"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: December 2012

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Q and A on Punctuations, Usage, and Peculiar Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


I am devoting this week’s column to some of the questions and comments I’ve received from my readers. Enjoy.

Question:
The beauty of reading your column is that you give clarity to some of our long-held assumptions and things we take for granted in the English language. Most of us are creatures of habit who stick with the familiar even when it is wrong. I never knew that the word "taxi" is an Americanism which has gained global acceptance, just like that ubiquitous English word "Weekend," which defies translation. I thought Americans preferred "Cab" to "Taxi."

I'll take this opportunity to ask one of my own: what are the rules of grammar regarding punctuation marks when we use quotation marks? Is it appropriate to put them inside the quote like this: "I am confused." Or they are meant to be after the quote like this: "help needed here"? You see, the more one learns, the more one realizes the depth of one's own ignorance.

Answer:
First, thanks for your kind words. Americans use both "taxi" and "cab." From my informal observation, it appears to me that the American south prefers "taxi" while the north prefers "cab." But “taxi,” “cab,” and “taxicab” are all widely used all over the country.

 Now to your question on punctuations in quotation marks. In British English, the rule is that all punctuations (that is, comma, question mark, full stop or period, exclamation mark) should be placed OUTSIDE quotation marks. American English has the exact opposite rule: punctuations should be placed INSIDE quotation marks. I was taught to observe the British English rule. The truth, though, is that most people just mix up the British and American conventions. I think, from a practical standpoint, it is way more cumbersome to insert punctuations inside quotation marks than it is to place them outside.

 Many of my American news writing students tend to follow the British rule out of ignorance of the rules of American English—and because it requires an effort to place a comma, question mark, exclamation mark, period (i.e., full stop) inside quotation marks. Now I'm put in the uncomfortable situation of penalizing them for obeying the British rule—the rule I learned in Nigeria. Also note that while the British prefer single quotation marks, Americans prefer double quotation marks. George Bernard Shaw was right when he said “America and England are two countries DIVIDED by a COMMON language” (emphasis mine)!

Question:
Is the expression “see reason” Nigerian English? It sounds like the translation of one of our native languages.

Answer:
No, “see reason” is not exclusive to Nigerian English, and I can’t think of any Nigerian language it’s a translation of. It’s a standard idiomatic expression in all varieties of English. Dictionary.com defines it as “adopt a sensible course of action, let oneself be persuaded, as in At ninety Grandma finally saw reason and gave up driving her car.” The site located the origin of the expression to William Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV (1:2). That means the expression has been in the English language since at least the 1600s.

Question:
What is the difference between “that” and “who”? For instance, should it be “the people THAT came here are my relatives” or “the people WHO came here are my relatives”?

Answer:
Grammarians have not settled the argument about whether or not there is a difference between “that” and “who.” But there is an age-old, superstitious grammatical rule that says people should use “who” only when they refer to humans and restrict the use of “that” to refer to non-humans and inanimate objects. If we follow that rule, your first sentence would be wrong and your second sentence would be correct. This rule would have us say “the man WHO came here yesterday is my best friend” and the “the dog THAT barked at you in my house is a German shepherd.”

I call the rule superstitious because many authorities, such as the American Heritage Dictionary, one of the English world’s most prestigious dictionaries, say the insistence on restricting “who” to humans and “that” to non-humans has no basis in the grammatical conventions of the English language. This is what the American Heritage Dictionary says about it: “It is entirely acceptable to write either the man THAT wanted to talk to you, or the man WHO wanted to talk to you.”

Before you think the blurring of the distinction between “that” and “who” is peculiarly American, note that many grammarians have found evidence of the use of “that” to refer to humans in the writings of such canonical English authors as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. So the use of “that” to refer to humans has a long history.

I should also point out that the Associated Press Stylebook, which is considered the bible of American journalism and which I use to teach news reporting and writing here in America, insists that “who” be used only for humans and “that” for inanimate objects. So it’s not a settled matter.

My advice, as always, is that you should avoid any usage that is controversial. That means, although there is no grammatical basis for the distinction between “that” and “who,” it is safer to observe the hoary rule that says “who” is used only to refer to humans and “that” is used only for non-humans and inanimate objects than to flout it.

Question:
I'd like you to educate Nigerians on the meaning, origin and significance of Boxing Day. Certain bodies in Nigeria organise boxing tournaments to commemorate the day and this year is no exception with Lagos State, the self-proclaimed Centre of Excellence, set to have a Governor Fashola Cup on that day.

Answer:
Your question provoked a chuckle and reminded me of the time that I, too, thought “Boxing Day” was a day reserved for boxing, that is, the game in which muscular men punch each other without mercy. But Boxing Day is a secular European, mostly British, tradition that is observed a day after Christmas when gifts are “boxed” and given to the needy.

Note that “box” has two meanings. Its first and most obvious meaning is to “hit with the fist.” The second meaning is “put into a box,” as in: “box the gift.” The “boxing” in “Boxing Day” refers to the second meaning of “box,” that is, to put something, usually a gift, into a box.

But it isn’t only Nigerians who associate Boxing Day with pugilism. Many of my American friends I spoke with before writing this column also thought Boxing Day was a day reserved for pugilistic entertainment. Americans, as you probably know, don’t celebrate Boxing Day. It’s interesting that although Boxing Day has been observed in Nigeria since the country’s founding, most people don’t know the day’s historic and cultural meaning.

Related Articles:

1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
2. Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
3. Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
4. 10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
5. Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
6. Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
9. American English or British English?
10. Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
12. Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
13. Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
14. On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
15. Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17. Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation
55. The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words
56. Idioms, Mistranslation, and Abati's Double Standards 
57. Native English Speakers' Struggles with Grammar 
58. Q and A on Nigerian English and Usage Rules
59. Of Yoruba, Arabic, and Origins of Nigerian Languages
60. Language Families in Nigeria
61. Are There Native English Speakers in Nigeria? 
62. The English Nigerian Children Speak (I)
63. The English Nigerian Children Speak (II)
64. Reader Comments and My Responses to "The English Nigerian Children Speak" 
65. Q and A on American English Grammar and General Usage
66. Q and A on Prepositions and Nigerian Media English 
67. Americanisms Popularized by American Presidential Politics (I) 
67. Americanisms Popularized by American Presidential Politics (II)
68. Top 10 Peculiar Salutations in Nigerian English (I)
69. Top 10 Peculiar Salutations in Nigerian English (II)
70. Q and A on English Salutation, Punctuation and Other Usage Problems
71. More Q and A on a Variety of Grammar Usage Issues 
72. Top 10 Outdated and/or Made-up Words in Nigerian English 
73. Q and A on Outdated Nigerian English Words and Expressions 


Saturday, December 29, 2012

Terrorism and Recruitment into the Nigeria Immigration Service

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.



If you haven’t been following developments in the alleged discriminatory recruitment into the Nigeria Immigration Service—which has now been overturned by the Ministry of Interior—you would be excused if you think I’m nuts for having “terrorism,” “recruitment” and “Nigeria Immigration Service” in the same phrase. But it was Mrs. Rose Chinyere Uzoma , the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Immigration Service, who made the connection.
 
In defending her decision to conduct an inequitable recruitment into the immigration service under a shroud of secrecy, Mrs. Uzoma allegedly said she wanted to save the Nigeria Immigration Service from the danger of infiltration by “terrorists.”  As the DailyTrust of December 24 put it, “She told the lawmakers that the service did not advertise the jobs so as not to unknowingly employ terrorists.”

When I first read this in the social media I ignored it. I thought it was made up by some petulant, self-pitying, over-indulgent northern crybaby. I didn’t think anybody was capable of that level of rank imbecility. OK, I take that back. A minister of power, Hajiya Zainab Kuchi, recently took the cake in official imbecility when she blamed “evil spirits” for Nigeria’s embarrassingly dysfunctional power sector. (I read somewhere that her aide has absolved her of responsibility for the statement. It just keeps getting weirder and wackier). 

But Mrs. Uzoma’s faux pas is particularly worrisome because it plays right into Nigeria’s tricky and testy primordial fissures. If the reports I read in Daily Trust are credible, the north appears to be disadvantaged in the recruitment that the Interior Ministry just invalidated. Since “terrorist” is now the insult of choice some (certainly not all) southerners throw at northerners in moments of aggravation, Mrs. Uzoma’s statement is now being interpreted by northerners to mean a whole host of things.

First, many northerners have taken the interpretive liberty to say that by “terrorist” Mrs. Uzoma was using a “dog-whistle” rhetorical tactic to refer to northerners, especially because northerners appear to have the least representation in the now voided recruitment. Second, she is understood as implying that because “terrorists” and “northerners” are now indistinguishable, she wanted to save the immigration service from being infected with the virus of terrorism by recruiting as few northerners into the service as she possibly could. 

All this would have seemed like wildly improbable conjectures but for the absolute low watermark to which Nigeria has descended in inter-ethnic relations lately. Last week, I wrote about the bigotry and impropriety of the insinuation in some wacky, ethnocentric circles that the plane crash that took the lives of Governor Patrick Yakowa, General Owoye Azazi, two pilots, and two aides occurred because the plane was piloted by a “Hausa man” who couldn’t possibly be smart enough to handle the complexity of air navigation.   

Many people have called my attention to a more callous, insidious insinuation that says that the pilot was a “terrorist” who was on a suicide mission to kill Christians! No less a person than Femi Fani-Kayode, a former minister of Nigeria, propagates this insensitive conspiracy theory on his Facebook timeline.

So this has gone from being the scorn-worthy whispers of the vulgar herd to the discursive staple of some members of “polite” society. And an invidious narrative is taking hold in our national discourse, and that narrative is the notion that northern Muslims can no longer be trusted in the military and paramilitary forces. Their every move is now monitored and their motives scrutinized. It appears that the sins of the crazed, homicidal, and misguided terrorist Boko Haram is now being visited on every Muslim. This has deepened the persecution complex that many northern Muslims already grapple with.

That was the context in which Mrs. Uzoma’s statement has been understood. In other words, she has been understood as saying that she marginalized the north in her recruitment because she thinks every northerner is a potential terrorist. The only northerner worthy of being recruited, she is interpreted as implying, is the one that has been recommended by a top government official. Advertising the immigration officer posts, as the law requires, she is also understood as saying, would attract a swarm of “northern terrorists.” 

Her case is not helped by the revelation that Kano, which our latest census figures say is Nigeria’s most populous state, has only 350 officers in the immigration service out of the Service’s current staff strength of 25,000. Sokoto State has the fewest number of officers with only 200. Imo, where Mrs. Uzoma’s husband comes from, has 1,190 officers.

Now, I’m the first to admit that this may well be selective, self-serving statistics. It is entirely possible that if we see the complete list of states and the distribution of officers from every state this narrative would crumble. It may also very well be that when Mrs. Uzoma said she didn’t advertise the positions in the Immigration Service because she wanted to keep terrorists out of the service she didn’t mean what she has been interpreted to mean. She was probably just fishing for an excuse, any excuse, to explain away her violation of public service recruitment protocols.

I hear that Mrs. Uzom is a thoughtful and level-headed person. I don’t imagine that she would knowingly say and mean something that crude, hurtful and stupid. But in this season when suspicions and distrust have hit the nadir of hoplessness, it won’t hurt for public officials to guard what they say in public. 

If I seem to be less concerned about her alleged nepotism than I am about her use of “terrorists,” it is because as a communication scholar I am sensitive to the implications of (in)advertent perpetuation of stereotypes through language.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Q and A on Outdated Nigerian English Words and Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Last week’s article titled “Top 10 Outdated and/or Made-up Word in Nigerian English” elicited a lot of questions from my readers.  In what follows, I attempt to provide answers to some of these questions.

Question:
I must say I always enjoy your column. I always look forward to it every weekend. Without it I feel empty. However, I’ll like to ask this question: don’t we have the right to make meaningful improvements in the English language, even though it did not originate from us? I agree that some of the words we use are obsolete, but I seriously feel limiting ourselves to speaking the way the Brits speak amounts to continuous colonization. Let's make it a little bit difficult for them so that they would learn from the integrated Nigerian version of English.

Answer:
Your question and comment strike at a theme I’ve had to address since I started writing about English usage in Nigeria. There is certainly merit in systematizing and standardizing Nigerian English. I have advocated this in several of my previous write-ups. It is neither possible nor desirable for Nigerians to speak and write English exactly the way native speakers of the language do it. As Chinua Achebe once said, any language that leaves its native habitat and encroaches on the linguistic shores of others has to come to terms with the reality that it would be domesticated. That’s why there is no one English; there are “Englishes.”

However, there is value in being armed with what I once called multi-dialectal linguistic competence in the English language. By that I mean being familiar with the forms, peculiarities, points of similarities and dissimilarities, etc. between the major dialects of the English language—British English, American English, Nigerian English, etc. For instance, when I’m in Nigeria—or when I speak with Nigerians—I have no anxieties about saying I will “flash” somebody. I know I will be understood as saying that I will call their cell phone number briefly and hang up before they pick my call. But my multi-dialectal competence in English would ensure that I never say that when I am in America or in the UK because I could be (mis)understood as saying that I want to briefly expose my naked body in public.

Similarly, a Nigerian who has multi-dialectal linguistic competence in English would use “go-slow” in Nigeria to mean a traffic jam, but would know enough to know that in the UK “go-slow” means a “form of protest by workers in which they deliberately slow down in order to cause problem for their employers.” A Nigerian who tells his boss that he is late to work because of a go-slow could lose his job because he could be mistaken as implying that he is on a one-man industrial protest.

The whole point of my weekly interventions is not to condemn Nigerian English (which I, too, speak and write, by the way) but to enrich our competence in the different dialects of the language we call our official language—and to improve international intelligibility in English in the process.  Insisting that we stick to our version of the English language and ignore developments in the native varieties of the language amounts to what I once called self-limiting linguistic ghettoization, that is, unhelpful linguistic self-segregation.

Question:
I read with interest your article published in the Sunday Trust today. I am an avid reader and sometimes I come across words that I think are “made in Nigeria,” which are widely used but do not make much sense and which journalists have also adopted. Please could you comment on these two expressions: 1. “cousin sister/brother” 2. “My names are” (when people introduce themselves). Are these words and phrases correct?

Answer:
“Cousin brother/sister” is clearly nonstandard. People are either your cousins or your brothers/sisters. They can’t be both—at least in Standard English. I think the basis for the expression in Nigerian English derives from the fact that we do not have equivalent lexical items for “cousin” in most of our native languages. People are either our brothers or our sisters.  

 The traditional African family structure places a lot of emphasis on cementing extended familial relationships. The farther away a familial relationship is, the more the need to nurture and bridge it through friendly, fraternal linguistic markers, such as the use of “brother,” “sister,” “uncle,” etc. to address people who may be our or our parents’ 42nd cousins. There is a surviving linguistic relic of this culture in black America where every man is a “brother” and every woman a “sister” even when there is no blood relationship between the people who call each other brothers and sisters.

For many Nigerians, nay Africans, the term “cousin” imposes a genealogical distance in extended families. So “cousin brother” or “cousin sister” is improvised as a linguistic compromise that acknowledges a strange native English naming practice but that retains an African cultural singularity. It’s linguistic creativity at its finest.

“My names are” is not Standard English.  This is what I wrote in response to that same question from a reader a while back: “The phrase ‘my names are…’ is unquestionably nonstandard by the conventions of modern English. Contemporary native English speakers 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, 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.’ So it is wrong to say ‘my names are ….’”

Question:
Brilliant article, Farooq! What word should we use in place of "detribalized" then?

Answer:
There is no exact lexical substitute in native varieties of English for the sense Nigerians convey when they describe a person as “detribalized.” It’s just like we have no equivalent for the term “racist” in most of our native languages because we have never had to deal with “race” in the same way that people in the West do. But close alternatives to “detribalized” are liberal, unprejudiced, open-minded, tolerant, etc.

Question:
I learnt a lot from what you wrote. In fact, I was a victim of the use of the word 'tribe' in my dissertation for my first degree. Colonial documents that I read, while working on my dissertation, used the word 'tribe' to refer to Nigerian ethnic groups. In my analysis, I unfortunately used the same word, which really infuriated my supervisor to the extent that he reduced my marks and I ended up with 2:2. When I read your article, I was elated that there are Nigerian academics that are prepared to educate Nigerians on the usage of outdated or Nigerian English slang and correct English.

It is unfortunate that that the words are becoming standard in Nigeria, including among Nigerian journalists. It is my hope that, with the type of piece you write, our writers will catch up with the developments in the English language in the interest of our children.
You mentioned that you wrote other pieces in the media. I don't want to impose on you, but if practicable I will appreciate getting copies to widen my modern knowledge of English.

Answer:
Thanks for your kind words. The articles are "What's My Tribe? None!"(published in the Weekly Trust of February 27, 2009), "Of Tribe and Pride: Deconstructing Alibi's Alibi for Racial Self-Hatred" (published in the Weekly Trust of March 27, 2009), and "The Anti-African Racist Insults Obama Got Away With in Ghana"(published in the Weekly Trust of July 18, 2009).

Related Articles:
1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
2. Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
3. Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
4. 10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
5. Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
6. Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
9. American English or British English?
10. Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
12. Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
13. Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
14. On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
15. Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17. Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation
55. The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words
56. Idioms, Mistranslation, and Abati's Double Standards 
57. Native English Speakers' Struggles with Grammar 
58. Q and A on Nigerian English and Usage Rules
59. Of Yoruba, Arabic, and Origins of Nigerian Languages
60. Language Families in Nigeria
61. Are There Native English Speakers in Nigeria? 
62. The English Nigerian Children Speak (I)
63. The English Nigerian Children Speak (II)
64. Reader Comments and My Responses to "The English Nigerian Children Speak" 
65. Q and A on American English Grammar and General Usage
66. Q and A on Prepositions and Nigerian Media English 
67. Americanisms Popularized by American Presidential Politics (I) 
67. Americanisms Popularized by American Presidential Politics (II)
68. Top 10 Peculiar Salutations in Nigerian English (I)
69. Top 10 Peculiar Salutations in Nigerian English (II)
70. Q and A on English Salutation, Punctuation and Other Usage Problems
71. More Q and A on a Variety of Grammar Usage Issues 
72. Top 10 Outdated and/or Made-up Words in Nigerian English 



LinkedIn

There was an error in this gadget

NewsShow

There was an error in this gadget