nigerian English (which is a problematic claim to make since Nigerian English isn’t formally codified), but it’s not in Standard English. “Thank you” is an example of what is called direct address in grammar, and direct address is ALWAYS set off by a comma. The rule, as a one grammarian put it, is: “Use commas to enclose nouns or pronouns or a noun phrase in direct address.”


To omit a comma in a direct address is sloppy, even uneducated. So it should be, “Happy birthday, son”; “I hate it, man”; “You are welcome, ladies and gentlemen”; “Goodbye, Adam”; and so on. The rule is the same even if the noun or pronoun that is being addressed appears at the beginning or middle of the sentence. Examples: “Sir, thank you for honoring my invitation.” “You, sir, are wonderful.”

Although texting and the fast-paced rhythm of internet communication are causing people, especially teenagers, to dispense with commas, it is still considered unconventional to omit commas in direct address. The major reason the omission of comma in direct address is looked disapprovingly upon by grammarians is that it can seem cause semantic miscues. There is a difference between “I hate her, man” and “I hate her man.” The former is an address directed to a “man” and the latter is not.

Question:
I came across this question while planning to test my students on grammar. All my search for the correct answer proved abortive. Here is the question: “It is you who........... (is, are, was) wrong. Kindly help with the answer and the explanation for the answer.

Answer:
The correct answer is “are,” that is, “It is you who are wrong.” I know this sounds odd and unnatural. But here is why it is the correct answer. If we restate the sentence in its simplest form, it would be, “You are wrong.” “You is wrong” is clearly nonstandard. So is “You was wrong.” (Note that this is perfectly acceptable in a few nonstandard native English varieties such as African-American Vernacular English or Ebonics).

The “who” in the sentence is a relative pronoun whose antecedent is “you,” that is, “who” in the sentence refers to “you.” Now, the correct conjugation verb for the pronoun “you” is “are.” This rule doesn’t change even if “you” is used in a singular sense. That’s why we say, “You ARE a great guy,” not “You IS a great guy.”

It is the same rule with the pronoun “I.” So it is, “It is I who am wrong,” not “It is I who is wrong” because if you break the sentence down to its simplest form, it would be, “I am wrong,” not “I is wrong.”

Note, however, that I am talking here of the conventions of formal grammar. In informal, conversational English even native speakers routinely break this rule. You are unlikely to find an everyday native English speaker say “It is who are wrong” or “It is I who am wrong” unless they want to show off their mastery of “proper” English grammar.

But it’s good to be aware of the formal rule because in exam questions only the codified, formal rule would be considered correct.

Question:
Nigerian grammarians condemn 'welcome address' as wrong English and recommend 'an address of welcome' in its place, but my Google search shows that native speakers use the former more than the latter. Which one is correct?

Answer:
Both expressions are grammatically correct. My own Google search also turned up more hits for “welcome address” than for “address of welcome.” Most of the people around me here in the United States say “welcome address.”

If you’re right that Nigerian grammarians frown upon “welcome address,” they’re probably misled into thinking that a noun can’t modify another noun. I find this sentiment to be widespread in Nigerian grammar circles. But it’s a misguided sentiment.

In a July 16, 2017 response to a question on whether nouns can qualify other nouns, I wrote the following:

“Well, it isn’t only adjectives that qualify nouns. Nouns can also sometimes qualify other nouns. Grammarians call such nouns ‘attributive nouns.’ They are also called ‘noun (pre)modifiers’ or ‘noun adjuncts.’ In the expression ‘paper plate,’ for example, ‘paper,’ which is a noun, qualifies ‘plate,’ another noun. In the expression ‘goat meat,’ goat modifies meat even though both words are nouns.

“All natural languages give users wide expressive latitudes. Some people prefer to use adjectives to modify nouns; others prefer attributive nouns to adjectives. Both are permissible. In some instances, however, stylistic choices are circumscribed by considerations of idiomaticity. By this I mean that some expressions are simply fixed and deviations from the fixed form sound unnatural. For instance, it’s more natural to say ‘finance minister’ than to say ‘financial minister,’ even though ‘finance’ and ‘minister’ are both nouns—and ‘financial minister’ isn’t grammatically wrong, just unidiomatic. But both ‘technological transfer’ and ‘technology transfer’ are acceptable and often used interchangeably, as are ‘agricultural transfer’ and ‘agriculture transfer’.”

Question:
My question is on the omission of the definite article before some singular common nouns and after 'as', e.g. 1. He is captain. 2. He is king. 3. He is elected as chairman. Are those sentences correct? If yes, why is it that the articles are omitted before the nouns: captain, king, and chairman?

Answer:
Articles are tricky in the English language. That’s why I can’t do justice to your question in this limited space.  I will only say this for now:  “captain” and “king” should be preceded by either a definite article (i.e., “the”) or an indefinite article (i.e., “a” or “an”). So “he is a captain” would mean he is one of several captains, while “he is the captain” would mean he is the one and only person known by that title in a specific area. Same rule applies to “king.”

 In the third example, the sentence should be “he was elected chairman.” Chairman is not preceded by an article here because the sense is non-specific. Also note that I omitted “as” in the sentence. Other examples: “He was elected president.” “He was appointed commissioner,” etc.

Question:
When I watch American soaps, they seem to not care about tenses. Or maybe it’s something beyond me—I don’t know. For instance, a typical dialogue goes like this: “Daughter: 'dad, do you snore ‘cause I do. Dad: 'yeah you GET that from me'.” Should not the “get” be GOT? Could you clarify this for me, please?

Answer:

Well, it's not true that Americans don't care about tenses. They do. The example of the use of present tense in the dialogue you cited is called the “historical present” in grammar. It's perfectly legitimate even in British English. It functions to make a past event seem more vivid, or to signal continuity between the past and the present. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

America’s South is Like Nigeria’s North and Vice Versa

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

It is all too easy to look at the United States and be led to suppose that it is impervious to internal divisions because it prefixes the adjective “united” to its name.

Many people think it is immune from the regional rivalries that we associate with our interminably feuding societies. Even though the regional divide in America is decidedly less contentious than ours, there are nonetheless strong, if subdued, provincial jealousies between the American North and the American South that have been bubbling to the surface in the last few years.

The more I get to know about this, the more I find parallels between America and Nigeria. The first indication I got of how the North and the South perceive each other as two separate nations within a country was when, in 2005, I informed an American friend I met at Columbia University in New York, sometime in 2003, that I was now in Louisiana.

He asked how I was adjusting to life in Louisiana. I told him I was still learning to come to terms with many culture shocks. His response took me by surprise. He said, “I understand how you feel. I also suffer from culture shocks each time I visit Louisiana.” He said he finds the people in Louisiana and the South “weird,” and that they all “talk funny.”

This didn’t make much sense to me. The notion of America I had come here with was of a country that had no noticeable internal differences. I had a concept of America as a country where sub-national identities were so fluid and so flexible that a New Yorker could go to Texas, for instance, and not only be a citizen, but stand the chance of being elected governor of the state, and vice versa. In short, I had thought that in America, there were no “natives” or, as we say it in Nigeria, no indigenes; only citizens.

Why would an American, a white American at that, speak so disdainfully of another part of his country, and even go so as far as to say that he experiences culture shocks when he visits it? I soon found out that he was echoing the mutual contempt and distrust in which Northerners and Southerners in the United States hold each other.

Sometime in 2005, a friend in Louisiana was watching a sports channel but suddenly turned off his TV because, “It’s just a bunch of northern teams! I have no time watching fu****g Yankees.”
That outburst also caught me off guard. First, I used to associate the word “Yankee” with Americans in general. In fact, non-Americans usually interchange “American” with “Yankee” without the slightest hint that they are wrong. At first, it didn’t make any sense to me for an American—again, a white American— to deride another American as a “fu****g Yankee.” I emphasize the racial identity of Americans because Blacks generally tend to be less enthusiastic about their American citizenship than Whites.

Well, I learned that day that “Yankee” actually refers only to an American Northerner. American Southerners don’t call themselves Yankees; in fact, some of them take serious exceptions to, sometimes outright umbrage at, being called Yankees. However, the Northerners proudly wear that label. The word usually associated with the South is “Dixie.”

But what states constitute the South and North of the United States? Well, this is a tricky question. There is no universally accepted delineation of the South and the North. It is a shifty identity. However, it is usual to define the South to include 16 states: Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Oklahoma.

The 19 states usually considered Northern states are Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.

In reality, however, such states as Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Missouri, and Kansas don’t easily fit into the North/South divide. Citizens of these states sometimes identify themselves in mutually exclusive regional labels. I have, for instance, two friends from Maryland, and while one calls himself a Southerner, the other calls himself a Northerner. Similarly, people in southern Virginia call themselves Southerners, but it is not unusual for people in northern Virginia to regard themselves as Northerners.

The reason for this ambiguity is that, like in Nigeria, regional identity is not just a cold cartographic expression; it is also a socio-cultural, historical, and geo-political identity that sometimes mocks geography. Just like the Rivers Niger and Benue appear to be the dividing lines between the North and the South in Nigeria, the American North and South are divided by what is called the Mason-Dixon Line. It was, still is, the symbolic dividing line between the North and the South around Virginia and Pennsylvania before the American Civil War.

In many ways, it is like Rivers Niger and Benue in terms of symbolic significance. Such states as Benue, Taraba, etc., for instance, would be regarded as eastern by a cartographer’s unaided imagination, just like Kwara, Kogi and parts of Niger would be considered western. However, these states are both notionally and geo-politically in the North.

The equivalents of that in the United States are states like Maryland and Virginia, which are geographically in the North but are geo-politically in the South. In fact, Virginia used to be the political and military headquarters of the South during the American Civil War.

In many significant respects, the American South reminds me of Northern Nigeria (with a few obvious exceptions) while the American North reminds me of the Nigerian South. In size, the American South, like Northern Nigeria, is a geographical behemoth, while the North, also called New England states, is a comparatively small geographical space. (I have heard the joke several times here that a ranch in Texas is many times bigger than the state of Rhode Island).

Again, like Northern Nigeria, the American South is noticeably religious, culturally conservative, and emotionally attached to its socio-historical identity. The North, on the other hand, like the Nigerian South, is more urban, culturally liberal, and less attached to prefixed cultural values.

In the American South, the weather and the people tend to be warm—literally and figuratively. The North, on the other hand, is the opposite. Not only is the weather cold; the people are also cold.

Politically, the South is savvier than the North. It has produced more presidents than any region, including nine of the first 12 presidents of the United States.

However, after enmeshing itself in a four-year devastating Civil War, which pitted it against the North, it did not produce a president for nearly 100 years until 1976. The rest of the country was reluctant to trust a Southerner with the presidency of the country after the Civil War. This reminds me of the fate of the Igbos. And that is where the American South’s main difference with Northern Nigerian comes in.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Hello Bello: How “Bello” Became Nigeria’s Most Ecumenical Name

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

This article has been in the works for months. Each week I decide to work on it, something more pressing that invites my commentary comes up. But I have bucked all temptations to abandon it this week.

Few people realize that “Bello” is Nigeria’s most universal “ethnic” name. Fewer still give a thought to how that came to be. By “ethnic” name, I mean a name that isn’t derived from universal religions like Christianity or Islam, which most Nigerians profess and practice, and that isn’t a Western ethnic name introduced to us through colonialism.

Bello is a Nigerian Fulani name that has, over the years, lost its ethnic rootedness. It is the only name that is borne either as a first name or a last name in all Nigerian geo-cultural groups, except in the former Eastern Region, that is, Igboland and southern minorities, minus Edo State (who doesn’t know the Bello-Osagie family?).

If we go by Nigeria’s contemporary geo-political categories, it’s only in the southeast and in the south-south (with the exception of Edo) that you may not find a native Bello. (There are three Bellos among Nigeria’s current governors, and at least one of them has no drop of Fulani blood in him). Essentially, of Nigeria’s 36 states, only 10 states don’t have a native Bello. No other “ethnic” name even comes close to this onomastic cosmopolitanism. (Onomastics is the study of names).

Sometime in 2000, as Weekly Trust’s news editor, our editor-in-chief, Malam Kabiru Yusuf, asked me to represent him at a World Bank-organized workshop in Ibadan for Nigerian newspaper editors. During the week-long workshop, I encountered a particularly visceral Fulani-phobic Lagos-based newspaper editor whose last name was “Bello.” In the course of one of our discussions, I pointed out to him that it was strangely ironic that he hated the Fulani so much even though he bore their ethnic name as his last name.

He was infuriated. He called me “ignorant” and said I was one of “these Nigerians” who couldn’t tell “Muslim names” and “Hausa-Fulani names” apart. The only way I could react to his outburst was to let out the uncontrollable guffaw that welled up in me, which both angered and embarrassed him.
“Let me tell you, young man,” he said matter-of-factly, “Bello is a Muslim name.” He added: “It’s my surname because, although I’m a Christian, my grandfather was a Muslim and was known as Bello.”

“Take this from the son of an Arabic teacher who learned to read and write in Arabic before he started primary school,” I said wryly, “Bello is neither an Arabic name nor a Muslim name.”

I pointed out to him that, unlike many languages, Arabic has only three dominant vowels (and a few minor ones), and “e” and “o,” which appear in “Bello,” are NOT one of Arabic’s vowels. Basically, I told him, you can’t even write “Bello” in Arabic without orthographic improvisation, such as ajami (as improvised Arabic script in non-Arab languages is called), which may be unrecognizable to Arabs.

He didn’t believe me. So I left him to stew in his own ignorance. I was pleasantly shocked when, the following day, he called me aside and apologized. “You were right; I was wrong,” he said. “I asked an alfa [as Islamic scholars are called in Yorubaland and elsewhere] and he confirmed that Bello isn’t an Arabic or Muslim name.” I don’t know how he reconciles his phobia for Fulani people and his onomastic association with them. The last time I checked, he hadn’t changed his name.

I share this anecdote to illustrate the onomastic universality of “Bello” in Nigeria. Although it’s an ethnic Fulani name, it’s now impossible to accurately guess the ethnic origins of the bearers of the name. If someone tells me his name is Tanko or Danjuma, for instance, I can guess that he is either ethnically Hausa or culturally Hausa. If someone tells me they are Toyin, I can guess that they are either Yoruba or from one of the Yoruba-influenced cultures in Edo, Kogi and surrounding areas. An Okoro is most definitely either Igbo or from the immediate cultural environs of the Igbo. An Onoja is either Idoma or Igala, etc.

Not so for Bello. A Bello could be native to any one of 26 states in Nigeria—except Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, Anambra, Abia, Imo, Ebonyi, and Enugu states. Most non-Fulani people who bear the name don’t even know it’s a Fulani name. And, although several Nigerians associate the name with Islam, many Christians and non-Muslims bear it, as my anecdote above shows.

So what does “Bello” mean and why has it become Nigeria’s most universal ethnic name? I asked several of my Fulani friends, and they are all united in saying that “Bello” is derived from the Fulfulde word for “helper.” The actual Fulfulde word is “ballo,” but it got corrupted to “Bello” over time, possibly first by Hausa speakers. Usman Dan Fodio famously named his son, who is the first (or second, if you consider Usman Dan Fodio as the first) Sultan of Sokoto “Ballo,” which later became “Bello.”

But it was probably Sir Ahmadu Bello’s choice to adopt Bello as his last name in honor of Sultan Muhammad Bello, his great grandfather, that helped extend the reach and appeal of the name beyond Nigeria’s northwest. (He used to be known as Ahmadu Rabah, after his natal town of Rabah near Sokoto).

In many parts of the North, particularly in Ilorin and environs, every Ahmadu or Ahmed used to be called “Bello,” leading southwest Yoruba people to derisively call every Ilorin man “a Bello.” It seems plausible that the proliferation of “Bello” in Yorubaland occurred by way of Ilorin alfas there.

Interestingly, non-Nigerian Fulani people (such as the Fulanis is Guinea, the only country where Fulanis enjoy a numerical majority) don’t recognize “Bello” as an authentic Fulani name. A Malian Fulani I met here in the US told me he didn’t know any Fulani in his country who bore that name. This didn’t surprise me because, as I stated earlier, “Bello” is the corruption of “Ballo.”

 That’s why non-Nigerian Fulanis, particularly in Mali, bear Ballo instead of Bello. There is, for instance, a young Malian basketballer by the name of Oumar Ballo who attracted the attention of the NBA because of his unusual height and frame. There is also a French footballer by the name of Fodé Ballo-Touré, who is obviously at least part Fulani.

But Bello is also a common last name in Italy, and it means “beautiful” or “handsome” in Romance languages such as Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, etc.  Of course, this is just a lexical accident. There is no relationship between the Nigerian Fulani Bello and the Bello in Romance languages.

Well, in this open season on the Fulani in Nigeria (as a result of the unending ravages of violent Bororo cattle herders), it helps to realize that the country’s most ecumenical name owes debt to them.

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Sunday, August 6, 2017

“Reason why,” “all right/alright,” “letterheaded paper”: Q and A on Nigerian English Usage

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

Question:
I wrote a letter to my boss and used the word “demand.” He got really angry. When I asked why, he said I sounded “entitled.” What’s wrong with saying you “demand” something? Isn’t it another way, a formal way, to say “ask for”?


Answer:
Your boss was right to feel indignant. “Demand” has an undertone of nagging urgency and petulant entitlement that can cause offense. When you “demand” something, you imply that the other party has no option but to comply or face untoward consequences.  That’s rude, especially if what’s being asked for is not a right. “Request” is a better, more polite formal word to use when you are asking for a favor. Instead of saying, “I demand compensation for the extra hours I spent at work last week,” try “I request compensation for the extra hours I spent at work last week,” or, better yet, “I would appreciate it if you would be kind enough to approve my request for compensation for the extra hours I spent at work last week.”

Your question recalls an eerily similar incident that happened in 2000 in Kaduna at Media Trust, the parent company of this newspaper for which I was a reporter and later news editor. In the aftermath of the devastation and uncertainty that attended the Sharia riots in the city, a few Weekly Trust reporters and non-editorial staff members managed to go to work—at great personal risks. When the upheaval in the city subsided and normalcy returned, the staff members who braved the odds to make it to the office wrote to the management to ask for compensation for showing up at work when no one else did.

In their letter to the Editor-In-Chief, who is one of the most sensitive and proficient users of the English language that I know, the staff members wrote something along the lines of, “we demand that we be compensated for….” That was it. As I recall, the EIC was initially disposed to compensating the staff—even if they didn’t formally request the favor—but he was ticked off by the impertinence that the word “demand” conveyed and spurned their request, playfully calling them “demanders.” I supported him.

Don’t “demand” for a privilege when you can simply request it. My sense is that our proneness to “demand” for, instead of “requesting, things is a holdover from our undergraduate days where youthful hotheadedness caused us to always “demand” for things from the school authorities. I see it all the time in the news releases of NGO activists (most of whom were student union activists) where governments are often given impotent ultimatums and “demanded” to implement policy recommendations. That language has no place in polite society.

 Question:
Is the phrase “the reason why” correct? Or should it just be “the reason”? Examples: Should I say “the reason why I left is…” or should it be “the reason I left is …” Thanks!!

Answer:
Both phrases are correct. However, historically, conservative semantic purists, particularly in Britain, have dismissed "the reason why" as tautological and redundant since both “reason” and “why” denote causation. People who object to the expression often call it “causational overkill.” However, “reason why” is considered perfectly correct in contemporary British and American English. All modern dictionaries and usage guides in both the UK and the US accept “the reason why” as a legitimate usage.

The objections of conservative grammarians to its usage have been, for all practical purposes, blunted. For instance, two leading British grammarians, Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, in their book Longman Guide to English Usage, noted that “Only very conservative writers object to ‘the reason why’.”

In America, almost no grammarian objects to “the reason why.” In fact, “The Reason Why” is the title of a 2010 album by an American musical group called Little Big Town. And there is a classic American military history book titled, The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade.

Nevertheless, somewhat similar causational phrases like “the reason was because” and “the reason was due to” are met with strong objection in most usage guides across the Atlantic (that is, in both the UK and North America). So instead of writing, “The reason he failed was because he was ill,” it is advised that you write, “The reason he failed was that he was ill.”

 I must add, however, that this objection seems arbitrary and churlish to me. “Reason why” and “reason was because” both exemplify causational overkill. Why one is preferred to the other is beyond me. But as I've said in my previous writings, grammar, especially English grammar, isn’t always governed by logic. It’s sometimes just the product of the arbitrary “commandments” of snooty prescriptivist grammarians or the tyranny of popular usage.

For my thoughts on why some tautologies are socially favored and others are socially disfavored, see my two-part series titled, “Between Useless and Useful Tautologies in English (I)” (June 2, 2013 and “Between Useless and Useful Tautologies in English (II)” (June 9, 2013).

Question:
Is “letter-headed paper” Standard English? A faithful reader of your column told me he once read in your column many years ago that it is not. I searched the web to find the column but couldn’t find it. Can you write about it again for the benefit of people who started following your column only recently?

Answer:
Sure. The usual word is “letterhead.” That’s what you find in most dictionaries. It’s often used as a noun, as in, “Print the recommendation on your company’s letterhead.” It is the short form of “letterheading” or “letter heading” (first attested in the 1800s), and it is so called because the name, address, and contact details of companies or people usually appear at the head, i.e., at the top, of the piece of paper.

I have never heard anyone in America say “letter-headed paper.” But I have found references to “letter-headed paper” in many British publications. So it’s obviously not nonstandard. Nor is it unique to Nigerian English speakers.

Interestingly, the adjectivization of letterhead to “letter-headed” (meaning “bearing a letterhead,” as in, “letter-headed paper”) started in American English, specifically in the Chicago Tribune, in the late nineteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. For some reason, most Americans no longer say “letter-headed paper”; only Brits and British English speakers like Nigerians do.

But “letterhead” is standard in both British English and American English. I personally prefer “letterhead” to “letter-headed paper.”

Question:
What is the difference between “alright” and “all right”? Or are they different spellings of the same word?

Answer:
In both British English and American English “alright” is considered an uneducated approximation of “all right.” For instance, The Associated Press Stylebook, considered the “bible” of American journalism, forbids the use of “alright” in news copy. Many prestigious British English usage guides also object to its use in serious writing.

 However, some grammarians (who are, for now, in the minority) argue that “alright” is a legitimate word that is not necessarily an illiterate approximation of “all right.” They contend that it is in the category of words like “already,” “almost” and “altogether.” Just as “already” (as in, “he is already here”) is different from “all ready” (as in, “they are all ready to go”); “almost” (as in, “it is almost interesting,” meaning it is nearly interesting) from “all most” (as in, “it is all most interesting,” meaning all of it is interesting); and  “altogether” (as in, “it is altogether different,” where “altogether” means “completely”) from “all together” (as in, “they sang all together,” meaning they sang all at the same time), the two spellings “alright” and “all right” are needed to mark a distinction between, “The children are all (i.e., all of them are) right in their answers” and “The answers are alright (i.e., they’re OK).”  This makes sense to me.

But since “alright” is met with disapproval by most grammarians in all the dominant varieties of the English language, I’d advise that you avoid it at least in formal writing. I predict, however, that in the next few years “alright” will enjoy the same respectability and acceptance as “almost,” “altogether,” and “already.”

Question:
It truly throws me off when continental Africans declare that they “hail from” Washington DC, for instance. “Born in,” “hail from”? I need clarification.

Answer:
"Hail from" can denote one of the following: 1. come from, 2. be native of, 3. be born in. That means you don’t necessarily have to be born in a place to hail from there, at least in American English. Recent immigrants “hail from” any part of America they are registered to vote. That means, in essence, that it's perfectly legitimate for naturalized African immigrants in, for instance, Washington D.C. to say they "hail from" that city whenever they are in America or are involved in America-specific conversations.

Of course, it would be absurd for them to say they hail from Washington D.C. when they are in Africa—or when they are outside the United States. But I’d much rather just say, “I am from Washington, DC.” “Hail from” sounds stilted and pretentious.

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