"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 02/05/10

Friday, February 5, 2010

Hypercorrection in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Hypercorrection is a grammatical error inspired by a false, ill-digested analogy. For example, people who have been taught to avoid “me” in certain contexts (such as “It is me,” which should correctly be “It is I”; “You and me should get together,” which should correctly be “You and I should get together,” etc) may extend the rule to instances where “me” is correct.

Such people may insist that the expression “between you and me” is wrong because they had been taught that “You and me should get together” is wrong. But “between you and me” is perfectly correct, and “between you and I” is patently wrong. I will explain why this is so shortly. But, first, what gives rise to hypercorrection?

Well, my theory is that prescriptivist grammarians, that is, grammarians who hand down frozen, ossified usage commandments without context, conduce to the flowering of hypercorrection. This column tries to avoid that by being descriptivist, by discussing usage rules and exploring their contexts with minimal value judgments.

Before I identify the hypercorrections that seem unique to Nigerian English, let me quickly point out the rules for the examples I cited earlier. You use “me” and “whom,” etc in instances where these pronouns are the objects of a verb, that is, where they are the recipients of an action in a sentence. Another way to remember the rule is to note that if a preposition (such as “between,” “to,” “with,” etc) comes before a pronoun, that pronoun often takes the objective case. (“Who” is subjective case while “whom” is objective case; “I” is subjective case while “me” is objective case).

If that is still not helpful, simply remember that “you and I” is the same thing as “we” while “you and me” is the same thing as “us.” So when you are confused about where and when to use “you and I” and “you and me” simply substitute them with “we” and “us.” Now, let me go to more specific examples of hypercorrection in Nigerian English.

Some days ago, distinguished journalist and Daily Trust columnist Mohammed Haruna isolated my characterization of alleged would-be Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdul-Mutallab as a “crazed, fanatical, spoiled brat” to illustrate what he called a “disagreeable description” of the young man.

But in quoting me, he inserted the conjunction “and” to mark off the list of adjectives of disapproval I unleashed on the terrorist suspect. The full sentence ran thus: “Mutallab Jnr may seem a “crazed, fanatical (and) spoiled brat,” to use the rather disagreeable description – at least in my view – by his namesake, Farooq Kperogi, a writer in the Weekly Trust of January 2….”

First off, it is wrong to indicate the addition of comments to a quoted text with parentheses. The correct punctuation mark to use is square brackets, that is, this sign: [ ]. The reason is that the original sentence you are quoting may have a parenthesis and readers would be confused as to who actually used the parenthesis. So Haruna’s sentence should correctly read: “Mutallab Jnr may seem a 'crazed, fanatical [and] spoiled brat,' to use the rather disagreeable description – at least in my view – by his namesake, Farooq Kperogi, a writer in the Weekly Trust of January 2….”

But Haruna committed the grammatical offense of hypercorrection by inserting the conjunction “and” to my list. Relying on the analogy from the rules on the use of commas in listing two or more items, (usually nouns) in a sentence, he probably thought he was straightening my sentence. But this is why he is wrong.

In grammar, a distinction is often made between the rules for listing cumulative adjectives and co-ordinate adjectives in a sentence. Cumulative adjectives organically build up a picture, with each adjective building on the one before; there are no commas between the adjectives. Example: the cute little young girl.

With co-ordinate adjectives, however, each adjective refers to the noun separately and distinctly; there is a comma between each adjective. Example: "That tall, distinguished, good-looking fellow."

In the above example, it would rudely disrupt the flow of the sentence if we inserted “and” before “good-looking.” Although the adjectives refer to the noun separately, they also build up a picture of the noun, which an “and” would disrupt. Such a consideration does not arise when you are listing nouns. (Haruna is clearly applying the rules for listing nouns to the rules for listing adjectives).

In our own case, additionally, “spoiled” almost always co-occurs with “brat” in conversational English so that “spoiled brat” now functions as a collocation. (A collocation is a group of words which appears together in a sentence more often than would be expected by chance). So the phrase “crazed, fanatical, spoiled brat” actually combines elements of the rules for listing cumulative and coordinate adjectives in a sentence and, therefore, inserting a comma anywhere in the sentence amounts to hypercorrection.

Another hypercorrection that is rampant in many grammar columns in Nigerian newspapers is on the delicate distinction between the prepositions “among” and “between.” The general rule is, where more than two participants are involved “among” should be preferred to “between,” as in “the candies were divided between the two girls/among the three girls.”

However, the rule is more complex than that. Both American and British grammarians—and, for that matter, Australian and New Zealand grammarians, all native speakers of the English language—agree that when we speak of exact positions or of precise individual relationships, “between” is the only acceptable choice.

For instance, it is wrong to write: “A memorandum of understanding among five African countries.” It should properly be “A memorandum of understanding BETWEEN five African countries. “African” brings precision to the relationship. Similarly, it is wrong to say “Nigeria lies among Cameroun, Niger, Benin and Chad.” It should be “Nigeria lies BETWEEN Cameroun, Niger, Benin and Chad.” The mention of the names of countries surrounding Nigeria brings exactness to the relationship.

An additional hypercorrection I noticed in a respected grammar column sometime ago is the wrongheaded advice against the use of the phrase “strike action.” The columnist said the expression is wrong because it is supposedly formed by false analogy to “industrial action,”—the same way that Nigerians say “of recent” (instead of “recently”) by false analogy to the idiom “of late.”

But he is perfectly off the mark. Strike action, which is often simply shortened to “strike” in everyday English, is the outright cessation of work to register employee grievances. Industrial action, on the other hand, has two related meanings. The first is as an umbrella term for all kinds of industrial protests, including strike actions. The second and more specific meaning is as a form of industrial protest where workers merely deliberately slow down their productivity without an outright cessation of work.

In the United States, “industrial action” is called “job action.” Industrial action, moreover, is not necessarily always job-related; it may sometimes be politically-motivated. Other terms for the second sense of industrial action are “go-slow” in the UK (which incidentally means traffic jam in Nigerian English!) and “slow-down” in the United States.

The last example I want to give is from a reader who questioned my use of “Nigerian” without preceding it with an indefinite article. The reader who “boasts a library of 5000 books, mostly on English” thought I was wrong to write that “I'm Nigerian.”

His argument is summarized thus: “When a linking verb like ‘be’ links a subject with a complement, the latter takes an article if it is a common noun. E.g. ‘I am a teacher,’ not ‘I am teacher.’ But when it's a proper noun, there is no need for an article. E.g. ‘I am Ibrahim.’ ‘Nigerian’ is both an adjective and a noun, but in your own case, ‘Nigerian’ is used as a noun which is obviously a common noun that requires the article ‘a’.”

This reader’s analysis is spotlessly correct in many respects but wrong in others. As is often the case with the English language, there are exceptions to the rule he brilliantly articulated. And as I pointed out here sometime ago, it is these tricky exceptions that often differentiate native and/or proficient speakers of the English language from non-native and/or non-proficient speakers of the language.

Let me cite one exception to the rule that the reader mentioned. You can say, for instance, “I’m a Mutallab” and be correct. “Mutallab” here, of course, would mean something beyond the name of a person; it may mean a religious, ethnic, or familial identity. In the West, for instance, when someone is called "a Muhammad" it’s often a handy way to say he's a Muslim.

Another example: When Hillary Clinton said, in February 2008, “It did take A CLINTON to clean after the first Bush and I think it might take another one to clean up after the second Bush” [emphasis mine] during the last Democratic presidential primaries, she clearly violated the rules my reader adverted to (i.e., she preceded the mention of a proper noun, “Clinton,” with an indefinite article, “a”) but she was perfectly correct nonetheless.

Here is another exception: An indefinite article can precede the name of a person as a way to indicate uncertainty over the identity of that person. I can say, for example, "A Daniel came here to see you.” “A Daniel” here means someone I don't know who identified himself as Daniel.

There is also an exception to the rule that justifies my use of the phrase “I’m Nigerian.” In instances where demonyms (that is, names for the residents or citizens of a locality or a country, also called gentilics) also function as adjectives for countries (e.g. Nigerian, American, German, Filipino, etc) indefinite articles can be dispensed with.

But I think it’s problematic to call a demonym a common noun. Informally, demonyms like “Nigerian,” “American,” "Ghanaian," etc are called “proper adjectives” because they are derived from proper nouns. (Professional linguists don’t use that term, mind you).

So it's customary to hear Americans either say "I'm an American" or "I'm American," "he is a German" or "he is German," etc. When Americans want to confirm my nationality here they usually ask, "Are you Nigerian?" A few ask, "Are you a Nigerian?" But, often, the omission of the article shows informality, friendliness, fluidity, chattiness, etc while its inclusion can sometimes suggest stiltedness and even stuffiness, depending on the context.

There is, in fact, a popular song in the U.S. titled "I'm American" by an Atlanta-based heavy metal music band called "Stuck Mojo."

But it is also entirely possible that the omission of articles before demonyms is a consequence of the absorption of “headlinese” (that is, English usage peculiar to newspaper headlines) into conventional English usage. One of the conventions of headlinese is to dispense with articles and conjunctions wherever possible. That is why, for instance, the idiom “in the soup” is often rendered in newspaper headlines as “in soup.” In Nigeria, “he is in soup” is now the standard way to say “he is in the soup.”

Well, no one is immune to errors when it comes to the English language. As Steve Rivkin and Fraser Sutherland aptly observed in their book, The Making of a Name: The Inside Story of the Brands We Buy, “English is a slippery language, strewn with homonymic banana peels, slapstick mondegreens, and tongue twisters. Even fluent speakers of English constantly make mistakes.”

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