By Farooq A. Kperogi
One notable feature of Nigerian English is the predilection for adding plural forms to nouns that don’t normally admit of them in Standard English. This is certainly a consequence of the inability of many Nigerian speakers and writers of the English language to keep up with the quirky, illogical irregularities that are so annoyingly typical of the conventions of English grammar.
It’s common knowledge that the plural form of most nouns in English is created by adding the letter “s” to the end of nouns. But sometimes it requires adding “es” to nouns that end in “ch,” “x,” “s” or s-like sounds, such as “inches,” “axes,” “lashes,” etc. There are also, of course, irregular forms like “children” as the plural of “child,” “oxen as the plural of “ox,” etc.
Then you have uncountable—or, if you will, “non-count”— nouns, which cannot be modified or combined with the indefinite articles “a” or “an.” This is precisely where Nigerians fall foul of standard usage norms.
Most educated Nigerians generally know that nouns like equipment, furniture, information (except in the expression “criminal informations,” or “an information,” which is used in the US and Canada to mean formal accusation of a crime akin to indictments), advice, news, luggage, baggage, faithful (i.e., loyal and steadfast following, as in “millions of Christian and Muslim faithful”), offspring, personnel, etc remain unchanged even when they are expressed in a plural sense. But few know of many other nouns that have this characteristic.
However, although most educated Nigerians would never say “newses” or “advices” or “informations” to express the plural forms of these nouns, they tend to burden the words with singular forms that are not grammatical. For instance, they would say something like “that’s a good news” or “it’s just an advice” or “it’s an information for you.”
Well, since these nouns don’t have a plural form, they also can’t have a singular variant, that is, they cannot be combined with the definite articles “a” or “an.” So the correct way to render the sentences above would be “that’s a good piece of news” (or simply “that’s good news”), “it’s just a piece of advice,” and “it’s information for you.”
Also consider how Nigerians inflect the word “legislation” for grammatical number by adding “s” to it. The sense of the word that denotes “law” (such as was used in this Punch headline: “Nigerians need legislations that will ease their problems –Cleric”) does not take an “s” even if it’s used in the plural sense. In Standard English, the word’s plural form is usually expressed with the phrase “pieces of,” or such other “measure word” (as grammarians call such expressions).
So the headline should correctly read: “Nigerians need pieces of legislation…” or simply “Nigerians need legislation….” However, the sense of the word that means “the act of making laws” may admit of an “s,” although it’s rare to encounter the world “legislations” in educated speech in Britain or America.
Another noun that Nigerians commonly add “s” to in error is “rubble,” that is, the remains of something that has been destroyed or broken up. This word is never inflected for plural. It’s customary to indicate its plural form with the measure word “piles of,” as in “piles of rubble.” (Grammarians call words that are invariably singular in form “singulare tantum”).
Similarly, the word “vermin,” which means pests (e.g. cockroaches or rats) — or an irritating or obnoxious person— is invariably singular and therefore does not require an “s” or the indefinite article “a.” But in Nigerian English it’s common to encounter sentences like “they are vermins” or “he is a vermin.”
“Footage” and “aircraft” are also invariably singular. So it’s wrong to either say or write, as many Nigerian do, “a footage” or “footages,” “an aircraft” or “aircrafts.” Dispense with the “s” at the end of the nouns and the indefinite articles “a” and “an” at the beginning.
Other nouns that are habitually pluralized wrongly in Nigerian English are, heyday (there is nothing like “heydays” in Standard English); yesteryear (there is no word like “yesteryears” in Standard English); cutlery (the word remains the same even if you’re talking of millions of eating utensils); overkill (don’t say “it’s an overkill”; simply say “it’s overkill”); slang (prefer “slang words” or “slang terms” or “slang expressions” to “slangs,” and avoid saying “a slang”); invectives (the word’s plural form is expressed by saying “a stream of invective,” not “invectives”); beehive of activity (the expression “beehive of activities” is nonstandard ); fruit (“fruits” is nonstandard, except when it’s used collectively; it’s “fruit and vegetables,” not “fruits and vegetables”), potential (not "potentials").
As I’ve observed and chewed over these admittedly vexatious English plural forms over the years, I have been struck by the fact that I’ve never encountered any native speaker of the English language who has flouted these rules in speech or writing. Not even my American college students who can be lax and slipshod with their grammar.
I think this is a consequence of the force of example. When people grow up not hearing older people say “an advice,” “a good news,” “legislations,” “vermins,” etc they unconsciously internalize and make peace with the illogical irregularities that these exceptions truly are.
Q & A
I am starting a new Q & A segment for this column. For this week I am featuring a question I received weeks ago from a faithful reader. I encourage more readers to send questions. The identities of the questioners will never be revealed unless they indicate otherwise.
Difference between “if I were” and “if I was”
I need a “favor”. Can you please explain to me when to use “was” and “were” in cases such as,
“If I were you,” “If my father were here,” as opposed to “If I was you” and “If my father was here”?
If you are expressing a conditional future, the correct expression to use is “if I were.” So it should be “If I were you,” “if my father were here.” However, over the years, “if I was” has become very popular and is gaining respectability. So “if I were” and “if I was” are now used interchangeably in both Britain and America.
Now, this is my advice: if you want to impress grammatical purists, use "if I were." Otherwise, feel free to use "if I was." I personally, use "If I were" in formal contexts and "if I was" in informal contexts.