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Sunday, August 31, 2014

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

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


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.” 

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 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 to only 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, as in ‘After she lost her job at the ministry she was on the street for three years,’” especially in American English. 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 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).

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Re: Africa’s Rival to Harvard and Yale Universities?

Many readers were encouraged by the news of a forthcoming Africa-wide, multi-campus, technology-driven university that I wrote about last week, but they are leery of the university’s online-only, MOOCs-dependent instructional model. Please find below a sample of the responses that the column elicited.

This is a great initiative that is marred by short-sighted thinking, in my opinion.  The free online lessons from top American universities that Mr. Swaniker wants to parasitize to build his university was produced by the kind of “expensive faculty” that he wants to dispense with. Imagine for a moment that every university in the world adopts his model. Who will fund the free online courses? Of course, education will collapse. As you rightly cautioned in your article, you can’t build a world-class university system, especially one that hopes to outrival Harvard, on the “model of academic parasitism.” That was a great point you made. It seems to me that Mr. Swaniker and his team want to pursue a crude form of capitalism that seeks to reap profit without paying for labour. It is the value of labour that creates profit, as Karl Marx said. The MOOCs model may succeed for a moment, but it won’t last long. You can’t have a school without teachers. It’s like wanting to have a farm without farm hands to work the fields. Your crops will be destroyed by weed.

Having said that, I think the success that Mr. Swaniker has with his secondary school in South Africa proves that with just a little push and more imaginative planning, he can make a huge difference in university education in Africa. After I read your article, I Googled the man and found him to be really smart, forward-looking, entrepreneurial, and full of great, progressive ideas. Those are the kinds of men Africa needs right now. Thanks for another informative article.
Dele Tumori

Many of the intakes (the students) will require special lessons on how to access the online classes first. Again, I am afraid to say that online programs have yet to be widely accepted as genuine forms of education by many African government ministries, parastatals and other organisations that could offer jobs. Admittedly speaking, I have tried to join many online study programs, but I always rescind the decision due to fear of uncertainty; it might mean wasting my time and much resources.
Lastly, this proposed university may not be easily accessible to the poor students; or even if not poor, to those who cannot 'followup' their applications for admission. I am a witness to a similar incident. The present governor of Imo state, Rochas Okorocha established schools across Nigeria, under Rochas Foundation. The schools are supposedly meant for bright students from poor families. Many a times, students, no matter how bright, fail to make it to the schools for not having 'someone' to help them secure a place.
Muhsin Ibrahim

Despite the fact that American billionaires like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet and Mark Zuckerberg are famous for immersing themselves in conspicuous consumption, but this does not bar them from channeling their wealth into human capital in order to make our world a better place. So they spend billions of dollars each year to fund and upgrade  American education. I am now happy to realise that African businessmen are beginning to take a cue from the Americans in funding the educational sector of our already-fragile universities! Big trees from little acorns grow, it will only be a matter of time before the universities rival them.
Aliyu Bashir Almusawi

Mhm! We pray that it will be completed within the shortest possible time. I am also warning the proprietor not to include Nigerian government in the makings.
Kabiru Umar Gumel

Your article is quite interesting and for a brief moment I wanted to praise the effort of the initiator of this project. But like you pointed out, I also have my misgivings on the instructional model. Just hoping that this guys are not out to exploit Africans.
Aminu Isa

A great university for Africa, yes. It may even wind up being the best on the continent. A real rival to Harvard/Yale/Stanford? Maybe, with focus and a small miracle.
Hassan Alhaji

Thanks. I had once debated this obvious 'exaggeration' of MOOCs with a younger friend. And, as you rightly pointed, it is meant to supplement the traditional varsity classroom model. Hence, any attempt to make it a substitute will always be utopian. If the Ivy leagues have made theirs 100% MOOCs, where will the dreaming Africa's Yale get his hope from?
Ayobami Akanmu


This is a big dream without a good foundation. The founder should have commissioned a study to find out what makes Yale and Harvard universities great, then build the ideals of the dream on that, instead of basing the foundation of investment of this magnitude on his perception and that of Zineb who might be a special fellow.
Obinna Umeh

Entry points are seldom ending points. The MOOC model will be a more pragmatic approach to begin with. As the school grows, they can evolve to provide students with the best model, which will probably be a mix of traditional/MOOC. 
Tomi Walker

I think Fred Swaniker needs to read this thoughtful piece. I sent him a link via his Facebook page.
Jide Babalola

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Africa’s Rival to Harvard and Yale Universities?

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


I read a story on the website of a South African newspaper called Business Day Live about an upcoming, multi-campus, technology-driven African university that is touted to be “Africa’s rival to Harvard” and Yale universities. As a US-based university teacher who hopes to return to the continent someday to give back to the community, the story piqued my curiosity.

The proposed university, which will start next year in Mauritius, is the brainchild of a consortium of 25 Pan-African universities, and is being funded by several corporate giants on the African continent such as Coca-Cola, IBM, Boston Consulting Group, Standard Chartered Bank, Equity Bank Kenya, etc.  No Nigerian corporation is mentioned in the story as a sponsor of the proposed university, but Nigeria is one of the four other countries where the university’s campus will be located.  The other countries are Kenya, South Africa, and Morocco.


I thought the spread of the campuses was thoughtful. The Nigerian campus will cater to students from the West African sub region.  The Kenyan campus will be the hub for East Africans.  The South African campus will attract students from Southern Africa, while the Moroccan campus will serve students in North Africa.  The Mauritius campus is strategic because students from the Indian Ocean islands of Seychelles, Madagascar, Comoros, and Reunion, who are often disaffiliated from the rest of the continent, will have a chance to enroll in the school.

  It will cost $100 million to build each of the 5 universities, which are projected to enroll 10,000 students each at a time.

The initiative was birthed by the African Leadership Unleashed, which was founded by a Ghanaian-born, Stanford University-educated entrepreneur by the name of Fred Swaniker. Swanker, who lives in South Africa, co-founded a Johannesburg-based  secondary school called the African Leadership Academy (ALA), which trains bright but poor students from all over Africa and helps place them in America’s Ivy League universities. Business Day Live says “more than 80 percent” of the high school’s graduates get placements in America’s elite universities every year.

That’s certainly impressive by any standard. But Swaniker says it’s time for Africa to have its own Harvard and Yale so that talented high school graduates don’t have to leave the continent to realize their dreams. When this project takes off, ALA’s students would no longer need to go to Harvard or Yale after their secondary school education; their Harvard or Yale will be on the African continent. The assumption is, if talented Africans get world-class education on the African continent, along with well-paying jobs upon graduation, they are unlikely to flee to America and Europe as economic refugees.

But the university that is being proposed isn’t a traditional one. Its instructional model will largely be online. Swaniker says he derived inspirational strength to discard traditional models of instruction from of the success that the African Leadership Academy achieved teaching computer science to its students in 2012 through technology and peer instruction. The school, he said, decided to encourage students to download a free, open-access online course in computer science from Stanford University. (These free online courses are called Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs.) The students guided and aided each other through the free online course.

“Within a few weeks, these students were learning how to write computer programs, completely independent of a ‘live’ teacher! Fast forward to sometime in March 2013. I was sitting with one of our students, a young woman from Morocco called Zineb. Not knowing which classes she was taking, I asked her what her favorite class at ALA that term was. Without hesitation, she said “my computer science class!” How is that possible, I thought?—that’s the one without the live teacher! She said, yes—that was her favorite class at ALA. I asked her how she rated the previous class with the ‘live’ teacher – before we started this new method. She rated it a 6 out of 10. I asked how she rated the online, group class she had taken. She rated it 9.5 out of 10. That just blew me away,” Swaniker wrote on the website of African Leadership Unleashed.

He wants to replicate the success of his experiment on a multi-campus, Africa-wide university level. “We want to completely reinvent what universities look like. Building universities on the old model, with expensive faculty, will take too long,” Swaniker told the South African Business Day Live.
And this is where I have a slight problem with this project. First, you can’t claim to want to be Harvard’s rival when you will just be a glamorous moocher of other people’s MOOCs. (A moocher is someone who begs for free stuff from others).  A school founded on a model of academic parasitism won’t go too far.

Second, the instructional model of the school severely imposes limits on the kinds of courses it can offer. For instance, you can’t teach medicine, engineering, pharmacy, etc.—professions Africa needs to develop— through an online-only instructional model. Even the inventors of MOOCs never fail to remind us that online education is a supplement to, not a substitute for, classroom education. I am skeptical that an ambitious university such as the one ALU is proposing to build, can rely entirely on an online-only model of education. Maybe I am biased because I am a brick-and-mortar university teacher.

ALU’s university may yet succeed in unleashing some of Africa’s potential, but it has no potential to be in league with America’s Ivy Leagues. Certainly not with its newfangled, parasitic pedagogical model.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Understanding How the Salt-and-Water Ebola Cure Hoax Spread in Nigeria

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


As a communication and new media scholar, I’m intrigued by how a silly, infantile Internet joke about a salt-and-warm-water home remedy for Ebola not only spread with unprecedentedly wild rapidity across the length and breadth of Nigeria but almost literally gulled the entire nation.

The prank was started on August 7, 2014 by a female undergraduate of the Federal University of Technology, Akure, identified simply as Adesewa. In an apology she posted on August 8, 2014 on a Nigerian online discussion forum called Nairaland.com, she said amid the mass hysteria that attended the outbreak of Ebola in Nigeria she and her friends decided to hatch a hoax about a cure for Ebola and watch how many people would fall for it within their circle of friends in the Blackberry Messenger community.


Her confession is worth reproducing in its entirety:  “Yesterday I was with [a] friend in her hostel, we were talking about this Ebola outbreak, when one of my friends, Funke (she introduced me to Nairaland) brought the idea of us playing a prank on our friends. The first suggestion was to tell people that aloe [vera] could cure Ebola, but we thought it would sound too ridiculous so we forgot about it.

“Later that [evening] an idea came to me (I now regret that I did it). I decided to send a BBM [Blackberry Messenger] broadcast message to my friends, telling them that the Ministry of Health has asked everyone to bathe with salt and warm water and drink some of it. I sent the message 7:08pm yesterday

“Later this midnight I started getting calls and messages that I should drink salt water and bath with it.

“All efforts to tell people that I was the one who started the joke failed. Only my friends who I mentioned earlier believed me. Even my mum [called] me this morning; I did not know what to tell her.

“I am using this medium to beg you all to warn and tell everyone, before they drink salt and damage their health.

“Please don’t be hash [sic] on me. I know this has gone out of hand. I never knew it will be this serious. Some have even added to the original message I sent.”

This was an undoubtedly irresponsible joke that exploited people’s panic and helplessness about a strange and deadly disease. In moments of disabling anxiety and panic, people’s credulity is often easily malleable. News reports say that in Jos, the Plateau State capital, two people died and 20 others were hospitalized as a consequence of excessive salt intake. That’s heartbreaking. But in today’s article I am not as concerned with the ethical impropriety of this cruel joke as I am with the mechanism of its wildly rapid spread.


In the wake of the wide and deep percolation of this prank in almost every crevice of the Nigerian society through social media networks and words of mouth, several students and teachers of mass communication in Nigeria commented that the success of the joke proves that the hypodermic needle theory—an old, discredited communication theory that assumed that the mass media were more or less like social syringes that were capable of injecting intended messages into helpless, unresisting audiences with immediate and dramatic effects—was well and alive. That’s wrong. And here is why.

The hypodermic needle theory assumed that the influence of mass media messages on receivers resulted from a direct, unmediated access to the messages. But this wasn’t what happened in Nigeria. The millions of Nigerians who bathed in and drank warm salt water didn’t read Adesawa’s initial message directly. If they did, they might have dismissed it outright given that, by herself, she has no credibility; she is a mere 20-something-year-old undergraduate who isn’t even a medical student.

Her prank was effective because it (unintentionally) got into the hands of several gullible, unsophisticated opinion leaders who nonetheless enjoy social capital among vast networks of people. There is an old communication theory that explains how this works. The theory, called the two-step flow theory of communication or the multi-step flow theory of communication, says that media influence on receivers isn’t always direct; that media messages often first flow to opinion leaders who in turn use their conversational currency to influence people who look up to them for information and guidance.

The theory had been criticized in the past for lacking empirical corroboration, but the form and nature of “virality” on the Internet is causing communication scholars to rehabilitate it. (Viral messages are internet messages, videos, memes, images, etc. that have the capacity to induce another (unrelated) person to voluntarily share them and thereby lead to their rapid and mass distribution across spatial and temporal bounds).

New media scholars have discovered that one of the strategies to achieve “virality” for messages is to popularize them through “tastemakers,” that is, people who influence digital trends, who have huge, engaged Twitter followers, Facebook friends, Google Plus followers, BBM and WhatsApp friends, etc.. That was precisely how Kony 2012, the most viral video in history, achieved virality. It was almost singlehandedly popularized by digital trendsetters. 

The power of digital influencers (who have been found to be more effective than the traditional mass media in spreading “viral” messages) is often helped by what new media scholars like to call a digital mob mentality, which is itself aided by the incredible ease of sharing that social media outlets enable.

But the Nigerian salt-and-warm-water Ebola cure hoax belongs in a different variety of virality because the initiators of the hoax didn’t intend for it to go beyond their limited circle of friends. Nevertheless, it captured the attention of the entire country. 

This calls for extreme caution in the kinds of jokes people share on social media, especially in contexts where the jokes can lead to death and reckless endangerment—such as this one.

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