"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 05/06/10

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Common Errors of Reported Speech in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

There is a pervasive kind of error in reported speech in Nigerian English, especially in Nigerian media English, that is inspired by what grammarians call hypercorrection— the tendency to be misguided by false, ill-digested analogies and insufficient familiarity with the complexity of grammatical rules. This error came to light recently when someone who took issues with my recent harsh criticism of Jonathan’s bad grammar thought he’d “got” me by pointing out what he thought was my own error in reported speech.

This was the contentious sentence from my piece: “This man had no clue what Nigeria's foreign policy is!” In his obviously modest knowledge of the rules of verb inflection for tenses in reported speech, the man thought the verb "is" in the sentence should be in the past tense.

Well, this hypercorrection is caused both by an over-application of the general rule of tense change in reported speech and by a lack of awareness of the exceptions to the rule. (For analogous errors, see my previous article titled, “Hypercorrection in Nigerian English”).

As most people know, “direct speech” is the actual words that someone has used, usually indicated with quotation marks. “Reported speech” (also called indirect speech), on the other hand, is a form of speech used to express what someone else has said. It does not take quotation marks and often involves a change in tense.

The general rule is that what would be present tense in direct speech becomes past tense in reported speech. Example:

She said, “I LIKE the weather.” [Direct speech].

She said (that) she LIKED the weather. [Reported speech].

But there are exceptions to the rule. For instance, when an action is constant, expresses an eternal truth, or refers to religious verities, the verb isn't inflected for tense in reported speech. For example, it is perfectly legitimate to write:

"He said their son LIVES in Abuja" (if he still lives there).

"She said they HAVE WRITTEN to her many times" (if it's possible that they will continue to write).

Similarly, it's wrong to say, “he said he believed God existed" (if he still believes that God exists). It should correctly be, “he said he believes God exists” (because, for religious people, God can't or won’t ever die—although irreverent German philosopher Nietzsche pronounced God dead a long time ago!—and the man we are reporting presumably still believes in Him; to write, "he said he believed God existed" would imply that the man no longer believes in the existence of God).

 It also wrong to write, "He said the sun rose in the east." It should be, "He said the sun rises in the east" (because that the sun rises in the east is an eternal, unchangeable truth).

Another exception to the rule is that the original tense in direct speech is often retained if an action has not yet occurred at the time of reporting it, as in "she said the national debt WILL [not WOULD] be eliminated in 2015."

Now, Nigeria's (and, for that matter, any country's) foreign policy is often fairly constant within a given administration, or at a particular period of time. So it would be bad grammar to write, "This man had no clue what Nigeria's foreign policy WAS!" when, in fact, Nigeria's foreign policy hasn't changed between the time Jonathan betrayed ignorance of it and the time I reported this fact.

Well, perhaps, shortly after his appearance at the Council on Foreign Relation, Jonathan announced a major change in Nigeria's foreign policy. If so, I plead guilty to the charge of mangling the tense in my reported speech!
 Q and A 
How come most people say “different than” instead of “different from” and yet the style manuals tell us that the former is incorrect and the latter correct?

Well, “different than” is chiefly American. It’s almost absent in any other national variety of English. The traditional rule is that “than” can only be used with the comparative forms of adjectives (e.g., “better than,” “more than,” “bigger than,” “more beautiful than,” “less than,” “less successful than,” etc) and with “other” and “rather” (e.g., “other than,” “rather than”). Since “different” signifies contrast rather than comparison, it is taught that it shouldn't co-occur with “than.”

However, the phrase “different than” has become standard in American English and it seems churlish to resist it. But I don't think I can ever bring myself to say "different than." My tongue would fall off!

British speakers also have their own awkward deviation from the rule in the phrase “different to.”

My sense is that these deviations from the traditional norm were initially usage errors committed by people at the upper end of the social and cultural scale (recall my point about the unabashed elitism of usage rules?) or by a critical mass of people, which gained social prestige over time. What I've noticed, though, is that the Brits tend confine their “different to” to informal contexts. But in America “different than” competes with “different from” even in formal contexts.

I have two questions. First, what can you say about some journalists here in Nigeria [who are fond of saying] "my names are…" when introducing themselves? Second, what is the grammatical rule for using “attach herewith” when writing formal letters?

The phrase “my names are…” is unquestionably nonstandard by the conventions of modern English. Contemporary native speakers of the English language don’t introduce themselves that way. My preliminary investigation shows that, that form of conversational self-reference occurs chiefly in Nigerian and Kenyan English. This may indicate that it’s an old-fashioned British English form that has survived in some of Britain’s former colonies.

In modern English, though, most grammarians agree that “name” in the sense in which you used it is a language unit and refers both to one’s first name alone and to one’s first, (middle) and last names combined. So the socially normative and grammatically acceptable way to introduce yourself is to either say “my name is Danjuma” or “my name is Danjuma Olu Okoro.” The fact of the addition of “Olu” and “Okoro” to “Danjuma” doesn’t require that you inflect “name” for number, that is, it doesn't require you to pluralize "name" to "names."

Now to your second question. “Herewith” has two common meanings/uses. The first is as a synonym for “hereby,” as in “I herewith declare you the winner of the election.” Many grammarians, however, dismiss this use of “herewith” as pretentious. Others say it's archaic.

 “Herewith” is also commonly used to mean “enclosed with this correspondence [i.e., letter].” This usage is now extended to email. So, it’s common to read, “I attach herewith a scanned copy of the document.” Notice that if you replace “attach herewith” with “enclosed with this correspondence,” the meaning remains unchanged. There are no particular rules for using “attach herewith” in this sense, except to remember that it can almost always be interchanged with the phrase “enclosed with this correspondence.”

Related Articles:
A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
American English or British English?
 Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17.Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation


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